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Dead sea scrowls are a library of enlightenment for modern faiths
They speak of a Teacher of Righteousness and a pierced messiah, of cleansing through water and a battle of light against darkness.
But anyone looking to the Dead Sea Scrolls in search of proof, say, that Jesus of Nazareth was the messiah presaged by the prophets, or that John the Baptist lived among the scroll's authors, will be disappointed.
What the scrolls provide instead, scholars say, is a window into a world of religious ferment 2,000 years ago that gave rise to Judaism and Christianity as we know them today.
"It is an entire library from this crucial period that opens up to us the interreligious debate that is the background for everything that happened after," said Lawrence H. Schiffman, chairman of New York University's Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, who has written extensively on the scrolls.
Fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, heralded by many as the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century, are on display through June 6 as part of the Milwaukee Public Museum's latest exhibit, "Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible: Ancient Artifacts, Timeless Treasures."
Excavated from caves in the Judean desert in the 1940s and '50s, the scrolls date from about 250 B.C. to 68 A.D., a period of social and political instability just before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
Written on parchment and papyrus in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, they include the oldest-known copies of the books of the Hebrew Bible — what Christians call the Old Testament — and numerous other texts, from biblical commentaries to lists of religious laws governing the daily lives of their authors.
Their initial discovery, in 1947 by Bedouin shepherds in caves above the Dead Sea, is the stuff of Hollywood, a cloak-and-dagger tale of international intrigue set in the final days of the British Mandate before the creation of Israel.
The term scrolls is misleading. Only a small fraction of the 900 documents were complete texts, discovered wrapped in linen and stored in earthen jars. The remainder were painstakingly reconstructed from thousands of fragments excavated from 11 caves, some as small as a fingernail and encrusted with centuries of grime and bat guano.
Today, most scholars believe the scrolls were the library of an apocalyptic sect of Jews who rejected the priesthood that controlled the Jerusalem Temple and moved to the wilderness at around 100 B.C. to prepare the way of the messiah — or in their case, messiahs, one royal, one priestly. The sect, they say, stored the scrolls in the caves surrounding their settlement, a place we now call Qumran, that was destroyed by the Romans in 68 A.D.
Most identify this group as the Essenes, a sect described in the historical writing of Josephus, Philo and Pliny the Elder.
But alternate theories abound: about the authors of the scrolls, the nature of Qumran itself and whether it has any ties at all to the caves and the scrolls. One view, promoted by Norman Golb of the University of Chicago, argues that Qumran was a fort unrelated to the caves, and that the scrolls were deposited for safe keeping by Jewish groups fleeing the destruction in Jerusalem.
That's not supported by the evidence at Qumran, said Jodi Magness, an archaeologist in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of "The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls."
She points to the cylindrical jars she says are unique to Qumran that also were found in the caves, and notes that some caves were accessible only through the settlement.
"All the people who identify Qumran as not sectarian — as a fort or a villa or a pottery house — they're all predicated on divorcing the scrolls from the site, and you cannot," she said.
More important than who wrote the scrolls, scholars say, is what they reveal.
Early on, the content of some scrolls — with their allusions to a son of God, a suffering messiah and cleansing through ritual bath — led to some speculation that Jesus and John the Baptist were connected to the Qumran sect.
Others suggested the scrolls either prophesied the coming of Christ, or that messianic predictions were so commonplace in the Judaism of the day that the scrolls undermined the uniqueness of Christianity.
Most scholars reject those ideas.
They note that Jesus, who died around 30 A.D., preached an inclusive philosophy, contrary to the exclusive Qumran sect, where members lived a priestly existence that emphasized ritual purity. And while there are intriguing similarities between John the Baptist and the sect — his priestly lineage, the location of his ministry, and his message that the coming of the messiah was at hand — there's no evidence, they say, to tie him to Qumran.
"If you look at what Jesus was doing, he was going out of his way to come into contact with the most impure members of Jewish society — prostitutes, lepers, corpses ..." Magness said. "Nobody who was a member of the Qumran sect would have gone near those people."
Many scholars, including Magness, believe John may have had an early connection to Qumran, but that he would have severed those ties by the time he was ministering to Jesus.
"If he was ever associated, he probably split from them, because his understanding of washings, his baptisms, were different from the ritual bathing at Qumran," said James C. VanderKam, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and a principal editor of the official scrolls publication team in recent decades.
As for undermining Christianity, scholars say the scrolls have, instead, illuminated it.
Though no New Testament figure is mentioned, the scrolls show the vigorous debate going on among Jews at the time over apocalypticism and messianism — the ideas that the kingdom of God was at hand and that a savior would deliver them to a better life.
The earliest followers of Jesus did not see themselves as a separate religion but as Jews, scholars point out. They differed from the Qumran sect because they believed the messiah had come.
"The Christian claim that Jesus was the messiah wouldn't have meant anything if we didn't know that all Jews were expecting a messiah. That point is tremendously illustrated in the scrolls," said Schiffman.
"I would argue that the scrolls enhance one's faith rather than undermine it," said Nathan Jastram, chairman of the theology department of Concordia University in Mequon, who worked on the Book of Numbers as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls publication team.
"Our faith isn't just a philosophy, it's based on actual events and people, and it makes a difference that that (history) is accurately transmitted," said Jastram, who is Christian.
"The New Testament doesn't claim Jesus invented a new religion, but that he fulfilled what the Old Testament prophesied."
Like Christianity, today's rabbinic Judaism, which stresses interpretation and study of the Torah, grew out of that same period of tumult leading up to the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. The scrolls contain much about their authors, but also about the competing sects — the Pharisees and Sadducees — against which they rebelled.
A diverse Judaism
They reveal, scholars say, a Judaism that was much more diverse in beliefs and practices than was previously thought.
"The scrolls show a brand of Judaism that we'd lost sight of," said Eugene C. Ulrich, professor of theology and Hebrew scripture at the University of Notre Dame and chief editor of the biblical texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. "We used to think there was a mainstream Judaism, and now it appears that it was much more of a spectrum like we have today in Judaism and Christianity."
Another important contribution of the scrolls has been to expand scholars' understanding of the evolutions and translations of biblical texts.
Until the discovery of the scrolls, the oldest known translation of the Hebrew Bible dated from 1009 A.D. "What they showed us is that the texts we do have from our medieval Bibles have been amazingly accurately preserved," said Ulrich.
Different versions of the Bible
At the same time, however, it is just one version.
"There used to be variant editions of many of the biblical books in the pre-Christian period, and it's the scrolls that show us that," he said.
That discovery has led scholars to alter their views of some texts. What were previously seen as errors in transcriptions in some cases now appear to have been correct translations of alternate texts.
In the end, what the scrolls do is take scholars 1,000 years closer to the origins of the Bible — a significant development in a field of study that lacks any "autographs" indicating an original author or date.
Said Ulrich of Notre Dame: "These are an entire millennium older, much closer to what the Bible was like at the time it was written."
What types of texts are represented at Qumran?
Copies of every book of the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament, except the Book of Esther.
Biblical commentaries known as Pesharim.
Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible, known as the targum.
Apocrypha, books such as Tobit and Sirach, that are found in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian canons of sacred scripture but not in the Jewish or Protestant canons.
Pseudepigrapha, books such as Enoch and Jubilees, not found in either the Hebrew Bible or Catholic or Protestant canons, but may be found in the Ethiopian or Armenian canons.
Greek copies of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint.
Sectarian manuscripts, such as the Community Rule or the War Scroll, that speak to the specific rules and beliefs of a sect.There's insight — but not proof — in the Dead Sea Scrolls
New Testament has words of the scrolls
To understand how the Dead Sea Scrolls influenced early Christianity, just turn to the New Testament.
Take, for example, the Great Isaiah Scroll, a facsimile of which is on display as part of the Milwaukee Public Museum's Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. Written around 125 B.C. and the only scroll to emerge virtually intact from the caves at Qumran, its messianic message is quoted in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, John and Luke, the earliest of which wasn't written until around A.D. 65.
The scrolls' so-called "Son of God" text reads much like the story of the Annunciation in the Gospel of Luke. And the Scrolls' "Blessing of the Wise" echoes the beatitudes of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount.
"It is a matter of foundation, of roots and identity," said Donald Rappe, associate professor of theology at Mount Mary College, who has studied and taught in Israel near the site of Qumran.
"When people say there's nothing Christian about the scrolls, I beg to differ," said Rappe.
"They're not what we'd call explicitly Christian. But they come from that matrix of Jewish beliefs and thoughts about God and our relationship to God . . . that was breathed by the original followers of Jesus, and by Jesus himself."
Even where they are not directly quoted, the scrolls enliven New Testament scripture, said James C. VanderKam, a professor of Hebrew scriptures at the University of Notre Dame and one of the principal editors of the official scrolls translation team.
He points to the story of Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath and the ensuing debate over whether that's acceptable under Jewish law.
"We see evidence of just that kind of thing being debated in the scrolls," VanderKam said. "For me it makes that story from the Gospels a much more lively one."