Confessions of a Dead Sea Scrolls Groupie
At the age of nine, I fell into a into a life of preteen crime by stealing Tiger Beats to feed my David Cassidy fix. After outgrowing The Partridge Family, I vowed that never again would I succumb to the lures of fandom. I’ve mocked those who follow the trend du jour, whether it is prepubescent girls coming down with the latest case of Beiber Fever, or Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters adopting the same freakish anarchist pose, or post-evangelical dudes getting all ziggy for Žižek.
But despite my noblest efforts, I see that I’ve now become what could best be described as a Dead Sea Scrolls groupie. For those who aren’t familiar with the DSS, these ancient texts that include fragments from the Hebrew scriptures were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in eleven caves near Khirbet Qumran, a community founded in approximately 160 BCE. Even though they’ve been on public display since 1965 at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, these artifacts didn’t go on tour until 1993.
I first encountered the scrolls back in 1988 when I took Brevard Childs’ Intro to Old Testament class during my first semester at Yale Divinity School. Childs lectured briefly on the scrolls with pictures of the fragments showing up intermittently in my textbooks alongside a slew of other archeological finds.
When I took my first trip to Israel, I saw the caves at Qumran where the scrolls were discovered. After a quick tour of the site, our guide seemed intent on luring us out of the caves and into the touristy gift shops. There we could sample Dead Sea products manufactured using mud taken from the disputed West Bank territory.
A few days later, at the Israeli Museum, the Shrine of the Book stood there like a giant Hershey Kiss begging me to come in and sample itself. Inside this modernist structure, the dim interior lights bathed the parchment documents below with a dark, golden glow. I felt I had entered a modern-day holiest of holies, a quiet and reverent place where I could sit encircled by snippets of holy writ.
In September 2007, I had the opportunity to see the scrolls again when I went on a press trip to Jordan. At the National Archeological Museum in Amman, I stumbled upon a room that housed brass scrolls ensconced in what looked like high school trophy cases. A few well-worn signs placed haphazardly next to them reminded me that these were in fact Dead Sea Scrolls. I wanted to feel toward these relics the same awe I had felt for their golden cousins housed in Israel. But the green cases gave off a grimy vibe that reminded me of a fallen ’80s pop icon who has made one too many trips to the Betty Ford Center.
During the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature joint meeting in San Diego in November 2007, I hit the DSS again at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Walking through this interactive exhibit that featured fifteen scrolls (including the oldest manuscript containing the Ten Commandments and a section of the infamous Copper Scroll), as well as an array of items and photos from Qumran, I could almost feel the desert sand under my toes. It was if the museum had become my own personal Narnia—sans talking critters and a Disneyfied crucifixion scene.
Reality set in when I returned to New York and these delights soon became a distant memory. I got a taste of the sand when Tutankhamen hit the city in the Spring of 2010. During the time, I managed to take in Tut-related exhibits at the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Discovery Center. But as much as I admired the displays of funerary objects, they just didn’t speak to me in the same way.
Just when I thought my DSS days were over, I got a chance to see the scrolls one more time at the Science Museum of Minneapolis this past September. Before I could reach the actual scrolls, I had to walk through an audio guided tour describing over two hundred artifacts. By the time I reached the actual set of five scrolls on display, I only had energy left for a quick peek. And even a quickie can be good.
Thanks to the Israel Antiquities Authority and Google, the scrolls will be uploaded on to the internet, so I can tune in 24/7 whenever I find myself jonesing for a bit of sand and scripture. You can too!
Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).