B.G. Hilton – Author

In Search Of… S02E10 The Dead Sea Scrolls

Opening shot of the Dead Sea. We’re told it’s the lowest spot on the face of the Earth. Honestly don’t care enough to look that up. Google it if you want. It’s also very salty. Neither of those two facts are relevant, anyway.
This episode: rocks!
This episode: rocks!
At the Dead Sea, Nimoy tells us, Jewish scholars hid out from the Romans. Until the Romans, you know, came anyway. Bloody Romans! Nice footage of Romans, though. From an Italian movie, I’m guessing, but not sure. The Rabbis collected early versions of the Old Testament – or, as they called it, ‘the Current Testament’. They hid them in the mountains, where they remained until said documents were recovered centuries later. This would prove something about the birth and heritage of Mankind, Nimoy tells us. Okay. I’m listening. “No other city has inspired such passions,” Nimoy tells us. So I guess we’re off to Venice? “Jerusalem.” Oh. Shots of the city, lots of Orthodox Jews, the Wailing Wall. Now the Dome of the Rock. Nimoy’s narration is really nice, emphasising the religious diversity of the city, though not neglecting to mention religious conflict. Now Bethlehem, the camera ironically lingering on the banner for a souvenir shop while Nimoy intones solemn words about the Prince of Peace. This segues quite neatly into the story – in 1947, a ‘desert nomad’ went into one of these souvenir shops, hoping to sell an old parchment he found in Judea. Lovely shot of mountains, and beautiful footage of a freshwater spring. Nimoy tells us that it used to belong to Jordan before the Six Day War. Now it belongs to Israel. Nimoy, sitting in front of an Israeli Flag behind a chainlink fence. Is he actually meant be in Israel? Seems a long way to send a guy just for a cutaway. I’m guessing he’s in the California desert somewhere — probably not near Vasques Rocks, but wouldn’t it be cool if he was? Nimoy talks about how barren ‘this’ area is, and how it was conquered by the Israelis. He presents this uncritically, but then again I’m not sure how relevant it’s going to turn out to be. We’re talking now about a difficult to access mountain top, now accessed by cable car but formerly only reachable by road. On top is Masada, where the Jewish sect known as the Zealots lived, in defiance of Rome. It’s an impressive sight, and the footage is lovely, even intercut with that stock footage of Roman legions. The Romans laid siege for three years, and the Zealots chose death to surrender. Again, not sure about relevance. Oh, there was a different desert Jewish community at Qumran, right in between Jerusalem and Masada. They were crushed by the Romans on their way. Hm, I guess it was relevant. The Qumran people didn’t have the mighty defences of Masada, but they had an impressive series of waterways and cisterns to keep from, you know, dying. Lots of footage of these channels. They’re kind of awesome. Now we’re talking about the culture of the people – they debated resource use in a special chamber that only initiates could enter. Initiation involved ritual use of water. One of the things the Qumran people had was a scriptorium. Now it’s coming together! And making sense. In another room, there was a pottery, and a tannery for making parchment. There’s evidence of an earthquake that damaged the town. Nimoy asks whether the people scattered to the hills. I thought the Romans killed them? Oh, there’s evidence of new building after the quake. So they came back, and then got killed by the Romans. I get it. Flocks of goats and Bedouin tents. Long explanation of how hard their life is. Mohummed Adid, a herder from a group of Bedouin who live by the Dead Sea went looking for a lost goat, and found a cool cave. Lots of very flowery narration as the camera goes into the cave. Man, they’re milking it now. Milking it… milking it… “He had found the hiding place of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Finally! Now we’re talking to Prof John Trevor, the first scholar to see the discovery. He tells his story in a stiff, lecture-y way. He talks about being shown five documents by agents of the Bedouin. He saw that it was a first or second century manuscript. His stiff lecture-y-ness breaks a little here, and he gets very excited as he says that what he was looking at was the oldest Biblical manuscript in Hebrew by about a thousand years. He gets more and more animated as he talks about his concern that the document was a forgery and found evidence of correction by different hands, suggesting authenticity. Back to looking at guys on camels. Oh, they’re the Desert Police, who were called in to find the scrolls before bidding wars escalated out of control. They found the caves where the Scrolls had been found, but they were picked clean. Score one for the Bedouin. Nimoy praises their ‘cunning’, which made them ‘such effective smugglers and highwaymen’. Huh. Government archaeologist (which government?) Joseph Saad met with the Bedouin’s representatives to fix a price. Wait, 1947. British government? I think they were still in charge. Anyway, Saad and the Bedouin  settled on one pound sterling per square centimetre, and pound was worth a pound in those days. Shots of the ‘run down hotel’ where the transfer took place. Crappy re-enactment of someone handing over something wrapped in a piece of cloth. Nice hand acting! Shot of Aman, Jordan. Now scholars began translating the Scrolls. Wow, five minutes to go and we’re finally getting to what these Scrolls actually said. “Basically the Scrolls provide a two thousand year old verification of the accuracy of the Old Testament as known to modern men.”  I’m wondering what this means, exactly, but Nimoy elaborates, saying that he’s talking about the uniformity of the text. That is, if you look at a recent edition of the Talmud in Hebrew, it looks quite like what you’d find in the Scrolls. Interesting. Going to have to look that up, because a) I’d heard mixed reports about that but b) I’ve honestly never bothered to check. Now we’re looking at ancient rolls of copper found near Qumran, engraved onto which was an inventory of treasure. He asked if it was treasure from Jerusalem hidden from the invading Romans. I wish I knew enough about this to know if this is wild speculation or everyday speculation. “Why would the list be hidden at Qumran? The ruins are mute.” Aw, I was really hoping half-collapsed stone walls would answer your rhetorical question. Shame. Now were looking at… Something? Some rough stone cups? Or maybe inkpots, since Nimoy is talking about scribes. Apparently ‘some scholars’ think that John the Baptist lived at Qumran as a boy. Hey, why not? And Jesus was certainly aware of the place. Because… But there’s no ‘because.’ we’re just moving on to pictures of the desert. Apparently, the non-biblical texts from Qumran suggest that it was a sort of Doomsday sect, awaiting the end of the world, the defeat of darkness and a new age of light. Nimoy says that they anticipated the Apocalypse, which is kind of true but it would be truer to say that the Qumran community and Jesus were both part of a wider apocalyptic strand in Jewish thinking at the time. More shots of the cave. Prof Trevor, now in full flow. I feel so bad for calling him lecture-y earlier. For a start, it’s not a real word. Anyway, he points out that the dawning golden age never came for the Qumran community. There’s a shot of a weird looking building that Nimoy says is the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. I guess the Scrolls are in there? Not clear. He also claims that many contemporary Jews are following the traditions established at Qumran, which doesn’t sound quite right. The Zealots were an offshoot of Judaism, not the mainstream of it. You’d think Nimoy would know that, coming from a Jewish upbringing himself. Hell, he probably did know that. I usually say ‘Nimoy says this or that’, but really he’s reading a script. It’s not quite fair to the guy. But I’m not going to stop, though. Anyway Nimoy’s narration continues by saying that all who value faith owe a debt to Qumran which just… no, that’s just not how faiths work. Now Nimoy is pointing at a map of the Dead Sea area, wondering if the Zealots had other unknown settlements on the East Bank, from which they maybe sent missionaries. He finishes by wishing that the area was less war-torn so that more archaeology could be done, which is nice. So all in all not so bad, I guess. Looking up the Wikipedia article on the Dead Sea Scrolls and… O-K. I uh… I don’t think I’m going to jump into that particular pool. Basically, it looks like it’s a million times more complicated than In Search Of said. Oh, and the sect that wrote them isn’t considered to have been the Zealots. And who wrote them is disputed. And basically everything we think we know about them is subject to a mix of complex academic quarrels and even more complex religious disputes… And this is just the Wikipedia article. I can only imagine what an in-depth source would say. To give up on trying to understand this would be an admission of unconscionable intellectual laziness on my part. On the other hand Cutthroat Kitchen is about to come on so in conclusion, the Dead Sea Scrolls are really old, film footage of the desert is quite pretty and the producers probably didn’t ship Leonard Nimoy all the way to Israel for a fifteen second cutaway. Good night and good luck!


Prof Trevor: “Instead of their being the Sons of Light who would destroy or defeat the Sons of Darkness, the Sons of Darkness came down in the form of the Roman Vespasian army and defeated the Sons of Light.” Bummer.

Summing Up

Accuracy of biblical history: ?/10, Accuracy of translation ?/10, Probably the part about the Scrolls’ discovery was straightforwardly true I guess? ?/10, Is Israel Real? ?/?, Hand acting 7/10. Overall: ?/? Final Mark: ?

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B.G. Hilton - Author