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The renewal of a quest for scrolls Dead Sea texts: Optimism accompanies a revived effort to find more of the historic Dead Sea manuscripts, the last of which were discovered in 1956.

QUMRAN, WEST BANK — QUMRAN, West Bank -- The saga of the Dead Sea scrolls, the most direct, handwritten link we have to the time and spirit of Jesus and a source of perpetual controversy, seems about to gain a new chapter.

Since last week, archaeologists have been digging out by hand what appear to be four collapsed caves near the sites where 800 scrolls were unearthed from 1947 to 1956, in what many consider the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times. This is hardly the first effort to follow up on those discoveries in the monumental limestone cliffs and chalk-and-clay caverns that loom over the salty tablelands of the Dead Sea. Hundreds of caves and holes in the area have been combed over the years by both archaeologists and Bedouin tribesmen.

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Only 11 caves produced texts, but they included portions of nearly all the books of the Hebrew bible, prayer books, codes of ethics and a description of an apocalyptic vision involving a messiah. Together, they have transformed our understanding of the Old Testament, early Judaism and the origins of Christianity. But since 1956, no new texts have been found -- only crockery, pottery and other remains of the Qumran settlement.

But the co-director of the latest dig comes with an unusual track record. Hanan Eshel, a 38-year-old senior lecturer at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, has twice turned up documents in a place long abandoned by his colleagues.

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In 1986 and in 1993, Mr. Eshel found papyrus documents in a cave near Jericho from the second century A.D. and from the period of Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C. "Before 1986, everybody said that if for 20 years no documents have turned up, then probably all the Judean Desert documents have already been found," Mr. Eshel says. "They figured it was all done.

"It turned out not to be so. I was lucky."

Mr. Eshel's partner in this enterprise, Magen Broshi, 66, a distinguished archaeologist who retired last year after three decades as curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Jerusalem's Israel Museum, says Mr. Eshel's work has little to do with luck.

"He's the only one to have found texts near the Dead Sea since the 1960s," Mr. Broshi says, referring to the Jericho finds. "It's because he doesn't follow everyone's preconceptions. He's a maverick in the good sense of the word. He can go over precisely the same ground as others and see something different."

It is this ability to bring fresh eyes to an old problem that Mr. Broshi and Mr. Eshel hope will make this dig at Qumran different. While the hollows where the dig will occur have long been visible -- they are barely 200 yards from the well-visited sites of earlier finds -- apparently no one had figured out that they were collapsed caves until Mr. Eshel came along.

Moreover, Mr. Eshel noticed that there are paths leading from the ruins of Qumran to the hollows, and that the chalk-and-mud insides, like those of several other caves where documents were found, are insulated from the fierce desert heat, adding further reason to hope that these were caves of dwelling or work.

Mr. Eshel and Mr. Broshi expect to know within weeks if they are onto something that could contribute significantly to our understanding of the scrolls and the Qumran community from which they sprang.

This, too, is not virgin territory. At least 15,000 scholarly articles on the scrolls have been published. The fevered attention to the scrolls is testimony not only to the wealth of information they have provided about religion and culture in Palestine in the age of Jesus, but also to the intensity of modern-day sectarian and political feuds.

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"The scrolls have produced 12 theories" about the community they came from, Mr. Broshi says. "By definition, 11 of them are wrong."

The widely accepted view, the one Mr. Broshi and Mr. Eshel consider nearly beyond dispute, is that the inhabitants of Qumran were part of an offshoot Jewish movement called the Essenes, an ascetic communitarian group that, like Christianity that came later, banned polygamy and divorce and believed in poverty, predestination and, at times, celibacy. Like Jesus, the Essenes had contempt for the temple-based Judaism of Jerusalem with its feuding priestly classes.

"A lot of the ideas that Jesus spoke about we find in the Qumran documents," Mr. Eshel says. "Some of the key concepts in the Sermon on the Mount are inside the Thanksgiving scroll from Qumran. John the Baptist was close to Qumran; some argue he may have come from there. His idea of baptism as something spiritual rather than technical is found in the scrolls. Paul quotes from the scrolls.

The Qumran texts date from between the third century B.C. and 68 A.D., when the Romans conquered the place and destroyed the community before sacking the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Fearing the oncoming Romans, the Qumran community wrapped some of their scrolls and hid them in the limestone caves, where they sat for two milleniums, until a Bedouin shepherd found the first of them in 1947.

In the late 1980s, the scrolls became the subject of intense scrutiny when several scholars launched an attack on the coterie of researchers who kept access to the scrolls severely limited. The greatest manuscript discovery of modern times turned into, in the words of the British scholar Geza Vermes, "the academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century." Now, with the scrolls fully published, that controversy is largely over. But others loom.

Qumran is in the West Bank, an area claimed by Palestinians. It is possible that Israel will hand the land over to them in the coming years as part of the final settlement between the two sides, a process that has seen Israeli withdrawal from the major West Bank cities. If that happens, Israeli archaeologists may press ahead with their digging at a more accelerated pace in order to preclude the possibility of losing access.

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There is also still the issue of interpreting the documents and their place in the history of Christianity. Numerous efforts have been made to associate personalities in the texts with Christian figures such as John the Baptist and Jesus himself.

By emphasizing the community's life in the first century A.D. as opposed to its pre-Christian period, such scholars have sought to link Qumran directly with the first Christians, an effort rejected by most specialists. This approach has stemmed partly from concern that the uniqueness of Jesus and his message may appear to be compromised if they arrived so long after the Qumran texts.

But recently published studies using carbon-14 testing of the scrolls show that most of the texts predate Jesus by at least a century.

Therefore, the chances are now considered very slim that the Qumran community were Christians or that the scrolls referred to key Christian figures.

"A lot of weird people have gathered around the scrolls over the years," Mr. Eshel says. "They have tried to make the scrolls fit their religious needs.

"But the scrolls belong to no one group. By digging here I'm fulfilling the dream of a lifetime. I'm not digging to claim the scrolls for Israel but for everyone interested in the history of Western civilization."


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