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Dead Sea Scrolls still a puzzle after 50 years

scrolls 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?

CNN's Jerrold Kessel reports from Jerusalem
icon 2 min. 31 sec. VXtreme video

"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 Christianity.

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 Archaeology Department.

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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