They branded their archrival, a Jewish religious leader in Jerusalem, as the “wicked priest,” and they followed a leader called the “teacher of righteousness” to the stark desert wilderness around the Dead sea. For more than two centuries, from about 140 BC until about AD 70, members of a Jewish sect, frequently identified as the Essenes, lived in isolation, and waited for a messiah to arrive.
They believed the messiah would crush the religious leaders in Jerusalem and rid the world of evil. Although their community eventually fell apart for reasons that are not clear to historians, the group left behind 800 manuscripts, fragments of which were found in caves at Qumran, near the Dead sea, between 1947 and 1956. Over the years, the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls have begun to revolutionize the study of Judaism and early Christianity. In a forthcoming book based on the scrolls, James Charlesworth, a professor of New Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, argues that both Jesus and the Essenes opposed the Jerusalem-based religious authorities, and that Jesus was a Jewish reformer who never intended to form a new religion. “But he caused a tremendous upheaval,” concludes Charlesworth, “and he paid for it with a horrible death at the hands of the Romans.”
As well as adding to scholars’ knowledge of biblical times, the scrolls have generated bitter professional and legal disputes among rival groups of experts practically since the time of their discovery. Among current skirmishes, Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Elisha Qimron of Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is suing the Washington-based Biblical Archeology Society for more than $250,000 in a copyright dispute involving one of the scrolls. And last week, a group of scholars issued a statement criticizing a recently published scholarly work entitled The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, and subtitled “the first complete translation and interpretation of 50 key documents withheld for over 35 years.” The statement accused co-authors Robert Eisenman of California State University at Long Beach and Michael Wise of the University of
Chicago of several serious breaches of “professional ethics and integrity,” because they had allegedly used other people’s work without giving proper credit to their fellow scholars.
Access: The scrolls have also been at the heart of a long and bitter controversy between scholars who have had access to the documents and others who have been unable to gain access. Because most of the scrolls were discovered on Jordanian territory, the Jordanian government initially controlled them. But authority over the scrolls shifted when Israel’s victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war put East Jerusalem, where most of the scrolls were kept, under Israeli control. Israel subsequently adopted the Jordanian government’s arrangements, which allowed a small group of chosen scholars to prepare the scrolls for publication.
Members of the elite group sorted and assembled the thousands of scroll fragments, translating them from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and writing commentaries.
By the late 1970s, scholars who were not part of the project began objecting to what they viewed as the excruciatingly slow pace of publication. In 1977, Geza Vermes, a scholar at England’s Oxford University, denounced the slowness of publication as “the academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century.” The Israeli Antiquities Authority, which has ultimate control over the scrolls, eventually responded to the criticism by enlarging the editorial team and setting more rigorous deadlines for publication. Finally, with half of the scrolls still unpublished, the Huntington Library, a privately funded research facility in San Mari-
no, Calif., broke what the excluded scholars viewed as the monopoly of official scrolls scholars. In 1980, Elizabeth Bechtel, an American philanthropist, had arranged to have the scrolls photographed and 3,000 photographic negatives were deposited in a vault in the Huntington Library as a precaution against possible loss or damage to the actual documents. In September, 1991, officials of the library announced that any qualified scholar could have full access to its collection of photographs.
Most scholars say that the scrolls contain an enormous amount of new information about the early Christian era and pre-Christian Judaism. Charlesworth, whose book Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls will be published in February by New York Citybased Bantam Doubleday/Dell Publishing Group Inc., said that until the discovery of the scrolls, most scholars believed that the founding of Christianity represented a sharp break from Judaism. “Jewish, Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars now agree that Judaism and Christianity were largely indistinguishable in the first century AD,” he added.
According to Charlesworth, the scrolls do not contain any evidence to indicate that Jesus had I any contact with the Essenes, although they i held similar beliefs. Still, 8 Charlesworth says that he is convinced that the g Essenes directly influ| enced the religion that = sprang up in the name of Jesus after his crucifixion. “It seems highly likely that after AD 70 some of the people who belonged to the group that gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls became Christians,” he said. “The Essenes were among the most brilliant scholars of antiquity and they had a tremendous influence on Christian writing.”
Other scholars claim that there are numerous parallels between the beliefs of the early Christians and those of the Qumran sect, as they are revealed in the scrolls. James Tabor, an associate professor of ancient Judaism and early Christianity at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, N.C., says that both Jesus and the sect practised baptism as a means of ritual cleansing. As well, Jesus and the Dead sea group opposed divorce, whereas most Jews tolerate divorce under certain circumstances. The Jesus portrayed in the Gospels practised celibacy, while the Dead sea group advocated
celibacy, Tabor said. But celibacy was rare among other Jews at the time.
One of the most radical interpretations of scroll material emerges in the controversial new book by Eisenman and Wise. Eisenman says that he does not think that there are any references to Jesus in the scrolls, but he believes that some of the scrolls likely were composed during the time of Jesus or shortly after his death. He maintains that by studying the scrolls, scholars can develop a rough image
of Jesus because he and the Qumran sect held similar messianic beliefs. Eisenman says that the sect was an aggressive one that was preparing for a final, apocalyptic war against the forces of evil. He refers to a document they wrote, called the War Scroll, as a blueprint for a battle between forces identified as the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, who respectively represented good and evil. “These were the beliefs of the messianic movement in Palestine, and Jesus would have had the same mindset,” argues Eisenman.
Conflict: Eisenman also says that the scrolls provide a glimpse of a conflict within the Jewish movement that evolved into Christianity. In The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, Eisenman puts forward the theory that two religious antagonists, referred to in some of the scrolls as the “liar” and the “righteous teacher,” may actually be St. Paul and James, a Jewish reli-
gious official who may have been the brother of Jesus. The theory, first propounded by Eisenman, was outlined in The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, a book written by two journalists and published last year. Eisenman contends that James and a small group of Jews were attempting to preserve and perpetuate the messianic movement prevalent in Palestine at the time. But they faced a challenge from Paul, who was denounced by the Jewish followers of Jesus as a liar because he had devised his own view of what direction the movement should take.
Almost immediately after their book appeared in November, Eisenman and Wise encountered a storm of protest from other scrolls scholars. Tabor said that, while he supports some of Eisenman’s theories, he also believes that the descriptions of the wicked priest and the righteous teacher in the scrolls are too scanty to provide any basis for identification. For his part, Lawrence Schiffman, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, said that most experts believe that the two scrolls figures lived around the time that the Qumran Jews fled Jerusalem for the Dead sea wilderness—about
150 years before the time of Jesus.
Tests of some of the scrolls in which È? the wicked priest and his rival appear ¿ have indicated that the documents 9 were written some time during the
first century BC. At the request of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, a laboratory in Switzerland submitted eight of the scrolls to carbon-14 tests, which determine the approximate age of an object based on carbon content, in 1990. But Eisenman maintains that the tests were “not sufficiently rigorous” to disprove his theory.
Critics of the new book saved their most vociferous attacks for the authors’ claim to be offering “the first complete translation and interpretaá tion of 50 key documents.” In the ^ statement released last week, 19 scholars, including Emanuel Tov, editor-inchief of the official Israeli-backed Dead Sea Scrolls publication project, declared that almost 75 per cent of the 50 key documents had already been published. The statement also said that some of the claims made by Eisenman and Wise were “laughable and manifestly false,” while others were “blatantly unethical and unbecoming to academic scholars.” Declared Eisenman: “We got our interpretations out first and that infuriates them. They’re an academic curia that promotes its friends and bludgeons its enemies. They're frightened to death of anything that threatens their tenure.” Forty-five years after their discovery and more than 2,000 years after they were written, the Dead Sea Scrolls are still arousing both scholarly curiosity and cold fury.
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