Publication of the Suppressed Dead Sea Scrolls – The Miracle of Books

In 1991, I secretly represented an “undisclosed client,” pro bono, and contracted with the Biblical Archaeology Society to print almost 1,800 photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls which had been suppressed for more than 40 years.

Following publication of the Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, I wrote a 1,000-page manuscript on religion.  The introduction, which follows, is entitled Beginnings: The Miracle of Books.

Every story has to start somewhere and, since this is a story about books, we begin with the efforts of two Arab farmers digging around the base of a large rock at the foot of a cliff along the banks of the Egyptian Nile in December of 1945.  As they dug up the rich nitrates used to fertilize their fields, they uncovered a large sealed clay jar containing some fifty-two papyrus books in twelve leather bindings.  The language used in the books was Coptic, which is Egyptian written with Greek letters.

The collection of books became known as the Gnostic Gospels or the Nag Hammadi Library, and some were originally composed as early as the first century.  They were probably buried for safekeeping around 360 A.D. (anno Domini).

Following the conquest of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine, Christianity became a recognized religion and official suppression ended.  Orthodox bishops gained the power to condemn heretical books and to make their possession a criminal offense.  Many such books were burned and destroyed, and it was at about this time that the great library at Alexandria was sacked and burned by an orthodox Christian mob.

Some who considered themselves to be Christians believed that they were in possession of secret knowledge and teachings of Jesus and were known as Gnostics (those who know from the Greek word, Gnosis or knowledge).

Gnostics were particularly active in Egypt, both as a part of the Christian monastic movement and in opposition to or as an alternative to orthodoxy.  Among the orthodox monasteries was St. Pachomius located near where the modern town of Nag Hammadi is found today and close to the cliff where the Gnostic Gospels were discovered.

In the face of the cliff, near the top, sixth dynasty tombs, which had been dug between 2350 and 2200 B.C. (before Christ), had been robbed in antiquity.  These cool caves may have offered dissident monks, who may have withdrawn from the nearby orthodox monastery, a place for spiritual retreat or living quarters for the solitary.  The cave walls are covered with Christian crosses and the opening lines of biblical Psalms.

In February of 1947, a little over a year later and a hundred miles or so to the east, an Arab shepherd boy searching for a lost goat discovered a large collection of ancient books in clay jars in a cave near Qumran at the Dead Sea in Israel.  These books and others later found in nearby caves became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Over the next year, the scrolls from the first or Cave 1 made their way into Jerusalem and four scrolls came into the hands of the Archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Monastery of St. Mark.  These consisted of a complete book of Isaiah, a commentary on the book of Habakkuk, two parts of a single scroll later named the Community Rule, and one badly decomposed Aramaic scroll.

The remaining scrolls, which included an ancient copy of Deutero-Isaiah and two previously unknown works later named The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness or War Rule and the Thanksgiving Psalms were directly purchased by Dr. E. L. Sukenik, Professor of Archeology at the Hebrew University using funds contributed by the University.

Inasmuch as the Israeli war of independence had divided Jerusalem, Dr. Sukenik was unable to examine the scrolls at St. Marks.  These were brought by the Syrian monks to the American School of Oriental Research where they were examined and photographed by Dr. William H. Brownlee and Dr. John C. Trever.

The St. Mark’s scrolls were later brought to the United States where they were advertised for sale.  They were secretly purchased by the government of Israel through the efforts of Dr. Sukenik’s son, Dr. Yigael Yadin and returned to Israel in 1953.

In the meantime, in October 1951, additional fragments of scrolls were found by Bedouin tribesmen about eleven miles south of Qumran at the Wadi Ta ‘amireh near the Dead Sea.  The next year a survey was made of all identifiable caves in the area and, in what became known as Cave 3, a team found two portions of the same scroll consisting of rolled copper, which was found to be an inventory of hidden Temple treasure.

Six months after the official survey, the Bedouins found Cave 4, the most spectacular find of all for it proved to have been an ancient library in that fragments from over 500 manuscripts were recovered from the dust of its floor.

The discovery of these additional scrolls aroused interest in the ruined structures located at Khirbet Qumran within walking distance of Caves 1 and 4.  First believed to be the ruins of a Roman fort, excavations conducted there between 1951 and 1956 by Father Roland de Vaux of the Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise de Jerusalem confirmed the likelihood that the structures and caves were connected with a community of Essenes who lived there at the time of Jesus.

The Essenes were described by the Roman historian Pliny in the first century A.D., “On the west side of the Dead Sea, but out of range of the noxious exhalations of the coast, is the solitary tribe of the Essenes, which is remarkable beyond all the other tribes in the whole world, as it has no women and has renounced all sexual desire, has no money, and has only palm trees for company.  Day by day the throng of refugees is recruited to an equal number by numerous accessions of persons tired of life and driven thither by the waves of fortune to adopt their manners.”

The Community Rule found in Cave 1 provides a comprehensive constitution and by-laws for the Qumran congregation who referred to themselves, not as Essenes, but as the Doers of the Law, the Sons of Zadok, the Sons of Light, the Saints, the Poor, or the Way.  Among the fragments recovered from the floor of Cave 4 were those of a manuscript which was already known in history as the Damascus Document.

In 1896 Solomon Schecter, a lecturer at Cambridge University learned of old manuscripts stored in a loft above an ancient Karatite synagogue in Cairo.  He obtained permission to explore the ‘geniza’, a place where old or worn out sacred manuscripts are stored, and recovered 164 boxes containing 100,000 pieces of material.  The most startling manuscript was the Damascus Document which related the existence of an Israelite community which entered into a new covenant with God under a Righteous Teacher and who lived in the wilderness of Damascus.

The scroll fragments also confirmed the antiquity of another document from the Pseudepigrapha known as the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.  Long believed to have been the result of late Christian redaction due to its numerous predictions of the coming messiah, the scrolls proved that the Essenes had indeed possessed specific expectations of an immediate messianic rule by not one, but three specific messiahs: a suffering son of man messiah, son of the Most High; a Davidic messiah, a son of Judah; and a priestly messiah, a righteous son of Aaron.

The last major scroll discovery was made by Dr. Yadin during the 1967 war when Bethlehem was captured by the Israelis.  Suspecting that a dealer connected with the original scrolls might still possess some documents, the dealer was interrogated and led officers to his home where he produced a scroll which he had hidden for six years.  This document became known as the Temple Scroll, and was published by Yadin in 1977.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were probably hidden in the caves during the period between the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 68 A.D., following the death of Jesus and his brother, James, and 132-6 A.D., when the nation of Israel was eliminated by the Romans after the Bar Kochba uprising was suppressed.

After being found in 1945, some of the Gnostic manuscripts from Nag Hammadi were burned by the widow of one of the discoverers who thought they were worthless or a source of bad luck.  The remainder were sold through several sources, and Codex I was acquired in 1952 by the Jung Institute of Zurich.  The “Jung Codex” was returned to Egypt between 1956 and 1975 as it was being published and joined the remaining manuscripts which had been brought together at the Coptic Museum of Old Cairo.

As the Gnostic Gospels came to be studied, it was learned that they too were similar to other finds of the past.  The first was in 1769 when a Scottish tourist purchased a Coptic manuscript near Luxor in Upper Egypt.  Later published in 1892, the document claims to record conversations of Jesus with his disciples, which included both men and women.  In 1773 a collector browsing through a London bookstore found a Coptic manuscript which also contained a discussion of mysteries between Jesus and his disciples.  Finally, in 1896, a German Egyptologist purchased several Coptic manuscripts in Cairo which contained several books later found at Nag Hammadi, including the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) and the Apocryphon of John.

Under an agreement originally reached during the early 1960’s between UNESCO and the Minister of Culture and National Guidance of the United Arab Republic, an International Committee for the Nag Hammadi Codices was finally appointed in 1970.  The twelve-volume Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices began to appear in 1972 and was completed in 1978.

Based upon the availability of the facsimiles, complete editions in English, German, and French were prepared, including an eleven-volume English edition, entitled The Coptic Gnostic Library.

Finally, under the leadership of Dr. James M. Robinson, Chair, Religion Faculty, Claremont Graduate School, The Nag Hammadi Library in English was translated by the members of the Coptic Gnostic Library Project of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity and published as a single volume in 1977.

Following their discovery in 1947 in Cave 1, the seven major, largely intact, Dead Sea Scrolls were fairly quickly published by the Israeli and American scholars who first obtained possession.  However, as searches of other caves in the vicinity turned up additional fragments of ancient manuscripts, many of the fragments were purchased by a group of foreign archaeological and biblical research schools in east Jerusalem.  Funds were contributed by various sources including the government of Jordan and the Vatican.

The documents came to be under the personal control of Father de Vaux of the Ecole Biblique, who had earlier performed the archeological survey of the ruins at Qumran.  Father de Vaux, a Dominican priest since 1929 had been teaching at the Ecole Biblique since 1934 and served as its director since 1945.

The Ecole Biblique had been founded upon the orders of Pope Leo XIII in 1890.  Its purpose was to equip Catholic scholars with the academic expertise necessary to defend the faith against the threat posed by developments in historical and archaeological research.

The head of the Ecole Biblique is also a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission which was created by Pope Leo in 1903 to supervise and monitor the work of Catholic scriptural scholarship.  The head of the Commission is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is also the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has been so named since 1965.  It was previously known as the Holy Office, and, prior to 1421 A.D., as the Holy Inquisition.

In 1964, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a decree regarding the historical truth of the Gospels: “At all times the interpreter must cherish a spirit of ready obedience to the Church’s teaching authority.”

Irrespective of the purposes of the Ecole Biblique, it was its director, Father de Vaux who, more than any person, set the approach and pace of work on the scrolls.  Father de Vaux joined the Dominican Order in 1929, under whose auspices he was sent to the Ecole Biblique.  Politically, his background was right-wing, having been a member of Action Francaise, the militant Catholic and nationalist movement popular in France between the World Wars.  In his endeavors in Jerusalem, de Vaux became known as ruthless, narrow-minded, bigoted and fiercely vindictive.  He was hostile to Israel as a nation, and was anti-Semitic towards Jews.

In 1953, de Vaux was also the president of the board of trustees of the Rockefeller Museum, where the scrolls came to be housed.  In that year, the board of trustees requested nominations from the various foreign archaeological schools then active in Jerusalem for appointments to an “International Team” to oversee the publication of the scrolls.

Professor Frank Cross of the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago was the nominee of the Albright Institute in Jerusalem, along with the Albright’s director, Monsignor Patrick Skehan.  The Ecole Biblique nominated Father Jean Starcky of the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique and Father Josef Milik of the Ecole Biblique.  Dr. Claus-Hunno Hunzinger was nominated by the Germans and was soon replaced by another French priest, Father Maurice Baillet, when Hunzinger left the Committee.

All were unknown at the time, except the British nominee, John M. Allegro, a philologist studying for his doctorate at Oxford, who already had five publications in academic journals.  No Israeli or Jewish members were nominated to the Team, and  Father de Vaux became its head.  The Team’s expressed purpose was to present all the Qumran scrolls in definitive editions in a series known as Discoveries in the Judaean Desert of Jordan to be published by Oxford University Press.

The first volume of the series concerning the fragments found in Cave 1 was published in 1955; however, material from Cave 4 containing the most copious and significant writings continued to be withheld from the public.

By 1960 all of the unpublished scroll fragments had been brought together in the Palestine Archaeological Museum (the Rockefeller Museum) where they had been arranged and photographed.  A concordance was prepared which listed each word, the document it came from, the column, line and adjacent words.

John Allegro published a popular book, The Dead Sea Scrolls, in 1956 and was the first member of the Team to publish manuscripts from Cave 4, which he did in the fifth volume of the Discoveries series in 1968.

Allegro had acquired a reputation as the Team heretic during a series of radio broadcasts in 1956 in which he emphasized the connections between the Qumran materials and the origins of Christian rituals and doctrines, including the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Prayer, and other New Testament teachings.

Allegro was opposed by Father de Vaux and the other members of the Team in a letter to The Times in London.  The letter was signed by Fathers de Vaux, Milik, Skehan and Starcky and by Professor John Strugnell, a converted Catholic, who had been appointed to replace Father Benoit upon his death.  Opposition by other team members combined with other factors led to the decline of Allegro’s reputation and influence and ultimately his early death in 1988.

When Father de Vaux died in 1971 he “bequeathed” his rights to the scrolls, even though he did not own them, to another Dominican priest, Father Pierre Benoit, who succeeded him as the director of the Ecole Biblique and as head of the International Team.

With this precedent, Father Patrick Skehan bequeathed his rights to Professor Eugene Ulrich of Notre Dame University when he died, and Father Jean Starcky’ scrolls were similarly reassigned to Father Emile Puech of the Ecole Biblique.  When Father Benoit died in 1987, he was succeeded by John Strugnell as head of the International Team.

Strugnell’s appointment was subject to approval by the Israeli government which imposed certain conditions upon his acceptance.  He was required to spend more time in Jerusalem and complied by taking a partial retirement from Harvard and by spending half of each year at the Ecole Biblique.

The pace of publication continued to lag.  As the years passed and very little original material was offered for publication by members of the International Team, increasing criticism was made by many scholars, including Geza Vermes of Oxford who wrote as early as 1977 that the situation was likely to become the academic scandal par excellence of the twentieth century.

Among the generation of new scholars who were being denied access to the scrolls was Robert Eisenman, present Chair of the Religious Studies Department of the California State University at Long Beach, California.

In 1986, Dr. Eisenman was in Jerusalem as a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the William F. Albright Institute for Archaeological Research.  Eisenman was interested in obtaining access to a particular fragment of unpublished portions of the Damascus Document in connection with his research into the relationship between the Qumran Community and the original Jerusalem Church.

Accompanied by Philip Davies of the University of Sheffield, Eisenman approached the appropriate Israeli officials and members of the International Team and presented a formal request for access.  They were denied and, as a result, Eisenman began a personal campaign to free the remaining unpublished scrolls from Team control.

Independent of Eisenman’s effort was a journalistic campaign conducted by Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review in Washington, D. C., who wrote in the September/October 1985 issue that the insiders who hold the scrolls “have the goodies–to drip out bit by bit.  This gives them status, scholarly power and a wonderful ego trip.”

By 1990, thirty years after being assigned for publication, only about twenty percent of the scroll fragments had been published.  There remained unavailable a large corpus of fragmentary manuscripts from the Dead Sea caves whose publication had been delayed over the years by the group of scholars who had exclusive possession of them.

Although ownership has been claimed by Israel’s Department of Antiquities since the 1967 war as a result of the capture of East Jerusalem and the Rockefeller Museum where the scrolls continue to be housed, actual control continues to be maintained by the International Team.  [1]

In 1991, The Biblical Archaeology Society in Washington, D.C. contracted to publish photographs of the remaining scrolls.  The arrangement provided that Dr.  Eisenman and Dr. James Robinson, Chair of the Religion Faculty, Claremont Graduate School, who had headed the Committee which prepared the English Edition of the Gnostic Gospels, would write an introduction and compile an index.

In addition, a $25,000 subvention was provided through the Dr. Irving Moskowitz Foundation (known in the contract as the “undisclosed donor”) to cover the costs of publication and to help insure against liability.

A Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls in two volumes was published in November of 1991.  [2]


[1] At some point, when and through circumstances which remain privileged, I accepted pro bono representation of an “undisclosed client” in whose lawful possession were almost 1,800 photographic plates of the unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls.  Over the years after a trip to Jerusalem in 1979, I had often wondered about the common basis of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  With the opportunity to help bring documents to light which could fill in the missing history of several of the most important centuries in the common experience shared by each of these religions, I did not stop to consider whether I had a choice in accepting the representation.  In 1991, I signed a contract on behalf of my secret client with the Biblical Archaeology Society to publish a facsimile edition of those photographs.

[2] Since helping to publish the Scrolls, I have often meditated about what I should do.  My answer has always been the same:  “Feed the Children.”  Thus, what follows are the stories about the historical Jesus, his family, and his companions which I believe to be true and which are intended to help children and their parents to sense the Holy Spirit of his God of Love.

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