Tuesday, 23 October 2012

What do the Dead Sea Scrolls 'reveal'?

The simple answer is probably 'not a lot' for the vast majority. However, it is a lot more complex than that. They do give us a lot of insight into the Jewish scriptures of the time and they provide an insight into Judaism as it was at the time of Christ. Do they tell us anything about Christianity? Not really, though they do reveal that the books of Esdras and one or two other 'Apocryphal' books (in the KJV anyway) were not the 'invention' of Christian writers, but existed before Christianity.

One interesting thing we do learn from the Dead Sea Scrolls is that the Qumran Sect were not the owners of all of the scrolls, in fact they probably owned very few of them. We also learn that they were distinctly different from the early Christians who were more all embracing and even allowed and encouraged Gentiles to join their communities. The Qumran Sect, who shared the belief of a Messiah who would die and rise again, were obsessed with 'purity' and would never have admitted anyone or anything 'unclean' into their enclave.

Prior to the discovery, and often painful examination of the scrolls, almost everything Western (and it must be said, Eastern) scholars knew about pre-Christian Judaism came from the the Apocryphal books and parts of what is known as the "pseudepigrapha." The scrolls revealed a great deal more. Before the scrolls were discovered, there was no extant literature in Hebrew or Aramaic from the pre-Christian period. Now scholars had a treasure trove. Indeed, the scrolls provided us with a wealth of apocalyptic Jewish writing which had previously been thought to be fairly restricted. Unfortunately the 'management' of the translation and distribution of the material gained from it was kept strictly under control and a lot of people felt they were being deliberately excluded or prevented from seeing for themselves what the scrolls contained.

Probably the saddest thing about the Dead Sea Scrolls is the controversy that still surrounds them. Partly because scholars and academics failed to understand the desire of 'ordinary' people to know what was in them, the interpretations and translations were not made widely available. That gave conspiracy theorists a field day - especially as the only 'official' interpreters and scholars were Roman Catholic. Translations were disputed by those who felt certain that 'Rome' was 'hiding' the truth or misrepresenting the scrolls. There were even lawsuits about it. As an article in the Huffington Post puts it, the area that has suffered most from the controversy is the study of their relevance to Christian origins.

There are still those who refuse to accept that there is nothing in the scrolls which undermines Christianity. There is still controversy over the length of time it took for the translations to be made more widely available and there are still those who use this to drive their own agendas. For them the truth, the real material, will never be enough. They will always be convinced that something 'vital' to their cause or view is being withheld. That is a pity, for, in the main, the sources and material revealed in these scrolls reinforces rather than undermines Christian teaching and understanding of the direction and shape of much of the Early Church.

I commend to those interested, a new book, "The Dead Sea Scrolls; A Biography" by John J Collins.

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