When in May 1955 the American magazine, 'The New Yorker', published the first full report on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the attention of the world was caught on an unprecedented scale. Everything written about them became instant bestsellers. As reports of more discoveries were made, interest was kept alive and the public demanded more and more information. Many books, both scholarly and sensational, were published. Then, as the number of discoveries declined, the public lost interest and only the scholars continued their work.
About 80% of the Scrolls discovered were published. The other 20% consisted mostly of fragments found in cave 4 to which only a few scholars had access. In 1965 John Allegro, the agnostic team member, published his allotted fragments, but was criticized for shoddy and hasty work. The rest of the scholars did not publish their fragments, and would not allow anyone else access to them. Speculation became rife. There were accusations of cover ups, suppression, conspiracy and deception.
Because of the lack of information, sensationalists and cults were able to use the Scrolls to question the accuracy of the Bible and the basic tenets of Christianity. Responsible scholars could not reply to these charges, because they lacked accurate information. Finally, in 1990, photographs of the fragments were made available, but they have still not been published in the Discoveries in the Judean Desert series. Even today, with all the information available, sensationalists continue to allude to secret codes and hidden meanings. Bestselling novelists continue to write books exploiting the long silence and promoting the idea of the suppressed anti-scriptural content of the Scrolls. So what are the true facts and the significance of the Scrolls for Christianity?
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls
The semi-nomadic Ta'amireh Bedouin tribe had settled in the Judean desert between Bethlehem and the Dead Sea. For generations their shepherds kept their flocks and herds among the scattered ancient caves. One day a young man, Muhammed edh-Dhib, instead of finding his stray goat, found ancient clay jars in a cave. One jar contained intact leather Scrolls which he hoped could be used for sandal straps. He hanged them in his tent and years later sold them to a merchant in Bethlehem.
Finally an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem, Jalil Iskander Shahin Kando, bought the first four Scrolls for 16 Jordanian pounds. When the Bedouin discovered the monetary rewards they all went looking for more Scrolls in other caves. After hearing in a news broadcast that these Scrolls were valuable, they sold more to Kando for $5500. Archeologists only discovered the location of the caves after asking the help of the Jordanian government. Around the ruins of the Qumran community, close to the north-western shore of the Dead Sea, Caves 1-11 all contained Scrolls or fragments of Scrolls. Most of these were published in the Discoveries in the Judean Desert series, but the difficult fragments of cave 4 were assigned to seven scholars who failed to publish them.
The reasons for the delay
While almost all scholars admit that the delay in publishing these Scroll fragments was excessive, there are some explanations for it.
For a start almost all the scholars had permanent positions at universities, and so had to do the work in their spare time. The cave 4 fragments were so fragile that the scholars only had access to photographs of them. Whenever disputes arose, the originals had to be consulted. As these were kept at the scrollery of the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, it meant travelling there during a summer recess.
The political situation: the Jordanian government refused to allow any Israeli scholar access to the Scrolls. As Hebrew, the main language of the Scrolls, is their native tongue, their participation might have speeded up the process. In addition, most members of the original Scroll Team were anti-Semitic and, after the 1967 Six-Day War, refused to publish their work under Israeli auspices or threatened to discontinue their work in protest against 'Israeli occupation'.
From the beginning it was obvious that too much material was assigned to the team of only seven scholars. In addition, instead of publishing simple transcriptions of the texts to the waiting world, the team scholars felt that they should write extensive commentaries. And, because John Allegro incurred such widespread criticism of his work, the other scholars were more cautious.
Still, whatever the reasons, the handling of the Cave 4 Scrolls by the original team of scholars can be regarded as scandalous. Instead of handing their allotted texts over to other scholars, they often just abandoned the work. Therefore they should be held accountable for the much-publicized Dead Sea Scrolls "controversy."
The scribes of the scrolls
Traditionally it has been accepted that the Essenes, a Jewish sect that developed after the Babylonian exile, had separated themselves unto God, and lived at the Qumran community under spartan conditions. Archeologists discovered a large room, which was accepted as a 'scriptorium', a place where the scribes could copy the Scriptures and other documents. It was accepted that the scribes of the scrolls lived and worked at the Qumran community, stored the scrolls in clay jars made on the site, and hid these jars in the surrounding caves for safekeeping.
Later theories were postulated: that the Qumran community did not consist of Essenes, but any of a number of other Jewish sects of the time; that the scribes did not work in the 'scriptorium', but that the scrolls were copied elsewhere and then transported to the caves. Whatever the case may be, the Dead sea Scrolls gave us copies of the Hebrew and Aramaic texts of the Old Testament at least 1000 years older than the earliest copies we had.
The significance of the Scrolls
The first seven Scrolls discovered at Qumran have been hailed as "the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times." They, and later finds, have been dated as early as 225 B.C. - A.D. 68. Before this discovery, the earliest copies of the Old Testament that we had, are from 1000 A.D. As these early Scrolls are almost identical with the later ones, they attest to the accuracy of the copying of the scribes, the reliability of the Scriptures and the traditional dates of the original compositions. For example, modern critical scholars have attacked the integrity of the Scriptures, and especially the books of Isaiah and Daniel. Their claim of a later date of composition, after the fulfillment of the prophecies, have been refuted by the evidence of the Qumran Scrolls.
Early Judaism (536 B.C. - A.D.70)
The 400 years between the Old and New Testaments do not represent a vacuum or period of total silence, rather the 78 OT apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works form a historical bridge to connect the two Testaments. Added to that, the 170 Dead Sea Scrolls allow us a glimpse into the times before and after the birth of Jesus, and thus we can see more clearly how He, His disciples, and the New Testament writers related to the Old Testament.
Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, our knowledge of early Judaism came from writers such as Josephus (about 37-100 A.D.), Philo (died 45 A.D.) and rabbinic literature. Josephus identified four Jewish sects of the time: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots. The Qumran Scrolls revealed a more complex Judaism, and for the first time gave us the actual writings of one of these sects, describing their lives and beliefs.
Context for early Christianity
The struggles of this sect during this time of religious and political upheaval, were similar to those of the early Jewish-Christian church and therefore bears witness to the development of Christianity. Jesus, John the baptist and the writers of the New Testament have been returned to their Jewish context. For example, terms that are used only once in the New Testament have been identified as part of the Jewish vocabulary of the period.
The Qumran texts also reveal mysticism and the development of Gnosticism as a trend in Jewish tradition before the advent of Christ. Therefore the Gnosticism that both Paul and John warned against was not a new development within Christianity, but rather has its roots in Jewish tradition.
Thus the Dead Sea Scrolls attest to the validity of both the Old and New Testaments, and Christians need not be alarmed by any sensational literature.
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