DR JEREMY CORLEY explores the claims and counter-claims surrounding the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times. chance discovery at Qumran in the udaean desert sent shock waves through the world of biblical studies.
One spring day in 1947, a Bedouin shepherd boy named Muhammad el-Dib set off in search of a lost sheep on the barren hillsides overlooking the Dead Sea. Thinking that the animal might be trapped in a cave, he threw a stone inside. What he heard was not the baaing of a sheep, but the clunk of the stone hitting some pottery.
Climbing into the cave, he discovered some large pottery jars. When he removed the lids, he found ancient scrolls wrapped in linen.
What he had stumbled upon has been called the "greatest manuscript discovery of modern times". Among the seven major scrolls found in the cave were two almost complete Hebrew manuscripts of the prophet Isaiah, dating from the first century BC a millennium older than the earliest text previously known. Other scrolls included rulebooks of the ancient Jewish sect of the Essenes, a group described by the historian Josephus.
Between 1947 and 1956, excavators recovered thousands of text fragments from ten more caves. Most of the major texts were published in the next few years except for many of the fragments found in Cave 4.
Wild theories circulated of a Vatican cover-up. It was said that the Catholic Church was suppressing ancient documents that would undermine Christianity. In fact, such a cover-up would have been impossible the scrolls were kept at the Palestine Archaeological Museum in East Jerusalem, which was under Jordanian control until 1967, and thereafter under Israeli rule. The Vatican never had any control over the scrolls.
Yet there was a delay in publishing the Cave 4 texts, for more prosaic reasons. That cave yielded more than 15,000 manuscript fragments, some the size of postage stamps, so experts had to fit the pieces together, just like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The delay occurred because this painstaking work did not receive adequate funding, and also because experts wished to write long commentaries on the documents.
A startling series of events in 1991 finally broke through the logjam. Two American scholars published several Qumran texts, reconstructed by computer from a wordlist made in Jerusalem 30 years earlier. Next, a library in California released its photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls hitherto unpublished. Then the Israel Antiquities Authority decided to make available photographs of all the Dead Sea Scrolls. By 1994, 460 pages of translated texts had appeared in the edition of Garcia Martinez.
The most important documents (such as the great Isaiah scroll) are on show at the Shrine of the Book, part of the Israel Museum near the Israeli parliament in West Jerusalem. The majority of the texts, not on display, are housed at the Palestine Archaeological Museum, near the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem.
WI AT ARE THE Dead Sea Scrolls? Basically, they form the remains of a library belonging to the first-century Essene community. The manuscripts were hidden in AD 68, to protect them from the advancing Roman armies.
The scrolls consist of three kinds of literature: Old Testament texts, Essene documents, and other non-biblical Jewish writings.
The Qumran discoveries caused a momentous leap forward in Old Testament studies. In fact, all the biblical books composed in Hebrew are represented there (except Esther).
The oldest manuscripts (Samuel and Jeremiah) date from around 200Bc, while the latest were copied before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. In this way, the scrolls offer us much earlier biblical texts: previously, scholars had to rely on later Hebrew manuscripts such as the Leningrad Codex (around AD1000). What is surprising is how accurately the Jewish scribes copied the biblical text over the centuries.
One of the most famous Essene documents found at Qumran is the Community Rule. Readers quickly noted its similarities to the preaching of
John the Baptist. For example, both the Essenes and John the Baptist saw themselves as fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy by going out into the desert to prepare a way for the Lord.
The other non-biblical materials, such as the Book of Enoch, shed light on Jewish beliefs in the first century AD, and expand our knowledge of the Jewish background behind the gospels. Several scrolls have been the subject of sensational claims, because of their real or supposed connections with the New Testament. A German professor has asserted that a Greek fragment known as 7Q5 is the earliest text of Mark's gospel, written before A.D. 68. His assertion is hard to prove or disprove out of the fragment's 20 Greek letters, only one complete word appears (kai, meaning "and").
In another text (4Q285), a "Pierced Messiah" has been identified with the Suffering Messiah of the gospels: "They killed the Prince of the Congregation with piercings." OYet the phrase could also be understood: "The Prince of the Congregation will kill him with piercings" in that case, the leader is more like a militaristic Zealot commander.
A further manuscript (llQ13) quotes Isaiah chapter 61: The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to proclaim liberty to the captives and to comfort the downtrodden. Whereas in Luke chapter 4 Jesus uses Isaiah's prophecy to speak of his saving mission, the Qumran manuscript connects this activity with the priest Melchizedek.
Authors such as the American Professor Eisenman and the Australian Doctor Thiering have made extravagant claims that the Dead Sea Scrolls really speak of Jesus's followers. These authors have identified characters in the Essene writings (Teacher of Righteousness, Wicked Priest, Man of the Lie) with New Testament characters (Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul the apostle, or James the brother of the Lord). Such claims are problematic, because the Qumran documents mention no New Testament characters by name. Moreover, each theory makes
contradictory identifications. Yet it is possible that John the Baptist spent time in the desert at Qumran, before embarking on his mission of preaching and baptising.
One of the results of Vatican II has been the Church's increased emphasis on the Jewish roots of Christianity. Hence the Mass generally includes an Old Testament reading as well as a psalm. Because the Qumran discoveries have provided much more ancient Old Testament manuscripts, we now have a more accurate knowledge of the biblical text from pre-Christian times.
Moreover, knowing the writings of one Jewish community (the Essenes) from first-century Palestine expands our awareness of the society from which Jesus and his disciples came.
Yet there is one big difference between the Essenes and the early Christians. Whereas members of the Qumran community withdrew from the upheaval in Israel's society at that time, Jesus and his followers fully immersed themselves in its life. Perhaps this fact may partly explain why the Essenes vanished from our consciousness for 1,900 years, whereas the message ofJesus has spread all round the world.