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The Dead Sea Scrolls come alive

April 14, 2010

Dead Sea Scroll fragment.

This fragment of Psalm 119 is one of the Dead Sea Scrolls on display at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

In Alex Jassen's class, the Dead Sea Scrolls open a window on a turning point in history

By Deane Morrison

Their discovery more than 60 years ago was hailed as the most important archaeological find of the 20th century.

Known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, these Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek scrolls represent the library of a sectarian Jewish community that lived from the mid-second century B.C.E. until 68 C.E. near Qumran in modern-day Israel.

Shaping the exhibit

Alex Jassen has worked for two years with the Science Museum of Minnesota as an academic adviser, providing the historical and social context for its Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, which runs through October 24, 2010.

This year, the Science Museum of Minnesota is exhibiting 15 of the scrolls. In conjunction with the exhibit, University of Minnesota professor Alex Jassen is giving students in his Dead Sea Scrolls class the chance to view a pivotal era in Judaism and the earliest era of Christianity through the lens of these ancient parchments.

"The scrolls revolutionized the study of the Bible," says Jassen, an assistant professor of early Judaism.

Crossroads of history

The approximately 900 scrolls illuminate Jewish life in the decades before 70 C.E., the year the Romans crushed a revolt and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem.

After the temple's destruction, Jews lost the center of their religious life and began to disperse from their homeland. Discussions of Jewish law, customs, ethics, and other important issues now came from writings of rabbis with many different points of view.

Dating from a crossroads in the development of Judaism, the scrolls also opened up the Jewish context in which Christianity developed. For example, one scroll lists rules for the Sons of Light to follow in the final battle with the Sons of Darkness. Another describes how the Messianic era will unfold.


The scrolls also include material from nearly every Old Testament book, rules specifically for members of the Qumran communities, and other texts representing a cross section of ancient Jewish society.

Often, the rules reflect historical shifts in focus.

"In the scrolls, you start to see a transition [in focus] from physical to moral purity," Jassen explains. "For example, before, if you touched a corpse and were rendered ritually impure, the result was that you couldn't enter the temple until you underwent ritual purification.

"But the scrolls attest to a shift whereby if you sinned, you similarly had to undergo ritual purification to purge that sin. This creates a new concept of purity for a society not tied to a physical temple."

In fact, says Jassen, John the Baptist was performing ritual Jewish baths to expiate sin, thus reflecting this very trend.

In another connection between the ancient Jewish and Christian worlds, the scrolls record community debates about the rules for saving a human or a beast that falls into a pit on the Sabbath. The strict Qumran community concluded that a beast must be left until after the Sabbath, but a person could be extricated as long as no tools were used because tool use was prohibited on the Sabbath.

But statements attributed to Jesus had him advocating aid for either a person or a beast on the Sabbath. That account, says Jassen, is essentially an entry into an ongoing debate in ancient Judaism over the application of biblical Sabbath law, a debate that was to continue in the rabbinical writings.

Tags: College of Liberal Arts

videoDead Sea Scrolls 

Dead Sea Scrolls

Read a course description for Jewish Studies 3204/5204: Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition was created by the Israel Antiquities Authority from the collections of the National Treasures in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota.