DO Reprinted from U.S NEWS + WORLD REPORT, OCTOBER 7, 1991 article by Jeffery L. Sheler wi
* Reprinted from U.S NEWS & WORLD REPORT, OCTOBER 7, 1991
article by Jeffery L. Sheler with Joannie M. Schrof
The Bible's Las Secrets
They were the archaeological discovery of the century - a priceless trove of sacred writings whose ancient secrets lay hidden in the Judean desert for nearly 2000 years. Since their discovery in 1947 by Bedouin shepherds in the rocky caves of Qumran, just 10 miles east of Jerusalem, the Dead Sea Scrolls have been the subject of intense study, speculation and controversy. They have excited the imagination of biblical scholars and historians, offered new insights into the nature of the Bible and provided tantalizing glimpses into the turbulent times that gave birth to Christianity and modern Judaism.
But during the four decades since their discovery, many of the scrolls' secrets have been kept hidden from all but a small group of scholars who hold exclusive rights to the documents. Nearly half of the scroll fragments, which include some of the oldest know texts of the Bible, still have not been published. The painstaking process of assembling, translating and analyzing the ancient fragments - some no larger than a dime - is necessarily slow, say the researchers. But for the many Bible scholars who have been excluded from the research, the wait has been intolerably long. For years they have demanded access to the scrolls and an end to what Oxford University Prof. Geza Vermes describes as an "academic scandal par excellence."
It appears they are finally getting their wish. Last week, in a surprise move, a private California research library that holds one of just four complete photographic sets of the scroll collection opened its vaults and began granting access to the scroll photographs to all qualified scholars. "It's time to stop shrinking from freedom," said William A. Moffett, director of the Huntington Library in San Marino. After first threatening court action to block the release of the scrolls, the Israeli Antiquities Authority, in another surprise, announces it "agrees in principle" with opening access to the photos and called a meeting of scroll editors in December to make plans for officially disseminating the material. The developments came just two weeks after the Biblical Archaeology Society, which has led a decades-long crusade to "liberate" the scrolls, released a computerized reconstruction of some of the unpublished material derived from an official concordance showing key words and their location in the text.
BOOTLEG COPIES. Meanwhile, other apparently authentic photographic copies of some of the unpublished scrolls began to mysteriously turn up in scholars' mailboxes around the country. One copy obtained by the BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY REVIEW, for instance, purports to be a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah found in the Qumran library.
The moves enrages the scroll editors, who predicted that open access to the documents would jeopardize years of tedious work. Harvard Prof. John Strugnell, former editor-in-chief of the scroll project, called the unauthorized release "thievery" and predicted it would lead to shoddy scholarship. According to Strugnell, some scholars now acquiring the material will rush to publish a "few impressive-looking pieces" on the more interesting fragments "and the rest of the material will be abandoned.: Frank M. Cross, a scroll editor and professor of Hebrew and other Oriental languages at Harvard, warned that unlimited access to the scrolls could "attract a good many cranks: and actually slow down the publishing process. "There may be a lot of nonsense to wade through now," he said.
But to those who have been barred for decades from seeing the scrolls, the prospect of finally gaining access to the documents came as welcome news. "I'm excites," says James L. Crenshaw, professor of Old Testament at the Divinity School of Duke University, who hopes to use the scrolls in his study of Old Testament prophecy and other writings.
Whatever else the release of the scrolls may accomplish, it stands to finally resolve the political turmoil and controversy that have surrounded the documents almost from the time of their discovery. The entire Qumran cache consists of scrolls or fragments from 800 different documents written between about 200 B.C. and A.D. 50, probably by members of an ascetic Jewish sect known as the Essenes. About 127 of the documents are biblical texts, including the entire Old Testament except Esther - the only book of the modern Bible that does not mention God. Most of the scrolls are written in Hebrew, but others are in Greek or Aramaic - the colloquial language of the time and the one Jesus is believed to have spoken. Some books have as many as 19 different copies written at different times by different hands Other scrolls include apocryphal literature, such as the books of Tobit, Sirach and Jubilees, as well as the biblical commentaries, prayers, prophecies, hymns and rules of conduct and worship.
While the scrolls were found in 22 different caves near Qumran between 1947 and 1956, the largest single trove was uncovered in 1952 in an isolated cave designated as Qumran 4. It contained thousands of fragments from some 570 documents including most of the Hebrew Bible. Virtually all of the unpublished material came from Qumran 4.
Because the scrolls were found in what was then Jordanian territory, the government of Jordan initially exercised control over all but the first few scrolls, which were published independently by Israeli scholars and have been on public display at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem since 1965. Jordanian authorities assigned the Rev. Roland de Vaux of the French Ecole Biblique in East Jerusalem to assemble an international team of scholars who would have exclusive rights to publish the documents. Father de Vaux picked seven men, including some of his closest colleagues, to work on the scrolls and entered into an agreement with Oxford University Press to publish the work. Their early work in the 1950s went quickly. But work began to slow by the 1960s, and although about 20 volumes have been published, they account for only about half of the material.
A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE. Since the Six-Day War in 1967, when the scrolls came under control of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, access to the texts have gradually been expanded. Indeed, Israeli authorities maintain that, while only half the documents have been published, those documents account for up to 80 percent of the content of the scrolls. In recent years, the team has been widened to about 40 scholars and "the pace has picked up considerably," says Eugene Ulrich of the University of Notre Dame and editor of the scrolls' biblical texts. He and other editors have been granting occasional outside requests for access to the scrolls. "What every delays or problems may have occurred in the past," says Ulrich, "it certainly isn't happening today."
But such claims don't satisfy may outside scholars. A few critics have even suggested that the editors have been deliberately suppressing scroll material that would prove damaging to traditional religious views. One theory, propounded by authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh in their new book "The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception," depicts the delays as a Vatican conspiracy to hide the fact that members of the Qumran community were actually part of the early Christian Church headed by the Apostle James. The authors, who based much of the book on the work of the California State University Prof. Robert Eisenman, even suggests that the "Righteous Teacher" of the Qumran community mentioned in other Qumran texts was James, or perhaps even Jesus. If Qumran - with its pointed emphasis on Mosaic law - was, in fact, the early Christian church, it would appear that traditional Christianity has drifted far from Christ's original teachings and practices. That would seem to undermine the authority of the modern church.
Such theories are roundly rejected by mainstream scholars. Scroll editor Ulrich Flatly denies that such explosive secrets lurk in the unpublished materials, and even some of the most vocal critics of the scroll team, such as Hershel Shanks, editor of the BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY REVIEW, reject the claims as "hogwash." Most scholars are counting on the release of the unpublished scrolls to quash such conspiracy theories.
MYSTERIOUS ERA. Whatever new disclosures lie in store, the already published scrolls have had dramatic impact on modern study of the Bible and have begun to bring new understanding to the mysterious era between the Old and New Testaments. "We have here the veritable remains of a library dating back to John the Baptist and Jesus. It illuminates a crucial period for Jews and sheds important new light on early Christianity," says Magen Broshi, curator of the scrolls at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. With the aid of these texts, which are 1000 years older than the medieval texts that have generally been used, scholars have found many fascinating changes in the Bible. Bit "on the whole," observes Don A. Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, "the scrolls tend to confirm the solidity of our Old Testament to a greater degree than most people expected." One scroll dramatically demonstrates just how little at least one books of the Old Testament has changed through centuries of hand copying. In 66 chapters of the Isaiah Scroll - one of the few almost entirely intact scrolls found in the Qumran library- only 13 minor variations from the modern text were discovered.
Some minor corrections, based on comparisons with the Qumran texts, already have been incorporated into the latest editions of the Bible, such as the New Revised Standard Version published just last year. Among the more substantial variations from the modern texts were those found in Qumran versions of the books of Jeremiah and Samuel, which contain some entire paragraphs never seen before. In the usually accepted version of 1 Samuel, for example, chapter 11 tells the story of the newly appointed King Saul leading his people in battle against the Ammonities. But the Qumran text introduces that story with a paragraph describing the oppression of the Israelites by the Ammonite king, Nahash, that does not appear in the traditional text:
"He would gouge out the right eye of
each of them and would
not grant Israel a deliverer.
No one was left of the Israelites
Across the Jordan whose right
eye Nahash, king of the Ammonites,
had not gouged out. But there
were seven thousand men who had
In other cases, the Qumran texts were found to omit passages that appear in later Bibles, raising the question whether an earlier transcriber deleted the sections or a later scribe added them. In the ninth chapter of Jeremiah, for example, the Qumran text does not include a passage in which God, speaking through the prophet, denounces the disobedience of the Israelites and declares: "I will now refine and test them, for what else can I do with my sinful people?"
Most modern Old Testament books are based on texts copied by the Masoretes, a group of Jewish scribes known for their meticulous accuracy. The oldest dated to about A.D. 1005. The fact that some of the Hebrew scrolls at Qumran differ from the Masoretic texts poses another dilemma to modern biblical scholars: Either the Masoretes were not the careful copiers that everyone thought them to be, or the Qumran texts represent a second separate version of the Hebrew Bible.
The most tantalizing secrets to emerge from the Qumran caves may well be those concerning the Qumran community itself - the mysterious contemporaries of Jesus who wrote or transcribed many of the scrolls and tucked them into the rocky caves as the invading Roman armies approached. Were they the pacifist, ascetic Essenes, who are known to have lived along the Dead Sea during the first century A.D.? Or were the scrolls stashed by members of a broader Jewish society? If that were true, the diversity of the views in the scrolls would suggest the Judaism was in much greater intellectual turmoil than previously thought.
MAINSTREAM OR FRINGE? Based on the Qumran scrolls published shortly after their discovery - the Temple Scroll, the Manual of Discipline, a scroll of Psalms as well as other texts related to life and worship - scholars constructed a picture of a Hasidic community of Essenes who were inflames with religious passion and zealously awaiting an apocalyptic Messiah. But in recent years, other scholars have suggested that the Qumran community may have been something more than an isolated Jewish sect and that in fact it was connected in some way to early Christianity. The most plausible scenario, argues Professor Vermes of Oxford in this book, "The Dead Sea Scrolls" Qumran in Perspective," is that Christianity and Essenism "grew out of the same stock, the Judaism of the period."
The notion the Essenes were actually part of the early Christian church, as Baigent and Leigh argue in the new book, is implausible, says Vermes, because "the time factor is unsuitable, the two ideologies differ fundamentally and no New Testament fragment has been discovered in any Qumran cave." Similarly, the idea that Christianity grew out of Essenism is based on a few similarities with early Christian rites such as Baptism and on certain common patterns of thought. But the strong Essene emphasis on Mosaic law make this theory problematic, too, according to Vermes.
A handful of scholars have taken the view that the Dead Sea Scrolls have no connection with the Essenes, that they were smuggled into the countryside from Jerusalem before the Roman legions attacked the city in A.D. 67. Norman Golb of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute and a chief proponent of that view argues that the ideas and writing styles of the Qumran texts "are so diverse and sometime conflicting that they could not possibly have been the work of one small sect."
For example, Golb says, the Genesis Apocryphon, and embellished version of the Book of Genesis, show nothing of the Essene ideas. Another text, called the MMT Scroll, cites 20 reason why a group of dissenters broke away from the temple in Jerusalem and its practices. Of the 20 points, Golb says, only two are associated in any way with Essene beliefs. But the scroll that most damns the Essene theory, says Golb, is the Copper Scroll, a virtual treasure map describing riches buried throughout the Judean wilderness. "The types of treasures and documents described on the scroll could only have come from a major center," argues Gold, not from an isolated sect that rejected material wealth.
If Golb is right, the diversity of the Qumran literature points to a Jewish culture in the first century that was a vibrantly imaginative and in the midst of a spiritual struggle as religious power began to move away from a hereditary priesthood toward a more intellectual rabbinical system. "The scrolls tell us," says Golb, "that the spiritual struggle of the country, combined with the destruction of Jerusalem, gave rise to two distinct religious movements - Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism." Golb and his followers, who have not had direct access to the scrolls, hope the newly released material will bolster their theory.
The forthcoming documents are also certain to focus attention on similarities between early Christianity and first-century Judaism. While no New Testament writings were discovered in the Qumran caves, themes and images in some of the scrolls closely parallel those in the New Testament. One still unpublished scroll has been characterized as showing a starkly dualistic view of the world - the dichotomy of light and darkness and good and evil similar to that described in the Gospel According to John, a book written late in the first century A.D.
Before the discovery of the scrolls, many Bible scholars assumed that the dualism in John's Gospel reflected later Greek influences on early Christianity and was evidence that the fourth Gospel was written well into the second century A.D. "But with the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls," says Carson of Trinity, "we have found the imagery in John was familiar in Jewish thinking. It was there early on in this conservative Jewish sect."
Another unpublished text leaked to the BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY REVIEW bears a striking resemblance to the annunciation scene in the Gospel According to Luke, in which an angel tells Mary that she will bear a son who will be called "Son of God" and "Son of the Most High." The Qumran fragment, written in Aramaic several decades before Luke's Gospel, reads:
"...and by his name shall he
be hailed (as) the Son of God,
and they shall call him Son of
the Most High."
It is not clear who is speaking or being spoken to in the text. Could it be a parallel, or even a prototype, of Like's angelic annunciation scene? Or is it an earlier and heretofore undiscovered messianic prophecy? In either case, scholars say, the passage dramatically illustrates that "Son of God," long considered distinctly Christian and perhaps even Greek terminology, was part of the earlier Judaic lexicon. These and other Qumran texts suggest to Professor Cross of Harvard that Christianity and Judaism "embrace each other more closely than we thought."
That may be the final legacy of the Dead Sea Scrolls - that when all of the secrets of Qumran are revealed, they will have reminded us how richly intertwined are the roots to these two great religions.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank