The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia is a “must see” event for anyone interested in ancient history and the origins of modern religions. As soon as you enter the exhibit area you are made to feel you are in Israel. The room is surrounded by moving pictures of waves lapping the sandy shores. A docent enters and introduces you to the geography of the land and a bit of the history on the discovery of the scrolls by a shepherd boy exploring a cave in 1947. What the shepherd boy found ultimately led to the most significant archaeological discovery of our time.
Over the next ten years twelve other caves were explored. More than 900 scrolls were discovered in the caves of Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. The scrolls included the oldest copies of the Hebrew Bible. More than six hundred artifacts dating from 1200 BCE to 68 CE were also found. These artifacts combined with the scrolls take you on a journey back to biblical times. The journey reveals clues to lifestyles, battles fought, and a record of the past.
The Biblical Era (1200-556 BCE) is known as the Iron Age in archeology. It was at this time ancient Israel became a nation and the Phoenician alphabet was adopted. It is believed the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls were largely composed during the Iron Age. The scrolls are a record of the interactions of the Israelites with their God, as well as the politics and theology of the day. With passages covering topics like laws, national identity, and the deep connection between the land and people of the region, the Dead Sea Scrolls provides a wide-ranging glimpse into ancient culture and everyday life unlike any other literature of its time.
Little is known about the private religion practiced by the typical Israeli in daily life. However, excavations from the remains of the homes devastated by the Assyrian and Babylonian armies led to the discovery of thousands of terra cotta figurines and small stone and clay incense altars. These figurines are evidence of a belief in household goddesses. The relics appear to be signs that an Israelite popular religion was practiced alongside the official rituals in the temple. Are these the practices the prophets protested in the Old Testament?
The scrolls open a window to the distant past. At the time the scrolls were being written, biblical canon was taking shape. Each community had its own set of texts, and there were many Bibles, not just one. The scrolls reflect a religion in transition, describing the rituals and practices of ancient Israel that form a basis for Judaism and Christianity even today. A transformation of the Jewish identity and religion occurred when Babylon destroyed Israel: with no land or temple to call home, the exiles placed their sacred writings at the center of their faith. Three thousand years later, these writings still exist in the sacred texts of contemporary religions.