A View of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Khirbet Qumran is situated in one of the most unlovely spots in the world, the arid, uninhabited wilderness north and west of the Dead Sea. That was the unanimous opin­ion of the members of the Seminary Guided Tour who spent three hours on a fiercely hot day last July scrambling over the ruins of this ancient Essene community.

Kenneth J. Holland, Editor, "These Times," Southern Publishing Association

Khirbet Qumran is situated in one of the most unlovely spots in the world, the arid, uninhabited wilderness north and west of the Dead Sea. That was the unanimous opin­ion of the members of the Seminary Guided Tour who spent three hours on a fiercely hot day last July scrambling over the ruins of this ancient Essene community. Led by Joseph Saad, curator of the Palestine Museum, our sweating group of Bible teachers, pastors, and editors followed the nimble-footed archeologist as he pointed out the remains of an Essenic culture that thrived despite lack of rain and vegetation.

Notwithstanding the desolation of the area, which is but a few yards from the Dead Sea (1,280 feet below sea level), the scrolls found in caves there have touched lives around the world since their discovery in 1947. Wherever the Bible is known, the Dead Sea scrolls are eagerly discussed. In fact, it is almost as if a magic spell were cast about this religious lit­erature of a Jewish communal monastic sect, whose monastery was near the caves, and who lived there from about 100 B.C. to A.D. 68.

In one way this interest is rather surprising, since the significance of the scrolls can be read­ily understood only by those whose training has equipped them to understand it. But evidently the layman is not to be deterred. He senses that there is something of consequence in this discovery, and if at all possible, he is deter­mined to know what it is.

The whole matter of the scrolls began when they were found by an Arab shepherd in 1947. One version of the finding has it that early in the spring of that year some Bedouins of the Ta'amire tribe took a roundabout journey from Trarxsjordan into Palestine. It is said that they wished to avoid the legal points of entry at the frontier since the merchandise they were transporting was contraband. The route that they chose took them through desolate country to the springs at 'Ain Fashka on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Here they replenished their supply of fresh water and lingered for a while before going on to the markets at Bethlehem.

While they were waiting, one or more of their number climbed the cliffs not far from the shore line, and either accidentally or as a result of a search discovered a cave. The true details of the story may never be disclosed. It is known, however, that the Ta'amire Bedouins were not without previous experience in exploring caves and that they were astute vendors of whatever they happened to find.

Failing to sell the scrolls to a dealer in an­tiquities in Bethlehem, they were advised to contact a Syrian merchant in Jerusalem. To the latter it seemed probable that the manu­scripts would be of interest to the Metropoli­tan, Samuel. He, of course, saw their worth and bought them. The rest of the story is a long but interesting one, the end of which is nowhere in sight today as scholars pore over the tiny frag­ments from Cave IV and await further explora­tion of the Qumran area.

The scrolls had been placed in the caves by the Essenes when the Roman war began in A.D. 66, and the Essenes learned that the Roman army was marching toward their settlement. The manuscripts themselves were wrapped in linen and placed in clay jars about two feet tall. Then they were put into the caves. The entrances to the caves were camouflaged.

From then until 1947 the manuscripts lay untouched. Because of the dryness of the air at Qumran there has been a minimum of deteriora­tion, although rats and insects did some dam­age. There are no birds in this area. Once when a scroll was taken to nearby Amman, which is somewhat more humid, deterioration was evi­dent in a few months' time.

Impression Made by the Discovery

It is of interest to note just how deep an im­pression the finding of the scrolls has made on the American public. Edmund Wilson's book The Scrolls From the Dead Sea has made the best-seller list. The remarkable part of the Wil­son book is that it is little more than a hard­cover version of his report in the New Yorker (itself a rather unlikely source for Biblical ar­cheology). A larger and more expensive book on the same subject, Millar Burrows' The Dead Sea Scrolls, has been prominently displayed in many bookstores. Of late the discovery of the scrolls—together with the controversy—has been a subject for after-dinner conversations, television programs, popular lectures, newspa­per and magazine articles, and pulpit sermons.

Scholars, of course, have been exceedingly in­terested in the scrolls since the original find proved so important. Scrolls have now been found in eleven caves. Lack of funds prevents further exploration of the area. The Isaiah scrolls were found in the cave designated No. I. The copper scrolls were found in Cave III. Cave IV, which had the greatest quantity of scrolls, measures 10 feet by 15 feet by 30 feet, and forty-two of us descended into it through a small tunnel. There were no jars found there, as the Essenes were in too great a hurry to escape from the Roman army. In addition to copper scrolls, there were leather and papyrus scrolls. There are enough scrolls and fragments to keep several generations of scholars busy in­terpreting them. All over the world scholars eagerly wait for the latest photographs of these writings to come from Jerusalem. As one in­spects the original text he is impressed by the beauty and clarity of the penmanship. To those of us who had the great privilege of visiting the Scrollery of the Palestine Museum in Je­rusalem, it was apparent that the Essenes were careful workmen.

As far as I know, only one scholar, Solomon Zeitlin, a Jew, doubts the authenticity of the scrolls any longer. Regarding the interpretation of them, however, scholars are not in agreement. Some feel, for instance, that the rites and beliefs of the Essenes were strikingly similar to those later adopted by the Christian church. This has led to charges that Christian practices were copied from the Qumran sect, rather than de­veloped by Christ, and even that Christ Him­self had been a member of the sect. Others feel that the scrolls throw no doubt whatever on traditional beliefs about Christianity.

To us Seventh-day Adventists, of course, the important fact about the text of the Dead Sea scrolls is that it is for all practical purposes identical with the one-thousand-year-old Maso­retic text of the Hebrew Bible; on which all modern translations are based. Therefore, it is apparent that the Old Testament text has undergone virtually no change in the past two thousand years. This conclusion materially sup­ports the scholars of all conservative persuasions and greatly strengthens the confidence of the average layman in the Old Testament.

On this point an archbishop of the Syrian church, Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, who was one of the first men to see the scrolls after they were taken from the caves near the Dead Sea, says:

The scrolls establish the fact that the Bible was written before and during the time of Christ, not in the Middle Ages as some have maintained. This proves that the Bible in our hands today is the true Bible. Now we can say with certainty that the prophecy of Isaiah was written before the birth of Christ. The truth of all the prophecies is reaffirmed and strengthened by this fact.

Our Attitude Concerning the Scrolls

What about prophecy and the Dead Sea scrolls? Do we see in the discovery the hand of God? How are we as Seventh-day Adventists to view the academic assault on Christian be­liefs touched off by the discovery of the scrolls?

Taking these items in order, we find that the Bible does not predict the discovery itself. It does, however, give us enough light to evaluate the total situation. Undoubtedly the hand of God is seen in the recent discovery of these scrolls. For example, the priceless copper scrolls could not have been examined except by to­day's scientific methods. Men in other ages might well have mutilated the scrolls so much that the contents would have proved unread­able. We see God's hand in blinding the eyes of the Romans who settled in the area where the Essenes hid their precious manuscripts. Apparently none of the manuscripts was ever touched until the young Bedouin stumbled upon them a few years ago. Then, of course, there is an unusual wistfulness abroad in the world today, a longing after God. Surely the finding of the Hebrew Bible scrolls can help to satisfy these longings. Recovered bit by bit,

the scrolls now add up to the Old Testament, lacking only the book of Esther. God knew the world was ready for the discovery of these scrolls. The time was ripe.

Despite the blessing accruing from the dis­covery of the scrolls, however, we also find a tragic situation in the academic approach to the findings. We discover in consulting a mass of books and articles on the Dead Sea scrolls that scholarship, for all its value, has tended to blur the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and His plan of salvation. In all the confusion about the ceremonial customs of the Essenes, their teacher of righteousness, the wicked priest, the man of the lie, the house of Absalom, one finds precious little space devoted to the One most lovely. We can only conclude, then, that despite all the learning of modern scholars there is a famine for the Word of God (by choice), as prophesied in Amos 8:11, 12: "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: and they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it." Again 2 Peter 3:5 predicts that men in the last days will be will­ingly ignorant. Truly learning has traveled from the north to the east (by the archeologist's spade), but having all this light, many scholars willingly cling to the atheism of the past. Jesus, the Saviour of men, has not been exalted.

What shall be our attitude toward the Dead Sea scrolls? Surely we as Seventh-day Adventists are deeply interested in what scholars will find concerning the yet unpublished non-Biblical Dead Sea scrolls. They will give a better under­standing of religious thinking in the time of Christ. We can also agree with other Christians that these scrolls may be considered the great­est manuscript find in centuries, and that God's overruling hand may be seen in the discovery. At the same time we must be aware of the un­toward results—the exaltation of man, rather than of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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Kenneth J. Holland, Editor, "These Times," Southern Publishing Association

January 1958

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