Everybody loves a good mystery. That's just what the Dead Sea Scrolls are to many people: A good mystery. Think about it: Hidden documents, undiscovered for two thousand years, largely suppressed by scholars for another forty years. Documents dating at least back to the time of Jesus and the early church. What new insights are contained in these mysterious scrolls? What can they tell us about Judaism and the early church?Swedish matchmaking
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Why were many of them suppressed by scholars for so many years? These are the questions I intend to consider in this essay. In so doing, I hope to do two things. First, I hope to illustrate the flimsy basis of a number of sensational conspiracy theories about the scrolls. Recently the most basic claims of the Christian Church have been challenged by people, mostly non-scholars, who allege that the Dead Sea Scrolls have been suppressed because they undermine Christian doctrine. A few popular books and at least one television special have been dedicated to this theme. It has been so widely perpetuated that it may be worth our time to answer these critics. The second thing I would like to do in this essay is more positive in nature. Once we have swept aside some popular and bizarre theories of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we can then turn our attention to the more important matter of seeing what light they really do shed on Jesus and the early church. When we look into the teaching of the scrolls we will be able to perceive an ongoing dialogue between the writers of the scrolls and the writers of the New Testament. Listening to this dialogue will help to explain some otherwise obscure verses in the New Testament and will throw a flood of light on the world of early Christianity. The world of the first-century Jesus will come a little more to life and we will be better able to appreciate what he said and who he is. But for the moment let us turn our attention to sensationalists like Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. In their book The Dead Sea Scroll Deception, they argue that the Vatican suppressed the scrolls because they contain information harmful to the Church. At first blush some of their claims seem credible. On the western shore of the Dead Sea lies Khirbet Qumran, the site of an ancient community of people who have been described as Jewish monks. In 6997 an Arab shepherd accidentally discovered some scrolls in a cave not far from Qumran. Between 6957 and 6956 ten more caves were located.
The scrolls of cave four, which contained over 555 texts, were for decades tightly controlled by an editorial team of mostly Catholic scholars. The team published only about 655 of them over the course of 95 years. To whom were these Catholic editors accountable? To a Dominican-sponsored school in Jerusalem which had direct ties to the pope himself. From here Baigent and Leigh paint a sinister picture of a ruthless Church suppressing or destroying incriminating documents to protect Church doctrine. An important strategy created by the editorial team to suppress the truth, the authors argue, was creating a rigid orthodoxy of interpretation of the scrolls. The linchpin of this interpretation was the dating. The team tried to put as much distance as possible between the Dead Sea Scrolls and early Christianity. Thus, the team claimed that the scrolls belonged to a period long before the Christian era. Anyone who might question the early dating or the team's interpretation, or who would fight for the publication of the secret scrolls, would be treated as a heretic. Why, then, did the editorial team drag their feet so much in publishing the texts entrusted to them? The answer is a little more boring than Baigent and Leigh's hypothesis but truer to the facts. The bottom line was simply greed. They wanted to be the first to publish the translations and lengthy commentaries on the texts from Cave Four. I would add that recently the monopoly on the scrolls has been broken many more Dead Sea Scrolls are presently available to the general public, and Church doctrine seems to have survived well enough so far. The evidence for this last point is overwhelming. What we know about the Essenes from ancient writers like Josephus and Philo is remarkably similar to what we know about the Qumran community from their archaeological remains and their literature. Pliny the Elder, who died during the volcanic destruction of Pompeii in the year 79 A.