I must first mention this evening that I am sitting in my top floor hotel room in Old Town Jerusalem, beverage in hand. The Sabbath is in full effect here, as it is every Friday night at sundown, which means that the town almost falls silent. Earlier a large group of us congregated up on the roof as fireworks echoed around us, but the lack of crowd noise and the background noise of cars once per week is such a contrast to the norm. But something must be open a few floors beneath me on the street, as I can still hear the din of a crowd socializing. Saxophone, of all things, wafts up through my open window. Jerusalem never seems to disappoint or fail to surprise.
The final day of our trip down south was yesterday, the 24th of May. Our first stop was the fortress of Masada, and our first glimpse of the fortress included the Roman siege ramp which the Jewish historian Josephus tells us they used to break the defenses of the rebels inside. I had never before heard Josephus' account of this conquest, which would have been after the conquest of Jerusalem, likely about 73
AD. As the account goes, once Roman victory was imminent, the rebels inside the fortress carried out a suicide pact rather than allowing themselves to become Roman slaves. Climbing the stairs into the fortress, and seeing first-hand the scale of the Roman siege ramp, it is no wonder that it took the Roman garrison significant time and resources to accomplish the conquest.
A stable atop the fort was retrofitted into a synagogue, with the addition of columns and the characteristic bench around the perimeter. At the back of this synagogue is a room where a Jewish scribe will daily copy Torah scrolls in full view of the throngs of visitors and tour groups - unfortunately, he was not in the morning we visited. But being in the remains of this synagogue led us to discuss the high degree of faithfulness and precision which the Scriptures have been copied and translated with through history. The scribes were allowed few corrected errors before having to restart the entire copying process from scratch! Also interestingly, a copy of Virgil was found amidst the excavations here at Masada, which has led some to speculate that this was the personal copy of a Roman
We then took a swim in the Dead Sea (sorry I don't have any pictures of this extraordinary event - too busy having fun, I suppose...:-) Brian was very surprised to see how much the Sea had receded just since his visit one year ago. Because of extensive irrigation from the Jordan valley, the Dead Sea water levels have been dropping by extraordinary amounts, and worldwide concern is now being directed at the Sea which is in danger of one day drying out. Still, a highly unique experience to literally feel "pushed up" by the waters.
Our last stop of the day was to Qumran, which was the reclusive Essene community convinced that the Sadducees and Pharisees of Jesus' day had compromised on the sacrificial system and adherence to the Torah. The community was male dominated and absolutely obsessed with ritual purity, which was evidenced during our trip by multiple ritual baths.
One of the most exciting movements forward in Biblical studies happened right here, when a multitude of scrolls were found preserved in various caves surrounding the Essene community at Qumran. These scrolls have proven invaluable in helping us understand how the Old Testament scriptures
were transmitted. Not only do the scrolls convince us of the high accuracy of transmittal from one scroll copy (say, of Isaiah) to the next, but also demonstrate the different "families" of Hebrew texts which existed before and during Jesus' day.
Being at the Qumran caves was a very humbling experience, to enter and explore one of the same caves which this ancient community stashed their scrolls centuries before, not knowing what value their library would have for future generations.
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