Historian of the ancient world Edwin Yamauchi examines the power struggles, guerrilla publishing, and bizarre interpretations of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are making headlines once again. Publications as diverse as Time, Vanity Fair, and the New York Times have run major articles on these ancient texts. Even a supermarket tabloid printed claims that the scrolls forecast a modern “nuclear disaster [that] will leave millions dead or homeless” and include “eye-popping predictions for top celebrities like Kevin Costner and Madonna.”

It is not the first time the scrolls have captured the attention of the world. After they were discovered in a cave by a Bedouin shepherd boy in 1946 and publicized in 1947, renowned archaeologist William Foxwell Albright called the scrolls “the greatest manuscript discovery in modern times.”

Scholars found other caves in the Qumran area near the Dead Sea that would eventually yield thousands of scrolls or fragments. The richest repository was Cave IV with some 15,000 fragments representing over 500 texts. Not only was every book of the Old Testament except Esther represented in the scrolls, scores of other documents shed light on the religious crosscurrents of Palestine in Jesus’ day. Strange new theories linking Jesus to the Essenes, the apocalyptic Jewish sect believed by most to have gathered the scrolls, also caught the notice of many.

Now, decades later, the scrolls still spark controversy in scholarly circles and whet the curiosity of Christians (CT, Jan. 13, 1992, p. 36). To learn more about the significance for today of these millenniaold documents, CT turned to Edwin Yamauchi, CT senior editor and professor of history at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. He is the author of Harper’s ...

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