Asking the Wrong Questions

By Elesha Coffman, assistant editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY

When people come face to face with fragments of an ancient culture, they automatically ask questions. When those fragments relate to Jesus and early Christianity, it seems just as automatic that the wrong questions get the most attention.

On Wednesday the Christian History staff visited the Field Museum's exhibit of Dead Sea Scrolls. The first of the scrolls was discovered in 1947 in a cave near Qumran (about 15 miles from Jerusalem) when a herder went looking for a lost goat. The site's 11 caves eventually yielded a wealth of papyrus and parchment scrolls, adding up to one of the century's greatest archaeological finds—15,000 fragments of 500 scrolls in Cave 4 alone. The Chicago exhibit includes 15 fragments, five of which have never been publicly displayed before.

Scholars' first question regarding the scrolls was, What do they say? Through painstaking reconstruction and translation (slowed to a snail's pace because for 40 years the seven scholars with access to the manuscripts refused to share), experts have identified portions of the Old Testament, apocryphal works, and sectarian material including rules for community life. Some of the few fragments written in Greek (most are in Hebrew or Aramaic) were thought to be pieces of the New Testament, but this theory has been shot down. All the material dates between 250 B.C. and A.D. 70, the year Romans sacked Jerusalem.

Next question: Who wrote the scrolls? The prevailing theory attributes the scribe-work to the Essenes, an isolated, elitist Jewish sect that lived at Qumran during the time the scrolls were written. Long-thought to be a peaceful, monastic community, the Essenes are getting ...

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