In the introduction, I provided a somewhat tongue-in-cheek retelling of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls through a Major League Baseball card analogy. In that fake scenario, a collection of old baseball cards was found buried inside tree trunks in the woods, and a media frenzy broke out over the findings. In my analogy, three basic types of baseball cards were present in this collection: (a) rare, mint condition rookie cards of famous baseball players of the past (e.g., the Great Isaiah Scroll); (b) some worn out baseball cards of recognizable players, but not on the same level as a Honus Wagner or Mickey Mantle card (e.g., fragments of various religious writings like 1 Enoch or Tobit, which were already well-known before the DSS discovery); and, most shockingly, (c) baseball cards representing players, teams, statistics, and playing positions that no one had ever seen before or heard of in all the history of baseball.
In an era of Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, Bradley (Chelsea?) Manning, and Twitter, we can imagine just how quickly such a finding would spawn all sorts of conspiracy theories. Is Major League Baseball hiding some secret past? Why have they never shared this information before? Is there an underground league of aliens or mysterious people groups playing baseball that Bud Selig does not want you to find out about? We must get it out in the light and expose the lies and secrets!
It All Started with Throwing Rocks in the Hills of Qumran
No, really, that is how it all started. After almost seventy years of “Whodunnit,” we still really do not know the full story of how the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and initially handled. The reigning theory – based on who said what and when and who paid whom off and so forth – runs as follows. In the winter of 1947 or spring of 1948, a group of (Muslim) Bedouins were tending their flocks on the northwest hillsides of the Dead Sea, near the ruins of an ancient community of some sort named Qumran. One of the Bedouins had a habit of throwing rocks into caves to pass the time, and one day he heard something shatter when his rock entered. Days later, his friend Muhammad edh-Dhib returned to scout out the cave to see what it contained. They uncovered some pottery containing what appeared to be ancient scrolls – 3 at first, and then 4 more were discovered later. At this point, the eyewitness accounts get murky about what they did with those first scrolls, who they talked to, who bought them first, how those initial seven were divided up, and so forth. Antiquities dealers, Roman Catholic priests, American scholars in Jerusalem, and many more players got involved. Press releases announcing these scrolls were published prematurely, scholarly bragging rights as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars were at risk, and the whole thing initially got a little out of hand.
Imagine yourself walking around with some buddies and your dogs out in the woods. To pass the time, you start throwing rocks at trees to see if you can get one to land in a hole or split the imaginary uprights of the tree branches or whatever.
Now imagine that one of the rocks makes it inside a tree hole and causes a loud crashing noise. You ignore it, and a few days later one of your buddies goes back out in the woods to that tree to investigate what caused that noise. And lo and behold, he makes one of the greatest discoveries of rare baseball cards of all time.
Hidden in the tree is a metal case containing several Mickey Mantle rookie cards, a handful of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, and – the jackpot – multiple Honus Wagner T206 cards. Some are in mint condition, some are not, but either way, this collection of rare cards is priceless. Your buddy hides some of the cards and sheepishly tells you something vague about “finding something out in the woods,” and then he hits the road. Suspicious, you start looking around the other trees in the vicinity, and you find more card collections. Some are grubby and hard to read, others are less pristine versions of what was already found (though at this point you don’t actually know what your buddy, who has now found his way to a back-alley card dealer with serious cashflow, has in his possession from the first tree), and a few are cards of players you’ve never heard of. Curious, you make your way into town toting these boxes of miscellaneous cards, wondering what exactly you have found.
I was sitting in a class on biblical interpretation offered at the RTS Washington D.C. campus in the summer of 2012 when I essentially stumbled upon what would later become the genesis of my dissertation topic. The professor, Dr. Tommy Keene, had provided some direction on our writing assignment that morning, and during a short break I was poking around Accordance (Mac Bible software) thinking about what I might want to research for the paper.
I had recently been working through 1 Peter in my personal studies, and our lecture that morning had revolved around the various views of the structure and flow of argument in Romans. Pretty soon I recognized that both letters at key junctures quote the same verse of the book of Isaiah: the stone placed in Zion. What I did not know then but later discovered as I fleshed out my paper and, ultimately, landed on my “stone” thesis idea, was that much of the debate about how Romans and 1 Peter are quoting Isaiah revolves around one key grammatical feature of the sentence: a single pronoun. This one pronoun provides great insight into how NT authors reflect upon and quote from the OT.
On Sunday, September 1, I had the opportunity to preach at the church where I grew up, Macedonia Moravian Church, in my hometown of Advance, NC. I selected Luke 20:9–19, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, as my sermon text. As I mention in the sermon, it’s a violent parable that hardly cracks the top 20 of anyone’s list of favorite parables, but it carries a crucial message that Jesus decided to deliver during his passion week. It was convicting to prepare and convicting to deliver; as I told my wife, I was testing out the whole “a prophet is not welcome in his hometown” principle. Macedonia has been a special part of my formation as a child and youth, so it was great to be back there today before heading to the UK. The passage is also a key part of my dissertation.
Without question the book of Nehemiah is one of the suspense thrillers, the “how will this ultimately turn out” dramas, the edge of your seat feature films of the Old Testament. It stars Nehemiah himself as the Braveheart-William-Wallace protagonist, who inspires a rag-tag group of his countrymen to undertake what seemed to be impossible: rebuild the destroyed city of Jerusalem.
(Neh 1:3 ESV) And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalemis broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.”
The task itself seemed too daunting. The wall and temple were burned to the ground. Whoever had returned from the Babylonian exile, combined with those who were left behind, were scattered and lacked any real leadership and / or motivation. The glory of David’s Judah of yesteryear had largely faded. In short, “The English are too many.” But that was not the only problem.
As the song of response concluded, we took a deep breath, fighting back the tears that had been coming off and on for a while. August 18th was my family’s last Sunday at our church of over six years. One-fifth of our lives, nearly all of our married life, and all of our children’s young days have been spent in this church. As Kate and I always do during the final song, we put our arms around each other as we sung along – only this time it was so difficult that we just tried to take it all in. We received the benediction and wondered, “How do you say goodbye to this?”
I had just received a hardbound copy of Lancelot Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint (introduced in a prior post) from Amazon right before Christmas, so I thought I would peruse it along with the New Testament readings I was doing.
Yes, that is very nerdy. I know.
But the basic idea was to understand what and how the authors of the gospels were quoting from the Old Testament as they presented the arrival of Jesus Christ in the flesh as the fulfillment of prior expectations woven throughout the Hebrew scriptures. When I got to Matthew 2, I found something stunning (to me) that fueled my desire to study the Septuagint more fully.
Fifty years ago, practically every pew Bible in North America was the time-honored, Victorian-styled, classic King James Version of the Bible. Literally everyone above a certain age in life grew up with the KJV; were it not for the rise of the NIV(84), the KJV would likely have maintained its frontrunner status among competing English translations. In many Christian circles today, it is still revered as THE English Bible, for generally good reasons, as well: it is very faithful to the original texts, it has a tremendous 400-yr legacy, and its dignified literary style commands reverence for God’s Word. It is not perfect (no translation is), but it is very solid and deserves esteem as a literary and religious landmark.
That, in a nutshell, also describes the Septuagint – what I call the “KJV of the Ancient World.”
As I have engaged in conversations with various people in my life regarding our decision to pursue this step of additional education and research at Cambridge, roughly 50% of folks have ventured into the uncharted waters of asking me the question, “So, what is your dissertation topic?” (The other 50% were probably wise to keep it to other matters!)
In a single sentence, my research topic is as follows. I aim to demonstrate that the NT authors who quote the OT “stone” passages in powerful and important ways in Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Romans, and 1 Peter, are drawing their rhetorical power from the multi-faceted and ambiguous nature of the “stone” as a metaphor, which shaped the preconceptions of their hearing and reading audiences in such a way that the quotations themselves achieve remarkable results. (I didn’t say it would be a short sentence!)