What the Dead Sea scrolls mean to the Christian faith
When this lost library was unearthed it gave rise to some fascinating — and disturbing—questions: would these 2,000-year-old writings contradict the Bible? Would they challenge or diminish the importance of Christ? Here, after ten years’ study, are some of the answers
By next year scholars and sightseers in Montreal may be admitted to part of the world’s oldest and most controversial sacred library, housed permanently in a hall that has been airconditioned. not for human comfort but because a special climate is needed to preserve these most fragile of books—the Dead Sea scrolls.
Canada’s share of the scrolls, which has been described with dramatic simplicity as “most of the contents of Qumran Cave IV,” was not acquired by so prosaic a means as purchase. Rather it was ransomed from Arab cave pirates for twenty thousand dollars put up by the John Henry Birks Foundation on behalf of McGill University.
The Dead Sea documents comprise about four hundred manuscripts in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic script, mostly written on leather squares sewn together to form scrolls a foot or less wide and ten to twenty feet long. Their condition ranges from almost perfect to little more than a crumble of fragments. They have been discovered, first in 1947 and continuing at unpredictable but electrifying intervals until a few weeks ago. in almost inaccessible caves on the rough barren western shore of the Dead Sea. As archaeologists and Biblical scholars reconstruct their dramatic
story, the scrolls were the two-thousand-ycar-old religious library and archives of the Essenes. a hitherto little-known religious movement of ancient Israel with headquarters on the shore of the Dead Sea. The majority of the scrolls arc copies of books of the Old Testament, handwritten with reed pens by Essenc scribes from still older copies of pre-Christian scripture.
The Old Testament is a collection of writings about the tribes of Israel and Judah, their political and religious history, their sacred songs, their laws and customs, the biographies and sayings of a number of their leaders and prophets. Scholars are in general agreement that there is no certainty as to who wrote the various books ot the Old Testament, although many of these are confidently labeled, such as the "Book of Samuel or the "Song of Solomon." It is thought that the books of the Old Testament were written by their authors, or in some cases compiled from word-ofmouth legends, over a span of about seven hundred and fifty years, beginning with the assembly of Genesis about 900 B.C. and ending with the Book of Daniel about 150 B.C . Some time after the last date—again there is no agreement on precisely when—the Jewish religious leaders selected twenty-four books as the "canon or fixed religious authority. The early C hristians accepted the Old Testament as the first part of their religious literature (dividing it into thirty-nine sec-
tions. however) and added the New 1 estament as the Christian fulfillment of the older faith.
From earliest times these scriptural works were "published" for use in temples, synagogues or by individuals by being hand-copied by scribes on sheets of leather, parchment or papyrus. Understandably. because they were in regular use and were of perishable material, the original manuscripts and subsequent copies for many generations did not survive, and none were known or believed to exist older than copies made in the ninth and tenth centuries A.D.—until the chance discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. 1 hese scrolls are for the most part books of the Old I estament, one or more copies each of the historic works
accepted by the Jewish religious leaders as their religious literature. They survived apparently because they were hidden and remained undisturbed for nearly two thousand years in one ol the world's driest climates.
At the time they were hidden some of the scrolls were as much as a century old; that is. they had been transcribed painstakingly a hundred years before by scribes copying from still older manuscripts. Others of the Dead Sea scrolls were so new at the time they were left in the cave they were still in process of being lettered by Fsscne scribes when the alarm was sounded at the approach of Roman legions in the fateful spring of 68 A.D. Thus some of the scrolls were the actual Old Testament books that the F.ssene priests daily read from the altars at a time when Jesus was preaching in the vicinity.
From an absorbing mystery has come a new light on Christ, a Bible revision and treasure hunt
The discovery of the Bible manuscripts dating back to Jesus' era, a thousand years older than any previously known, would of itself have been an event of incalculable importance to all scientists of religious knowledge; but the handlid of non-Biblical scrolls have proved in their own way to be even more significant contributions to man’s knowledge, since they are the lost archives of the Fssenes whose disappearance coincided so intriguingly with the establishment of Christianity -the rules and rituals ol a religion that many eminent students ot Bible history promptly declared bore striking resemblances to Christianity. This has been warmly attacked by some authorities as suggesting that Christian precepts, instead of being the original ideas of Jesus, were borrowed from another and oldei religious sect
T his was only one of the controversies launched by the scrolls.
The total find in the Dead Sea caves will provide the Bible scholars of the world and experts ol half a dozen sciences dealing with archaeology and the dating of writing and scroll leather with material for fascinating research and speculation for a century to come. Already. with less than fifteen percent of all the material published, the story of the Dead Sea scrolls reveals itself as an absorbing mystery tale composed of alluring clues leading to new facts and exciting probabilities and possibilities: an adventure story built of episodes no writer would dare assemble into a work of fiction. For who would accept an imaginary chronicle that ventured to include such things as these:
• A possible explanation (to the more boldly imaginative) of where and how Jesus spent the unknown years of His life between the ages of twelve and thirty.
• A probable explanation (to the more conservative savants) of the background of C hrist’s sponsor and teacher. John the Baptist.
• A revelation for the first time of the hitherto-unknown religious movement that some scholars declare prepared a spiritual climate for the birth of Christianity.
• An introduction of a new. yet abidingly mysterious major personality of pre-Christian Palestine, the "Teacher of Righteousness." founder and martyr of a religion with unique resemblance to Christianity.
• New light on Bible texts that has caused corrections to be rushed into the Revised Standard Version (most successful edition of the Bible since the .550-yearold King James Version) just before it went to press.
• The melodramatic coincidence that the scrolls, hidden in 68 A.D. during the war that destroyed Israel, returned to Jerusalem when Palestine once more was a battlefield as Israel rewon its nationhood after nineteen centuries. A monk who had custody of part of the scrolls was killed by shellfire and the monastery that housed them was partly destroyed.
• And. finally, the scrolls provide the
ultimate in gaudy improbabilities: a
treasure hunt now in fervent progress in the wilderness around Jerusalem, launched by a tantalizing message in one of
the scrolls listing great quantities of gold and silver buried for safety in locations named and described but no longer to be identified after twenty centuries of
T he first discovery of scrolls eight of themwas made in a cave by an Arab boy, Muhammad adh-Dhib, searching for a lost goat After assorted misadventures
once the Arabs nearly threw them away because they w'ere a nuisance to carry five of the scrolls were bought by Archbishop Athanasius Samuel of the Syrian Monastery of St. Mark in Jerusalem for an estimated one hundred and fifty dollars; the other three by Professor F I . Sukenik of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. I he archbishop received discouraging reports on the value of the scrolls from various scholars, and not until he showed his find to archaeologists at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem was fus hope that the documents were ancient and valuable confirmed. Dr. Millar Burrows, professor of Biblical theology at Yale University, then serving a term as director of the American School in Jerusalem, decided they were older than the C hristian era. T he school and the archbishop agreed to the photographing and publication of the scrolls for an equal share of any profits.
Now. for the first time since they had come to light nearly a year before, the scrolls were examined and identified by authorities. When Sukenik at about the same time started to publish major portions of his own scrolls the American School officials were able to catalogue Muhammad’s find in the cave of the goat as follows:
A complete book of Isaiah, worn and mended from constant use but in excellent condition: a second Isaiah, in poor condition. Some fragments of the Book
of Daniel completed the Biblical contents of the first cave.
The non-Biblical scrolls, some of which were to spark warm controversy among Bible scholars, included An (explanation of Habakkuk. When the title was first deciphered, the experts were elated, for Habakkuk has always been regarded as one of the most obscure of Bible books, and here w'as Habakkuk written out sentence by sentence, each followed by an explanation. But, instead of clarifying, the "explanations” presented the scholars with a new series of problems, including the identity of an interesting new character in Israel’s history. the Teacher of Righteousness—jo say nothing of his constant nemesis, a villain known variously as the Man of the l ie or the Wicked Priest.
As an example of the "explanations” the document quotes this passage from Habakkuk: "Wherefore lookest thou
upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devourcth the man that is more righteous than he?” Then the manuscript comments: "This means the House of
Absalom and the men of their party, who kept silence at tfie chastisement of the Teacher of Righteousness, and did not help against the Man of the Fie. who rejected the l aw in the midst of their whole congregation.”
Millar Burrows’ comment on this passage typifies much of the problem presented by the non-Biblical scrolls: "If we can tell w'ho the House of Absalom, the Teacher of Righteousness and the Man of the Fie were, and what was the event referred to here, we shall know something definite about the history of the religious community in which this commentary was written.”
Another scroll in nearly perfect condi-
tion was The War of the Sons of l ight with the. Sons of Darkness, which one scholar described as “a curious production which prescribes rules for warfare conducted more like a priestly ritual than a military operation.” Still another scroll is a collection of psalms, written after those in the Bible but in much the same tone and judged to be only a degree less majestic and inspired than the lyrics attributed to David. Yet another scroll was so firmly stuck together that it was opened only recently. (It turned out to be a fanciful, non-sacred rewritten version of Cienesis. For example, where the Bible merely states that Sarah was "a fair woman." this manuscript launches into a detailed description of her many charms.)
But the most discussed and most controversial of the scrolls was to be a manuscript with its title page missing. Burrows gave it a title that has stuck: the Manual of Discipline. He explained that "noting the combination of liturgical directions with rules concerning procedure in the meetings of the group and the personal conduct of the members. I was reminded of the manual of discipline of the Methodist Church.” Presently many another Bible scholar was to find even more detailed and deeper resemblance between the writings in the scrolls and C hristian doctrine, and to argue over the possibility of F.ssene influence on Christian rituals. But at that time only a small handful of scientific minds even knew' of the existence of the scrolls.
I he first spectacular result of the discovery of the scrolls, in fact, was to bring about changes in a new edition of the Bible the Revised Standard Version, most popular volume of the Scriptures since the King James Version. These changes were possible because Dr. Burrows. returning from the American School of Orientai Research at Jerusalem in the summer of 1948 to take part in the deliberations of the Old Testament revision committee a t Northfield. Mass., compiled during the voyage a list of differences between the Isaiah scroll from the Dead Sea cave and the traditional Hebrew' text from which the King James Bible is largely translated. No fewer than thirteen changes were accepted by the committee. These changes are noted as originating in "one ancient Ms." in the margin next to each change. The "ancient Ms.” is the Dead Sea Isaiah.
The most familiar of the changed passages occurs in the twenty-first chapter of Isaiah, where the sudden and illogical appearancof a lion lias long intrigued younger Bible readers and puzzled adults (including the experts). I he passage relates that "the Ford said unto me, Cio. set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.
"And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels: and he hearkened diligently w'ith much heed:
"And he cried. A lion . . .”
Juvenile readers were always excited by the arrival of a lion in the midst of the horsemen, asses and camels, and looked forward to some brisk carnage. But the incident petered out. the lion never reappeared in the narrative. It turned out on reading the Isaiah from the cave that the characters traditionally translated as “a lion” simply meant "he who saw.” In the Revised Standard Version, therefore, the passage makes good sense for the first time in modern Bibles—but the suspense has vanished.
In Isaiah’s third chapter, containing a memorably eloquent warning to women of the dire penalties of pride, a key word has always been missing from the traditional Hebrew text of the twenty-fourth verse. In the King James Version this reads:
“And it shall come to pass that instead of sweet smell there shall be stink; and instead of a girdle a rent; and instead of well set hair baldness; and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth; and burning instead of beauty.’’
But the King James translators simply guessed that “burning” was the alternate to beauty. I he word had somehow dropped out of the Hebrew text. Now the Dead Sea Isaiah supplies it. It is “shame.”
A third example; the traditional Isaiah states “He hath broken the covenant, he hath despised the cities.” The Dead Sea scroll of Isaiah substitutes a more logical final word: "he hath despised the witnesses.”
While it is of outstanding interest to find old Bible manuscripts that correct the scripture on which thirty generations of C hristians and Jews have been nurtured, the astonishing fact is that the corrections needed after a thousand years are comparatively trivial. The rest of the thirteen changes made in Isaiah by the revision committee are even more technical and, from the layman's viewpoint, minor. Scholars have been more struck by the remarkable preservation of ancient versions of the Old Testament by scribes copying them generation after generation in a script that was already obsolete two thousand years ago, than by a few differences in detail that have been noted.
"An incredible find”
Interest in the changes of Bible text suggested by the Isaiah scroll, however, was mild compared with the controversy immediately stirred up when scholars of half a dozen nations had their first look at the scroll material and offered thenassorted opinions. Dr. William Albright. Johns Hopkins professor of Semitic languages, looked at a collection of small photoprints of the scrolls through a strong magnifying glass and promptly cabled the American School in Jerusalem;
“Heartiest congratulations on the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times ... No doubt script is more archaic than Nash Papyrus ... I date it around 100 B.C. . . . What an absolutely incredible find!”
An equally eminent scholar. Professor Solomon Zeitlin, of Dropsie College. Philadelphia, equally promptly declared the scrolls “worthless” and suggested they had been planted in the cave by the Arabs who found them. Zeitlin has stuck to this belief, although the great majority of scholars now accept the dating of the scrolls to the first centuries B.C. and A.D., especially since atomic science has been used, via the Carbon-14 test, to give the cloths in which the scrolls were wrapped a date of 33 A.D.. give or take two hundred years. The Carbon-14 test is based on the constantly diminishing output of radioactive carbon by every organic substance from the moment it ceases to be living matter.
But when the scholars delved into the contents and meaning of the scrolls— particularly the non-Scriptural scrolls with their tantalizing undertones of Christianity — the controversy became widespread (during the next five years some two hundred experts were to write nearly a thousand books and scientific papers on the scrolls in a dozen languages).
1 he first of the sensational theorists was Professor J. L. Teicher, of Cambridge University, who contended that the scrolls did not merely resemble Christian documents, but actually were Christian documents, and the men who left the scrolls in the caves were a sect of early Christians, the Ebionites. The story of the Ebionites is one of the strangest and most tragic chapters in the history of Christianity. During the forty years after the crucifixion of Jesus, Christian communities were being established in many centres of the Roman-dominated world—Athens, f orinth. Antioch, Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica and Rome itself, in addition to the mother church in Jerusalem. The converts in these places were chiefly Gentiles, while the Christians of Jerusalem were largely Jews who (like Jesus) adhered to Jewish law and ritual.
But Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles, found it difficult to make converts who must believe not only in the Messiahship of Jesus but must practice the alien rituals of Judaism. It was Paul who finally declared boldly that Jewish religious law was outmoded and that the faithful followers of Christ need no longer be bound by it. I he Christian community of Jerusalem, which followed Matthew’s recollection of the orders of Jesus to His disciples, “Go not into the way of the Gentiles . . . but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” thus found itself at odds with the expanding Christian church in foreign lands. Then, in 70 A.D.. the Romans put down a Jewish revolt in Palestine, sacked Jerusalem and, some historians have it, drove the mother church of Christianity into exile at Pella across the Jordan. Away from the main stream of spiritual currents, the Ebionites, or "Poor Ones” as the Jewish Christians now called themselves, ceased to be an influence in the rapidly growing church, which was becoming more and more Gentile in membership. But the sect survived hundreds of years, and in the fourth century St. Jerome spoke of them thus:
"What shall we say of the Ebionites, who pass themselves off as Christians? Still in our day in all the synagogues of the East they form a separate sect among the Jews; it is they who are called Nazarenes, who believe in Christ born from the Virgin Mary, but who by wishing to be both Jews and Christians are neither one nor the other.”
Teicher, of Cambridge University, maintained that the Teacher of Righteousness in the scrolls was none other than Jesus, while his opponent, "the wicked priest,” was Paul, who led Christianity away from the Jews and made it an universal religion.
At the time the Ebionites tied Jerusalem a much larger Jewish sect was driven not only into exile but into oblivion. These were the Essenes. I he first mention of Essenes in connection with the Dead Sea scrolls was made by Millar Burrows who suggested as early as April 1948 that the non-Biblical scrolls were the archives “of some comparatively little-known sect or monastic order, possibly the Essenes.”
At that time Bible historians knew little enough about the Essenes. Early historians described them as honest, Godfearing men who lived a strictly ordered life, shared their belongings and possessed "a zeal for virtue.” 'The four thousand members shunned cities as corrupt, but maintained communities in towns and villages and traveled about with no baggage, knowing they would receive all they needed from fellow Essenes.
It was a casual mention of the Essenes in a description of the Dead Sea by the Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, that provided a clue, two thousand years later, to the long-buried headquarters of Esse* nism. Pliny described the Essenes as living "on the western shore of the Dead Sea.” But he added a statement that made the whole passage seem fanciful. The Essenes, he wrote, dwelt amid palm trees. On that bitter shore no palm tree now grew or seemed likely ever to have grown.
But Dr. André Dupont-Sommer, professor of Semitic languages at the Sorbonne in Paris and director of studies at the French School of Advanced Studies, declared without qualification that the scrolls were the library of the Essenes; that the Teacher of Righteousness and his followers were the forerunners of, and the inspiration for, Jesus and Christianity.
Everything in the non-Scriptural scrolls, Dupont-Sommer insisted, "heralds and prepares the way for the Christian New Covenant. Ehe Galilean Master, as He is presented to us in the New Testament, appears in many respects as an astonishing reincarnation of the Teacher of Righteousness. Like the latter, He preached penitence, poverty, humility, love of one’s neighbor. Like him, He prescribed the observance of the Law of Moses, but the Law perfected thanks to His own revelations. Like him. He was the Messiah of God. the redeemer of the world. Like him. He was the object of the hostility of the priests. Like him. He was condemned and put to death. Like him, He pronounced judgment on Jerusalem, which was taken and destroyed by the Romans for having put Him to death. L.ike him. at the end of time. He will be the supreme judge. Like him. He founded a Church whose adherents fervently awaited His glorious return. In the Christian Church, just as in the Essene Church, the essential rite is the sacred meal, whose ministers are the priests. In both rites at the head of each community there is the overseer, the ‘bishop.’ And the ideal of both Churches is essentially that of unity, community in love—even going to the extent of sharing property in common.
“These similarities constitute a very impressive whole. The question at once arises—to which of the two sects does the priority belong? Which of the two was able to influence the other? The reply leaves no room for doubt. The Teacher of Righteousness died somewhere between 65 and 53 B.C.; Jesus the Nazarene died about 30 A.D. In every case where the resemblance compels us to think of a borrowing, this was on the part of Christianity.”
The reaction of Dupont-Sommer’s hearers, many of them ministers of various denominations, was one of shock. One of the audience described the speaker’s theories as “hot,” and another reported his words "caused a sensation." If DupontSommer’s contention was right, pointed out one colleague, then "the uniqueness of Christ was at stake.” The implication was that the divinity of Jesus was under attack, the originality of His doctrines in doubt. For why should a divine being deputed by God to save the world have to borrow ideas and ritual from an obscure sect?
In Paris, booksellers pushed sales of pamphlets setting out Dupont-Sommer’s theories by assuring customers that the Vatican was trying to suppress the scrolls. One unnamed layman was quoted as suggesting that Christianity would do well to combine forces and raise a sum large enough to buy the scrolls, "then burn them and forget them.” Later a British scholar, John Allegro, went even deeper: he claimed to detect in the scrolls the suggestion that the Teacher of Righteousness had been crucified. And the most widely circulated accounts of the scrolls and their significance, by the American writer Edmund Wilson, followed closely
the theories of Dupont-Sommer.
Apparent heresies such as these might well, a century or two ago, have called for drastic defenses from organized religion; but in the middle of the twentieth century most clerical thinkers contemplated the scrolls’ "threat" to Christianity with calm. In the first place the Vatican not only helped ransom scrolls from Arab cave searchers, but offered space in its libraries to a share of the documents (the Vatican will receive slightly fewer of the scrolls than McGill University and rather more than other major contribu-
tors, Bonn-Heidelberg University, the University of Manchester, the Bibliothèque National of Paris and the McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago). Later, the Vatican issued an official statement that said in substance: "Roman Catholics need not fear the scrolls.” Wilson, prepared for severe attacks from indignant Christians when he published his book, stated a year later: “It seemed to me that the discovery of these pre-Christian documents of a doctrine and a monastic discipline very similar to those of Christianity, as well as of a
Teacher of Righteousness who seemed in some ways to anticipate Jesus—and the finding of these documents in a corner of the world where John the Baptist began his ministry and to which Jesus came to be baptized—might present an embarrassing problem to any theology based on the dogma that Jesus was the Son of God. a unique and supernatural figure . . . The scrolls have proved not to be disturbing to the clergy of so many churches or to so many people in any church as 1 had thought they were likely to be.”
The reason for the lack of panic by religious philosophers might be explained by the comment of a Roman Catholic and a Protestant scholar on the subject. Father Geoffrey Graystone, an English Roman Catholic theologian, had this to say: “Resemblances between the New Testament and the Qumran writings should not surprise us. It is only to be expected that there will be certain likenesses between two such organized religious bodies, both seeking the true God and striving to be perfect, each in its own way. Both owed much to the OUI Testament and drew upon it as a common source . . . The revelation of the New Testament was not, so to speak, built up on a vacuum. The Almighty did not make use ol a new language, a language from heaven, to convey the mysteries of the ( hrist ian faith. Christ said truly, T am not come to destroy the l.aw and the Prophets, but to fulfill.’ ”
And Frank M. C ross, a Presbyterian and professor of the Old Testament at the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, one of the most respected of the scroll scholars, put the matter of the divinity of Jesus even more liberally: “What bearing do parallels to Jesus’ teaching and life have on the Christian faith? Do they challenge the uniqueness of Jesus? It must be said at once that uniqueness is not a historical category . . . the uniqueness of Jesus is a theological assertion, not a historical claim. Few Christians would deny that Jesus was determined by His historical environment ...Evidently He spoke the language of Palestine, shared the world view of LJis people and time, held common historical, religious and scientific assumptions, some of them palpably false. Moreover in His own claims He insisted on the unity of His teaching with that of His past; His work was fulfillment, not innovation.”
For the first three years of what Millar Burrows calls “the battle of the scrolls” the Bible scholars had only the Arab boy’s original find of eight manuscripts as material for study and conjecture. But in 1950 Father Roland de Vaux, a lean bearded priest-archæologist who headed the Ecole Biblique in Jordanese Jerusalem, an institute of archaeological research operated by the Dominican Order, attended a convention of Bible savants in Copenhagen. There he disclosed to his colleagues from a dozen nations that more scrolls had been found.
Arab cave searchers had come to him, offering new-found manuscripts at a price the Ecole Biblique could not afford. Unhappily, the ancient parchments were being handled by unskilled hands, and most of them were in tragic fragments. In short, money was needed, and as quickly as possible, to buy the scrolls the Arabs were holding for ransom, and also to organize scientifically supervised exploration of other caves in the area before they could be despoiled.
In return the priest was authorized to offer a unique bargain. Those who financed recovery of the scrolls would be given the manuscripts — after they had been pieced together, studied, and mounted between glass plates to be photographed for publication.
Among those who listened to this exciting proposition in Copenhagen was Professor R. B. Y. Scott, a Toronto-born United Church minister then on the staff of McGill and of the United Theological College. Dr. Scott returned to Montreal dedicated to a mission—to find some person or organization willing to put up the fifteen thousand dollars or so required to bring a priceless treasure to Montreal. He finally came in contact with the trustees of the John Henry Birks Foundation, named for the founder of the Canadian jewelrystore chain. They agreed to finance the
project. In return for fifteen thousand dollars (plus five thousand extra granted when an opportunity arose to buy an unexpected find from a roving band of Arabs) McGill University will receive a substantial part of a two-thousand-yearold sacred library containing manuscripts older than any previously known.
I he reason for the delay in delivery of the scrolls to McGill is that what the Arabs turned over to Father de Vaux were no longer the scrolls in their original form. Instead they were a baflling and heartbreaking mass of hundreds of fragments, a few large pieces containing as much as a whole OUI Testament chapter, but many no larger than a man’s hand or thumbnail, bearing only a few lines, a few words, a single word.
Painstakingly, a team of technicians and international Bible scholars has been working on this precious jumble of fragments laid out on long tables in the Palestine Museum of Jordan, cleaning and softening the pieces, then sorting and arranging them into their original form like a vast sacred jigsaw puzzle. As the words of Isaiah and Daniel, Abraham and Moses return to life, the restored manuscripts are sealed between plates of glass, page by page. In this form they will be reproduced for publication — eagerly awaited by the world’s Bible scholars — and in this form they will come to Montreal, some eighty glass “sandwiches” containing all that the experts have been able to reconstruct of one set of the Old T estament (with one puzzling exception: Esther has not been found among all the Dead Sea scrolls). In this form the glass plaques will become the John Henry Birks Collection.
Report from a fiery furnace
Not long after he completed arrangements for the acquisition of the scrolls. Dr. Scott was offered and accepted a professorship in the Department of Religion at Princeton University. “The scrolls,” he says, “almost made me decide to stay in Canada.” He spent the past summer’s vacation, however, commuting from his cottage on Eake Memphremagog to Montreal to discuss with McGill officials such questions as how and where the scroll pieces will be displayed, how they can best be made available to students and researchers, and what form of air conditioning will best preserve leather and ink that have survived two thousand years of parching desert dryness.
Meanwhile Scott receives occasional progress reports of the work of restoring the Cave IV scrolls, and to date the prize of the collection appears to be a considerable section of a beautifully scripted manuscript of that eventful Old Testament saga, the Book of Daniel. What makes this manuscript particularly valuable is that experts think it was probably transcribed within one hundred years after the original was written, which would make it closest to the original of any Bible writings in existence.
Daniel is the Bible book that tells how that redoubtable trio, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego were miraculously saved from the fiery furnace of King Nebuchadnezzar, the despot who went mad and. as Daniel predicted, ate grass with the beasts of the fields. The book also relates how Daniel interpreted for Nebuchadnezzar's successor, Belshazzar, “the handwriting on the wall” — Mene, Mene, Tekel. Upharsin. Finally, it is the book that records how Daniel was sentenced to be cast into the lions' den for secretly praying toward his homeland of Jerusalem, but was saved when God sent an angel to “shut the lions’ mouths.”
With the money subscribed by Cana-
dians and others, Father de Vaux and his colleague, Lankester Harding, head of Jordan's Department of Antiquities, were able not only to buy scroll fragments found by Arabs, but better still to organize searches of the seemingly numberless caves in the Dead Sea area. They searched and sifted no fewer than two hundred and sixty-seven: in thirty-seven they found evidence of ancient occupation or hasty visits — in some, pottery jars identical with those in which the original find of scrolls had been made; in others, scrolls—scrolls in tens of thousands of fragments, scrolls in fair condition, scrolls that, unprotected by jars and by tender handling, were literally dust. And alone in one cave they found a strange copper scroll, broken in two.
By the time de Vaux and Harding had sifted through every cave they had accumulated fragments of copies of all but one of the books of the Old Testament; in many cases two or more copies. These are the precious fragments that are now being treated, cleaned, pieced together by a dozen volunteer experts at the Palestine Museum, and part of which will come to Canada in a year or two.
When all the caves that could be found were thoroughly explored, de Vaux turned his thoughts to a small, barely visible ruined wall within sight of some of the caves, and to the due of Pliny’s fanciful description of Essenes living beside the Dead Sea amid palms. Explorers and archaeologists had been giving the small ruin by the Wadi Qumran (the Arab name for the place. Khirbct Qumran, means the Qumran ruin), passing interest for at least a hundred years. In 1X51 a French explorer suggested it was the remains of Gomorrah, the sinful city by the Dead Sea that the Lord destroyed along with Sodom, by a rain of fire and brimstone (lleeing from which, lot’s wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt). In 1X73 the noted French archaeologist. Clermont-Ganneau, discoverer of the famed "Moabite stone” which provided new knowledge of ancient Israel and Judah of 900 B.C., nearly added this Essene headquarters to his discoveries, but decided that the ruins were "insignificant.”
Now, eight years later, de Vaux set about the systematic excavation of the ancient ruin. The low wall that barely showed above the surface proved to be the remains of a tower. The main structure was a great rectangular enclosure of stone blocks, plastered inside. Plainly visible was the mold left by a tree trunk that served as a central support — the trunk of one of Pliny’s palm trees.
Careful excavation disclosed a complex establishment of rooms, passages, stone baths for ritual bathing, a kitchen, a storeroom with a thousand pieces of tableware. a great hall for ritual dining and worship. Most significant were two finds: first, an intact earthenware jar identical with those in which scrolls had been found in the caves; second, a room with long tables that obviously was a scriptorium or workroom of the scribes who lettered those scrolls. Three earthenware inkwells were found, one containing dried ink. In the scriptorium too were plaster basins where the scribes washed their hands before and after writing the sacred name of God.
There could now be little doubt of what had existed — and what had occurred — on the shores of the Dead Sea two thousand years ago. For a century or more before the Christian era a large religious community, evidently the headquarters of a larger movement, had operated at Qumran. Several hundred devotees, who slept in caves and tents but ate communal meals and carried out their religious rites within the walls, inhabited the place. They worked communally, too» not only at writing scrolls but at ironmongery, pottery and even perhaps a little gardening in soil then less inhospitable than today.
Coins found in crevices of the stone floors indicate that the buildings at Qumran were occupied until 68 A.D., the year the Roman legions passed that way on the march to besiege Jerusalem. There is stark evidence too of attack and precipitate flight — breached walls, burned roofing and woodwork, and Roman arrowheads. Above all, there is the evidence, found first in the neighboring caves, of what they did with their great library.
Almost all experts now agree that the Essenes operated a large religious community at Qumran during the life of Jesus. A few bolder and more imaginative souls, looking at a map that shows Qumran to be only a few miles from such familiar places in the life of Jesus as Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Jericho, have suggested the possibility that the unknown years in the life of the Son of Man, from the age of twelve until about thirty, were spent as a member of the Essene community at Qumran.
It is a fascinating possibility because, instead of leaving a blank of eighteen years in the short life of the man who made our culture and civilization possible, it would provide an almost hourby-hour knowledge of how He spent his religious apprenticeship. The trouble with this theory, in the eyes of the vast majority of experts, is that it almost certainly is not true. A considerable body of opinion, though, concedes that Essenism might have influenced Christianity via John the Baptist, who very likely knew the Essene doctrine and may even have been a member of the community.
Such questions form the substance of discussion and research for years to come. But there are some more immediate questions still to be answered by students of the Dead Sea scrolls. For example:
Why is the Book of Esther the only Old Testament book not represented in the scrolls or fragments? Some experts believe it might indicate that Esther was
the last book of the Old Testament to be accepted by the elders of Judaism; or that the story, which does not mention God, was regarded as too worldly by the Essenes.
Why did the Essene library contain so many books? Prof. Scott believes that in addition to copying scrolls for their own use, the Essene community may have been an early “publishing house,“ earning part of the community’s income by writing and copying scrolls for other Jewish communities.
Still another question Bible students hope will be answered when the fragmentary Old Testament books are reassembled is this: what is the meaning of that passage many regard as the most bafflingly obscure in the Bible — 11 Samuel 5:8? Describing David’s attack on Jerusalem, the verse states:
“And David said on that day, Whosoever getteth up to the gutter, and smiteth the Jebusites, and the lame and the blind, that are hated of David's soul, he shall be chief and captain. Wherefore they said. The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”
Finally, there is the mystery of the metal scroll found in two pieces in one cave. It was so corroded that it could not be unrolled, and finally it had to be cut apart, a line at a time, and reassembled in narrow strips. The story it unfolded was perhaps the most puzzling of all in the scrolls, for it told of a great treasure in “gold, silver and frankincense” presumably hidden somewhere in the wilderness.
The message of the metal scroll has started a frenzied treasure hunt in the Judean wilderness by bands of Arabs. “We went to great lengths to assure the Arabs that we were only looking for scrolls and that no treasure was involved,” said one of the archaeologists on the scene, “but they seemed to suspect that we were trying to deceive them — and now this buried treasure story has to turn up. Oh well, the treasure hunt may turn up some hidden cave with real treasure — more Dead Sea scrolls.” ★