A 1900 Year-Old Message From God
These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates
judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one
another, and love no false oath; for all these are things that I hate, says the Lord.
--Zechariah 8:16 NRSV
This week media outlets around the world are telling of the discovery of new Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls were one of the greatest archaeological finds in the 20th century, and the revelation that more are still being found sixty years after the original ones were discovered is rather stunning. The name “Dead Sea Scrolls” refers to numerous caches of biblical texts found in caves in the hills along the western side of the Dead Sea in modern Israel. The scrolls include both biblical and extra-biblical writings dating from around 100 BC/BCE to 200 AD/CE Their discovery changed the way biblical scholars understand Judaism in the Roman era out of which Christianity arose. Scholars had previously understood the Judaism of this era to be relatively monolithic, but the Dead Sea Scrolls revealed a Judaism that was diverse and tolerated many different understandings of its sacred texts.
Despite what you may see on sensational cable TV documentaries, there is no great conspiracy surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls which reveals the end of time, the Illuminati or the true assassin of JFK. Instead, there has been a tumultuous scholarly squabble over who wrote the various scrolls, when they were written and what do they reveal about ancient Judaism. Over the decades, different groups of scholars have fought over who gets to examine the scrolls and which theories about them are valid. Generally speaking, many of the scrolls appear to have originated among a group of Jews living in an ascetic community near the Dead Sea (although some scholars argue against this consensus view). They hid their sacred texts and other items in nearby caves when Roman armies crushed Jewish uprisings in the first and second centuries AD/CE These most recent discoveries appear to be from a cave dubbed the “Horror Cave,” because human remains were found in it. Apparently people hid there from the Romans, and they possibly died there while under siege.
Maybe the most important thing about the Dead Sea Scrolls is their age. Prior to their discovery, the earliest manuscripts known of the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) dated to the 9th century AD/CE. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the late 1940’s and afterward, among them were copies of the Hebrew scriptures dating to nearly 1000 years earlier! Despite some differences, the overwhelming majority of the copies were essentially the same, despite the thousand-year gap in versions. (Manuscripts of the Greek new Testament in contrast demonstrate numerous differences as scribes through the centuries made changes to them.)
The latest Dead Sea Scrolls found are from a Greek translation of the original Hebrew prophets Nahum and Zechariah dating to the second century AD/CE. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty sure I’ve never preached a sermon on Zechariah or Nahum, so don’t feel bad if you’re not familiar with either of them. The Nahum verses don’t excite me too much, but the two verses from Zechariah seem made for our time.
The Hebrew prophets demonstrate a radical concern with justice among the people of Israel. Their words not only inspired the people of ancient Israel but continue to inspire people today. Just think of how Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, which he quotes from the prophet Amos, continue to speak to us: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
The verses from Zechariah read:
“These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates. And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate — declares the Lord.” (translation printed in NYTimes)
In our time full of conspiracy theories, “alternative facts,” denial of science, unchecked social media posts, and shameless media manipulators, I can’t think of a more relevant word from God. Perhaps these newly discovered ancient scraps from the Dead Sea Scrolls can lead us to reconsider how we speak, email, tweet, post to Facebook and share on Instagram 1900 years later.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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