WORLD’S OLDEST BIBLE

Science and the Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Part 2)

The World’s Oldest Bible is found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). However, the DSS were not found in the Dead Sea, they have nothing to do with the sea, or the dead, let alone the Dead Sea or any sea that is dead. The nonbiblical fragments of the Dead Sea Library are “sectarian, i.e., they are writings of a sect of Jewish believers who are not part of the mainstream Temple Jews during Jesus’ time. After the Roman occupation of Palestine in 63 BC, the Temple and Roman authorities co-existed in a manner that some Jews felt betrayed their religion. Thus, various sects rejected Temple Judaism. Among them were the Essenes, who are widely believed to have written the Dead Sea Scrolls.[1]

In the story of Christianity, geography and history matter as much as science, which played a major role in how we understand the amazing archaeological finds of scripture. Jewish beliefs in God during the time of Jesus consisted of a varied collection of religious sects that included the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Sicarii, Essenes and the Jesus Movement, the last of which became Christianity. The DSS remind us of Jesus’ Jewish roots and the complex social, economic, political and cultural contexts of his world. Jesus was a Roman Palestinian Jew born around ~4 BC or the 749thyear of Rome and read the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Thus, Christianity was shaped by the Hebrew, Greek and Roman cultures.

If Jesus were born in Beijing in the year 1960, we would be studying Mandarin to read the Bible in its original language and be conversant with the period of the Cultural Revolution as the backdrop to understanding the Gospels. If Jesus were born on the remote Easter Island in the 15th century, there might never have been a Christianity. That is the significance of geohistory.

The 20th century discovery of the DSS was just in time for newly available scientific and technological resources to help interpret their meanings for our age and beyond. Had these writings been discovered in an earlier century, our understanding of its significance would have been quite different.

The story of Christianity began with the power of speech and writing. Then came mathematics, science and technology to buttress the power of instrumentational discovery. Finally, archaeology combined the arts and sciences of material recovery to shape the very fabric of perception and reality we call religion.

Speech and Writing:

At least 300,000 years ago, modern humans diverged from other primates. They learned to speak. They evolved both a larynx capable of vibrating air precisely enough to form acoustic waves with a hearing system to detect and transform the waves into electrical signals for a brain wired to decipher the neurological perception of sound. These co-evolutions of our abilities to speak and hear in tandem with our capacity to process complex data distinguished us from other animals. Speech is nature’s most impressive tool of communication, only eventually equaled by writing. Writing is the codification of the human voice. This art of documentation began as a means to record economic transactions at the birth of civilization in Mesopotamia.

Writing evolved to pass on knowledge in space and time, building on the achievements of the past. It extended temporary speech into permanent documents. This uniquely human expression condensed the acquisition and accumulation of data into fungible information. Documentation on various media, from animal bones to clay to paper to digital memory, created hitherto unknown ways of preserving past and remote knowledge, i.e., time and space, in order to dispense with obstacles such as death and distance. Writing has geohistorical significance: we can connect with anyone on the planet and learn from the already dead to leave understanding for the yet unborn. Such is the magnitude of writing’s power, that it changed forever, how humans interact across the expanse of spacetime. Writing enhanced oral arithmetic by codifying the vocabulary of tabulation to pave the way for the emergence of mathematics.

Mathematics, Science and Technology:

Humans had long learned to count arithmetically, but the Babylonians were the first to systematically think of measuring the divine creation of nature. Around 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia, arithmetic expanded to become mathematics as a tool of tabulation. The first mathematicians in every culture were theologians and priests, learning to chart the heavens to assure agricultural harvests as they learned the secrets of astronomy and the nature of time’s relationship to space. Mathematics fueled the power of the human mind to count, measure and manage information in order to predict outcomes such as eclipses and floods, which allowed political leaders to display powers of what seemed like magical access to the gods. Such was the perceived power of mathematics that both astrology and astronomy relied on its rigor to instill awe among the uninitiated. Kings and potentates jealously guarded its secrets and symbolic language, making the study of this art the preserve of priests and clerks in the service of rulers. Failure to successfully demonstrate the magic of mathematics was often a death sentence for both the prince and priest. This mysterious field of inquiry developed the concept of proof, found in no other discipline. Once a proof is found, it can never be dismissed. The predictive power of mathematics invited zero margin for error and paved the way to modern science.

The term scientia refers to a type of knowledge and has always been at the forefront of beliefs about God. It informed thinking to shape beliefs and was harnessed to acquire sapientia or wisdom. The concept of scientia took a dramatic turn in Christian Europe with the rise of the scientific method that drew on the earlier achievements of mathematics as the art of formulating proofs. Thus, about 400 years ago, experimental science emerged in Europe. By the 18th century, modern science refined and redefined the original meaning of science. In the 20th century, computer modelling allowed us to probe the secrets of nature when experiments are impractical or impossible. Science is the art of explaining measurable phenomena to predict outcomes. The scientific method used in the various sciences showcases the mind’s ability to acquire, learn and rationalize knowledge in different sub-disciplines, from the modularity of physics, to the reactivity of chemistry and to the fluid systems of biology. While the rapid acquisition of data enriched our understanding, beliefs in God were further advanced by the application of science that we call technology.

Although the application of knowledge to make tools date back millions of years to archaic humans, modern scientific technology refers to the industrial engineering of the applied sciences. Technologies enhance our natural senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste, to acquire hitherto inaccessible knowledge. Instrumental experiments and techniques probe nature from its smallest to its furthest realms with microscopes and telescopes. They enhance our visual range to detect hitherto invisible worlds of the electromagnetic spectrum as well as our audio range into the worlds of ultrasound and infrasound wavelengths. We can now see viruses and detect dark matter in space or listen to the echolocation of bats and whale song, all with scientific technologies developed after the industrial age of manufacturing. Other machines allow us to peer into deep space and freeze time-capsules of history as radiation from the past races towards the present at the speed of light.

Astronomical photographic and digital technologies reconstruct the past in order to predict the future with uncanny precision. In other technologies, artificial intelligence, fuzzy logic and machine learning displace human labors with the efficiency and consistency of measured electronic signals replicating human thought. Particle physics reminds us we are all composed of the same underlying reality — fermions and bosons, causing us to rethink our own existence as conscious sentient beings.

In biology, CRISPR-Cas9 editing tools have advanced genetic engineering to the point of blurring the boundaries of life, death and the afterlife. We may soon be on the cusp of creating babies-to-order by manipulating genes and may even delay or avoid death altogether. In space exploration, Perseverance, NASA’s Mars rover, is hunting for evidence of life on the Red Planet. This challenges the long-held assumption that life on Earth is unique in the created universe and the doctrine of salvation itself. Did Jesus also die on the Cross for Martians and other extraterrestrial intelligent life? Will advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning change the way we think of human thought and belief?

Our inherited prescientific notions of reality are overdue for revision and verification where possible. The remarkable achievements of scientific technology form a feedback loop in our brain wiring that enables us to think beyond our sensory signals, beyond our adopted and adapted assumptions, and beyond the competence of science itself. The very epistemic limits of science and technology, i.e., what they can reveal about God’s creation, is limited to what can be ontologically, or materially detected. Beyond this lies the noumenal world beyond the reach of science that only deep spiritual insights can access. In time, these thoughts and testimonies were organized into religions.

Religion and Archaeology:

Worship is the most enduring preoccupation of the human mind. Our beliefs about God’s existence fuel both our ecstasies and anxieties. Most of the world’s religions went extinct. Those that survived shape-shifted to meet the needs of the worshippers. There was no single universal religion as many tribes of humans thrive in isolated pockets of geography. Many remain undocumented or undetected by modern civilizations.

Every known religion inherited, adopted and adapted its teachings to meet the challenges of each geohistory with re-tellings of stories, re-interpretations of their meanings and revisions of their writings. Apart from voice communications, art and dance emerged to symbolize our religious impulses before we began to tell stories of gods and mighty men. Localized beliefs became global doctrines with the rise of international trade, as explorers sought the metaphysical protection of deities against the unyielding powers of Mother Nature to destroy. Poets and storytellers in each era told and retold stories as personal accounts that formed communal beliefs, which in turn became doctrines and eventually dogmas. Many religions were formalized with the codification of sacred texts. In every case, politics, economics and geohistory shaped winners and losers of competing institutionalized religions. In our Age of Information, science can verify and falsify prescientific claims where they are measurable. Scientific knowledge is religion’s greatest critic as well as its most important ally, and chief among these is archaeology.

The discovery of the DSS in 1947 coincided with the creation of modern Israel, the evolution of modern archaeology as a science and the rapid development of new technologies and techniques to supplement the excavator’s instinct for insights and eye for past patterns. Archaeology is the only source of new data about Judeo-Christianity since the writing of the Bible. Most theological claims have been due to postulates, educated guesses or geohistorical interpretations of inherited extant materials at the time of their reception. So important is the knowledge of excavation and “reading the past” that no discovery has benefitted from science more than the world’s oldest Bible.

Science as the achievement of systematic and verifiable knowledge has shaped our beliefs about God. The ancient human quest to understand the unknown around us found refuge in the accounts of human encounters with their creator. From such testimonial beginnings, our acquisition of speech, inventions of writing and mathematics, and our ability to harness the powers of science and technology, have contributed to the rise and evolution of organized religions. European Christendom gave birth to modern science, resulting in Christianity’s dominance as the People of the Book.

The success of the Bible also relied on speech, writing and mathematics to create the illusion of voice sensations, with the iconic, indexical and symbolic notations expanding the documentary vocabulary of mathematics. Modern science and technology largely affirmed many of the Bible’s testimonial writings on geography and history, with archaeology being the gold standard to interpret artifactual findings unearthed from the ground. However, science is incompetent to explain noumena, that which cannot be known by the senses. Yet at every turn, its universal regularity and access to scrutiny have consistently influenced the deepest of human thoughts — belief in God.

The scientific discovery of the world’s oldest Bible is the story of God’s continuing revelation of testimonial witness going back some 3000 years, to the final form of the Hebrew Bible about 2500 years ago which has not yet been discovered, to the DSS, written 2,200 years ago. What and how did we come to know about their discovery, history and implications for Christian belief?

This is the story. Read Part 3

[1] Most scholars tentatively assume that the Essenes who worked nearby at Qumran wrote the DSS.

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Ron Choong

I am an independent, interdisciplinary investigator of the geohistory and philosophy of science and religion