Fragments Of the Past

'A guy named Norm Golb just loves to follow these Dead Sea Scrolls around the country and talk about how we've got it all wrong," says Delle Willett, director of marketing for the San Diego Natural History Museum. Written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, the scrolls, Willett says, "are the Bible. They are the oldest copies of the Hebrew and Christian Old Testament." Fragments of the scrolls, including sections of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah, and the Book of War will be on display at the museum through the end of the year. Debates about the origins of the scrolls began in 1947, when a Bedouin shepherd inadvertently discovered a clay jar containing fragments of parchment in a cave in the ancient village of Qumran, located on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea and 13 miles east of Jerusalem in the area now known as the West Bank. The initial, and still most widely accepted, theory was suggested in the early 1950s by scholar and priest Roland de Vaux, who posited that the ruins of Qumran had housed a community for a sect of Essenes, an ascetic group that broke away from traditional Judaism. De Vaux concluded that the scrolls were the community's library and declared one of the larger caves, in which long tables and inkwells were found, a scriptorium for transcribing the ancient texts. In recent years, however, some scholars have begun to question de Vaux's hypothesis.

In his article "The Dead Sea Scrolls Controversy," anthropologist Steve Mizrach writes, "The objectivity of the scroll researchers on these controversial questions is itself questionable, as de Vaux and many others are members of the École biblique, a [biblical research] institution formed [in 1890] to combat Modernist tendencies in Catholicism and promote pro-Catholic readings of scripture." According to Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg, two archaeologists who conducted an excavation at Qumran for ten years, it is more probable that the Essenes were "one of several groups that wrote the scrolls." They base their findings on the various styles in which the scrolls were written, the fact that some stories contradict others, and physical evidence that, in the period between 250 B.C. and A.D. 68 (in which the scrolls were generated), Qumran was a factory location producing pottery and date honey.

Norman Golb, professor of Jewish history and civilization for the University of Chicago and the author of Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?, is, according to the online Gnostic Society Library, "among the most vociferous opponents to the classic story of the Scrolls' origins." Golb asserts that the scrolls were taken from libraries in Jerusalem and hidden in the caves to protect them from the Roman invasion of A.D. 68. He denies the possibility that any sect lived at the site and insists the long tables found in the "scriptorium" were dining tables and that the "inkwells" were perfume bottles.

The scribes, says Willett, were "a break-off group who called themselves the Sons of Light." The term "Essenes" will not be used in the exhibit. "That's another part of the controversy -- were they Essenes or just people? There are people all the time that run off and start their own communities."

Because certain texts reflect the stories and style of the New Testament, some scholars theorize that Jesus and John the Baptist were involved with one of the sects by the Dead Sea. In her summary of the scrolls for the almanac, Holly Hartman writes, "This debate has furthered speculation about the historical Jesus, such as the claim that he was a Zealot rather than a pacifist, a theory that does not fit with the New Testament tradition but does fit with the history of this period." Willett explains, "The only thing close [to Jesus in the scrolls] is that these people were looking for salvation, waiting for a messiah, for someone to come and make things better. But in the terminology of the time, 'messiah' was more a political leader than a god."

Hartman sheds light on another possible misinterpretation of the Bible as we know it: "One of the most important discoveries in the scrolls has been the use of the name Son of God to refer to someone other than Jesus, implying a cultural use of the term that was not itself synonymous with God."

A series of lectures coincides with the exhibit, many of which will highlight controversies surrounding the scrolls. "In the long run," says Willett, "it doesn't really matter who wrote them. The scrolls are the scrolls; they're still the basis of Judaism and Christianity. Is the stuff that a man named Shakespeare wrote good or not? Maybe he didn't write [those plays], maybe Leonardo da Vinci didn't paint the Mona Lisa, but it's still what it is." -- Barbarella

Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition June 29 through December 31 San Diego Natural History Museum Balboa Park Info: 619-255-0217 or

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