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Picture of the Dead Sea Scrolls

September 22, 1991
Dead Sea Scrolls
Un/Covering the Dead Sea Scrolls
by Steve King

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On this day in 1991 the Dead Sea Scrolls were made available to the public for the first time by the Huntington Library in California. The first Scrolls were discovered in the caves of Qumran by Bedouin shepherds in 1947. Hundreds of complete scrolls and tens of thousands of textual fragments were eventually found, or recovered at a price from the more enterprising Bedouin, or purchased on a scroll black market that became so open that this ad appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 1954: "Biblical manuscripts dating back to at least 200 BC are for sale. This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group. Box F 206." Research on the scrolls was conducted by a highly restricted group of scholars, and it proceeded at such a slow pace that complaint and suspicion mounted in the academic community: one scholarly journal described the appointed researchers as governed by "convention, tradition, collegiality and inertia"; others said the inner circle was not just sitting on the documents but covering-up those most controversial. The Huntingdon stepped into this squabble in a manner that caused a sensation: having been given a master set of Scroll microfilm negatives for safekeeping, they announced that a photographic record of "the greatest archeological find in history" was now available to anyone interested, by inter-library loan.

The Scroll texts are believed to be the remnants of the library of an extremist Jewish sect contemporaneous with Christ -- older by a thousand years than any other scriptural manuscripts. They include books of sect rules and prayers and most Old Testament stories, and they suggest the idea that neither Jesus nor Christianity is as construed by centuries of orthodox belief. One of the first to raise this possibility was literary critic Edmund Wilson, who wondered as early as 1955 (in a New Yorker article, expanded to book form as The Scrolls of the Dead Sea) if the monastery at Qumran might prove to be, "more than Bethlehem or Nazareth, the cradle of Christianity." Among many other books on the issue are those by British biblical scholar Philip Davies, most recently his layman-friendly The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls (2002, by Davies and several others). In a 1993 BBC documentary, Davies said that when faced with documents predating Christ by some 100 years, telling of a "Teacher of Righteousness" persecuted by a "Wicked Priest," and prophesying a Messiah who is persecuted, exiled and "pierced" or "piercing," it's hard not to regard the Qumran scrolls, as "a script, or a series of scripts, waiting there for somebody to come and fulfil it."

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