A leaf from the Dead Sea Scrolls. I finally get to see them…
I saw a fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls today. I have always found these ancient texts intriguing and was happy to finally have a chance to inspect a portion of them. I suppose that growing up in the 60s and 70s while there was a restriction on public access to the scrolls made me want to see them even more. Of course, today I only got to see a fragment displayed behind thick glass in the British Library’s low-lit exhibition, but still, it was rewarding after such a long wait.
The scrolls are the writings from a group known as the Essenes who lived by the Dead Sea in Israel many years before the birth of Christ. They lived by a strict code of discipline and had a philosophy that was at variance from the standard Jewish teachings of the time. They lived at some distance from Jerusalem and were later persecuted. Before their scrolls were destroyed they placed them in clay jars and hid them in nearby caves on a somewhat inaccessible cliff. The desert climate and the atmosphere in the caves kept them all remarkably well preserved until they were discovered by a shepherd boy in 1947.
For many years Christian scholars kept them away from the public and gave many excuses as to why they could not be displayed. The Church found the contents of the scrolls very disconcerting. On the one hand the Biblical Book of Jeremiah was found and proved to be one of the earliest texts of its kind. On the other hand, they found that many of the sayings of Jesus were already in existence even before he had uttered them. Since Christianity is based on the unique contribution of Christ and his beautiful parables, it came as a great blow to many Christian scholars that Jesus was speaking the words of a Jewish sect that pre-dated him.
As Vaishnavas, we do not find it troubling that a great saint speaks words written years before him, in fact we only fully credit him as a saint if he speaks in this way. His unique contribution is that he manages to preserve the essence of the teachings, not that he produces something new. Yet the message of Christ has always been seen as a particularly new revelation precisely because it was in distinct contrast to anything that had been spoken before. How could Christ be the unique son of God if many others had already spoken the same thing before him? For this reason there was great reluctance to publish the contents of the scrolls, and certainly immense resistance to the French Catholic group of scholars giving them for wider scrutiny. But eventually they did, and the place of Christ within a Jewish historical setting was confirmed.
The controversial history of getting God’s message down in writing and out to the public has always been fraught with difficulty and has been one of high drama right through the centuries. Saints wrote to help others, and if their message was controversial and challenging, those in power tried to stop them. Translations from an elite script into a common language often disturbed the powerful, and when printing was invented the events became even more dramatic. Many faithful people were viciously persecuted and killed as the collection of books known as the Bible were translated from Hebrew to Greek, to Latin and then to German and English. The Jews were defeated in battle, their Hebrew scriptures destroyed and their people and culture dispersed throughout the world. In our own Vaishnava tradition, Vishvanatha Cakravarti Thakur was ordered to be murdered because he was translating from Sanskrit into Bengali for the common people. He escaped his would-be killers and we are all the beneficaries of his writing today. And yet the struggle goes on. In more recent times our devotees in Soviet Russia have been imprisoned, tortured and killed for having ‘seditious’ books and they have resorted to copying out texts in handwriting. All this makes written or printed scripture the most revolutionary, world-changing type of literature.
Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible. Possession of this could get you burned at the stake back in 1537
In the current exhibition at the British Library there are sacred writings of three faiths, Christianity, Juadaism and Islam. There were fragments from the Codex Sinaiticus, written in the fourth century in Egypt and one of two earliest Bibles in the world; a Bible in Syriac from 463; and an illuminated Lindisfarne Gospel page from Northumberland, England around 700.
As you may imagine from my obvious enthusiasm, I like religious books, particularly from those periods when great changes in society were brought about by a religious message. I imagine the saint writing on the papyrus or leaf all those centuries ago, and marvel at what motivated them and whether they knew what a transformation they would bring about with their handwriting.
I have a very modest collection of old texts in my home, some handwriting and some print. The earliest is a leaf from an illuminated manuscript prayer book page from 1250. There is a page of one of the first printed Bibles from 1496, a Geneva Bible page from 1558, and of course a King James of 1613. I also have on display a 500 year-old Torah section in Hebrew.
My main excitement in life, however, has to have been present at one of the most spiritually transformative periods in history. When I first met the devotees in 1974 and they described how Srila Prabhupada was at that very moment translating the Srimad Bhagavatam from the original Sanskrit into English for the very first time, and that they were printing his writings, and that I could personally help this great saint to bring about a spiritual revolution in society, I was hooked. I felt immensely privileged just to be able to help someone as great as him in such an historical mission. And when I sat in front of Srila Prabhupada with other young book distributors and he looked at us and said: “Thank you for helping me” I felt that my heart would burst out of my chest.
Srila Rupa Goswami (1489-1564) wrote many revolutionary books in Sanskrit
I felt that same sense of history when in 1976 I was on a street in Liverpool and opened a box of newly translated and published Nectar of Instruction. The cover bore a painting of the saint Srila Rupa Goswami writing the original in mediaeval Vrindavan. Somehow, I felt a connection through Srila Prabhupada, right down through the years to this great Vaishnava; that I was able to help him in his mission to uplift the lives of millions of people. I felt his blessings that day, and especially at the end of the day when the box was empty!
My own contribution to the spiritual literature revolution – apart from selling the books – has been meager but not without some reward. In Africa I was able to assist in the publication of two local language books; the Sri Isopanishad in Swahili and The Teachings of Prahlada Maharaja in the language of Ethiopia, Amharic.
The Ethiopian language of Amharic. You can now read about Prahlada and Lord Nrsimhadeva in this language.
Srila Prabhupada’s words are in around 100 languages now, giving many new souls the chance to taste the happiness of Krishna consciousness. Perhaps my contribution to rendering his teachings in different languages is not yet over – he said that we must ‘deliver your countrymen’ so, being born in Wales I would like to see Srila Prabhupada’s words in Welsh within the next year.
I would like to use this blog to invite all readers to take their place in history and join in the spiritual revolution. Please buy some bulk copies of Srila Prabhupada’s books and distribute them locally. You will change someone’s life.