Dead Sea Scrolls: New Access Raises New Questions

But scholar finds no facts to shake traditions

THE basic traditions of Christianity and Judaism remain intact, unaltered by recent interpretations of the Dead Sea Scrolls, according to a scholar at the University of Chicago's prestigious Oriental Institute.

``We know now that there is no `smoking gun' that would have kept those people from publishing the scrolls for all these years,'' reports Michael Wise, 2-1/2 years after photographs of the tattered scrolls were released to scholars worldwide. ``But to say, as many of them have, that the remaining scrolls aren't interesting, is absurd.''

Dr. Wise was one of the ``outside scholars'' who clamored for the scrolls to be released by a tightly knit team of scholars known as the Qumran Committee. The committee had controlled access to the scrolls since the early 1950s.

In late 1991, California's Huntington Library released photos of all the scrolls and made them available. Until then, Wise says, most scholars did not even have access to the index of what was included among the estimated 15,000 pieces of 825 documents written on parchment and papyrus.

``Now at least we know what there is, even though we're still trying to figure out their significance,'' says Wise, an expert on Aramaic, which is said to be the language Jesus spoke.

New texts

Among the newly released texts are hundreds of commentaries, legal documents, letters, puzzles, games, and some ``absolutely beautiful poetry,'' says Wise, who has written three books on the scrolls.

One of the documents recently reclaimed from one of 11 scroll-bearing caves at Qumran, at the northern end of the Dead Sea in the Israeli-occupied West Bank region of the River Jordan, is called ``On Resurrection'' or ``A Messianic Apocalypse.'' Wise says one of its verses closely resembles a passage in Chapter 7 of the Book of Luke, even though it was written earlier.

In the passage, Luke 7:19-23, John the Baptist sends two followers to Jesus to ask if he is the Messiah whose coming has been prophesied. Jesus exhorts them to report to John that they had seen Jesus cure the blind, lame, deaf, and leprous, and raise the dead. ``[The book of] Luke was written sometime between 70 and 100 AD, and the writer, presumably Luke the physician, may have had access to Christians who knew Jesus,'' Wise reports. ``But we know that `On Resurrection' was written as early as 50 BC, certainly before 70 AD.''

``The implication,'' Wise says, ``is that Luke knew of a broader Jewish tradition that connected events like those surrounding Jesus with the coming of an expected Messiah. These events included the raising of the dead.''

The original members of the Qumran Committee believed that the scrolls had been written by a group known as the Essenes. A cluster of ruins near Wadi Qumran and the caves was thought to have been an Essene ``monastery'' where the scrolls were inscribed.

Authors disputed

Now, however, ``it is generally agreed that many weren't written at that site,'' Wise said. ``We're not sure if they were written in Jerusalem, before the Romans demolished the city, or if they came from ... Palestine in general. But their grouping was certainly intentional.'' He says it is now clear that the Essenes were just one of several limbs that might have sprung from the Judaic trunk, including Sadduceeism, today's rabbinical Judaism, and several varieties of Christianity, not all of which survived.

The scrolls aren't ``just a hodgepodge of documents you might find if the Temple was burning and people were just throwing them off shelves into carts,'' Wise says. ``There are too many ideological connections for it to be random selection.'' Archaeologists have found some expensive glass at the site, and a shepherd found a copper scroll in one of the caves. Either would seem a little rich for the taste of the ascetic Essenes, Wise says.

One recently translated scroll contains a poem that praises a king, Alexander Jannaeus, who most likely was Jonathan, one of the last of the Jewish kings.

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