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Religion: Oldest Word

2 minute read

The leather scrolls which the Bedouins offered for sale looked interesting to the monks of the Syrian Orthodox Monastery of St. Mark in Jerusalem. A couple of goatherds had found eight of the scrolls, wrapped in cloth and hidden in urns, in a cave near the Dead Sea. The monks bought four scrolls* and last February Archbishop Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel brought them to the U.S. for study and identification.

At Yale’s American School of Oriental Research, scholars’ eyes popped as the examination progressed: the ancient Hebrew manuscripts, written in Aramaic, appeared to be Old Testament writings dating back more than 2,000 years to the 2nd Century B.C. If the estimate was right, the scrolls were the world’s oldest texts from biblical times.

Last week, as three of the scrolls went on display in Washington’s Library of Congress, Dr. John C. Trever, of the International Council of Religious Education, announced that one of them was almost certainly the lost Book of Lamech, mentioned in medieval Greek lists of apocryphal books of the Bible. Because of the difficulty of unwrapping the fragile leather, only a four-by-eight-inch fragment containing 26 lines has been studied so far. The snippet, says Dr. Trever, seems to be a discussion between Noah’s father, Lamech, his mother, Bithenosh, and his grandfather, Methuselah, about their ark-building offspring.

The scrolls in the U.S. also include the complete Book of Isaiah, a commentary on the Book of Habbakuk, and a manual of discipline for a minor Jewish sect. Scholars predict that complete analysis and translation of the scrolls will take many years. In order that experts all over the world may take part in this interpretive work, detailed photographs of the ancient scrolls so far unrolled have been made available by the American School of Oriental Studies.

*The other four were bought by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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