Saturday, November 17, 2007

Dead Sea Scrolls, part two

I expected the San Diego Natural History Museum to offer a thoroughly secular presentation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it met my expectations. :) The exhibit did make the point that the scrolls of Biblical books found at Qumran were more than a thousand years older than the previous oldest-known Hebrew copies of those books, and the Scrolls' agreement with the newer copies showed the accuracy of scribes' copywork over time.

One manuscript was all in an old style of Hebrew text except for four dots • • • • that appeared often throughout the text. This, I learned, represented the name of God. Not only would devout Hebrews not pronounce the sacred name of YHWH aloud, but apparently they sometimes wouldn't even write the letters. (I've seen Jews on the Internet today write "G-d" instead of "God" for the same reason.) Other scrolls were written in the familiar square-ish Hebrew letters, very similar to modern Hebrew (at least to my untrained eye), but any time the name YHWH came up it was written in a much older form of script called paleo-Hebrew. This of course made the name of God leap out from the page. I leaned close to these scrolls, fogging the display case with my breath, to trace the lines with my eyes and find all the places God's name graced the text. I could envision an ancient Jewish scribe carefully copying the letters, perhaps meditating on the passage as he inscribed it, deeply engaged in his sacred task as would be the Christian monks hundreds of years later.

(As a side note, I always thought it was incredibly sad that Christian troops in one of the Crusades, who were supposed to be retaking Jerusalem from the Muslims, found time to attack Jewish synagogues and tore up or burned the copies of the Torah they found there. Not only was that a terrible failure of charity, but they were desecrating their own Bible!)

Most translations of the Old Testament use the name "Lord" to translate two different Hebrew words: Adoni and YHWH. The first is a generic title that could be used for a human person of authority as well as for God. The second is the proper name of God, the name he gave to Moses. In order to distinguish between the two words, Bibles will usually print "Lord" for Adoni and LORD for YHWH. Thus you get a verse like this: "O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!" The word LORD jumps out at you-- just like it does in the Hebrew originals. I always figured that printing LORD in all caps was nothing but a way to deal with a shortage of English words to correspond to all the Hebrew names. But perhaps the translators were also trying to translate the visual distinctiveness of the name of God, inspired by those ancient Hebrew scribes.

No comments: