It’s a confusing feeling to stand and stare at a tiny cave halfway up a cliff face and think, “This is one of the most important historic discoveries in the last century?

Garrett Ayers

Clemson University senior Garrett Ayers stands above the cliffs and caves at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

“Historic discoveries” are massive structures like pyramids, or castles, or treasure, or ships underwater. They aren’t caves, and they aren’t typically a pit stop on spring break.

In May, I will graduate from Clemson with a double major in English and Religious Studies. In the fall, I will begin a masters-level literature study of theology and art at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

But for two weeks in March, I traveled with my family – a party of seven – to Israel on a study-tour of Biblical history.

At 6 feet, 2 inches, a trip like this is about the only reason to squeeze my knees into a plane for more than 12 hours. For more reasons than that, however, I was ecstatic to jump off that plane, into a taxi and toward Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. It would be hard not to be excited about staying in Jerusalem, where we were a 10-minute walk from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a Christian church on the site where Jesus was crucified. Or, to see excavations of New Testament stories, such as the pool of Bethesda mentioned in John 5. What a wonderful opportunity to see faith and story lived out in a physical setting, with a history and age that make Shakespeare seem recent.

Retracing steps

This was actually my second time coming to Israel. Furthermore, it was my second time coming to Israel to do this exact tour. In high school, I never anticipated that I would come back. Not only that, I never anticipated I would come back as one who had studied Religion so intently.

In the spring of 2016, I took my first religious studies course by happenstance. I knew friends who would be in the class, so I signed up, and recruited others to join me. The class was “Religion 3050, Constructing Scripture,” taught by Professor Benjamin White. It was dense, covering the full timeline of Biblical canonicity, from the Jewish Pentateuch to late New Testament letters. In short, we were investigating one major question: Where did this thing we call the Bible come from? From that, of course, were sub-questions: What were its stages? Is it the same book for all Christian traditions? What major developments through the centuries have shaped our understanding of the Bible?

Dome

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is in the Old City of Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of Garrett Ayers.

One such development was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran.

In the mid-1940s, a group of Bedouin shepherds threw a rock into a cave, hearing a crack instead of a thud. What followed was one of the most important historic discoveries in the past century. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain the texts of a Jewish Apocalyptic group, which was highly literate and dedicated to the preservation of texts dating back to the first or second century BCE, untouched until the Bedouin discovery. Subsequently, in the caves at Qumran, archaeologists have found almost the entire Old Testament. The texts discovered provided a corpus of Jewish scriptures 1,000 years older than any prior copy of Hebrew Scripture, and at times the texts differ from what had been accepted. The discovery gives thinly veiled insight into a period of Judaism, somewhat unknown, which scholars have largely had to reconstruct by other means.

Getting to go to Qumran was a thought-provoking experience, for the same reason the entire trip to Israel was thought-provoking. Standing near the caves put flesh on an academic situation, learned somewhat abstractly across the world. The Bedouin shepherds were not just abstract historical figures, but people in a community, just as the Essenes living in the Qumran community were no longer abstract.

Change of course

I didn’t necessarily set out to be a Religious Studies major.

I entered Clemson as an English major, and loved it so much that I flew through my credits.

After I finished Professor White’s class my sophomore year, he approached me to add it as a major, and after calculating my remaining hours, my choice was either add the major or graduate much earlier than I had wanted. So, I added it.

So much of what I have learned in Religious Studies has become foundational for the way that I think, and for my aspirations of Episcopal ordination, that it’s difficult to deconstruct its value in my life. Qumran to me had value because of its place in the syllabus my sophomore year. And in a way, my syllabus had value to me because of this trip I took over spring break.

The trip for me was a bit like going to an art museum after years of aesthetic scholarship. The subject became the environment, having known the former so well, but never seeing it in its proper place.

And though the trip was planned and organized a few years in advance, my major was not. In retrospect it feels a bit like having tossed a rock into a cave.