Everything about the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests mystery. Collected by a radical Jewish sect, perhaps Essenes, who lived monastically in the arid and almost lifeless Judaean wilderness, the scrolls include over 800 Jewish manuscripts—many biblical—dating from as early as 250 B.C. The scrolls were hidden in the caves of Qumran, on the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, so that the Roman armies would not destroy them on their way to conquer Jerusalem. The Essenes, of whom we know little, expected to liberate the scrolls when their community was liberated by the Messiah. The Romans prevailed, however, and so the scrolls stayed hidden for almost 1,900 years. But the mysteries don't end with the scrolls' discovery 50 years ago, which many label the archaeological event of the century. Since then, the scrolls have been a pawn of Mideast politics and the cause of an unusual number of academic scandals.
Which makes Trinity Western University in verdant British Columbia in Canada an unlikely port into this cryptic world. A half a globe away from the caves of Qumran, the campus's spiraling western cedars and low-hanging utility lines have nothing in common with the stark terrain of the Judaean desert. And when it comes to history, the school boasts only its Seal Kap House, where the sealable cap for milk bottles was invented.
But step through the front door of the Seal Kap House and you are transported back to ancient Palestine. The languages of choice are Aramaic and its descendant Syriac, Hebrew (biblical, Qumranic, and rabbinic), Greek, and Latin. The residents are twentieth-century evangelical Christian scholars Peter Flint, Martin Abegg, and Craig Evans, who form the core of the school's Dead Sea Scrolls Institute, but the guests of honor are the Essenes.
If the scholars at the Seal Kap keep one eye focused on the past, they train the other on the late twentieth century. Two tabloids pinned to a bulletin board outside Flint's office proclaim "Startling Revelations from Dead Sea Scrolls: 1997 Weather to Be Worst Ever," and "Lost Prophecies of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Christ Reborn—Woman in Idaho Will Be New Virgin Mother." Next to them a newspaper clipping announces the latest discoveries of the Jesus Seminar—phrases from the Gospels they determined Jesus could never have uttered.
While not intended as a most-wanted list, the bulletin board profiles the trio's top foes—sensationalism and biased scholarship. Armed with direct access to the ancient manuscripts—Flint and Abegg are members of the official team of 70 Dead Sea Scroll editors worldwide—Trinity's triumvirate is waging a new evangelical battle for the Bible. It is a war fought among mysterious texts, tantalizing New Testament parallels, and theories as quirky as the experts who conceived them. And so to solve the mystery of the scrolls we go to Langley, British Columbia.
I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me.
Half a century ago this year a young Arab shepherd crawled into the mouth of a cave near the Dead Sea in Palestine and re-emerged with the oldest Bible manuscripts now known. One was a complete scroll of the Book of Isaiah, copied by scribes 100 years before the time of Jesus. Additional findings in ten other caves in the Qumran region over the next decade gave the world a jigsaw puzzle of 100,000 pieces of ancient Jewish religious texts that were the remains of about 870 distinct scrolls. Written in varieties of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, 220 of these were biblical scrolls representing at least portions of every book of our Old Testament except Esther.
The remaining 650 nonbiblical texts contained an intriguing assortment of religious prose and poetry, including plans for building a new temple the size of Jerusalem (the Temple Scroll), a secret list of buried treasure (the Copper Scroll), and a prophecy of how the Sons of Light would defeat the Sons of Darkness in the last days (War Scroll). In addition, there were commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures, books of the Apocrypha, calendar texts, rules for achieving ritual purity, and documents outlining community life and initiation rites. Some referred to a Teacher of Righteousness and a Wicked Priest.
This Isaiah matches the A.D. 1000 Masoretic
Text upon which all modern translations
are based 99 percent of the time.
Taken together, they raised the question of who the members of this community were, and who the revered Teacher of Righteousness might have been. For over five decades now, experts have offered a variety of colorful—if sometimes far-fetched—answers. But until the early 1990s, those seeking to answer these and other questions faced a handicap: the refusal of the official scroll editors to release the remaining manuscripts to outside scholars before they had completed their own work on them.
By the late eighties, these outside scholars would mount a growing protest against what came to be labeled "the scrolls cartel" and "the academic scandal of the century." The liberation of the scrolls, surprisingly, would begin with the gutsy sleuthing of a young graduate student at Hebrew Union University in Cincinnati named Martin Abegg.
From all tribes of Israel they shall prepare capable men for themselves to go out for battle …
—War Scroll, column 2
In the fall of 1991, Abegg rounded the corner of a convention booth at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and came face to face with his former Jewish professor Emanuel Tov. He had studied for several years at Hebrew University in Jerusalem with Tov, who was now chief editor of the international scrolls team. Mysteriously, Tov greeted Abegg with the Hebrew phrase banim giddalti v'romamti ("I reared children and brought them up").
Abegg replied with an unsure thank-you; later that evening he looked up the phrase, which he recognized from Isaiah. In chapter 1 he found the verse that his mentor, in good rabbinic fashion, had left unfinished: v'hem pash'u bi, "but they have rebelled against me."
Rebellion, controversy, and outright war have surrounded the scrolls from their ancient birth and burial in Palestine to their modern resurrection in the high-tech presses of popular and academic publishing. Many scholars believe that the scrolls belonged to a Jewish sect that lived communally at Qumran near the caves where the manuscripts were found. The puritans of their day, they became disillusioned with the political corruption of the priesthood in Jerusalem under the Jewish rulers known as the Hasmoneans. Around 166 B.C., the group withdrew to the desert dwelling in Qumran, about 20 miles east of Jerusalem. There they rallied around a teacher they believed God had blessed with a special ability to interpret the Hebrew prophets.
This Teacher of Righteousness, as the scrolls cryptically call him, saw in the events of his day, and particularly in the calling out of the Qumran sect, a prophesied division of the forces of darkness from the forces of light. The pure remnant would soon wage a final and preordained battle against the Romans and their puppet Jewish temple leaders, and with the help of a messiah, they would victoriously usher in Israel's redemption.
War against the Romans did come with the First Jewish Revolt in A.D. 66. But instead of giving rise to their hoped-for messiah, it led to the destruction of not only Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70, but also the Qumran settlement itself. Before its destruction, however, the members of the sect had hidden their sacred scrolls in the surrounding caves for safekeeping—expecting to reclaim them after their victory.
For nearly two thousand years the scrolls lay undisturbed in their dark, dry cavities. When uncovered shortly after World War II, the first modern eyes to read their scripts and recognize their antiquity were those of E. L. Sukenik, a specialist in Jewish paleography. Coincidentally, it was November 29, 1947, the very day the United Nations voted to partition Palestine in order to create a Jewish state. The timing was not lost on Sukenik as he read with awe these manuscripts he was sure dated to the time when Herod's temple still stood proud.
One result of the UN partition was that when the team of eight scroll editors was formed in 1952, most of them were Catholic. By order of the Jordanian government, into whose territory the scrolls fell, none of the team could be Jewish. That would change, however, during the 1967 Six Day War when Israeli solders captured the Palestine Archaeological Museum in East Jerusalem, where the scrolls were housed. It was renamed the Rockefeller Museum, and Jewish scholars were added to the team.
While fighting sometimes erupted around the museum over the years, the editors inside soon began having skirmishes of their own. As early as 1956, scroll editor John Allegro, an agnostic who vowed he would one day undermine the fairy tale of Christianity, announced to the press that he had found a 100 B.C. manuscript containing an Essene story of a messiah's crucifixion and resurrection. It showed, he claimed, that the Christian Gospels were nothing more than later adaptions of this earlier Essene story, and that Jesus was a fictional character derived from the historic Teacher of Righteousness.
Allegro also maintained that his Catholic colleagues on the team were suppressing scroll texts for fear of the damage they would wreak on the church. Even Jewish scholars roundly dismissed Allegro's imaginative readings; nonetheless, the same basic theory of a Catholic conspiracy would resurface as late as 1991 in a book by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh called The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception (Touchstone).
Other specialists over the decades seemed equally eager to find the fantastic in the scrolls. In the 1980s, Barbara Thiering, an Australian scholar, claimed the scrolls were encoded with secret messages; when the Gospels are read using these codes, they tell us that Jesus was the Wicked Priest, was crucified but kept alive with snake poison, and eventually married and bore two children. In California, historian Robert Eisenman found in the scrolls evidence that after Jesus was executed as a Zealot, his brother James became leader of the Qumran sect and then ousted the apostle Paul from the group for his blasphemous teachings about Jesus.
Added to this volatile environment was the impatience of many mainstream scholars with the slow pace of publication of the scrolls. While in the early years scroll editions had come out in a timely fashion, as the editors sensed the growing importance of the scrolls to the scholarly community they began writing comprehensive commentaries on the texts instead of simply publishing the texts and photographs and thereby allowing other scholars to make their historical and critical evaluations.
It was a situation Abegg saw from both sides in the late 1980s. He remembers the instructions that his Professor Tov had given him as Abegg was preparing to leave Hebrew University in Jerusalem and move to Hebrew Union University in Cincinnati to complete his doctorate under Ben Zion Wacholder. As one of the scroll editors, Tov had sometimes given Abegg and the other students unpublished scroll materials to work on. "He told me directly, 'Don't show this to your professors back in the States.' "
"That was the first of the bells that went off in my head," says Abegg. "Here I am a master's student, and I'm going back to work with men that have gone a whole generation before me, and I can't show them this. That seemed strange."
In the press, perceptions of a scrolls cartel were not at all dispelled when John Strugnell, the chief editor of the scrolls, in 1991 called outside scholars who wanted access to the unpublished manuscripts "a bunch of fleas who are in the business of annoying us." Soon after, in a statement to a reporter for an Israeli newspaper, he asserted that the Jewish faith was "a horrible religion." Having undone himself, Strugnell was replaced by Tov as chief editor. In Cincinnati, in the meantime, Tov's former student had already begun his deed of rebellion.
As early as 1988, rumors had circulated that a concordance existed for the unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls. In magazines such as Biblical Archaeology Review, these rumors were flatly denied, but when Abegg's professor Wacholder met Strugnell at a conference in Israel, he learned that the concordance did exist, and that in the early years after the scrolls' discovery the editors had created 3x5 cards with transcriptions of corresponding fragments of the manuscripts. This helped them in their work and prevented them from overhandling the scrolls and scraps themselves. Wacholder, using his connections, eventually secured a copy of the secret concordance.
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