Dead Sea Scrolls still a puzzle after 50 years
July 26, 1997
Web posted at: 10:35 p.m. EDT (0235 GMT)
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- It's been 50 years since a young Bedouin
searching for a goat near the Dead Sea stumbled upon one of
the century's most significant archaeological finds.
But all these years later, the Dead Sea Scrolls are still the
subject of intense debate. Who really wrote them? What do
they tell us about Judaism? Christianity? Who has rightful
title to them?
"Their message is an extremely enigmatic one and takes a
great deal of interpretation," says Neil Silberman, author of
"The Hidden Scrolls." "That interpretation has to come out of
modern ideologies and hopes and beliefs."
"What we really see underneath the Dead Sea Scrolls' debates
are modern political and religious debates."
The scrolls, found wrapped in linen inside earthenware jars
stored in caves, are believed to have been written or copied
between the 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D.
That was a period when Christianity was just beginning, and
Judaism was in turmoil because of competing sects and the
Roman occupation of Palestine. Among the documents found was
a copy of the Book of Isaiah almost 1,000 years older than
any previously known manuscript.
Were writings by the Essenes?
Many scroll scholars are convinced that these writings were
the work of the Essenes, a monastic Jewish religious sect
that lived in the region at the time.
Because of parallels between some of the writings and the
Christian New Testament, some scholars also believe there
could have been ties between the Essenes and early
Christians, providing a history of the formative years of
More controversial and less accepted are theories that Jesus
or John the Baptist could have been Essenes.
But not everyone is convinced that the Dead Sea Scrolls were
the work of the Essenes. For instance, Norman Golb of the
University of Chicago contends they were actually written in
Jerusalem and spirited into the desert by Jews to protect
them from the Romans.
"People of Jerusalem, be proud of these texts," Golb said at
a recent conference in Israel marking their 50th anniversary.
"They're yours. They've come back to you."
Debate tinged with politics
Of course, that kind of territorial talk can prove
provocative in the charged political atmosphere of the Middle
East. Indeed, the ruins of Qumran, the Essene center where
the scrolls were discovered, is in the West Bank, and there
are some Palestinians who believe they have a better claim to
this archeological treasure than the Israelis.
"They have been found in Palestine, and they should be also
studied by Palestinians," said Hamdan Taha of the Palestinian
Israelis, as might be expected, vigorously contest arguments
that the scrolls are like other ancient artifacts seized by
former imperial powers.
"These things, I think, belong to the people of this region,"
says Joe Zias, an Israeli researcher. "You have to realize
these things were written by Jews for Jews."
Fifty years after their discovery, then, people who look at
the scrolls often seem to see what they want to see. And that
both enlightens and compounds their enduring mystery.
Correspondent Jerrold Kessel contributed to this report.
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