Secrets of The Dead Sea Scrolls

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Oxford scholar Geza Vermes calls it "the academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century." Columbia University's Morton Smith protests that there is "no justification" for it. Fumes California State's Robert Eisenman: "We are tired of being treated contemptuously." Behind the scenes, scholars are exchanging bitter private letters and passing around bootlegged photos. What is all the fuss about? The protesters are referring to the long delay in making public many of the Dead Sea Scrolls, those mysterious documents discovered between 1947 and 1956 in caves 20 miles east of Jerusalem. As they see it, the world has long been unnecessarily deprived of data vital to understanding Jewish and Christian history.

The discovery of the scrolls -- 800 ancient Jewish manuscripts that had been hidden from the world for 19 centuries -- was unexpected and dazzling. The Hebrew and Aramaic documents, written mostly on leather, were found in eleven caves along the northwest rim of the Dead Sea. Because of popular fascination over possible connections with Jesus, the Dead Sea Scrolls became the century's most fabled archaeological find.

That makes it even harder to accept that more than three decades later, roughly one-fourth of the material remains unpublished. Originally the informal target date for publishing transcriptions of all the scrolls was 1970. Now, responding to mounting pressures, the 18 scholars on the official scrolls team have given the Israeli government a timetable calling for publication of the remaining materials by 1997. This year Israel's antiquities department set up a committee to monitor progress. The new timetable, however, has only inflamed the critics.

Chief among them is the Biblical Archaeology Review of Washington, a well- regarded layman's magazine, which has long berated the team for unconscionable foot dragging. In the latest issue, editor Herschel Shanks brands the new timetable "a hoax and a fraud." Shanks insists that "the scrolls will never be published by the current team" because the task is too huge. The squabbling should make for heated talk at a conference of scrolls experts later this month in the Netherlands.

The team members, twelve of whom are laboring in Jerusalem, point out that their task is difficult and must be done with precision. For example, one of the caves contained 15,000 fragments that had to be pieced together like jigsaw puzzles into 516 scrolls. Harvard University's John Strugnell, head of the group since 1987, says fund-raising difficulties and the Arab-Israeli wars slowed progress. He admits that his deadline of 1997 is only an "intelligent guess," not a "promise," and that work could stretch years beyond that.

In the eyes of many experts, the No. 1 foot dragger is the elusive J.T. Milik of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. He is a former Roman Catholic priest who has been assigned to prepare 50 or more photographic plates of the documents. Says Milik unrepentantly: "The world will see the manuscripts when I have done the necessary work." Castigating the "unhealthy curiosity" of complaining historians, he nonetheless says he has assigned two U.S. colleagues to help with some of his scrolls.

% In its next issue, the Review will demand not only that more of the texts be farmed out but also that Israel produce a list of all unpublished texts and who has them. In addition, the magazine will call for access to photographs of all scrolls for interested researchers, who have been kept waiting for decades. Team members contend that this would violate their scholarly rights and that without the analysis of seasoned experts, outsiders would misunderstand what they read.

Says New York University's Lawrence Schiffman: "The material could be published in a very short time if the circle of scholars were enlarged." That is prevented by a system of control that dates from the early discoveries in what was then part of Jordan. After rapid publication of the first finds by Israelis, Jordan authorized creation of a select group of antiquities experts, all Christians, with exclusive rights to study and publish the rest of the manuscripts. The favored scholars assigned the various texts among themselves. As for the scrolls, some eventually went on display at West Jerusalem's Shrine of the Book, but most ended up in the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. When Israel gained jurisdiction over the museum in the 1967 Six-Day War, it left the existing team in place. Recently the members have consigned some scrolls to graduate assistants, cutting out better-known experts.

The scrolls that have appeared so far are important to both specialists and ordinary believers. Previously unknown texts like the Manual of Discipline (which listed commune-like rules of an ancient Jewish sect) and the Psalms of Thanksgiving (a devotional collection) have given historians new insight into ancient Jewish life. The scrolls have also affected Bible translations read by millions of Jews and Christians. The caves contained portions of all books of the Old Testament except Esther, including a remarkably complete scroll of Isaiah that is 1,000 years older than any other surviving manuscript. Besides clearing up anomalies in several verses, the scrolls have demonstrated the remarkable accuracy with which Jewish scribes preserved the text of the Bible.

Within a year, Strugnell and Israel's Elisha Qimron plan to publish one of the most important scrolls, known as the "MMT Letter." The oldest of the nonbiblical scrolls, dating from the mid-2nd century B.C., it spells out disagreements over Jewish law, showing the thinking of the Dead Sea sect at an early stage before it broke with officialdom in Jerusalem. The author might have been the shadowy "Teacher of Righteousness," the sect's presumed founder.

Years ago writers speculated that New Testament accounts of Jesus Christ could have been patterned after this earlier teacher. But such theories lack textual support and have died out. Columbia University's Theodor Gaster thinks that the teacher was not even a specific person and that the title was used by a succession of leaders. Despite lack of evidence for a direct link between Jesus and the Dead Sea sect, the scrolls show that many of the concepts contained in the Gospels, as well as the fervent expectation of an imminent kingdom of God, were commonplace in Jewish culture just at the time when Christianity arose. With further texts to come, there is always the tantalizing prospect that important and long-kept secrets of the scrolls remain to be revealed.