The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Story of Uncertainty
Controversy Across the Atlantic
Sensational charges have flown across the Atlantic in recent weeks, and refreshingly, their origin has not been political. Sensitive points in Biblical history have relegated some international issues to a new position on the front page, for the moment at least. The Biblical expert temporarily has narrowed his problems to the point where virtually all Christians, agnostics, and atheists feel they have a stake in his next pronouncement.
The issue: interpretation of the so-called "non-Biblical writings" found with Old Testament scripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The verbal storm created by scholars has unleashed some fancy copy in the press; more important, it has stirred public interest in material that previously was confined to the dim offices of archeologists and theologians.
The Scrolls, the first of which were located in 1947 about nine miles south of Jericho, include the oldest Biblical manuscripts ever found. Among them are Old Testament books in Hebrew and Aramaic, Biblical commentary, and ritual documents of the Essenes, the religious sect which apparently owned the Scrolls. The commentary and rituals described in the parchments comprise about two thirds of the writings. The Old Testament works, one third by volume, are significant because they largely verify current Biblical text. The rest, which shed light on the curious Essene sect, are the subject of the recent controversy.
Some Scrolls Lost?
Much of the Scrolls' nine-year history is marked by uncertainty: first, in the incredible scramble by the Bedouin to find them; later, in determining their ultimate ownership; and still later, in assuring their authenticity. How much of the vast Essene library was lost by idle tribesmen, who neither understood nor cared for the Scrolls' significance, is unknown. Scholars hope that most of the scraps have been collected. Many pieces were returned when the Jordan Government's Department of Antiquities boosted its rate per square centimeter. Legally, all the Scrolls became the Department's property on discovery; it could later dispose of the antiquities as it wished.
The original finding of Cave One at Qumran, near the Dead Sea, makes a romantic tale of chance. Two shepherds, searching for a stray goat, climbed four hundred feet up a steep rock-fall. One of them casually tossed a rock to scare the goat. The missile entered a small hole, and there was a sudden clatter of pottery. Inquisitive, the two crawled in and observed several tall jars and a pile of debris. When leaving they took several foul-smelling scrolls, rolled up inside the jars.
Eventually the shepherds made their way to St. Mark's Convent, Jerusalem, where Archbishop Samuel expressed interest in buying the pieces. He obtained five of the original eight scrolls for a small sum; the remaining three eventually came into the hands of a Hebrew University professor. Samuel still had no real idea of his purchase's worth. Nearly a year later, he took them to the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem where incredulous scholars estimated they were written at the beginning of the Christian era. The remarkable find was soon announced to the world. It was received with amazement, if not disbelief.
Now the stage was set for the first controversial act surrounding the great archeological find. Political unrest in Palestine worsened with bloody Arab-Isreali clashes. After a priest at St. Mark's died of shell fire, the Archbishop decided to remove the Scrolls to safety, which to him, at least, meant the United States. There was question of ownership, because the Jordan government has first rights on all archeological finds. Consequently Samuel was not able to sell the Scrolls immediately for the large sum he had hoped. Not until seven years later could he dispose of his priceless possession, despite an exhibition in the Library of Congress. Samuel finally used an intermediary to complete a deal with the Hebrew University, for a reported quarter of a million dollars. It was worth the wait.
Meanwhile, a vast, disorganized combing of the Qumran area was conducted by the Bedouin, inspired with the scholars' enthusiastic appraisal of their first fund. The original Cave One was not relocated until 1949, when the Arab Legion undertook the search. Gradually the discoveries were investigated by trained archeologists. Lankester Harding, of the Department of Antiquities, and Pere de Vaux, of the French School of Archeology in Jerusalem, jointly assumed control. In Cave One alone, they found 600 scroll fragments.
After hostilities had clamed in Palestine, still more interest among tribesmen centered on finding the smelly pieces of parchment. Late in 1951, natives offered deVaux some fragments found eleven miles south of Qumran, at Wadi Muraba'at. The new finds, including second century A.D. Hebrew texts, had no connection with the Essene library. Shortly afterward, another discovery was reported closer to Qumran.
This latest batch of scrolls included two made of copper. The uneasy task of unrolling the brittle metal has taken until recently to complete. Incredible secrecy has surrounded the job; John Allegro, 32-year old lecturer in Semitic philology at the University of Manchester, is in charge and has hinted that the contents are "astonishing." The privilege of announcing what it says will be left to the Jordan government, and a dramatic, simultaneous release from Jerusalem, Washington and London is expected by scholars in the early summer. Some speculate that the copper scroll contains a map locating the Essenes' treasures or the bodies of their leaders.
Another Cave Located
Less than a year later, in September 1952, the Bedouin located still another cave. Tribesmen tried to carry off much of the new discovery, but the authorities arrived, fortunately, before the find of "Cave Four" had been completely dispersed. McGill, Manchester, Bonn and Heidelberg universities, along with the Vatican Library, assisted financially in recovering pieces divided among the natives. Six more small deposits, in Caves Five through Ten, were discovered between 1952 and 1955.
In the total collection of scrolls found thus far, two copies of Isaiah and commentary on two chapters of another book, Habakkuk, seem the most complete. There is a good deal of duplication: the five "Books of Moses", the Psalms, and Daniel apparently were Essene favorites. Significance of the Old Testament texts rests in their verification of the tenth century Hebrew, upon which the English version is based. The Essene copies give an account nearly ten centuries closer to the original. The similarities are remarkable, though not perfect.
One student of the Scrolls notes this new evidence:
"An obscurity in (our) standard text, due to the confusion of two words of similar appearance, has been cleared up in Isaiah 21:8. "And the cried, a lion" makes no sense at all. "And the seer cried" suits the context perfectly. The letters 'RYH (lion) are a scrib's mistake for HR'H (the seer)."
Shortly after the first scrolls were found, some charged that the manuscripts were medieval, not of the Christian era. Skeptics felt that it was impossible for the scrolls to have survived through the centuries in a Palestinian cave. Others said that they were complete fakes, imported from outside and designed to hoodwink enthusiastic archeologists.
Later investigation thoroughly refuted these charges. De Vaux and Harding first thought the Qumran ruins were simply an insignificant Roman fortress. Further digging disclosed, however, remains of a "monastery", complete with a fifteen-foot tower which was still standing. Its walls were forty feet square and five feet thick. The rest of the building consisted of courts, passages, a scriptorium, and many other rooms. Coins found definitely dated the building, and pottery linked the building with the caves. This provided final proof of the Scrolls' authenticity.
Why were the Scrolls stored away from the building? Scholars theorized that the Essenes thought their most valuable possession, their library, was safe from Roman attack only if it was well hidden. Adequate verification of an invasion came when a coin, bearing the surcharge of the Tenth Legion, was found inside the building. The Legion swept down the Jordan Valley in 68 A.D. on its way to the seige of Jerusalem. Clearly it was anticipated by the Essenes, and the Scrolls were secreted away.
Students of the period note that first century authors--Pliny the Elder, Philo and Jesephus,--describe the Essenes in terms which well fit the Qumran community. Archeologists believe that the settlement was the center of Essene life. The people probably lived communally while establishing their great library, and apparently washed, or were baptized daily, as evidenced by many aquaducts and a lavatory which were unearthed in the excavation. Their leader was a prophet, "The Teacher of Righteousness."
The Essenes' effect on current New Testament scholarship centers on parallels between their beliefs and the tenets of later Christians. There were, of course, no Christian writings in the Essene library. New Testament books written slightly later, however, bear astonishing resemblance to the Essene "non-Biblical writings."
Most outspoken in asserting the Essene-Christianity link is Manchester's Allegro, who currently is presenting a weekly series of BBC talks on his conclusions. He said two weeks ago that the historical basis of the Last Supper and part, at least, of both the Lord's Prayer and the New Testament teaching of Jesus can be attributed to the Qumran sect. "The Teacher of Righteousness", he said, "was persecuted and probably crucified by Gentiles at the instigation of a wicked priest of the Jews." Allegro, himself a philologist, claimed that the similarity had caused "a minor revolution in New Testament scholarship."
Allegro believes that the sect was conscious of a sense of nervous excitement when "outrage succeeded outrage, blasphemy and idolatry sat insolently in high places, and even the high priest of Israel defiled the sanctity of God with his presence." The Essenes, he asserted, looked forward to a blessed release and the return of its priestly "Teacher of Righteousness."
Many scholars, admittedly without the information Allegro has in his possession, would hesitate to make such sweeping generalizations. The Very Rev. John J. Dougherty, Immaculate conception Seminary, Darlington, New Jersey, has warned that it is far too early "to pontificate on the precise meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls on specific scientific questions, particularly questions of a historical character."
Dougherty is highly critical of Edmund Wilson's New Yorker article on the Scrolls which appeared on May 14, 1955. "He has taken one hypothetical interpretation, dressed it up in exciting diction, and presented it to those who can read but not evaluate. That is mischief. Dupont-Sommer's (a professor at the Sorbonne) sensational and unproved thesis, adopted by Wilson, was that the Qumran documents revealed an anticipation of Christianity in the sect of the Essenes."
A middle-of-the-road Christian might summarize the Scrolls' significance in cooler terms:
1) The foundations of Christianity will hardly be shaken by the disclosure of an earlier Jewish sect's similarities to Christianity. Christians shared common Old Testament tradition with the Qumran sect. Similarities may, in fact, indicate acceptance by the later Christians of some of the Essene beliefs. Christianity has never claimed discontinuity with the antecedent Judaism.
2) Christianity's uniqueness lies, rather in its belief that Jesus was the awaited Messiah; that he was not overcome by death, but continued to be present among his followers in the power of spirit.
3) The parallels between Jesus and the "Teacher of Righteousness" are not as shattering to modern Christian belief as outspoken investigators have asserted. The differences are clearly radical. The "Teacher of Righteousness" did not claim to be the son of God. His martyrdom was not voluntary. There is no claim of vicarious death for the sins of men