The Dead Sea Scrolls, the set of mostly religious documents written approximately 2000 years ago and discovered over a 10-year period beginning in 1946 in a series of caves near, fittingly enough the Dead Sea about 13 miles east of Jerusalem, are considered among the most important historical finds of the past century. They offer a direct look at what life was like in Israel at the time when, according to Christians, Jesus was supposed to have lived.
Now, 68 years after the first scrolls were found, nine new Dead Sea Scrolls have been discovered — not in a cave this time, but in a storeroom of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
The “new” — actually 2000-year-old, give or take — scrolls are tiny. Each one is no bigger than a penny. They were stored inside leather containers known as tefillin, small boxes bound to the head and arm of devout Jews during prayer.
The nine scrolls were uncovered by Hebrew University lecturer Yonatan Adler, an expert on ancient tefillin, who found the scrolls tucked away in a climate-controlled storage room at the Israel Museum, home to the Dead Sea Scrolls labs.
So what startling revelations will be found in the newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls, once they are carefully examined? Probably none, say the experts.
“Given the amount of research that’s been done important discoveries like this don’t overturn previous ideas,” said Professor Lawrence Schiffman of Hebrew Univserity. “We’re going to be able to augment what we know about the tefillin already.”
On the other hand, the new Dead Sea Scrolls could show important differences in the way the Jewish religion is observed today, and the religious practices of two millennia ago.
“We have to be prepared for surprises,” cautioned Hindy Najman, a Yale University Judaic scholar. “On the one hand there’s tremendous continuity between what we have found among the Dead Sea Scrolls — liturgically, ritually and textually — and contemporaneous and later forms of Judaism. But there’s also tremendous possibility for variegated practices and a complex constellation of different practices, different influences, different ways of thinking about tefillin.”
There is one topic, however, on which the Dead Sea Scrolls have nothing to say: the life of Jesus. The Scrolls contain no mention of Jesus or any of his disciples, even though many were written during the period Jesus is supposed to have been a prominent and controversial preacher.
Whether the newly uncovered Dead Sea Scrolls will have anything to add to the biography of the central figure in Christianity therefore seems highly unlikely.
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