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One day late in 1948, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Louvain, my professor of biblical studies arrived 19940811010img1.jpgibly excited. He had in his hand a letter from Jerusalem that contained extracts from a recently discovered scroll of the Book of Isaiah a thousand years older than the earliest known Hebrew manuscript of the Prophets, which is dated 895 CE. I realized at once that this startling discovery invalidated the axiom, based on a century of intensive archaeological scrutiny of every corner of the land from Dan to Beersheba, that no ancient text written on leather or papyrus could have survived in the climate of Palestine.
But after the initial excitement surrounding the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a half-century of scholarly mismanagement and irresponsibility followed. During the Seventies and Eighties, the small team of scholars editing the unpublished manuscripts refused to make them openly available to other researchers, although they were making very slow progress in publishing them. As a result of this “secrecy rule,” a distorted, sensational view of the Scrolls arose among the press, the public, and even some scholars, who suspected that they contained “revolutionary” or “explosive” revelations about Jesus and the New Testament.
Once the Scroll archives were dramatically opened in 1991, however, they failed to reveal any sort of theological dynamite. The immense labor of publishing the Scrolls is now moving quickly, and they are the object of lively and informed scholarly debates. At this point it is possible not only to summarize the often sorry history of Scrolls research, but also to sketch the significance of the Scrolls for our understanding of the Bible and of Palestinian history.
The original hero of the Scrolls story was a young Bedouin shepherd, Muhammad edh-Dhib, who discovered seven ancient manuscripts, six in Hebrew and one in Aramaic, in a cave near the Dead Sea in late 1946 or early 1947. He did not reveal exactly where it was, but thanks to the efforts of Captain Philippe Lippens, a Belgian officer of the United Nations Armistice Corps, the cave was located in 1949. It was then investigated by G. Lankester Harding, the British director of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, and Father Roland de Vaux, a French Dominican archeologist and biblical scholar, who found hundreds more leather manuscript fragments in it.
The study of the Scrolls began in three centers. E.L. Sukenik, professor of Jewish archeology at Hebrew University, purchased three of the scrolls fairly intact from an Arab dealer and began immediately to arrange for their publication. The other four were acquired by the Arab Metropolitan Archbishop Mar Athanasius of the Syrian Orthodox Monastery of St. Mark in Jerusalem, who entrusted them for study and publication to the American School for Oriental Research in Jerusalem. Finally, after the partition of Palestine into Israel and Jordan in 1948, de Vaux and Harding commissioned two young researchers at the Ecole Biblique et Archéologique Française in East Jerusalem, Dominique Barthélémy and…
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