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 During the Seventies and Eighties, the small team of scholars editing the unpublished manuscripts refused to make them openly available to other researchers, although they were making very slow progress in publishing them.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 J.T. Milik, to edit the fragments they had retrieved from the original cave.

Between 1951 and 1956, ten more caves containing manuscript materials were discovered by archeologists and, more often, by Bedouin. The most substantial deposits were found in Cave 4, which contained thousands of fragments, and Cave 11, which yielded several more scrolls. Many of the fragments were tiny, containing at the most only a few words, and the difficulties of deciphering them and fitting them together were immense. Harding and de Vaux also excavated the previously neglected ruins of a settlement known as Qumran, which lay near the caves, and the view soon prevailed among scholars that the Dead Sea manuscripts were connected to the Qumran settlement.

In the beginning, the editorial work proceeded with remarkable speed, despite the fact that with the exception of the Nash Papyrus, discovered in Egypt and containing the Ten Commandments, no Hebrew manuscripts predating the early Middle Ages were available for comparison. In 1955, Edmund Wilson’s The Scrolls from the Dead Sea introduced the subject to a wider public. By 1956, the seven original scrolls and fragments from Cave 1 had been published. The results of the archeological excavations at Qumran and several important fragments from Cave 4 were also made available to scholars without delay.

Yet in spite of the rapid progress made at first in publishing photographs and transcriptions of the manuscripts, the sudden accumulation of thousands of fragmentary texts led to disaster. The contents of the ten caves discovered after the partition of Palestine fell under the authority of the Jordanian government, and in 1952 Harding asked de Vaux to take charge of editing and publishing the rapidly accumulating manuscripts. De Vaux, awed by the enormous number of fragments retrieved from Cave 4, recruited an international, interdenominational team of seven Hebrew and Aramaic experts. They were to work under him on the preparation of a multivolume series, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, to be published by arrangement with Oxford University Press.


In fairness, I should stress that the industry of the group during its first decade could not be faulted. Judging from a primitive concordance made by de Vaux’s team of all the words found in the fragments from Caves 2-10, we can see that most of the material was deciphered and identified by 1960. The scholars’ refusal to put their findings into the public domain, a decision for which they were rightly criticized, should not obscure this achievement. Working mainly in Jerusalem, the team continued to make progress in the early 1960s. The fragments from the eight minor caves (2-3 and 5-10) filled a single volume in 1963, and in 1968 the first volume of Cave 4 fragments appeared, although it was poorly edited and full of inaccuracies. The contents of Cave 11 were published separately by American and Dutch scholars.

At the start the quality and importance and sheer numbers of the fragments should have made it clear that a group of seven editors was too small to deal with them, let alone produce the kind of “definitive” edition de Vaux appears to have had in mind. He was also at fault in relying on his own personal, quasi-patriarchal authority instead of setting up an independent supervisory board with the power to replace members of the team who failed to fulfill their obligations satisfactorily. Worst of all he imposed rules of secrecy on the project that limited access to the manuscripts to the members of the international team, and prevented other scholars from working on them.

When the Israelis occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, all the scroll materials housed in the Palestine Archaeological Museum came under the control of the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Only the Copper Scroll (found in Cave 3, and thought to be a list of hiding places of Temple treasure) and a few other fragments exhibited in Amman remained in Jordanian hands. Yigael Yadin, deputy prime minister of Israel during the 1970s and an archeologist, acquired the Temple Scroll, the longest of all the Qumran manuscripts, from a dealer in Bethlehem and managed to complete a three-volume edition of the text by 1977. The Israelis decided not to interfere with de Vaux’s team, but de Vaux’s anti-Israeli sentiments were no secret; he apparently did not want to continue work on the documents as long as they were under Israeli control, and he remained inactive until his death in 1971. His successor, Pierre Benoit, lacked de Vaux’s energy and influence, and work on Discoveries in the Judaean Desert slowed to a lethargic pace. During the fifteen years of Benoit’s stewardship, only two volumes appeared.

As the years passed, several members of the team died without completing their assignments, while others subcontracted some of their editing work to their graduate students at Harvard, who delayed publishing the texts until they had completed their own research and dissertations. In 1987, after Benoit’s death, the depleted and aging international team chose as his successor the British scholar John Strugnell, who had failed to complete a single volume in all his thirty-three years of work on the editorial team. In 1987, at a public session of a Scrolls symposium held in London, I urged him to publish the photographic plates at once while he and his team continued their work. He refused, giving no reason for doing so. Strugnell’s tenure turned out to be brief: in 1990 his colleagues persuaded him to step down after he gave a highly compromising interview to an Israeli newspaper, in which he not only made disparaging remarks about Israel, but called the Jewish religion “horrible.”

At that point, the Israelis stepped in and terminated the disastrous thirty-seven-year reign of the international team. They appointed Emmanuel Tov, professor of biblical studies at Hebrew University, as the new editor-in-chief, and he began auspiciously by redistributing the unpublished texts among a new editorial team of sixty members. Unfortunately Tov still felt obliged to maintain de Vaux’s secrecy rules. But the slow pace of the Discoveries in the Judaean Desert series, combined with the inaccessibility of the unpublished texts, was creating intense dissatisfaction among the many scholars whose work was obstructed by these unexplained delays. My own warning in 1977 that “unless drastic measures are taken at once, the greatest…of all Hebrew and Aramaic manuscript discoveries is likely to become the academic scandal par excellence of the twentieth century” went unheeded, but opposition to the status quo be-gan to gain momentum. Beginning in the 1980s the Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), edited by Hershel Shanks, which is widely read by Biblical scholars, conducted a relentless campaign for the “liberation” of the Qumran texts. BAR’s parent body, the Biblical Archeology Society in Washington, DC, was ready to lend its support with a secret weapon: a full set of Qumran photographs that had been clandestinely obtained. The Scroll War was imminent.


It took only eight weeks for the walls to come down. Two scholars from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ben Zion Wacholder and Martin Abegg, managed to reconstruct, with the help of a “rabbi computer,” the text of seventeen Cave 4 fragments, making use of the concordance first prepared by de Vaux’s colleagues, of which Strugnell had issued twenty-five private copies in 1988 for the official editors. The official team called the reconstruction piracy and threatened legal proceedings, but less than three weeks later the final blow was delivered from a most unexpected corner: the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

Elizabeth Bechtel, a California philanthropist who was intensely interested in the Scrolls, had managed to obtain two sets of photographs of the manuscripts from the Jerusalem Department of Antiquities, one for the Biblical Manuscript Institute she had founded in Claremont and another for herself. Mrs. Bechtel donated her copy to the Huntington in the 1980s, with no conditions attached regarding access. When the Huntington announced on September 22, 1991, that it would open its Scrolls archives to all qualified scholars, the monopoly effectively ended. The Israel Antiquities Authority and the official editors protested, but by the end of October they realized the battle was lost. All restrictions had to be ended. The IAA formally lifted the embargo on access to the unpublished scrolls, and the Scroll photograph archives at Oxford, Cincinnati, and Claremont, previously restricted to a small number of persons approved by Jerusalem, were opened to all qualified researchers.

On November 19, 1991, the Biblical Archaeology Society issued two volumes edited by Robert Eisenman and James Robinson, with 1,785 photographs of virtually all the fragments. Eisenman writes that Scroll photographs “began coming to him” in September of 1989, but doesn’t say who sent them. Hershel Shanks reveals that the negatives were made by an Arab photographer, Najib Albina, although it still remains unclear how and why they reached Eisenman. In any event, scholarship must be grateful for this edition, which enables those with $200 to spare to read all the Scrolls fragments, assuming that they can decipher ancient script on photographs of variable quality. Non-specialists in need of fuller information can read translations of the scrolls in several recent editions. Of these The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered by Robert Eisenman and Michael Wise offers to the public fifty unpublished or partly published Qumran texts in Wise’s generally satisfactory translation. My own book, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, has been through three editions between 1962 and 19871 and a much enlarged fourth edition is scheduled for the fall. Another new version in English, made from Florentíno García Martínez’s Spanish rendering, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated, is announced as imminent by E.J. Brill, Leiden. As for general introductions, Hershel Shanks has reprinted in a single volume twenty-two articles from the Biblical Archaeology Review, which cover various facets of the Scrolls. Joseph Fitzmyer, SJ, a veteran of Qumran studies, has also published a useful guide to the manuscripts. My introductory volume, The Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran in Perspective, is due to appear in a completely updated third edition in September.2

By the end of 1991, then, the Dead Sea Scrolls were “liberated” and a fresh era began in their study. Since vested interests are no longer protected, the rate of scholarly publication has accelerated and journals have been flooded with papers by scholars claiming new interpretations. Competition is likely to expedite the official version itself, and there is no reason why all the Scrolls should not be edited and translated by the end of this century.


Some scholars refer skeptically to the “consensus” that the Dead Sea Scrolls had originated in the Qumran/Essene community, implying that it was imposed by the closed cartel of de Vaux’s team. But this view of the Scrolls’ origins was arrived at during the 1950s, before the secretive and much criticized treatment of the Scrolls during the 1970s and 1980s. By the early 1950s, the scholars who examined the Scrolls had identified the Qumran settlers as members of the Essene sect, an ascetic Jewish group that flourished during the last two centuries of the Second Temple. Before the Qumran discoveries, the Essenes were known mainly from the writings of the first century Jewish authors Philo of Alexandria and the historian Flavius Josephus, though they are explicitly mentioned neither in the New Testament nor in Rabbinic literature. Pliny the Elder also described an Essene settlement south of Jericho and close to the Dead Sea whose location corresponded to the Qumran site.

The writings found near Qumran have added substantially to our knowledge of the Essenes. These writings included rule books, biblical interpretations, religious poetry, compositions presenting sacred wisdom, sectarian calendars and liturgical texts, and several “horoscopes,” or documents of astrological physiognomy in which the spiritual qualities of a person are defined through a consideration of his physical features and the position of the stars at the time of his birth. In light of the evidence provided by the Scrolls, scholars were also able to attribute to the Qumran complex the so-called Damascus Document, medieval copies of which had been discovered in 1896 in an old synagogue in Cairo, and which provided a wealth of historical, legal, and theological information about the community.

Scholars now generally accept the hypothesis that the Essenes were a Jewish separatist group that had clashed with the Maccabees, the family of revolutionary rulers and subsequently high priests that restored Jewish political and religious life in Judea in the second and first centuries BCE. A series of cryptic allusions in the Qumran manuscripts refers to the founding of the Essene sect by a priest called the Teacher of Righteousness, who was persecuted by a Jewish ruler known as the Wicked Priest. Though the identity of this Teacher of Righteousness remains unknown, the Wicked Priest was probably Jonathan Maccabeus, but the title may refer to his brother Simon, or conceivably to both. The Teacher and his followers were forced to withdraw into the desert, where they awaited the impending manifestation of God’s triumph over evil and darkness.

The Essenes’ main occupation was agriculture and they practiced communal ownership of property. New members handed over their belongings and earnings to the community’s superiors and were in turn provided with food, clothing, and medical care. Other practices included wearing white garments and ritual bathing before meals. We gather from Philo and Josephus and partly from the Scrolls that the Essenes, in contrast to most other Jews, rejected animal sacrifices, oaths, and marriage, although Josephus suggests that some Essenes married as long as sex was limited to procreation. In matters of theology, they showed extreme reverence for the law and were famous for their strict observance of the Sabbath. They believed in fate rather than in freedom of the will, and in a purely spiritual afterlife rather than bodily resurrection. On the whole they seem to have been committed to a more rigidly disciplined religious life than was the larger Jewish community of Judea, which followed a relatively flexible form of Judaism. The Essene sect flourished at Qumran and other Judean towns until the years of the first Jewish rebellion against Rome (66-70 CE), when the settlement is believed to have been occupied by Vespasian’s legions. We can only speculate about the sect’s resistance to the Romans, but it seems certain that none of the Qumran settlers returned to the caves to retrieve the manuscripts hidden there.

The identification of the Qumran community with the Essene sect has recently been questioned. Since 1980, Norman Golb of the University of Chicago has been arguing that the Scrolls originated in a Jerusalem library and were hidden at Qumran during the siege of Jerusalem in the late 60s CE. His theories have not been widely accepted since, among other reasons, it seems implausible that scrolls would have been hidden at a distance of some thirty-five miles miles from Jerusalem when equally inaccessible caves could have been found closer to the capital. But Golb is right to question the Essene provenance of at least some of the non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls. Most of those who differ with him agree that many of the manuscripts found at Qumran originated elsewhere and were not Essene compositions. Still, a substantial part of the material is related to the sect, which suggests that the major source of the manuscripts was in fact the Essene settlement.3


Before the first Qumran finds in 1947, the oldest complete Hebrew text of Isaiah was dated 895 CE, while the complete Isaiah scroll from Cave 1 was about a millennium older. The eleven Qumran caves yielded a dozen scrolls written on leather and one embossed on copper. In addition, the number of fragments on leather or papyrus probably reaches six figures, representing 813 original documents. Most were written in Hebrew, with some in Aramaic and a few in Greek. In addition to the writings related to the Essene sect, all the books of the Hebrew Bible are to be found among the Scrolls, with the exception of the Book of Esther, whose absence may be accidental. The caves yielded some of the Apocrypha, religious works which are missing from the Hebrew Bible but included in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Bible, made by Hellenistic Jews), as well as the Pseudepigrapha, works that failed to attain canonical status either in Palestine or the Diaspora. Most of these had survived only in translation.

The Judaean desert finds have created a new discipline: the analysis of the various kinds of ancient Hebrew manuscripts. We now possess concrete evidence that scribes carefully prepared the leather or papyrus on which they wrote with vegetable ink. Longer compositions were written on scrolls, on one side of each sheet, some of them numbered and subsequently sewn together. Papyrus documents were often re-used, with a different text inscribed on the verso. However, no book or codex—i.e., pages covered with script on both sides and bound together—has come to light at Qumran or at any other Judean site.

To what extent have the Qumran finds substantially altered our understanding of the text and canon of the Bible? The single most revolutionary contribution of the manuscripts, in fact, may be the insights they provide into the genesis of Jewish literary composition. The many medieval Hebrew scriptural manuscripts we know of, representing the traditional or Masoretic text, are remarkable for their uniformity. Compared to the often meaningful divergences between the Masoretic text and its ancient Greek, Latin, or Syriac translations, the few variant readings of the Masoretic text itself are mainly scribal errors or concern spelling. By contrast, the scriptural Scrolls from Qumran, and especially the fragments, display extreme variation. Comparative study of these biblical manuscripts shows that they often differ not only from the conventional wording but also among themselves. The startlingly different versions reveal what one scholar has called “insufficiently controlled copying.” In my view, the differences may be better explained by attributing a considerable degree of creative freedom to the scribes. Copyists evidently felt free to alter the compositions they were reproducing. For instance the scribe of a Cave 4 Deuteronomy manuscript (Deut. 32:43) steers a middle course between the short Masoretic text and the long formulation of the Greek Septuagint. (See box opposite.) None of these variations affects the essence of the scriptural message, but they have opened an entirely new era in the textual history of Hebrew scripture.

It is less easy to say which works the Qumran community considered to be part of the Bible—the “canon”—since no such list of titles has survived. Canonical status must be inferred either from authoritative quotations in the Scrolls or from theological commentary. The manuscripts suggest that at Qumran, the concept “Bible” was still a hazy and open-ended one. This would account for the remarkable freedom in the treatment of the text of scripture by a community whose life was nonetheless centered on it.

Looking at the Qumran discoveries from the perspective of current scholarship, I believe that the student of Palestinian Judaism between 150 BCE and 70 CE has the most to learn from them. The aspects of Judaism that were apart from the mainstream during this period have been poorly documented in Hebrew sources. The rabbis of the first and second centuries CE refused to allow religious writings to be preserved unless they fully conformed to their ideas, and although some of these texts were preserved by Christians, the fact that they served as a vehicle for Church apologetics raised doubts about their textual reliability. But the Scrolls are unaffected by either Christian or rabbinical censorship, and they make it possible for scholars to understand the organization, teachings, and aspirations of a small religious community that flourished during the last centuries of the Second Temple, and beyond and through it, those of the main Jewish religious body.


The relationship between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament has long been a central preoccupation in popular discussions of the Scrolls. Most scholars, religiously affiliated or not, now agree that the Scrolls are Jewish and not Christian, but since their discovery there have been various conjectures directly linking the Scrolls to early Christianity. All have been discredited. In the early 1950s, Jacob Teicher at Cambridge University identified the Teacher of Righteousness as Jesus and the Wicked Priest as Paul. J.M. Allegro, who edited the first volume of Cave 4 fragments, went on to embroider this theory with his unsubstantiated musings on the role of a hallucinogenic fungus in the creation of the early Church. Barbara Thiering, an Australian scholar, put forward an interpretation which cast John the Baptist as the Teacher of Righteousness and a married, divorced and remarried Jesus, father of four, as the Wicked Priest. Her allegorical reading of the cryptic language of the historical manuscripts turned out to be wholly misconceived.

In The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered Robert Eisenman relies on a few fragments first released by him and Michael Wise to support his thesis that the Scrolls and the New Testament both reflect a bellicose and bloodthirsty “Messianic Movement,” with James, the brother of Jesus, as the Teacher of Righteousness and Paul of Tarsus as the Wicked Priest, but his argument remains unconvincing.4 Although the two texts have incontestable similarities in imagery and vocabulary, they are patently distinct in inspiration. In particular, the Essene writings are essentially concerned with law, the Gospels are not. All these theories do not arise from the Qumran documents, but have been imposed on them. Finally, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh claimed a few years later, in The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, that the Vatican had insisted on the suppression of any Qumran writings inconsistent with traditional Christianity. Their case was discredited when open access to the Scrolls failed to reveal any supporting evidence for such a thesis.

Yet the Scrolls remain important for our understanding of the New Testament. Essenism, Rabbinic Judaism, and early Christianity all arose in Palestine during a period of profound spiritual ferment. It is no exaggeration to say that none of these movements can properly be understood independently of the others. Their fundamental similarities of language, doctrine, and attitude to Scripture clearly seem to derive from the Palestinian religious atmosphere of the period. Some specific resemblances suggest that the early Church may have modeled itself on Essene society. Similar kinds of authority were exercised by overseers at Qumran and bishops in Christian communities, for example, and a similar form of religious communism was practiced in the strict discipline of the Essene sect and in the early Christian community in Jerusalem.

The Scrolls allow us, moreover, to make suggestive comparisons between Essene beliefs and the New Testament and to see the degree to which Jesus’ teachings were rooted in the Jewish religious thought of the time. The so-called Resurrection fragment, for example, says that the Kingdom of God so eagerly anticipated by the Essenes will be announced by the liberation of captives, the curing of the blind, the straightening of the bent, the healing of the wounded, the raising of the dead, and the proclamation of the good news to the poor. We can find a parallel in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus prophesies that victory over disease and the devil will be the first sign of God’s reign:

If it is by the finger of God that Icast out demons, the Kingdom of God has come upon you. (Luke 11:20)

To take another example, the Prayer of Nabonidus, known since the mid-1950s, recounts the story of Nabonidus’ cure by a Jewish exorcist who forgave his sins; it can be compared to the Gospel account of the healing of a paralytic in Capernaum whose sins Jesus declared forgiven.

By adding to our understanding of the period in which they originated, the study of the Qumran materials will make it possible to see Essenism, Rabbinic Judaism, and early Christianity as parts of a continuously evolving Jewish tradition and of a creative literary process. Compared with the ultraconservatism of the Essenes, Rabbinic Judaism appears relatively flexible and open to change, and the religion preached and practiced by Jesus of Nazareth stands out for its religious distinctiveness and immediacy. Essenism’s brittle structure proved unable to withstand the catastrophe that struck Palestinian Judaism when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE. It lacked the adaptability and depth of spiritual vision that enabled Rabbinic Judaism to survive.

The Christian doctrines propagated by John and Paul, for their part, tried to put distance between the teachings of Jesus and those of Christianity; they did so by stressing Christ’s eternal divinity and bodily incarnation, the redemption of mankind through his crucifixion and resurrection, and the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. In my own work, from Jesus the Jew (1973) through The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993), I have argued that the teachings of Jesus must be understood in the setting of Jewish religious and cultural history, and that the Christian theology expressed in the New Testament must be distinguished from the life and thought of the teacher, healer, and exorcist whose ethical teachings made him a particularly striking and original figure among the charismatic Jewish holy men of first-century Galilee.

Of course, such fundamental elements of the piety of Jesus as his emphasis on purity of intention and generosity of heart are still central for many Christians. Yet I believe that the recurrent public interest in the Scrolls as a source of possible revelations about Jesus and the New Testament springs from a growing sense of the differences between the message of the historical Jesus and the theology which the Church proclaimed in his name. People seem to be searching for basic ethical and religious truths, stripped of the accretions of centuries of dogma. Though not directly about Jesus, the Dead Sea Scrolls still have much to teach us about the Jewish traditions from which his unique and enduring spiritual message emerged. The knowledge gained from them and from Rabbinic literature will, in my view, help scholars to reconstruct the original teachings of Jesus—and this may well pose a challenge to Christians and Jews alike.

This Issue

August 11, 1994