The Scandals of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Who was the Teacher of Righteousness? The Wicked Priest? The Man of Lies? Was one Jesus Christ, another St Paul, another St James, or perhaps John the Baptist? Or were these just other warriors in the bloody religious wars that convulsed the Eastern Mediterranean 2000 years ago, and whose identity has been suppressed ever since? And just exactly how firm are the historical foundations of Christianity and Judaism? What do we really know and what can we now know?

Some seventy-five years ago it seemed that answers to such questions were beginning to emerge from a set of barely accessible caves in the vicinity of the Dead Sea. At that time there began a series of momentous archaeological discoveries that yielded a vast horde of incredibly interesting and well-preserved scrolls. From the outset it was clear to scholars and informed commentators that the Dead Sea Scrolls had the potential to revolutionise the understanding of post-biblical Jewish history, and fundamentally challenge the conventional view of the origins of the Jesus Movement, Early Christianity and Judaism.

The Battle However, it was also recognised that any such re-orientation would come at a price, perhaps a great price. Almost immediately after the Scrolls were first discovered there was set in train a policy of suppression, obfuscation and misdirection designed to control the scholarly study and public understanding of their content. This in turn provoked a vigorous reaction as maverick scholars, informed commentators, concerned Jews and Christians, committed secularists, religious cranks and outright opportunists fought desperately to contest this stifling orthodoxy and to promote their own interpretations of the Scrolls and other related discoveries (and several Australians played leading roles, as we will see). The resulting battles made and shredded reputations and lasted for decades before reaching a crescendo at the end of the last millennium when several pivotal, precedent-setting court decisions enabled the final release of previously suppressed material.

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New Orthodoxy Nevertheless, this resolution was arrived at only after decades of obstruction and struggle, during which time any Scrolls containing dangerous information could have been suppressed or even destroyed, as many scholars and laypersons were left suspecting. After this denouement a new moderate consensus about the meaning of the Scrolls was established and a precarious new orthodoxy was set in place. However, the battleground then shifted to the study and interpretation of another great archaeological discovery. This was the so-called Nag Hammadi Library of ancient Gnostic texts from Egypt, the implications of which are at least as portentous as the Dead Sea Scrolls. More recently, there has been the discovery of the Gospel of Judas and of the alleged Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. Taken together, all of these discoveries and the manner in which they have been treated constitute a monumental scandal for the study of Early Christian and Jewish history, the theology of both religions, and for the beliefs of the faithful masses around the world. This series of articles seeks to expose and explore this scandalous tale.

The Discovery The Dead Sea Scrolls were found between c. 1946 and 1956 in eleven caves (above) near the archaeological site of an otherwise unremarkable ancient Jewish settlement at Qumran in the Judaean Desert, 1.5 kilometres inland from the north-western shore of the Dead Sea. Precise dating of the Scrolls is controversial, but the scholarly consensus dates them from between the last three centuries BC and the first century AD, and most likely between c. 160 BC and 70 AD. Because of their extraordinary content, they have great religious, historical, linguistic and political significance.

The Collection The Dead Sea Scrolls collection consists of an estimated 981 ancient Jewish religious manuscripts along with many thousands of manuscript fragments. The collection includes most of the oldest surviving manuscripts of works included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible (roughly equivalent to the Old Testament), as well as many deuterocanonical and extra-biblical texts that reveal the diversity of religious thought in late Second Temple Judaism, including its extreme sectarianism. Most of the texts are in Hebrew, some in Aramaic, and a few in Greek. Most of the texts are written on parchment, some on papyrus, and one on copper. The remaining texts are sections or fragments of the original Scrolls. According to one estimate, there are some 25,000 fragments, but other estimates range between 80,000 and 100,000. The figure is imprecise because the counting depends upon the definition of “fragment”.

Categories Scholars have not identified all of the texts because of the poor condition of much of the material. Nevertheless, it appears that the bulk of the most significant Scrolls has been identified. The material falls into three categories:

  • Canonical texts from the Hebrew Scriptures (approximately 40 per cent of the total).
  • Deuterocanonical texts from the Second Temple Period—influential and important texts that were ultimately not canonised in the Hebrew Bible, such as the Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, the Book of Tobit, the Wisdom of Sirach, the Five Apocryphal Psalms of David (approximately 30 per cent).
  • Sectarian texts, previously unknown, that illuminate the beliefs and practices of sectarian Jewish groups. These include the Community Rule, the War Scroll, the Pesher on Habakkuk and The Rule of the Blessing (approximately 30 per cent). It is around this category of the Scroll material that much of the scholarly and political controversy has occurred.

Qumran Library The conventional scholarly view holds that the collection constituted whole or part of the library of the Essenes, a Jewish sectarian group that was active in the late Second Temple period and that was believed to have resided at Qumran in the period from around the second century BC until the late first century AD. However, dissident views have been vigorously promoted, as we will see.

Mysterious Origins The story of their discovery is shrouded in mystery, as it seems that some of the earliest first-person accounts may have been concocted to obscure the true origin of some of the Scrolls (for example, that they were robbed from graves or otherwise illicitly obtained). Nevertheless, it appears the bulk of the Scrolls material was found in the caves. No one is even entirely sure when the first discovery was made, but 1947 has been designated as the official year. The most commonly accepted account is that three Bedouin cousins had been tending their flock of sheep and goats near Qumran, and that one of them threw a stone into a cave (apparently to help retrieve a wandering goat) and heard the breaking of earthenware. Later, the youngest cousin, thinking there may have been gold in the cave, went back and climbed in. There he discovered ten large jars, with a cylindrical shape, some with lids and handles, lining the wall of the cave. There was no gold, but eight of the jars contained Scrolls and he took three back to show his cousins.

Off to Bethlehem The two oldest cousins took those three Scrolls, plus four more from the cave, and showed them to various antiquities dealers in Bethlehem, none of whom showed much interest, suspecting they may have been stolen from a synagogue. However, the cousins also approached a cobbler and antiquities dealer named Kando (left), who bought one, while three were sold to another dealer. These then passed through various hands until they came to the attention of the head of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, the Metropolitan Mar Samuel, and also Professor Eliezer Sukenik of the Hebrew University, who was able to authenticate the Scrolls, and was also the first person to link them to the Essenes. Sukenik tried to raise the funds to purchase them for his university but was unsuccessful. Mar Samuel then purchased four Scrolls through Kando, while Sukenik purchased the three other Scrolls.

The First Seven Scrolls The seven Scrolls recovered in this initial discovery from what became designated as Cave 1 at Qumran are: (1) The Great Isaiah Scroll, the oldest complete copy of the Book, 1000 years older than other manuscripts. (2) An incomplete copy of Isaiah. (3) The Community Rule (also known as The Manual of Discipline), which contains the theological basis of the community along with the rules governing its activities. (4) The Habakkuk Pesher, a particular sort of commentary on the Book of Habakkuk, whose significance we will discuss later. (5) The Thanksgiving Hymns, rather like the Psalms. (6) The Genesis Apocryphon, which offers retellings of parts of Genesis. (7) Finally, there was the War Scroll, which describes a future apocalyptic conflict between the Sons of Light (the Qumranites) and the Sons of Darkness (their enemies). It uses explicit military terms to detail this forty-year war against the Kittim (the Romans) that would soon usher in the Messianic Age. We will also return to this Scroll later.

Narrow Escape By 1951, all seven Scrolls had been published and their contents were available to scholars and the interested public. They therefore narrowly escaped the clutches of the “International Team”. This was a small group of mainly Catholic scholars (with Jewish scholars deliberately excluded), attached to the Palestinian Archaeological Museum (later the Rockefeller Museum). Its task was to translate the mass of remaining Scrolls. Instead of doing this, this coterie imposed a monopoly over all subsequent Scroll discoveries, generally denying access to them, and dominating all attempts to interpret their meaning and significance. For decades the seven original Scrolls had to serve as the principal basis of what could be publicly known about the Dead Sea Scrolls, subject always to the presumption that the Team might be withholding unreleased Scrolls containing crucial information that would overthrow any interpretation outsiders might propose.

Cairo Genizah However, there were some other texts that were already known, including the previously mysterious Damascus Document, composed about 100 BC. This was found in 1897 amongst the monumental collection of some 400,000 documents and textual fragments dating from 870 AD found in a Cairo Genizah, an ancient synagogue storeroom. Its preservation for at least a millennium indicates that the text was regarded as very important for the Jewish community. Analysis at the time indicated that it was related to a radical Jewish sect (such as the Essenes) and this appeared to be confirmed when further copies were found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Damascus Document The Damascus Document may be the key to the entire Qumran-Scrolls mystery. It appears to date the birth of the Qumran community to c. 196 BC in “the Age of Wrath”. This was depicted as a revolutionary age in history, defined by God’s re-embracing of His people. It describes how a sect of pious Jews came into being at a time of general ungodliness, and “groped for a way forward” for twenty years until God sent them a guide—the Teacher of Righteousness, the key figure in the Scrolls mystery.

The Teacher of Righteousness The Teacher was clearly a charismatic religious figure that we will encounter many times, as he looms large in the Scrolls and in controversial interpretations of them. In the Scrolls, the Teacher is exalted as being alone in his proper understanding of the Law and the Prophets, and as being the one vehicle through whom God would reveal to the Community “the hidden things in which Israel had gone astray”. However, it appears that a dissident internal faction emerged within his sect. These were members who were prepared to compromise with the religious and political status quo: they were “seekers of smooth things” and “lovers of money and enemies of peace”. They reacted against the rigorous asceticism of the Teacher and became lax in every vital field of sectarian Judaism, especially in matters of ritual purity, chastity and the dates of festivals and observances.

Shadowy Figures In the ensuing fratricidal struggle, the Teacher and those faithful to him were banished to “the land of Damascus” (that is, Qumran) where they formed the “Community of the New Covenant”, described in the Scrolls. At around this time the Teacher was “gathered in”—he died or was put to death—and the now leaderless Community were left to face their chief enemy, the “Wicked Priest”, who had taken control of the Temple in Jerusalem. Such shadowy characters loom large in all the dissident, counter-consensus interpretations of the Scrolls and the Qumran community, and attempts to link them with Early Christianity. For example, the Teacher of Righteousness is often identified with Jesus (or his brother James, or John the Baptist), while another figure, the Man of Lies, is identified with St Paul. It is noticeable that in virtually all interpretations of the Scrolls that mention Paul, he is ignored, marginalised or presented in a negative light. This has enormous significance for Christian theology.

Gatekeepers Hoarded away for decades, the Damascus Document later served as the flashpoint for the final assault on the scholarly monopoly that the Team had established over the Scrolls. Eminent independent scholars outside the official International Team repeatedly attempted to gain full access to the Damascus Document, but these requests were always “peremptorily dismissed” by the Scrolls “gatekeepers”.

What Difference Did This Make? Such denial of access was critical to scholarship, according to the chief plaintiff, Professor Robert Eisenman. Access was vital because it illuminated the origins and development of Paul’s theological approach to the death of Christ, an interpretation that went on to shape Christianity’s understanding of the Crucifixion forever afterwards. For many sceptics, the hoarding of this document for decades could only be explained as a desperate attempt to protect Christian orthodoxy from damaging revelations.

Conflict This academic game-playing was occurring in the context of extreme political turmoil. The end of the British UN mandate over Palestine and Transjordan led to the outbreak of hostilities between the new state of Israel and some surrounding Arab states, creating a dangerous and unpredictable environment.

Research Begins In response, Mar Samuel relocated to the US in 1949, taking his four Scrolls with him, but archaeological expeditions returned to the original area to retrieve additional material, apparently purchasing a good deal from the local Bedouin, who were now searching enthusiastically for this “textual treasure”. These expeditions were led by G.L. Harding, the head of the Palestine Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem; and Father Roland de Vaux, a French Dominican who was the director of the École Biblique, a French Catholic Theological School in East Jerusalem; along with the American School of Oriental Research. Fatefully, de Vaux was made head of the International Team, exercising extremely tight control over all research concerning the Scrolls and dominating proceedings for the next two decades.

Discoveries A full excavation of Qumran was begun, and by 1956 a further ten caves containing Scrolls were located, including Cave 4, which yielded an enormous amount of material, but which was assigned to scholars who were to become notorious for the slow pace of their work. It appears that most of the discoveries (possibly 80 per cent) were made by Bedouin treasure hunters, who pre-empted the academic searchers and then sold their finds to the Team or other archaeologists. They also sold an unknown number of Scrolls to dealers or private collectors. No audit of the discoveries was carried out, and it later transpired that some Scrolls and their contents were kept secret for decades. It is impossible to know whether all the Scrolls discovered at Qumran have been accounted for, which makes the official insistence that none were suppressed difficult to prove. There may be vital texts still to be revealed.

The Scandal of the Scrolls From the outset, Father Roland de Vaux (above) was the key figure in what became the scandal of the Scrolls. Born in Paris, he entered the priesthood and became a Dominican in 1929. He had lived in Jerusalem since 1934, teaching at the École Biblique and serving as editor of the Revue Biblique. He was self-taught in archaeology and despite not yet having any other relevant skills he led the expeditions and was appointed the editor-in-chief of the Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, the official publication for the Scrolls. In this position he allocated material for research to the International Team, a coterie of people of varying competence, most of whom blocked access to the material they were allocated and withheld publication of their work for decades.

Idiosyncrasies Aside from having a preponderance of Catholic priests and no Jewish scholars, the Team proved to be extremely insular and some of its members revealed notable personal idiosyncrasies. De Vaux allegedly exhibited an arrogant and dismissive attitude towards other scholars and the public, and he was even denounced as a “ruthless, narrow-minded, bigoted and fiercely vindictive” anti-Semite and fascist sympathiser (Baigent and Leigh, The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception). Father Józef Milik (right) hoarded an enormous amount of material, far more than he could ever deal with, drank to excess, eventually lost his vocation, left the priesthood, and got married. John Strugnell was a functional alcoholic who also suffered from a bipolar disorder; he became a Catholic and was appointed Head of the Team despite never completing the assignments given him; eventually he was sacked after giving a venomous anti-Semitic interview. John Allegro was an agnostic who carried out his assignments quickly, speculated freely, and saw the need to inform the public about the discoveries. Consequently, he was victimised and marginalised by the rest, and finally went right off the scholarly reservation into the outer limits of the psychedelic 1960s. It should have been clear at the outset that this Team would never be able to cope with the challenges presented by the Scrolls discoveries. Over the years, critics came to think this was what was meant to happen.

Monopoly Until his death in 1971, de Vaux monopolised his position and the power it gave him during the crucial first decades of Scrolls recovery and research, attracting widespread criticism for the glacial pace at which the material was made available. This extremely low productivity continued under his successors. Moreover, the very existence of some important documents was suppressed—the existence of the Halakhi Letter was not even announced until 1984, thirty years after it was discovered, and it took another ten years for it to be published. De Vaux never published even the basic research report on the materials for which he had sole responsibility. Ultimately, it was not until 2002 (fifty-five years after the initial discovery), that the Team announced they had published all materials (that is, all those whose existence has been acknowledged).

Academic Scandal Even this outcome was achieved in the face of enormous resistance by the Team, under both de Vaux and his successors, who simply refused to grant access to the Scrolls to any but a select few, mainly their own PhD students or protégés who would follow the official line. By 1977 the eminent Oxford Professor of Jewish History, Geza Vermes, declared publicly that the matter was becoming “the academic scandal par excellence of the century”. Even after the Six-Day War in 1967, when the Israelis gained control of the Scrolls in Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum, they refused to upset the status quo, leaving in place the existing “small, non-Jewish, practically non-functioning scroll-publication team” (Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2007). Apparently the Israeli government felt it needed all the foreign support it could muster in its dire situation, and it didn’t want to offend the Vatican or the powerful Protestant churches in America.

Breakthrough This embargo fell apart in the early 1990s, in a cascading sequence of events. First, the reigning Scrolls editor-in-chief and head of the Team, John Strugnell, gave an anti-Semitic interview to an Israeli journalist in which he declared his dislike of Israel and declared its existence “untenable”. He went on to describe Judaism as “a horrible religion … a folk religion, not a higher religion … a Christian heresy [that] has survived when it should have disappeared”. The answer to anti-Semitism, he declared, was “mass conversion” to Christianity. In the face of the outrage that followed, even the ultra-cautious Israeli government had to act, replacing Strugnell (below), who then continued his decline into alcoholism and mental illness. A new, more competent editor-in-chief was appointed, along with many more staff and even several Jewish scholars, itself a major advance. However, it looked as if the embargo would continue.

Mystery and Microfilm The second breakthrough came when the Biblical Archaeology Society published some embargoed texts. These had been laboriously recreated in a virtual format with a computer, using a file-card concordance that listed every word in the collection, together with the words that immediately preceded and followed it. It turned out to have an accuracy of 98 per cent. Third, someone allegedly provided a hoard of thousands of photographs of the Scrolls (making a pile nearly two metres high) to Robert Eisenman (below), a vocal critic of the Team and the consensus view it was promoting. These were published in a two-volume work. (It has never been established who leaked the photos.) Finally, the Huntington Library in California decided to release images of its holdings of the unpublished Scrolls lodged there on microfilm in case something happened to the originals. That was it! The Scrolls were now in the public domain.

Legal Sanction In reaction, the Israeli government considered suing everyone involved but ultimately made all the Scrolls officially available. However, Israeli courts did find the Biblical Archaeology Review guilty of plagiarism after the magazine published some of the Scrolls edited by an Israeli academic. This gave the International Team the power to legally threaten anyone who diverged from the official line.

Denunciation After forty years, the bulk of the greatest archaeological discovery of the twentieth century had been released. Nevertheless, tremendous damage had been done over the decades in terms of the public perception of the Scrolls and what it was believed they must reveal. From the outset, de Vaux and his Team were criticised for fuelling suspicions that they were covering up explosive discoveries on behalf of the Catholic Church, to which as a priest de Vaux and the other priests on the Team owed their primary loyalty, and this became a theme that caught the popular imagination right from the start.

Archaeology of Qumran The Qumran site had taken shape over hundreds of years, punctuated by periods of occupation and intense activity. Such stages produce distinct levels or strata, which can be distinguished by archaeologists according to the “layer-cake principle” where one level lies on top of another, thus creating a chronological history of occupation, each layer being more recent than the one below it. The main means of differentiating these levels involves the analysis of coins that reference historical figures or events, and the remains of pottery and other material artefacts whose age can be independently determined, via firing methods, design, glazing, radiocarbon-dating and so on. All of this requires extremely careful investigation.

Incomplete and Compromised It is important to note that the general understanding of the periods of occupation at Qumran and the nature of the settlement were shaped very much by what de Vaux divulged about the archaeological research carried out under his supervision. However, when he died in 1971, he had still not provided a full report on the excavations. Indeed, it took until 1986 for the École Biblique to appoint another archaeologist to organise the results of de Vaux’s work, and the preliminary findings of this were eventually presented at a conference in New York in 1992. By then it transpired that many relevant artefacts had been lost or their provenance compromised and some of de Vaux’s findings were still being withheld. Consequently, a final report of the original archaeological research never eventuated.

The Consensus View Nevertheless, in the years after the initial discovery there was irresistible pressure for some official statement on such a monumentally important discovery. And so, after a decade in control, de Vaux laid down the intellectual framework within which he wanted all subsequent analysis of the Scrolls to take place. He did this in a series of lectures to the British Academy in 1959, published much later as Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1973). In this he presented his analysis of the discoveries at Qumran and in the caves. Ever since, this statement has formed the basis for what became known as the “Consensus View” of the Scrolls. The key elements of this dominant “Qumran–Essene” theory of the Dead Sea Scrolls are as follows.

  • After an initial settlement around the eighth and seventh centuries BC, the Qumran site was occupied from c. 135 BC to 135 AD in four separate periods: (1) from 135 to an earthquake of 31 BC; (2) from the reign of Herod Archelaus, c. 4 AD, until its destruction by the Roman Army around 68 AD; (3) during a subsequent period of Roman military occupation until around the end of the first century AD; and (4) for a further brief period during the Second Jewish War (132 to 135 AD). For de Vaux and the Consensus View the principal periods of concern were (1) and (2).
  • The caves containing the Scrolls were closely associated with the community at Qumran during these two periods and were chosen as a secure repository for its sacred texts when the settlement there came under threat. It appears that this threat eventuated and that something very drastic happened to the settlement. This was most likely a military assault during the First Roman-Jewish War of 66 to 70 AD, which destroyed the community, leaving the Scrolls undisturbed in the caves for nineteen centuries.
  • The Qumran site was the home of an Essene sect, a group of celibate men who installed themselves there in the middle of the second century BC, and who conformed to what is known about the beliefs and practices of the Essenes. This knowledge derived mainly from the Jewish historian Josephus (37–100 AD), the Roman historian Pliny (23–79 AD) and the Jewish philosopher Philo (20 BC–50 AD). For example, the Rule of the Community details policies of the sect that are very similar to those recorded by Josephus. These include procedures for admission, the regulation of behaviour, total respect for sect leaders’ authority, the community sharing of property, communal meals, strict observance of the Sabbath, frequent ritual bathing, celibacy, and no spitting (!). Fierce opposition to the Temple authorities in Jerusalem is also made clear.
  • As these features suggest, the site served a “monastic” function according to de Vaux, and he claimed to have identified a “scriptorium”, similar to those of medieval monasteries and used to transcribe texts, along with a “refectory”, a “pantry” and “assembly rooms” similar to facilities found in these later Christian institutions.
  • Overall, according to this official view, Qumran was a reclusive community of monkish Essenes who pursued an ascetic, celibate, quietist and pacifist existence divorced from the social, political and religious turmoil that was convulsing Judaea and the outside world.

Criticism Some scholars noted that this appeared to be a circular argument: Qumran was an Essene settlement because of the content of the Scrolls discovered nearby, while the Scrolls were Essene because of the Essene settlement nearby. Others accused de Vaux of anachronism, of viewing a late Second Temple Jewish settlement through a medieval Christian filter, and of ascribing to the Qumran inhabitants the same monkish lifestyle and occupation he had himself adopted. It was also noted that de Vaux’s conclusion that the community was made up of celibate Jewish men made it extremely unusual, if not unique in Second Temple Judaism. Still others criticised the reliance on “external” archaeological and palaeographical evidence for dating, at the exclusion of the “internal” evidence of the content of the Scrolls. And many simply didn’t accept the certitude with which it was asserted that Qumran and the Scrolls had nothing to do with the origins of Christianity in the first century AD. Nevertheless, de Vaux’s account of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls came to dominate scholarly discourse as the Consensus View.

Alternative Views Right from the outset, there were alternative views that emerged in the years after the first discoveries, and were denounced by de Vaux’s team, but that have regained some traction since the full release of the Scrolls in the 1990s. These contributed to an emerging dissident “counter-consensus”. They are described briefly here but some will be further explored as we go.

Qumran–Sectarian Theories These are variations on the Qumran–Essene theory, differing in their reluctance to link the Scrolls specifically with the Essenes, agreeing that a community of sectarian Jews lived at Qumran but not conceding they were Essenes, but may have been Zealots or some now unknown sect.

Schiffman’s Version A more specific variation on the Qumran–Sectarian theory has been advanced by Professor Lawrence H. Schiffman in Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls  (1994). He claims that the community was a group of Zadokite priests (Sadducees), and he bases this claim on Scrolls that cite purity laws and festival dates attributed to the Sadducees.

Jerusalem Origin Theories Some scholars separate Qumran and the Scrolls, insisting there is no proven connection between the two. These include Professor Norman Golb in Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? The Search for the Secret of Qumran (1995). These scholars argue that the Scrolls came from the Temple library and elsewhere in Jerusalem, were hidden there during the First Roman-Jewish War, and had nothing to do with the Qumran settlement. They support their argument by pointing out that the diverse handwriting and thinking exhibited among the Scrolls argue against a common point of origin, such as in a hypothesised Qumran “scriptorium”.

Sui Generis Origins It has been proposed that the Qumran community should just be seen in its own terms without attempting to link it with any other known group. It’s argued that the internal evidence offered by the Scrolls reveals the extreme diversity of Judaism in the late Second Temple period, adding one more movement to the mosaic-like composition of the Jewish people at the time: “Samaritans, Hasidim, Sadducees, Boethusians, Zealots, Essenes, Pharisees, and nascent Christianity, to name only the more prominent factions” (James VanderKam and Peter Flint, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls). The recognition of the apparently extreme diversity of Jewish sects in this period is one of the major scholarly advances that the Dead Sea discoveries have made possible.

Christian Origins Theories The most sensational theories are those that closely connect the Scrolls and the Qumran community with the Jesus Movement and Early Christianity. These first appeared in the immediate aftermath of the publication of the first seven Scrolls, as we will discuss later. Generally, they attempt to link the shadowy personalities mentioned in the Scrolls with, variously, Jesus; John the Baptist; James, the brother of Jesus; or St Paul, requiring a complete re-think of everything previously believed about the origins of Christianity.

An Early Mark? A prominent proponent of the Christian Origins theory is the Spanish Jesuit José O’Callaghan Martínez. In 1972 he claimed that a small Scroll fragment contained text from the Gospel of Mark. This tied the Scrolls tightly to the mainstream of Early Christianity and also meant that Mark was written before 50 AD, about twenty years earlier than previously thought, throwing all historical accounts of New Testament history into question.

Eisenman’s Theory A controversial but also determined and prolific proponent of the Christian Origins approach is Professor Robert Eisenman: The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered (with Michael Wise, 1992) and James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1997). Eisenman’s theory has found vigorous proponents in popular literature about the Scrolls, such as Baigent and Leigh, The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception (2006) and Neil Asher Silberman, The Hidden Scrolls: Christianity, Judaism, and the War for the Dead Sea Scrolls (1995). The titles of such books reflect the common view that there has been a major conspiracy surrounding the Scrolls, designed to cover up their damaging implications for Christianity.

Thiering’s Theory An equally radical version of the Christian Origins theory was proposed by the Australian academic Barbara Thiering, relying on a method of interpretation she claimed to have derived from the Scrolls themselves. We will look at Eisenman and Thiering in some detail later in this series.

Denunciation and Influence These Christian Origins theories were dismissed, denounced and ridiculed at various times by Father de Vaux, the cleric-dominated International Team, the Church, other religious authorities, and Christian, Jewish and other scholars. However, they have been periodically resurrected (and denounced) ever since. They have great currency in the popular imagination and form the core of the dissenting counter-consensus about the origins, nature and historical and theological significance of the Scrolls.

Dating the Scrolls Obviously, it would seem a lot of these issues could be sorted out by reliable dating of the Scrolls material, and such accurate dating is also essential because the opportunities and motives for fraud are extreme. Indeed, right from the outset, questions were raised about the authenticity and antiquity of the Scrolls, their discovery in the caves, and their alleged relationship to the Qumran site. Sceptics argued that the Scrolls were forgeries or plants; while some scholars insisted that they were not Judaic at all, but much later Christian texts, perhaps even medieval.

Methods Apart from basic archaeology, three main methods were used to date the Scrolls. Palaeography, the rather subjective study of ancient handwriting, was deployed, and this found that they all dated from between the third century BC and the first century AD. This was supplemented by more objective radiocarbon-14 testing conducted in 1990-91 on Scroll material; helpfully, this indicated that the Scrolls are around 2000 years old. Accelerator Mass Spectrometry indicated a time frame of between fourth century BC and third century AD. Various subsequent tests have suggested a narrower range of between about 160 BC and 70 AD (cf. VanderKam and Flint, 2002, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls). Obviously, this all leaves enormous room for interpretation. Sadly, even apparently objective methods can be manipulated to suit a pre-determined outcome in such tests, as was recently demonstrated with the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, in yet another scandal that will be discussed in a later part of this series.

Mervyn Bendle is the author of Anzac and its Enemies: The History War on Australia’s National Identity. The second part in this series of articles will appear shortly


12 thoughts on “The Scandals of the Dead Sea Scrolls

  • Lapun Ozymandias says:

    I rarely seem to get time to read Quadrant Online due to the competing flood that gushes from the informational firehose nozzle of the internet – but I do eventually get round to reading some of the articles that appear in the hard copy – albeit many months later – perhaps while awaiting a flight at the airport, etc. (I always stow a copy of Quadrant in my carry-on as emergency reading matter in the event of phone battery exhaustion).

    However – when I extracted the March hardcopy Quadrant from my letterbox a few days ago, the cover listing for the article on the Dead Sea Scroll Scandal piqued my curiosity, so I read it before the day was out.

    I always had a vague idea about the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls and that there was some sort of religious controversy about them back in the 1960s, but I never got around to investigating further. Anyway, I was indeed scandalised by the tale that Mervyn related and I look forward to his future expositions on the topic – but in the interim I thought that I would visit the Quadrant website to read the opinions of the Quadrant readers on the subject. But Quelle Surprise! There were no opinions! What has happened? Am I Mervyn Bendle’s only scandal customer?

  • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

    Yairs “old man” one wonders about it all and used to wonder when way up in the firmament where one could see the curvature of our blue dot by day and the wonderous night sky. Who is right, the various sects, the creationists, the tub thumpers who by accident become extremely wealthy, the religion of peace adherents, or Terry Pratchett who wrote –In the beginning there was nothing, and then it exploded– OR was some enterprising Arab the perp? One must balance that out when considering the acts visited on us by our wonderful Premiers, that nice Mr. Andrews an example for if there was in fact a divine being who had the power to smite, then why has he/ she or she/he been so remiss?

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Is organised religion important? Is it now a break even cost:benefit for those who elect to have nothing to do with it?
    It seems to involve an affliction of the mind, by which any number of impossible events become possible to believers. Seemingly, it exists to show a need for mystical validation of impossibilities. To those like me who have never wanted it, or wanted to understand it, it seems like yet another example of bureaucratic regulation, by people bent on telling others what they can and cannot do, as for example in the ten commandments. So, my opening question becomes more like “Why do we continue to encourage thought control?”
    I write this without cynicism or hostility, but with genuine concern for those who spend so much time on the topic that they forego time that could be spent in other ways with more personal choice. Geoff S

  • Claude James says:

    Actually, the main question now facing the Christian Church, in its various parts, is if it can focus its resources on helping the ordinary person to discover how to Walk With God.

  • pgang says:

    Very interesting article. I think Christ and Paul are safe from these scrolls.

  • Gordon Cheyne says:

    “after the Scrolls were first discovered there was set in train a policy of suppression, obfuscation and misdirection” – Surprise! Surprise!
    All those theists, arguing about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, without first establishing that their god really exists.

  • Davidovich says:

    Thanks, Mervyn, for a very interesting article which has obviously involved a considerable amount of research. I look forward to the continuation of your findings which help to shed light on the origins of Christianity despite clear efforts by some to ensure only the orthodox Catholic version prevails.

  • John Cook says:

    Surely the Scrolls deserve to be treated as historical records of humanity, and not just as religious texts. Thanks Melvyn, I look forward to your future articles.

  • Andrew L Urban says:

    A fragment vital for dating the Teacher of Righteousness was dated in a 1961 book by the Polish priest, Joseph Milik, as being between 75 and 50 BC. But Milik himself says (elsewhere) that the writing was in the personal, semicursive script; palaeographers agree that such script can not be dated with any precision, as can the formal script used in other parts of the Scrolls.

    The late Dr Thiering had always said that this serious error was regurgitated by many scholars ever since, and used as ‘evidence’ against her. “They really need to do their homework,” she said to me with a smile one day.

    Critics such as Professor John Strugnell (Department of Near Eastern Studies, Harvard University, in charge of research on the scrolls) said Dr Thiering can not possibly be right, because the relevant Dead Sea Scrolls were written some time before Jesus was born. “The Teacher of Righteousness…we don’t know his name, but he would seem to be a candidate for High Priest of Israel sometime between 155 and 150 BC. The Wicked Priest would probably be the successful one, the man who got himself elected as High Priest, either Jonathon or Simon.”

    Dr Thiering had claimed otherwise: “The original dating in 1950 by Milik set the date at 60BC – firm – without saying what kind of script it was. This was the fragment talking about the Teacher of Righteousness.

    “There are four kinds of script: two of them – known as bookhand – are equivalent to printing, very formal, and can be dated, with a plus or minus factor of 50 years. “But the cursive and semicursive scripts are basically handwriting, and can not be accurately dated. The fragment in question was semicursive.” Dr Thiering always claimed this basic error was being recycled in her critics’ arguments.

  • andrew2 says:

    An authority I refer to who discusses the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essenes is Bargil Pixner. He moved to Jerusalem after the six day war and remained in Israel until his death in 2002, living in the Dormition Abbey on Mt Zion teaching biblical typography and archeology at the Theological faculty of the Abbey. He places the Essenes at the heart of Jewish life with an Essene quarter with an Essene Gate in the South West of Jerusalem within the Second Wall and also outside the wall to the North East near the Sheep Pools. He seemed to have a very good relationship with Jewish scholars and I will be interested to see if he comes up in your series. I was lucky enough to pick up his book “Paths of the Messiah and sites of the Early Church from Galillee to Jerusalem” a couple of years ago. The book is out of print and seems hard to get a hold of today.

  • rosross says:

    Ancient Palestine has existed for more than 5,000 years according to the ancient Egyptians and many people and religions have spent time there. Little wonder it is a fascinating archaeological trove. Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans and no doubt more across thousands of years as well as countless tribal groups wandering in from distant parts of the region.

    Our human history is fascinating and it belongs to everyone wherever it may be found.

  • rosross says:

    The authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls actually remain unidentified and while there are various ‘claimants’ put forward by Christianity and Judaism, the fact is, the origins remain unknown.

    Not that it matters or should matter since all religions share common themes and of course common origins and all have been created through the ‘uplifting’ of teachings from earlier religions. There are many teachings in Christianity and Judaism which have clearly come from the ancient Egyptian religion of the Great Goddess Isis which is not surprising, given the neighbour connections. Many of the attributes for Jesus have come from the earlier God, Mithras, much loved by Roman soldiers and the attributes for Mary, the mother of Jesus, have been translated from Egyptian hieroglyphs almost word for word.

    All religions pinched things from others and no doubt, as the Catholics clearly attested in centuries past, it easier to lure new converts if you could find a place for this or that God or ‘saint.’ in the new lexicon. One presumes that would apply to all religions. And given the ancient nature of Egypt and other civilizations like the Sumerians, Assyrians, to name just a few of many, we can assume that all religious teachings come from a common human pool of wisdom brewed up with tribal politics.

    Humans and religions have more in common than that which may separate.

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