The Dead Sea Scrolls and their Impact

The story of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 is widely known though its full details are probably lost for ever. It is a complex tale with many actors great and small from several countries, but the following bare facts will serve our purpose. Qumran is an ancient settlement containing a large number of ruins near the northwest coast of the Dead Sea. It lies in what is now the state of Israel, but in 1947, when the first scrolls came to light, it was part of the British mandated territory of Palestine. It was a relatively primitive, undeveloped area at the time, and almost the only people who knew their way about in that desert wilderness were the Bedouin.

According to generally accepted accounts, a Bedouin youth by the name of Muhammad adh-Dhib found the Scrolls secreted in several large jars in some of the caves that are part of the Qumran ruins. The Scrolls are manuscripts of texts in Aramaic and Hebrew written on parchment and papyrus. After that first discovery, many more have been found in the region of Qumran. Some of the most important later discoveries come from the caves of Wadi Murabbat some ten miles to the south of Qumran. These relate to early second century to the period of the Jewish rebellion of AD 132-5 led by Simeon bar Kochba. For this reason, the Scrolls and other finds are often referred to as Qumran texts.

Most of these manuscripts were created during a period from about 150 BC to perhaps AD 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the First Jewish War. Thus they encompass the period of early Christianity upon which they shed a great deal of light. They show that the authors of the New Testament - of the four Gospels in particular - have borrowed heavily from the Qumran texts. Their borrowings include both the subject matter of the Gospels as well as their language, imagery and style. In fact, many features that we now regard as being unique to the Gospels - like the Davidic Messiah as the Son of God, and the persecution and killing of such a messianic teacher - are found in Qumran documents dating to at least a century before the birth of Christ. A close study of these texts raises basic questions about both the uniqueness and the originality of Christianity.

This seriously undermines the Church's position on its origins, history and message - in fact the whole foundation of Christianity. This has led to turmoil in Biblical circles; it has also resulted in a systematic and persistent effort by the Vatican and its Catholic institutions to suppress the findings of the Scrolls giving rise to what is being called the 'scandal of the Scrolls'. This is of course one of the main stories of the present book.

After many vicissitudes, nearly all the Scrolls ended up in the Dominican supported institution in Jerusalem known as Ecole Biblique et Archaeologique Francaise de Jerusalem (Biblical and Archaeological School of France in Jerusalem). For nearly twenty-five years, from 1947 until his death in 1971, the Ecole Biblique was under the iron grip of its director Father Roland de Vaux - a monk belonging to the Dominican order. All told, for more than forty years, the Ecole Biblique under de Vaux and his successors exercised dictatorial control over access to the Scrolls. They never allowed anyone other than those fully committed to the orthodox Catholic view to see the Scrolls.5 During this period, almost everything the public and even the scholarly world knew about the Scrolls was what the scholars of the Ecole Biblique -led by Father de Vaux - were prepared to tell them.

Also, as we shall see in a later chapter, he and his institution were (and still are) secretly under the control of the Pontifical Biblical Commission - a Vatican office having final say over all doctrinal matters. As a result, what on the surface appeared to be a scholarly research institution devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, was in reality a Church controlled institution committed to the preservation and propagation of Christian beliefs.

This was seen to be in violation of the terms under which the scholars of the Ecole Biblique - known as the International Team - had been given custody of the Scrolls. They were expected to make available edited copies with translations of all the Scroll materials in their possession. But by adopting various stratagems the International Team led by Father de Vaux and his successors managed to drag its feet for more than forty years. Their behavior was seen as nothing less than scandalous by Biblical scholars the world over. Writing in 1977, Geza Vermes, a leading Biblical scholar from Oxford, summed up their frustration in the following words:6

On this thirtieth anniversary of their first coming to light the world is entitled to ask the authorities responsible for the publication of the Qumran scrolls... what they intend to do about this lamentable state of affairs. For

5 There was just one slip up - John Marco Allegro - an English agnostic who was to cause the Church and the Ecole Biblique endless headaches, as we shall see later on in the book.

6 G. Vermes. The Dead Sea Scroll: Qumran in Perspective, London, William Collins, t 977. pp. 23-24.

unless drastic measures are taken at once, the greatest and the most valuable of all Hebrew and Aramaic manuscript discoveries is likely to become the academic scandal par excellence of the twentieth century .

More recently, Eisenman and Wise had this to say about one of the more important texts that had remained suppressed for more than forty years.

To have a text like this Paen [for King Jonathan, Alexander Jannaeus], introduced by a dedicatory invocation or panegyric to him... is an historical treasure of high magnitude for the study of the Scrolls. ... The fact that it was buried for so long, with the consequence that much of the debate concerning the state of affairs it addresses was misguided and misinformed, cannot be considered anything but reprehensible. (p. 274)

While many excuses continued to be offered for this unforgivable delay, the real reason was that in the Scrolls the members of the International Team had come upon material from the period of early Christianity that struck at the very foundations of Christian doctrine. It was a classic case of conflict between faith and scholarship, and, as official members of the Church whose doctrines they were sworn to uphold, the International Team led by Father de Vaux chose doctrine over scholarship. For what the members of the Team held in their hands was the doctrinal equivalent of dynamite.

Few, including even educated Christians, have any idea of the potentially explosive impact of the Scrolls and their contents on the foundations of Christian belief - especially the position of the Catholic Church. Although a good deal of work still remains to be done before their full implications can be understood, enough is known already in Biblical scholarly circles to say that they pose a threat to the most fundamental premises of the Catholic Church - and even to Christianity itself. And this, as I just noted, was the real reason behind the foot-dragging by the International Team led by Roland de Vaux. Recognizing the revolutionary import of the Scrolls, the Vatican and its related institutions, notably the Ecole Biblique and the Pontifical Biblical Commission, have adopted various subterfuges to prevent scholars from obtaining access to the Scrolls. Father de Vaux and his International Team at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem have served as the front line of defense against the march of scholarship.

Their stranglehold was finally broken in September 1991 when the Huntington Library in California released the full transcripts of the Scrolls of which they possessed a copy. This was soon followed by the publication of the facsimile edition of the Scrolls edited by Eisenman and Robinson; Eisenman, it turned out, had in his possession photocopies of all the unpublished Scrolls manuscripts.7 (See Chapter 8 for details.) There had been cracks before in the stonewalling position taken by the International Team, but the actions of the Huntington Library and of Eisenman in particular really opened the floodgates. A howl of protest went up from the Catholic scholars of the International Team - there were dark mutterings with hints of law suits - but Biblical scholars and historians the world over rejoiced and applauded the move. The world of Biblical scholarship, not to say of Christianity itself has been changed for ever.

7 R. Eisenman and J.M. Robinson, A Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2 volumes, Washington DC. Biblical Archaeological Society, 1991.

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