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     What about the Dead Sea Scrolls?

 

The passages below are taken from John Young with David Wilkinson’s book “The Case Against Christ” first published in 1986. This edition is 2006 by Hodder & Stoughton.

 

If one will go through any of the historic statements of Christian faith he will find nothing that has been or can be disproved by the Dead Sea Scrolls.

              Professor Millar Burrows, Yale University

 

     The question that forms the chapter heading was put to John by a student. He had heard someone claim that some scrolls had disproved the Bible, but he couldn't remember their name! He was, in fact, referring to the `Dead Sea Scrolls'. They have become famous for two reasons. First, because they are very significant. Second, because a string of authors have tried to use them to discredit the Bible and Christianity.

 

Shepherds and Scrolls

     These scrolls were discovered in 1947 in caves at Qumran on the north-western shore of the Dead Sea. There were about 850 manuscripts; many were just fragments. They were stored there by a strict community of Jews that flourished from about l50 BC to AD 68; i.e. before, during and after the lifetime of Jesus.

     The scrolls remained in eleven caves for 2,000 years, until they were discovered by three Arab boys who were looking after sheep and goats. One boy lobbed a stone into a cave, heard a clonk and made `the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times' (the description is Professor W F Albright's).

     A few days later Muhammed edh-Dhib, the youngest of the three, went back to explore and found pots containing leather rolls with writing on. He didn't realise that the scrolls were valuable. Nor did anyone else. For some weeks they were kept in a tent. Then some of the scrolls were sold for just £24 and even as little as £7!

     Eventually their significance was recognised, and after the excitement of discovery, the serious work began. It was found that these scrolls contain rules, worship material and commentaries used by the community which produced them. Particularly significant for us, they contain extracts from all the Old Testament books (except Esther).

     The Dead Sea Scrolls have proved to be an invaluable resource for historians and biblical scholars. They cast light on the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament) and how it was viewed 2,000 years ago. They illuminate one strand of religious life at the time of Jesus.

     However, a few writers have tried to use them to cast doubt on the Christian Faith and its New Testament origins. Some have argued that the similarities between the Qumran community and the early Christian church are striking. For example, in 1992 Barbara Thiering from Sydney University wrote Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls. She added sensational theory to sensational theory. According to her, Jesus was a member of the sect living at Qumran; he was married with three children when he divorced his first wife and remarried. Barbara Thiering claimed that Jesus did not die on the cross, but lived on and accompanied St Paul on his missionary travels.

 

Do the Scrolls discredit Jesus?

     Most other scholars reject these novel views. Comparisons between Jesus and `the Teacher of Righteousness'---the original leader of the community at Qumran---can be drawn, but there are significant differences as well.

     In his book, The Dead Sea Scrolls, the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes does compare Jesus with the Teacher of Righteousness---but only to make the point that Jesus was a much warmer and less austere person. He wrote, `Jesus ... appears as a much more human person, whose concern was with other human persons and their need to be taught how to live as the children of God.' The British academic Alan Millard supports this: `The differences between the Teacher of Righteousness and Jesus are huge.'

     In The Temple Scroll, another Jewish scholar, Yigael Yadin, compares the Essenes (the tight-knit, austere community which wrote and preserved the scrolls at Qumran) with the early Christians. He acknowledges that there was a considerable gulf between these two groups. The Dead Sea Scrolls show an exclusive community, with a rigid adherence to rules. The New Testament shows an open community, well able to adapt to changing circumstances.

     These positive points about Jesus and the early church come from scholars with no Christian axe to grind. The Dead Sea Scrolls are helpful to Christianity in other areas too. We'll consider four of these.

 

1. Background information

     The Essenes shared a country and a culture with Jesus and his disciples. So the Scrolls throw light upon the attitudes, the customs, and the diverse Jewish groups that existed during the lifetime of Jesus. In this way they illuminate the background against which many of the events of the New Testament took place.

 

2. A reliable text

     Far from raising doubts, the Scrolls increase our confidence in the reliability of the text of the Bible. At least part of every Old Testament book, except one (Esther) has been found in the Scrolls. These Scripture passages are in Hebrew---the language in which the Old Testament was originally written. They are much older than any other Hebrew Old Testament texts so far discovered---about one thousand years older, in fact.

     Yet a comparison of those parts of the Bible found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, with these other much later copies, shows a striking similarity. There are differences, of course; this is inevitable over a period of a thousand years. But the differences do not affect the sense. And the similarities far outweigh the differences.

     It is clear that, over the centuries, Jewish communities cherished their Scriptures, and copied them with great care. They did all in their power to keep them pure and unchanged, and they were remarkably successful. Because they are very ancient, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide a yardstick by which we can measure that success. As a result they have increased our confidence in the accuracy of the Bible.

 

    The broadcaster Magnus Magnusson has a special interest in archaeology. He speaks of the `very few minor variations' in the Scroll of the Book of Isaiah. He continues:

 

This underlines the essential integrity of the scribal tradition, that a manuscript could be copied over and over again for a thousand years and still preserve an extremely faithful version of the original.

 

Others make a similar point. For example:

 

[We] have nothing to fear, and much to gain, from this research [into the Dead Sea Scrolls]. It is a staggering fact that in the course of 1,000 years of copying by hand no errors have crept into the text which in any way affect the Bible teaching.

     (Alan Millard, Rankin Professor of Hebrew and Ancient Semitic Languages, University of Liverpool)

 

3. Facts can kill fashions

     We have seen that the Scrolls have increased our confidence in the text of the Old Testament. What about the New Testament?

    At one time it was fashionable among some scholars to assert that the Fourth Gospel (the Gospel according to St John) was written late in the second century. They asserted that its key ideas were at home in Greek, rather than Jewish culture. In the absence of detailed information it was easy to speculate about a late date. Many scholars viewed the Fourth Gospel as a profound meditation written by a Christian of the second century. It was brimful of spiritual value, but had little historical value.

     This plausible theory was killed by two facts. The first fact was the discovery, in the sands of Egypt, of a papyrus fragment from a copy of St John's Gospel. This was identified in Manchester in 1934 and dated at around AD 130, pointing to a first-century date for the original.

     The second destructive fact was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

     Those earlier scholars who believed that the Fourth Gospel was a free composition written under strong Greek (i.e. non-Jewish) influence, used to point to contrasts drawn by its author. Contrasts like `darkness and light', `good and evil', `life and death'. These are Greek ideas, they argued, not Jewish. As Jesus was a Jew, the implication was clear: the Fourth Gospel was not `earthed' in his life and culture.

     Then the Dead Sea Scrolls came to light.

     They were written by a tightly organised Jewish community. This community rejected all foreign influence: Roman overlords; Greek ideas; everything not thoroughly Jewish.

     So the text of the Scrolls produced some surprises. For one thing, they also abound in contrasts---contrasts like darkness and light; good and evil; life and death! Scholars came to see that these ideas were at home in Jewish society as well as in Greek culture.

     Indeed, rather than emphasising Greek influence, some scholars began to suggest that St John's is the most Jewish of all the Gospels! Others suspected an Aramaic `first draft'---and Aramaic was the first language of Jesus (although he would almost certainly have spoken Greek too). The Scrolls show that the ideas expressed in St John's Gospel were `earthed' in Jewish culture at the time of Jesus, after all.

 

4. Beware sensation seekers

     Two students sent a postcard to John from Cornwall. They had cycled the length of Britain---874 miles---to raise money for research into multiple sclerosis. The postcard showed a group of naked cyclists arriving at Land's End three years earlier. That group had wanted to gain publicity for their cause and judged, rightly, that if you cause a sensation, you hit the headlines.

     The same principle applies to religious matters. When a Bible scholar says, `I believe in Jesus Christ', no one is interested. When a Bible scholar says, `I don't believe in Jesus Christ', the newspapers are there like a flash. Sometimes, of course, would-be sensation seekers fail. 'As explosive as a wet mop'! This was how Geza Vermes---a Jewish scholar---described one book which attempted to sensationalise the Dead Sea Scrolls.

     Careful study of the Dead Sea Scrolls by a host of scholars has increased our confidence in the Bible. Yet some sensationalist, contrary views have achieved fame and credence. Those few scholars and journalists who have tried to use the Scrolls to undermine Christianity have done their job well. The student who spoke about the South Sea Scrolls shows this very clearly!

     No doubt other sensation-stirrers will pick up pens, or sit at computers, or gather in TV studios, and influence thousands. Serious enquirers will be wise to save their energies for considering those criticisms of the Christian Faith with real substance.

 

POSTSCRIPT ON EXPERT WITNESSES

     A backbench MP reminded the House of Commons that the Ark was built by amateurs, and the Titanic by professionals. It's an important caution. Beware the expert!

    Until recently, expert witnesses were regarded as just that--- experts. Ordinary folk sometimes considered them infallible. Then came the `cot death' trials in which Professor Sir Roy Meadow testified as an expert witness. He got it badly wrong and people got badly hurt.

     Of course we must listen to scholarly experts, and we have already quoted a fair number. But they are fallible human beings like the rest of us, and they can---and do---make mistakes.

     Some scholars are too cautious, unwilling to challenge prevailing academic fashions. Others get their facts wrong or show bad judgment, like the eminent historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper, who lent his support to the faked `Hitler Diaries'. A few years earlier that same historian attacked the Gospels, and got his facts badly wrong about the dating of the New Testament documents.

     As we have seen, a few scholars love to cause a religious sensation. Recent books from scholarly pens have suggested the following: that the early Christians were `into' drugs and sex, under the cover of the moral teaching of the New Testament; that Jesus took a drug before the crucifixion, gambling that he would come through the ordeal alive; that the geography of the Bible belongs to Arabia not Palestine; that Jesus was invented; that Jesus married and divorced ...

     All this can be very alarming to ordinary Christians who have no means of knowing whether a particular sensational viewpoint is widely shared by other experts. Professor James Dunn, Emeritus Professor of New Testament at the University of Durham, puts all this into perspective:

 

Since Christianity and scholarship share the same passion for truth, Christianity and scholarship are in fact natural allies---common foes of all forms of falsehood, distortion and obscurantism. So Christianity has nothing to fear from scholarship. Scholars may be a different matter! For individual scholars have their biases and prejudices like every other human being ... But even so, Christianity need have little fear of such scholars. For scholars have to work from the evidence available to them. And evidence has the happy knack of undermining the overblown or unbalanced edifices built upon it. [97-104]

 

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