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Archaeologists jousting over Dead Sea Scrolls

Claims that the Dead Sea Scrolls are the most sensational archaeological find of the century might well be justified. They do not, however, contain material that requires us to radically revise our thinking on the Christian faith.

Certainly, the scrolls are greatly increasing our knowledge of Jewish religious thought before and at the time of Christ. But far from undermining the Christian faith, they uphold and affirm it.

In fact, the most striking thing about them—as the late Israeli archaeologist and soldier Yigael Yadin observed—is that they confirm that Holy Scripture has been transmitted from generation to generation with quite remarkable accuracy since at least 200 BC.

This much, at least, is clear—for every book of the Old Testament is represented in this cache of documents. However, many of the other conclusions scholars have drawn from them are controversial—some of them extraordinarily so.

People who have read or seen television programs on the scrolls will, no doubt, be under the impression that the “library” unearthed in the caves at Qumran, near the Dead Sea, belonged to an obscure Jewish sect: the Essenes.

A ruined building complex that was discovered not far from the caves is popularly known as an “Essene Monastery.”

Visitors to the site are invited to view the “scriptorium” where some of the scrolls were supposedly written. They may gaze upon the “refectory” where the Essene monks allegedly ate and the “lustration baths” where they underwent their complicated ritual ablutions.

This “Essene Theory” is attractive to many scholars. It affords rich opportunities for speculation and publication—a most important consideration in the “publish or perish” world of modern academia.

Very little is known about the Essenes, you see. They receive a cursory mention from Josephus, the First Century A.D. Jewish historian. But he tells us little beyond the fact that they were celibate, pacifist, austere, and rigorous in matters of Jewish Law, which they interpreted in their own eccentric fashion.

This offers glittering prospects for archaeologists and scriptural scholars. So little is known about the outfit that the details are all up for grabs. It is much easier to speculate in scholarly fashion about obscure folks like Essenes than people who are rather better known such as the Pharisees.

Indeed, unhampered by facts, one can make assertions of the most exotic nature and be treated, if not seriously, at least not with open derision. And some folks have not been slow to take advantage of this.

What is rather less well known about the scrolls is that the “Essene Theory” is by no means generally accepted. In fact, it is hotly denied by a number of distinguished academics, all of whom offer less exciting, but rather more persuasive explanations for the ruined building complex and the hoard of scrolls.

The first cache was unearthed by a Bedouin shepherd who sold them on the black market. Some came into the hands of Father Roland de Vaux, a Dominican friar-archaeologist, who tracked down the site of the discovery and excavated the bulk of the hoard.

Fr. de Vaux was the originator of the “Essene Theory.” And while he never actually referred to the building complex, itself, as “a monastery,” he constantly relied upon monastic imagery to describe it—“scriptorium,” “refectory” etc.

Fr. de Vaux died with his work unfinished in 1971. In 1988, his institution—the Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise de Jerusalem—engaged two Belgian scholars, Robert Donceel and Pauline Donceel-Voute, to analyze Fr. de Vaux’s material and produce a final report on the excavations.

The husband and wife team came to a quite different conclusion from that apparently espoused by Fr. de Vaux. They offer persuasive evidence indicating that the buildings were too luxurious for a monastery. They think the complex was a luxury villa.

Yet a third theory comes from Professor Norman Golb of the University of Chicago. He contends that the building complex was a fortress, basing his argument on the fact that it was clearly destroyed after a bitterly fought seige.

Golb’s claims are dismissed by most scholars on the grounds that the site not suitable for a fortress, even though the complex sports a solid fortress-like tower.

Golb’s explanation for the scrolls is, however, much less easy to dismiss.

He points out that this region was the last open area accessible from Jerusalem when it was besieged by the Romans from AD 66 to AD 70. The desperate citizens hid their valuables to the Caves of Qumran in order to save them from pillage. Among their most valued possessions, Golb, points out, would be their books.

One of the latest theories is that the complex was a ceramics factory. The so-called “lustration baths” were actually pools for washing impurities from potters’ clay—a contention supported by potters’ clay residue found in them. The ceramics factory theory is also supported by some 700 clay bowls found at the site.

In archaeology, as just about everything else, the simplest answer is usually the right one. But archaeologists are canny enough to know there’s more mileage in mad monastics than in prosaic potters or hordes of terrified book worms. GPH✠

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