Harper’s Magazine, August 1966
The Untold Story of the Dead Sea Scrolls
By JOHN MARCO ALLEGRO
Why does the main message of the Scrolls still remain hidden nearly twenty years after their discovery?
Who is afraid of what they reveal?
Here is an attempt to answer startling questions about the origins of Christianity and the very authenticity of the New Testament.
Nearly twenty years ago an Arab shepherd’s discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jordan set in motion a train of events that could change the course of history. Yet only now is the full significance of the Scrolls being realized. Why has it taken so long?
The answer lies partly in the fortuitous way in which the Scrolls were first discovered, how later ones came to light, and the unfortunate dispersal of them over a wide area. Even more important, the very scholars who should be most capable of working on the documents and interpreting them have displayed a not altogether surprising, but nonetheless curious, reluctance to go to the heart of their matter. The scholars appear to have held back from making discoveries which, there is evidence to believe, may upset a great many basic teachings of the Christian church. This in turn would greatly upset many Christian theologians and believers. The heart of the matter is, in fact, the source and originality of the Christian doctrine.
The first discovery was quite accidental. Muhammad, a Bedouin goatherd, on the trail of one of his flock, chanced on a cave set high in the cliffs bordering the north-west shore of the Dead Sea in Jordan. He found inside some tall, wide-necked jars. In them were parchment scrolls wrapped around with some evil-smelling linen rags. These were the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls, seven in all, and now no money on earth could buy them. They included manuscripts of part of the Old Testament a thousand years older than anything hitherto seen. Muhammad raised perhaps $60 on their sale to a Bethlehem cobbler. Four were smuggled to the United States and sold for a quarter of a million dollars; the other three found their way more directly to the Hebrew University in new Jerusalem, where all seven now attract thousands of visitors a year to Israel’s Shrine of the Book.
Since then Muhammad and his friends have been scroll-hunting in earnest, well aware of the monetary value of every scrap of written material they can sift out of the dust. Another ten caves containing documents were discovered in the next nine years in the vicinity of the first find. They have produced the remains on parchment and papyrus, mostly fragmentary, of about four hundred different documents, a third of them texts of the Old Testament. All these scrolls have remained in Jordan. From 1952 the Bedouin began looking farther afield, so that today we have to acknowledge the fact that the whole of the west coast of the Dead Sea is a veritable treasure-house of ancient manuscripts.
It is the Bedouin who have done most of the work. Of course they know the area better than anyone. They have ample time on their hands. They can work in clouds of choking dust for hours on end protected only by head scarves tied around their faces. And they are patient. The $300,000 they have made so far has been well earned, but finding the money has posed big problems for the local and foreign authorities who have assumed responsibility for custodianship of the documents.
When the first news of Scroll discoveries reached the authorities in Amman, Jordan, some eighteen months after Muhammad’s adventure, they were faced with the problem of rediscovering the cave. The Bedouin had melted back into the desert. The Bethlehem cobbler deemed it wiser to keep to his shop and say nothing. Amateur archaeology of this kind is frowned upon; selling its fruits without a dealer’s licence no less abhorred. When eventually the official’s found Muhammad’s cave and saw the broken remains of many jars, they began to realize the potentialities of the discovery. Clearly there had once been scores of manuscripts here. This had been no chance abandonment of documents by a passer-by, but store of disused books from some sectarian library. There were almost certainly other caches nearby and conceivably further remains of the people to whom the library had belonged.
A mile to the south of the cave lay some ruins. They were situated on a marly plateau bounded to the south by the Wadi Qumran. The site had been noticed by passing travellers and commented on but never archaeologically investigated. Five season’s work, beginning in 1949, brought to light a crudely built settlement or monastery. It had been developed from an earlier lookout post around 100 B.C. and its main occupation had ended during the time of the first great Jewish revolt against Rome, A.D. 66-73.
The archaeologists concentrated almost entirely on excavating the Qumran site. Aprat from one foray into the cliffs behind the settlement in 1952, they left Scroll-hunting to the Bedouin. The Arabs were happy to combine paid labouring for the archaeologists during the digging seasons with cave-searching in their off-duty moments.
1952 turned out to be a bumper Scroll year. About eleven miles south of the settlement, in their own tribal territory, the Bedouin discovered some large caves at a place called Murabba’at. These produced not only parchment and papyrus scraps of Biblical and secular documents going back as early as Old Testament times, but wooden implements perfectly preserved from the Chalcolithic period, some six thousand years old. Two Jordanian officials followed hard on the heels of the clandestine explorers and noted the whereabouts of the caves. The archaeologists did not, however, start work for another three months. In the meantime the precious manuscripts and artefacts had to be bought back from their finders for study and retention in Jordan.
Some of the Bedouin found their adventurous way even farther south, beyond the border that separates their native Jordan from Israel. In caves in the WAdi Seiyyal or Nahal Hebher they found some important Nabatean and Greek documents and smuggled them back over the border. The Palestine Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem, which had become the centre for Scrolls work in Jordan, published some of these contraband treasures, describing them as having come “from an uncertain provenance”. Many years later the Israeli authorities discovered what had happened, followed the traces of the infiltrators, and eventually found for themselves a wonderful series of cave deposits in that area and around the Biblical oasis of Engedi.
The bird that disappeared
A real deathblow to the Palestine Museum’s finances was dealt when the Arabs discovered perhaps the biggest cache of all. It was in the area of the original find, on the edge of the Wadi Qumran and only a stone’s throw from the monastery the archaeologists had been excavating a few month’s previously. The Scroll-hunters followed a lead from one of the elders of their tribe who remembered the site as one where he had been shooting partridge many years before. He had shot a bird that had fallen wounded on the plateau and then managed to flap its way along the edge of the marl to disappear in a hole. With some difficulty the hunter had followed his prey and found himself in a chamber hollowed out of the soft stone. He remembered seeing an ancient pottery lamp in a niche at the back of the chamber, but had not investigated further. He retrieved his bird and clambered back into the fresh air.
Following the sheikh’s directions, his fellow tribesmen went back and found the cave entrance. The archaeologists and their assistants must have seen it many times, but no one apparently had thought it worthwhile looking for Scroll caches in the plateau itself. The little rain that fell in the region could be presumed to have soaked into the ground straight away and made the chances of anything perishable surviving for more than a few years negligible. After all, unburnt woodwork in the monastery had long ago rotted away. Doors were represented by only the nails that held the planks together.
It was an expensive mistake. To rescue the tens of thousands of Scroll fragments the Bedouin retrieved from the Cave of the Wounded Partridge cost in the region of $90,000. Worse, the money was not immediately available. Previous discoveries had exhausted the resources of the Museum and of the French Biblical School in Jerusalem, whose principal, Father Roland De Vaux, O.P., had been jointly responsible with the Jordanian Director of Antiquities for Scroll affairs since the first discovery.
In the emergency the Jordan government itself was prevailed upon to donate 15,000 denars (about $40,000) to the ransom fund. Academic and other institutions around the world were asked to contribute on the agreement, later rescinded, that they would eventually be allowed to obtain custody of Scroll fragments their money bought. The price stood at about $1.50 per square centimetre. More was paid for larger pieces to deter the finders from increasing their revenue by ensuring a greater proliferation of smaller fragments.
To handle the editing of the new material an international team was called together, eight of us in all. Half were Roman Catholics – three seculars and one Jesuit. Only one, myself, was of no religious persuasion. The editor-in-chief, who actually took no part in the editing of the new cache, was Father De Vaux, the Dominican archaeologist of the French School in Jerusalem. He laid it down as a general rule that we should restrict prior publication of our documents to no more than one per year. Apart from this, all the material would find its first presentation in the definitive series of publications to appear under the auspices of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, the French Biblical School, and the Palestine Archaeological Museum, and to be called Discoveries in the Judaean Desert of Jordan. Fourteen years after the discovery of the Wounded Partridge cave not a single volume dealing with this material has appeared. Were it not for our limited preliminary publications, the scholarly world would still know next to nothing about the contents of the four hundred or so documents that we have painstakingly put together from the fragments.
During the past few years a few of us have tried to stir some life into the resident archaeologists by making brief expeditions in the Judaean Wilderness of Jordan in search of more Scrolls. We have enjoyed the enthusiastic support of His Majesty King Hussein and the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, since 1956 under the direction of local officials. Our finances have largely come from newspapers and television companies, and recently through the generosity of private individuals.
However, what money we had is now practically exhausted. Our all too short expeditions have taught us much about future possibilities, and where we can (and cannot) expect help locally. We have a clearer idea of the most promising search areas and a realization of what work still needs to be done, not least in the original Qumran region. Our last expedition spent its final days near Muhammad’s cave, following a chance line of enquiry. We uncovered two caves, one quite new and the other inadequately searched, within yards of the 1956 cache, probably the most overworked stretch of cliff in the Qumran area.
Was there a boycott?
But the physical limitations of time and money have not alone inhibited work on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Only recently two important American scholars, W. F. Albright and David Noel Freedman, had occasion to complain of a “partial boycott of the Dead Sea Scrolls on the part of New Testament scholars”. They went on to say, “…in the Scrolls we have for the first time a direct Jewish background of the New Testament. Hitherto we have been partly dependent upon intertestamental literature (Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha) and partly on early rabbinic literature, which is, unfortunately, a century or two later than the deeds and words of Christ and the Apostles. Thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls, we now have direct evidence that is of the greatest significance and which bears on all our New Testament books” [‘The Continuing Revolution in Biblical Research’, Journal of Bible and Religion, 31 April 1963]. It was Professor Albright who much earlier had described the new evidence of the beliefs and practices of the Jewish sectarians offered by the Scrolls as bidding fair “to revolutionize our approach to the beginnings of Christianity” [Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Supplementary Studies Nos. 10-12, 1951].
What went wrong? What happened to the “revolution”? The layman first began to look expectantly to the Scrolls for new, exciting light on the origins of Christianity through the brilliant writings of Edmund Wilson in his New Yorker articles and his book The Scrolls from the Dead Sea (Oxford University Press, 1955). Combining a scholar’s acumen with a journalist’s breadth of outlook, Wilson brought to the public notice not only the possibilities of the Scrolls for the disruption of accepted Christian dogma on the uniqueness of the Faith but some idea of the “scrollduggery” that was going on behind the scenes. He left the reader in no doubt that not all the results that might come out of Scroll researches were welcome to religiously committed circles, and that Christian scholars were tending to avoid working out their full implications.
At that stage I think Wilson was only partly right. There was a reluctance on the part of many Christian scholars to work on the Scrolls. But on the whole it had less to do with fear of what they might portend than sheer ignorance of how to set about tackling these Semitic-Hebraic and Aramaic documents. For the average theological student has for many years relied upon English texts and commentaries for his knowledge of the Old Testament. It is possible to obtain a theological degree which requires little or no knowledge of Hebrew. So, suddenly confronted with questions from their laymen about the Semitic origins of Christianity, all too many clergymen could do no more than cast aspersions on scholars not of their faith and hope for some pronouncement from the seminaries with which they could make adequate reply to charges that Christianity was not quite so unique as they had led their flock to believe.
Reassured but befuddled
The pronouncements were in due course made. Articles, tracts and whole books of apologia began to stream from the presses. Few of them had anything original to say about the Scrolls but all could be relied upon to offer comfort to the anxious reader in their final chapter. Although there was much in the Scrolls type of Judaism to illumine the background of Jesus and the Gospels, there was nothing here to undermine the Faith. Jesus’ message, although couched in the type of religious language shared by the Scrolls, is nevertheless quite distinctive. The kingdom Jesus promised had little in common with the political state looked for by the people of the Scrolls. Above all their leader, the Teacher of Righteousness, martyred as some believed, even crucified and expected to return as Messiah or Christ, was quite a different kind of person from Jesus of Nazareth. And if the niggling fears of the anxious enquirer were still not quieted, let him but lay the New Testament side by side with a translation of the Scrolls to judge for himself how different they were; how much more comprehensible were the words we had always known and loved.
Doubtless these pronouncements reassured both layman and clergy, equally ill-informed about the Jewish background of their Faith. But there must have been a large number of intelligent enquirers who began to wonder how Christianity, an offshoot of Judaism and bearing significant traces of contact with the religion of the Scrolls, could have been quite so different. For such people invitations to compare English translations of Hebrew Scrolls with over-familiar renderings of the Greek New Testament must have served to make them doubt the honesty of the apologists. There is such a world of difference between the ancient Semitic and Greek literature that facile comparisons must be virtually meaningless.
Popular interest began to wane. The layman became befuddled by the ever-increasing variety of views about the Scrolls, their dating and provenance, as well as their import for the study of Christian origins. Some of the “popular” works on the Scrolls published around 1956 seemed to have as their purpose the perplexing of their readers with these conflicting scholarly viewpoints, perhaps to drive home the folly of laymen trying to understand such a specialist’s study.
In point of fact, behind all the placatory nonsense, much serious scholarship was being expended on the Scrolls and their relationship to Christianity. Already a revolution had occurred in our understanding of the sectarian background underlying the “Gnosticism” of the Johannine writings in the New Testament. The antithesis between light and darkness, good and evil, that we find so prominently in the Fourth Gospel and elsewhere could now be seen to stem from the thought-world of the Scrolls. No longer could it be maintained that the Johannine literature was the latest and least Palestinian of the New Testament traditions.
The Semitic conceptions underlying such New Testament phrases as “men of goodwill” and “the poor in spirit” could now be better understood thanks to their appearance in the Scrolls. The sectarian ideas behind the crowd-feeding parables and the Last Supper were laid bare with the publication of a text from the caves outlining the rite of the Messianic Banquet.
There was no doubt that in the kind of Judaism exhibited by the Scrolls we had the religious matrix of Christianity. This was not entirely unexpected. Scholars had long ago suggested that a Jewish sect called the Essenes might prove to be a missing link between normative Judaism and Christianity. Hitherto we had known of these people only through the works of the ancient historians, like Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, writing in the first century of our era. Now it was generally recognized that in the Scrolls we had the remains of a vast Essene library. Furthermore, among the fragments were found traces of books we had known previously in later translations, collected in our Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. So with caution these too could be used to supplement our knowledge of Essene ways and thought.
Enigmas of the Essenes
The Essenes were noted for their extreme piety. They lived in communal settlements loosely attached to towns and villages throughout Judaea but as far as possible keeping themselves apart. They had a mother community by the shores of the Dead Sea, and most scholars quickly identified this with the ruined monastery of Qumran. The Essenes were great Bible readers, and sought in every word of Scripture a message for their own day and age. They practised baptism, and a form of communism, sharing their worldly wealth and caring for the sick and aged from a common fund. They sought in natural phenomena “signs of the times” and believed they could foretell the future. They had the powers of healing, combining esoteric knowledge of medicinal herbs with power over the demons of the spirit world.
With all this newly discovered pre-Christian literature at hand we could now see the New Testament in clearer historical perspective than ever before. Certain aspects of Christian teaching merged satisfactorily into its sectarian Jewish background. But there were differences. However usefully these allayed the fears of the Christian believer, they present a puzzling enigma to the disinterested historian.
Generally speaking, the main differences centre in the attitude of the New Testament towards the world on the fringe of Judaism. It has of course long been recognized that the Gospels are propaganda material for the non-Jewish Church. It is understandable that they should emphasize the universalistic outlook of the new Faith. The Greek and Roman, even the hated Samaritan, is painted in warm, if not glowing colours. It is reasonable that some of the stories should depict the Messiah as a most liberal-minded person, mixing freely with all manner of people, although to have him sitting at the same table as prostitutes and tax collectors might be thought to be carrying fraternization a little far.
But bearing in mind the sectarian background of the Faith – its debt to the Old Testament and the Jewishness of its basic ideas – one finds strange inconsistencies in the picture presented to us in the Gospels. How is it, for instance, that so often the enemies of the new sect are described simply as “Jews”? Were not the chief characters of the story Jews? Why is it that no mention is made of Essenism, although the titles Pharisees and Sadducees are freely bandied about, together with other sectarians like the Hellenists and Herodians whose affinities are most obscure?
Or again, in regard to the state of political tension existing in Palestine during the period supposedly depicted in the Gospel story, how could this Jewish rabbi have avoided taking some more definite stand on the burning issues of the day than the placatory “rendering unto Caesar…”? Far from sending his enquirers away dazzled by his wisdom and piety, such a remark in the real world of the first century would more probably have brought its speaker a fatal stab from a zealot’s sword.
In short, there is far too much that does not ring true in the New Testament in the light of the new comparative material. And in this I am not including the more obvious fantasies of the miracle stories, most of which New Testament scholars have long ago consigned to the realm of mythology. There is so much in the New Testament that is authentic Essenism, and yet in many cases it has been perverted in some way, robbed of its exclusivity, its political import, and given a new direction. The Christian scholar is tempted to fall back on the assumption that the differences are due to the genius or inspiration of one man. Undoubtedly this must be partly true. Most new movements can be traced to the work of one original thinker at some stage in their history. But there is usually a long process of development preceding the decisive intervention. The New Testament is so much at pains to disguise and reformulate this sectarian prehistory that the informed observer is left with a strong sense of unreality about the whole story. It reads like history and yet it so obviously is not.
Generally speaking, then, this is the present state of our researches. But I believe the situation is by no means as hopeless as it might seem. We are, I am sure, on the verge of a tremendous breakthrough, and it will start with a recognition of the full extent of Christianity’s debt to Essenism. We might begin with a fresh examination of the names and titles of Jesus and the Apostles. If these can be shown to be specifically Essene in meaning and origin then we have the kind of concrete link with the people of the Scrolls that goes beyond mere community of religious outlook.
Deciphering the names
Something of this sort has long been recognized. Thus the paqid (“Inspector, Overseer”) of the Qumran community was early on linked with the synonymous episkopos (“Bishop”) of the Church. The “Many”, as designating the generality of believers in the book of Acts, was seen to represent the Hebrew rabbim of the Scrolls. We can now go much further than this.
A newly deciphered document refers to one administrative official by a Semitic word that must underlie the nickname Cephas given to Simon Peter. The Essenes clearly deemed it a rather “special” word, since it signifies one having the ability to read men’s minds through their faces. This gives us a clue to the origin and purpose of the story in Matthew 16 where it is Peter who recognizes the Messianic calling of Jesus. Furthermore, since Peter is here and elsewhere being designated an “Inspector, Overseer” on a pattern with the Essene administrative functionary, we can now see that many of the other stories about him, speaking with tongues, relating the wonderful works of God, supervising the admittance of new members into the community, handling the common fund, and so on, are simply demonstrations of the supervisory work required of the Essene administrator.
The little document which gives us this information is interesting from many points of view. It appears to be a clinical report from the official appointed to dispense medical supplies and treatment to the “strangers” in the camp. We knew such a person existed within Essene communities since Josephus tells us that in every group there was someone appointed to look after the needs of pilgrims passing freely between the settlements. He also says that the Essenes were famed for their esoteric knowledge of the healing arts and this has long been suggested as the real meaning of their name.
Actually “Essene” goes back to a Sumerian word meaning “diviner” and was borrowed into ancient Akkadian and thence into Aramaic and the other Semitic dialects with the meaning of “wonder-worker” and thus “physician”. The ancient medicine man was, of course, basically a magician, combining a rudimentary knowledge of physiology with the practice of herbalism and general hocus-pocus. By his secret knowledge and rites he obtained power over the devils that caused bodily and mental sickness.
The New Testament is, of course, full of references to healing , and to magoi, “wizards”. Of such were the men from the East, the home of magic, who sought in the heavens the constellation that heralded the birth of the Christ child. Astrology was part of the secret knowledge of the Essenes and in the Scrolls it has been possible to find a significant part of the source material for the Bethlehem myth.
There are a number of other words for “magician” in the Semitic languages. One, also connected with divining, is kharash. Of such, as we can now deduce from Josephus’ accounts, were the Essenes. And this title has been skilfully woven into the descriptions of Jesus and John the Baptist in the New Testament. Using a common Semitic idiom by which a person having some special quality or trade is called “the son of” that attribute, the Gospels derive from this Essene designation the idea that Jesus’ father was a “carpenter” (also kharash) and John’s a “deaf-mute” (kheresh, with a change of vowels).
It now appears that the name Jesus itself means “Essene”. It is also, of course, the Greek form of the Hebrew Jeshua, with its idea of “salvation”, but that it meant for the Christian storytellers “magician, wonder-worker” is shown in the story of one Elymas in Acts 13. His title is given there as Bar (“son of”) Jesus, meaning, so we are told, magos, “magician”. Jewish tradition has long held Jesus to be such a person, and in these ancient writings his name is given in a form more closely representative of the word for Essene, as indeed it is in the seventh-century Qur’an (Koran).
The same process of deciphering the names and titles of the Apostles, by seeking a significant play on words and an equivalent Essene administrative office or self-description, yields equally promising results. Thus, for instance, it appears that Judas Iscariot served in the Christian story as Jesus’ betrayer for no more reason than that the second part of his title, rendered in the text as “he who betrayed him”, can mean “a hander-over of men” as well as “paymaster”, its proper designation. The brothers called Boanerges, impossibly translated in the story as “Sons of Thunder”, actually means “those having learnt the ability to divine the will of God”, having special insight. It is a necessary qualification of the Qumran judges, and it is indeed just this function that their stories are designed to illustrate.
When we come to examine afresh the New Testament description of some of Jesus’ more unorthodox table companions, the “gluttons” and “wine-bibbers”, the “harlots” and “publicans”, we find that they too disguise Essene titles and self-descriptions. Of particular interest in this respect are the female “sinners” as they are elsewhere euphemistically called. The Semitic word from which this word is derived means also “angel, one who serves God” and reappears not only similarly disguised in what Josephus tells us of the Essenes but straightforwardly as the title of Jewish and Judaeo-Christian sects elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. We are thus able now most satisfyingly to draw together into one fold a number of apparently disparate parties on the fringe of Judaism.
These and many similar instances of wordplay involving important religious titles and self-descriptions must prompt us to ask how these neo-Essene writers of the New Testament could bring themselves so to maltreat their source material. Quite obviously no female Essene would have called herself a “harlot” any more than her malecompanion would have perverted his most coveted title of “Chosen One (of God)” into “tax collector, publican”. Similar misrepresentation by the Gospel writers can be detected in their use of such terms as “Pharisee”, “Scribe”, and “doctor”. That their purpose is not one of denigration or mockery of other sects is shown by the fact that they use disguised Essene titles for Jesus himself and his faithful followers. We can only assume that in the Christian writings we have moved out from the central core of Essenism into a shadowy half-world where even the most sacred names and ideas of the original traditions can be changed to suit the storytellers’ homiletic purpose.
Certainly we are now only at the beginning of a complete revolution in our appraisal of New Testament traditions and their purpose. But already it is clear that there is scarcely a word of the Gospels and Acts that can be taken at its face value. The Dead Sea Scrolls together with historians’ records of the Essenes and the wealth of intertestamental literature already in our possession have at last given us the key to open the hidden mysteries of the New Testament.
The process of unlocking these secrets begins with an attempt to find certain key Aramaic words and phrases represented by the Greek. This is not a new exercise, of course, but once we have made the initial breakthrough, as with the kinds of wordplay in titles already mentioned, and thus know the types of words we are looking for, the process can develop quite quickly. Each word will be capable of a number of different interpretations and we shall expect to find it thus variously used in diverse parts of the Gospels and Acts. Where this proves to be the case we can cross-check our supposed Semitic original so that the accuracy of our choice is self-demonstrating. We have then to decide which of the possible meanings must be deemed basic to the storytellers’ purpose, and we shall usually be right if we assume it to be the one that does not rise to the surface at all. In other words, the sayings and incidents that appear in their “open” Greek form are of the lesser importance, or indeed of none at all to the writers’ real purpose.
Punning was respectable
This intricate process of juggling with words is not easy to understand in terms of Western thought and language. The Semitic family of tongues, however, lends itself readily to such punning. In ancient writing only the consonants were shown, the vowels being of less importance. For example, the group D-B-R can mean “word” or “he spoke” or “plague” or “pasture” depending on the context, the reader supplying the appropriate vowels. The group KH-R-SH has already been mentioned in connection with Jesus and John the Baptist. Other meanings that might be attributed to this combination are “tillers of the soil” and “wood”.
To the Jew of ancient times such playing with words was by no means a low form of wit. Similarities between words of this nature could be expected to have real significance, particularly where they occur in Holy Writ. So to deduce a teaching or to portray an incident quite different from the plain meaning of the Bible text was considered a legitimate form of exegesis. The Old Testament itself abounds in wordplay of this kind. For example, it probably never occurred to the first audiences of the myth of Jacob’s birth to wonder whether it was historically true that the baby came out of Rebekah’s womb clutching his brother’s heel. The similarity between his name Ya‘aqob and the word for heel ‘aqeb was a sufficient justification for the tale which, furthermore, could be read as a moral and omen of future events.
The New Testament has dealt in a somewhat similar manner with certain key texts from the Old Testament. The story of Peter and the “rock” in Matthew 16 can now be traced to one particular passage of Isaiah, used elsewhere in the New Testament and the Scrolls as a proof-text for the founding of the community. But as well as an intricate wordplay on the text itself, the writer has woven in an authentic Essene administrative title, played on that and a closely similar Aramaic word for “stone” (cepha), and linked it with one of the secret names of the angels, to produce the name Peter (petros). In other words, it is the proper name Peter that is secondary, not the “rock” nickname as commonly assumed.
We are thus brought to a fundamental consideration that must face us as we probe deeper and deeper into the underlying Semitic material of the New Testament. How far are these stories on the surface representative of real history?
Is it conceivable that such amazingly intricate literary compositions, woven from so many strands of text and tradition, can also be authentic descriptions of actual events of the first century? My own answer is no. Nevertheless some core of history probably exists in the stories of Jesus and his followers, and we might reasonably seek it in the history of the Essene movement and its leader, the so-called Teacher of Righteousness. It is with this in mind that we may look for possible parallels in the life of the Teacher and the Jesus myth. One possible link is the mention of “the crucified man” in an Essene commentary, with its reference to an event of 88 B.C. when the “Wicked Priest” of the time put to death in this manner many hundreds of the ringleaders of a revolt raised against him among his own people. Another point of possible reference is the story of John the Baptist’s opposition to his king’s marriage with his sister-in-law. One might see here a reflection of a similar reaction that the same “Wicked Priest’s” marriage with his dead brother’s wife would have provoked among strict Jews of his time, and the Essenes in particular. Of course the details were not exactly the same, but the marriage of Herod Antipas to Herodias could well have offered the Christian storyteller a useful, and he would have thought not purely coincidental, “peg” on which to hang the story of his latter-day Teacher’s martyrdom. In this case it might well be that the stories of John and Jesus are to some extent merely reflections of the real-life history of the Essene Teacher.
What becomes of Paul?
If the Gospels and Acts are mythical, then Paul, our earliest literary witness to Christianity, stands virtually without a historical point of reference. Indeed, the one rock in the Pauline literature that offers any help, the mention of the Nabatean king Aretas having a governor in Damascus, better supports a date around 85 B.C. than a chronology that places Paul’s ministry in the 40s A.D. – when the Romans were in complete control of the area. It might also offer a point of contact with a breakaway movement within Essenism around that time, as evidenced in the Scrolls, and the sect’s sojourn in Damascus, similarly authenticated. However this may be, the placing of Jesus in the time of Pontius Pilate is readily enough explained in Scrolls chronology by the reference to the death of the Teacher being “forty years” before the collapse of an armed revolt. The Christian storytellers would then have taken this latter point as the fall of Masada to the Romans in A.D. 73, and found the death of their second “Teacher” at thirty-three, during the procuratorship of the luckless Pilate (26-36 A.D.).
There are obviously many problems raised by this new appraisal of Christian traditions. Nevertheless the point to be remembered is that all future work must be based first on the literary conclusions of our comparison with the Scrolls. The New Testament records after all are our only worthwhile sources for the Christian story. If they can no longer be taken at their face value, we must determine just what is their import, how they were produced and for what purpose. All other considerations are secondary.
We stand at the beginning of a long and exciting road. Not all our conclusions are going to be palatable. Not only is the historicity of the New Testament stories being called into question but the very nature of the underlying material must give occasion for pained surprise. Enough has already been resolved for us to realize that we are dealing with an extreme form of Essenism which is not only on the fringes of Judaism but even of any strictly religious philosophy at all. We are in the world of dark magic, and in particular that kind which deals with the calling up of the spirits of the dead for the purposes of necromancy. Beneath the surface of innocuous tales of giving life to little girls and older men lie incantations and even detailed rites of flesh-cutting and ventriloquism.
Can Christian scholars deal with such distasteful material sufficiently disinterestedly to probe their innermost secrets? For those of us to whom the problems involved are purely literary and historical, the sources merely bodies of ancient literature, emotional questions are not involved. It must be otherwise for those for whom the New Testament is a fount of faith. It would be unreasonable to expect them to approach the New Testament without emotion, completely dispassionately and objectively. But how else can this most exciting breakthrough that the Scrolls discoveries now promise be fully exploited?
We return to the same shortcoming that has dogged the Scrolls story from the outset: lack of money. If there were available, even at this late hour, sufficient funds, not only to safeguard treasures already found and to look for more, but to offer a new generation of uncommitted scholars the means of probing the significance of the Scrolls without fear or favour, undeterred by religious or academic pressures, we might look with more confidence to the future of these studies.
Perhaps the question really is whether this generation has the courage to face the truth and all its consequences.