Treasures of the Bible: Discovery and Scholarship (Part 1)

by Cynndie Hoff

Leaving his flock to search for a stray, a young Bedouin shepherd explored the limestone cliffs and caves along the northwestern rim of the Dead Sea near Qumran. As the story goes, he tossed a stone into a cave tucked into the rocky cliffside hoping to hear a goat’s bleat. Instead he heard something shatter.

A Desert Discovery

Curiosity drew him into the quiet darkness of the cave. His goat did not materialize, but he did discover a very old clay jar offering the prospect of hidden treasure. To his disappointment, there were no jewels or gold—only some old scrolls bundled in linen. He thought perhaps they would make a good fire. Fortunately, he decided to sell rather than burn what turned out to be priceless biblical and other religious texts that the world now knows as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Since that initial discovery in 1947, similar finds in 10 nearby caves uncovered more than 800 different texts written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, dating from 200 BC to AD 68. Today, most of the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. Other scroll fragments and the Copper Scroll reside in Jordan’s Archaeological Museum. Various European libraries keep some other fragments and a few private collectors own fragments. The University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute Museum houses a single scroll fragment. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, recently acquired three scriptural fragments. Outside of the Middle East, however, the largest number of biblical Dead Sea Scroll fragments to be found at an academic institution are now in APU’s Special Collections.

An Historical Acquisition

In 2009, APU acquired five small scriptural Dead Sea Scroll fragments: four in Hebrew from the Pentateuch and one from the Aramaic portion of the book of Daniel. The results of preliminary paleographic and radiocarbon analyses suggest that APU’s fragments were made near the first part of the first century AD—roughly contemporaneous with Jesus and the very early Church. How did APU come to own these scriptural treasures? The story begins with Legacy Ministries International (LMI), an organization with a number of biblical antiquities, endeavoring to establish a permanent Bible museum. In early 2009, LMI presented an exhibition of Dead Sea Scroll fragments and biblical rarities at a church in Peoria, Arizona. Among the 20,000 visitors who attended was APU Board of Trustees Chair David Le Shana, Ph.D. “My granddaughter invited me to the exhibition, and it was a spiritually moving experience,” he said. Le Shana immediately sought out LMI’s Executive Director Anthony Naimo and said, “This is a powerful exhibition and fits perfectly with APU’s commitment to God First and our high view of Scripture. Is there any chance we could work with LMI to bring this exhibition to APU?” That question launched a series of discussions between LMI and APU that resulted in a collaboration both institutions believe was led by God. The two organizations signed an agreement on August 5, 2009, to transfer the majority of LMI’s holdings to APU’s Special Collections. APU will support world-class scholarship related to these historic documents, sponsor scholarly conferences, and eventually build a permanent museum on the APU campus that will generate traveling exhibitions of artifacts from the primary collection. In the meantime, the university will hold annual exhibitions of historic artifacts associated with the Bible. “It was evident from the beginning that God was linking together people with a oneness of spirit and purpose,” said Rev. Andy Stimer, chair of the LMI Board of Trustees. “This strategic alliance unites the strengths of two institutions completely committed to the primacy of Scripture. Together, we can make these treasures accessible to scholars and believers on a grand scale.” “This acquisition allows us to tell the remarkable story of how humanity came to have the Bible, and how Scripture has been preserved through history,” said President Jon R. Wallace, DBA. “Having these documents also reinforces APU’s history and commitment to the authority of Scripture. This is a milestone for APU, and we are deeply grateful to LMI for allowing us to continue their devotion to protect these ancient documents that mark the very beginnings of the written Bible.”

An Opportunity for Scholarship

In addition to the scroll fragments, APU received the first five Barker folio editions of the King James Bible, 1611–40, a collection of rare Bible leaves, two late-17th-century Hebrew Torah scrolls, and other items from LMI. With these acquisitions, APU can study, research, and share these biblical rarities with scholars and the public while carefully preserving the history of Scripture. “This opens the door for numerous scholarship opportunities,” said Russell Duke, Ph.D., acting dean of APU’s School of Theology. “Our theology faculty will be able to study these manuscripts firsthand, share them with students, and bring new depth to biblical history in the classroom.” “Since their discovery, many Dead Sea Scroll fragments have been known only to their owners,” said James Charlesworth, Ph.D., George L. Collord professor of New Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary and director and editor of the PTS Dead Sea Scrolls Project. “Now, thanks to the president and scholars at Azusa Pacific University, these fragments have been recovered and will be scientifically protected. Each one preserves priceless data from the beginnings of Western culture and is a unique witness to documents in the Bible of Jews and Christians.” Charlesworth is working closely with several APU faculty to publish these fragments.1 “Four out of five of the fragments in this collection have never been looked at through a scholarly lens,” said APU Executive Vice President David Bixby, Ed.D., who spearheads the exhibition team. “While this represents an amazing opportunity for our scholars to shed new light on the reliability of Scripture and inform society about the significance of this find, ultimately the message for all of us is that the Bible is real and we can trust Scripture.” A public exhibition, Treasures of the Bible: The Dead Sea Scrolls and Beyond, slated for May 21–August 29, marks the first collaborative effort between APU and LMI.

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Cynndie Hoff is a freelance writer living in Walnut, California. [email protected]

Originally published in the Spring '10 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.