So I was cold lounging with my niece in Seattle, just sitting, watching Dora the Explorer and shooting the shit. My niece is nearly a year old, so her opinions are not quite as developed or polished as they could be, but she’s got some thoughts and a taste for the higher things. Eventually I got tired of Dora and flipped through the newspaper. The Seattle Science Museum was hosting the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“Holy God!” I cried out. “The Dead Sea Scrolls! The oldest extant biblical texts!”
“Eh,” my niece said. The paper explained that the Museum had put together a “Dead Sea Scrolls Experience.” I assumed this meant that there would be a rollercoaster through time or a piped-in smell of papyrus or a real-life Essene preparing for the advent of the Risen Lord. Let me tell you, I was excited, so I snatched up the niece and had my father drive us to the Science Museum, because I don’t have a driver’s license. I bought one ticket (I had hid the niece in my backpack to avoid paying for an infant ticket) and raced towards the exhibit, exuberant spittle dribbling from my lips. I was stopped by a Museum Guard.
“Experiencing the Dead Sea Scrolls?” He was a small man, the type you would find amongst the gnomes, toiling.
“Yu huh,” I said.
“Got any fluids?” He gave my pockets a pat-down and took my niece out of my arms. He patted her jumper. “Any knives or serrated edges of any sort? Any oblong tubes? Paints? Oils? Sprays? And before you ask, yes, we consider inhalers to be spray devices.”
“Why?” I asked. He looked up at me like I was the emperor of all stupids.
“Do you know what the Dead Sea Scrolls are?” He asked incredulously.
“Yes, sir. Indeed I do. The oldest extant biblical texts, the Ark of the Covenant for papyrologists!”
The Guard snorted. “More like the Holy Grail for papyrologists.” He was right. It was more like the Holy Grail. “And do you know how bad the Terrorists wanna get a crack at them?” I took my niece back and covered her ears. I don’t think that she is ready for the T-word.
“Terrorists want to get at the Dead Sea Scrolls?” I was sweating and still drooling, though lightly.
“They swarm the exhibit.’
“With scabbards between their teeth. They grow their nails so they can scale the walls.”
“I hate the Terrorists,” I said. And I do. I truly do hate the Terrorists. The Guard let us pass up a ramp and into the exhibition. My niece muttered something about xenophobia, but I told her to hush up until she had a more sophisticated understanding of global politics.
When we entered the Experience, I was blown away. Two great columns hewn from sandstone and smoothed by the long progression of time embraced a ticket booth, where they handed out audio-guides. I hung mine around my neck, but my niece insisted that audio-guides detract from the experience, creating as they do a barrier of hermeneutics that obscure the object being presented. “Hush now, there’s a good baby,” I said, hanging an audio-guide around her neck. She put it in her mouth and sucked it like a delicious piece of duck. We sat down to watch the introductory movie.
On screen a whirlwind of dust cleared to reveal a cave. The voice of time, or perhaps God, narrated: “Welcome to the time before time.” My niece chortled ironically. I was enraptured. “In this cave, in 1945, a shepherd boy chasing after his goat (on screen a goat raced across the screen, the trammel of his hooves like the onslaught of Hannibal’s mighty cavalry across the Alps) stumbled into a cave. A lowly shepherd, he had no idea that he would uncover the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century.” A historian in a trim corduroy coat came on screen and said gravely, “certainly, certainly the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century. It would be foolish to argue otherwise.” The movie outlined the community of Qumran, which was probably Essene. Though, as we all know by this point, the community must have been Sadducean. I mean come on! One of the scrolls contains a festival calendar with Sadducean holy days! When the movie ended, we were ushered into a single file line, and let one by one into the main exhibition hall. A small boy in front of me looked disappointed.
“I wanted to see the Dead Sea Squirrels,” he muttered.
The Experience was set up as a long hallway that ended in a darkened room. In the dark room, encased in special glass, were the scroll fragments. The long hallway contained artifacts from the Qumran community and activities that simulated the process of discovery and preservation of the scrolls. At one table there was a puzzle. By accurately assembling the puzzle, one could experience the thrill of the papyrologist connecting two pieces of papyrus that go together. I dedicated myself to the puzzle. About three minutes in, a boy of about six or seven tried to push me aside. The boy was tough, so I did not try to start any aggressive situation. I do not like to get beaten in front of my niece.
“Lemme do the puzzle,” he demanded.
“I was, um, I was actually right in the middle of-“
“I want to do the puzzle. Lemme do the puzzle.”
“Well I was nearly done and-“
“I want to. I want to. I want to do the puzzle.”
“I understand and I do sympathize, but-”
“You’re like 30 years old. You don’t even like puzzles.”
“Actually I am 20.”
“I’m 20 years old.”
“Lemme do the puzzle.”
“Allright,” I said in exasperation. “But watch out for the corner pieces. Sharp. I hurt my thumb.”
We passed by a Qumranian hair comb which, the audio-guide told me, had Qumranian head lice in it. They use the lice to find out genetic information about the Qumranians to more accurately pinpoint their racial makeup. Turns out they were Jews. This comforted me as I am myself a Jew. And my niece is a Jewess. And I have also had lice.
We approached the darkened chamber. The holy chanting of the almighty choir was playing softly in the background. A sleepy Guard said, “no cameras, and those who are religiously-inclined are urged to exercise caution. The sight of the scrolls has been known to cause heart-attacks, seizures and mild neurasthenia.” We stepped into the chamber.
The scrolls are very light sensitive, so they are in cases in which a light only dimly illuminates them for 10-second intervals. One has to squint hard to make them out. The papyrus is yellowed and fragile. The Hebraic text is brown. The fragments are very old. I asked my niece what she thought. She considered for a while before vomiting on my shoulder.
“These texts are the closest we have to the source material of all Western civilization,” I urged, patting her on the back. She continued to vomit. “Our cogency as a people, as members of the narrative of history, is entirely owing to one book. And these are but the faint echoes of that book. You can almost hear the voice of the World Spirit!” She burped wetly, and then was done. She smiled in satisfaction, looking for all the world like Orson Welles after a satisfying vomit. She mumbled some baby-talk about the fetishization of culture and the consumer industry, but quieted down when I popped a pacifier in her mouth.
As we walked out of the Experience, through the gift shop and out into the light of day, I could not help but feel elated, brought further into contact with my roots as a Westerner, a member of the Army of Light. An old woman, walking next to us, patted my niece on the head and asked me if she liked the exhibit. My niece lifted her head.
“Fucking loved it.” Then she turned to me. “Can we please watch Dora the Explorer now?” And so we did.