Professor Shares ‘Scrolls’ Research
Published: Thursday, October 3, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 3, 2013 02:10
Since the Boston College “Dead Sea Scrolls: Life in Ancient Times” exhibit opened at Boston’s Museum of Science this year, theology professor Yonder Gillihan has been involved in promoting it. Although the University has had no direct involvement in designing the exhibit, Gillihan, who has spent years researching the Scrolls, has been educating the BC community and general public about the Scrolls.
Consisting of approximately 15,000 ancient fragments, including the earliest surviving examples of Hebrew scripture, non-canonical scripture, other theological manuscripts, and sectarian writings, the Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered in 1947 in the West Bank. Fragments continued to be unearthed until 1956, and scholarship continues into the present day. The Dead Sea Scrolls have contributed to both theological and historical scholarship, advancing the understanding of life in the West Bank from the Hellenistic occupation to early Christianity, and clarifying and even altering Biblical content by correcting later scribal error.
Rumors of scandal and other claims have followed the Scrolls since their discovery, including the unfounded claim that Christianity took many of its practices from the sect writing the Dead Sea Scrolls. “Many people associate the Scrolls with scandals, like that the Vatican was suppressing the Scrolls’ publication because they contained evidence that overturned the very foundations of Christian religion,” Gillihan said. “Scandals are great publicity for getting an audience out to see the Scrolls, but completely false.
“One thing that distinguishes this exhibit uniquely is that they’ve updated the presentation to reflect new insights in research,” he said. “As recently as last year, museum interpretation of the scrolls strongly associated them with the Essenes, a group that they characterized as a celibate sect of men who all lived in a monastic community located in the Qumran settlement. That’s been challenged in the last 15 years repeatedly, but those challenges didn’t make it into the museum interpretations of the scrolls until this time around.”
He added, “Besides being better informed by scholarship, it’s remarkably beautiful.”
The exhibit is particularly exciting for the BC community, given that not only has Gillihan published on the Dead Sea Scrolls, but that his colleague, theology professor David Vanderhooft, has published an award-winning work on the pottery of antiquity, which is also a major feature in the exhibit. “It’s an exhibit that folks at BC had a lot invested in, even before it came here,” Gillihan said.
Gillihan first became interested in the Scrolls on a personal level. “The sect of the Dead Sea Scrolls was one that viewed itself at a turning point in history,” he said. “An evil era was coming to an end, and an era of righteousness was about to dawn as God intervened in human affairs. He would purge Israel of all the wicked Jews, those who did not belong to the sect, and also of all Gentiles. In the current evil age, the sectarians saw themselves as a remnant of the righteous in an apostate Israel. At the End of Days this remnant would reconstitute Israel. Its elect would become its leaders and its common members would form the congregation of righteous Israelites. So they saw themselves as living in the last days of the evil era before the restoration in its grandest form occurred.”
As the child of radical Pentecostal ministers, he could identify with this environment. “This combination of anticipation of the total transformation of society into a righteous one through God’s intervention, the coming of a Messiah at this end of days, miracles, angels in the midst of the community, all of these things were very familiar when I read the Scrolls for the first time in grad school,” Gillihan said. “Both of my parents were ordained Pentecostal ministers whose preaching focused on the idea that we were living in the last days. Our church services always included faith healing, speaking in tongues—people reported having visions and dreams that foretold the future, they received prophetic revelations and special hidden knowledge about the identity of the true righteous on earth, they were prophesying about what was going to happen the next day, the next years, as the end approached. And there was always a sense that angels were in our midst.
“I abandoned Pentecostal religion a long time ago, but it remained fascinating to me, because as hard as it is to believe all of its claims, it clearly helps people in times of difficulty. I saw people who were dying of cancer, comforted profoundly by this kind of ecstatic worship,” he said. “I was attracted to studying this group that seemed to have many things in common with the Christian Pentecostalism I grew up in.”
Aside from his personal connection with the Scrolls, he takes pleasure in what he calls the puzzle. Most of the 15,000 pieces of the Scrolls are incomplete fragments, and so scholars must fill in the gaps. “The sense of payoff that you get from the really hard work of figuring out what goes in these gaps, it’s like solving a really hard Sudoku puzzle, or the Sunday Times crossword,” Gillihan said.