The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the principal sponsors of an exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls that opened on 10 March at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. Running through 11 June 2000, the exhibit features 15 scroll texts and 80 artifacts excavated at Qumran, a site of ancient ruins located near the caves where the scrolls were first discovered.
As the center of Latter-day Saint involvement with the scrolls, Brigham Young University is the principal contact for the museum. The university, in turn, has received material assistance from FARMS, which assisted with similar exhibits at BYU's Museum of Art in 1997. Like those popular attractions, the Chicago exhibit is showcasing several original Dead Sea Scrolls texts that never before have been exhibited outside their patron country.
Noel B. Reynolds, an associate academic vice president at BYU, hopes the Chicago exhibit will "encourage the people of the Midwest to become personally acquainted with these invaluable documents from ancient Judaism." People who do not visit the Chicago exhibit will have an opportunity to see a related exhibit that is touring the Midwest (see sidebar article on page 9).
First discovered in 1947 in caves along the northwestern rim of the Dead Sea near Qumran and then elsewhere in the Judean desert, the Dead Sea Scrolls are considered the greatest manuscript find of modern times. These scrolls are the fragmentary remains of nearly 900 biblical and nonbiblical works dating from about 250 B.C. to A.D. 70.
Many scholars identify the people of Qumran with a Jewish group known as the Essenes. The Essenes were critical of the temple in Jerusalem, believing it to be operated by an illegitimate priesthood and in need of purification. They withdrew into the desert and, according to most scholars, settled at Qumran, where they collected, copied, wrote, and eventually hid the writings that later became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Seeing themselves as the only true covenant Israel, the Essenes waited on the Messiah to establish a new kingdom of God in holiness (as a group they did not accept Christ as that Messiah.) However, it is believed that the Romans destroyed Qumran in A.D. 68but not before its inhabitants concealed their scrolls in nearby caves. It is not known whether the inhabitants of Qumran were able to flee the Roman attack or whether they were killed or taken captive at that time.
Several parallels naturally attract Latter-day Saints to the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls and to some of their teachings, even though these two religious groups are not linked with each other directly.
Like the community at Qumran, early Latter-day Saints strove to live holy lives and were persecuted for their beliefs. Both groups sought sanctuary in the desert, where they built a kingdom to their God in anticipation of the second coming of their Messiah. It is interesting to note that the religiously based covenant communities at Qumran and Salt Lake City were both established in a desert wilderness next to a "dead" salt lake fed by a freshwater river named the Jordan.
Latter-day Saints are naturally drawn to the scrolls for additional reasons. Like the Book of Mormon, the scrolls acquaint the world with a people lost to historya people whose recovered writings, buried in the earth for centuries, now enable them to "speak out of the ground" and "whisper out of the dust" (Isaiah 29:4). Moreover, both the people of Qumran and the people of Lehi left Jerusalem because they believed it was irredeemably wicked, established a home in the wilderness, observed the law of Moses, and recorded and kept sacred records.
The discovery of the scrolls reminds Latter-day Saints of prophecies in their scripures about sacred records to come forth in the last days. Although the Dead Sea Scrolls do not contain those lost records, they appear to be part of a wider pattern of increasing knowledge about the Bible lands and their people that the Lord is making available for study in this day.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are of great general interest because they shed much light on cultural, religious, and political aspects of certain Jews who lived around the time of Jesus Christ. The scrolls also provide new information about the Hebrew and Aramaic languages and the manner in which the Old Testament was preserved, copied, and transmitted through the ages.
For more information on the Field Museum exhibit, the traveling exhibit, and the Dead Sea Scrolls in general, please click here.