Science in Christian Perspective



Allan A. MacRae, Ph. D.

From: JASA 6 (December 1954): 14-15.

The last seven years have witnessed an unusual series of discoveries in Palestine. In the entire history of Archaeology there have never been more thrilling developments than those which followed the original discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In the spring of 1947 an Arab shepherd happened upon a cave, in the wilderness of Judea, a little west of the north end of the Dead Sea. In this cave he found some ancient clay jars, which contained inscribed scrolls wrapped in linen cloth. He took these scrolls to Jerusalem and tried to sell them. Some were purchased by the Hebrew University, while others came into the hands of the Archbishop of the Syrian Church in Jerusalem.

In February, 1948, a represenative of the Syrian Archbishop went to the American School of Oriental Research to ask if its members could identify some old Hebrew scrolls which, the messenger said, had been found uncatalogued in the library of the Syrian Monastery. When the scrolls were examined, it was discovered that one of them contained a practically complete text of the book of Isaiah. Its type of writing suggested that it come from the time of Christ, or even a little before.

This was rather hard to believe, since our earliest dated manuscript of any portion of the Old Testament in Hebrew came from the tenth century A. D., and there was little reason to consider that any of our existing Old Testament manuscripts, aside from one small piece of papyrus, had been written earlier than the ninth century A. D. The possibility that a Biblical manuscript had been found which was almost a thousand years older, was truly exciting.

The other manuscripts in the hands of the messenger from the Syrian Archbishop, although somewhat fragmentary, were also of considerable interest. One was a commentary on Habbakkuk; another was the Manual of Discipline of an ancient Jewish sect. It was not long before the original story that these manuscripts had been found in the monastery library was withdrawn, and it was stated that they had been purchased from some Arabs who had discovered them in a cave in the desert.

The Isaiah Scroll was completely photographed at once. As scholars noted its close similarity to the text of Isaiah which is found in our present Hebrew Bible, some of them were thrilled at this remarkable evidence, carrying back our knowledge of the Hebrew text of Isaiah almost a thousand years, and showing how excellently on the whole our Biblical Hebrew text has been preserved by the great care of the scribes. Others, however, found it impossible to believe that this manuscript was actually so old. They recalled the words of the original messenger of the archbishop, that these scrolls had been found in the archbishop's library, and insisted that they were not ancient at all, but that they came from the Middle Ages. For a time it looked as if scholarly opinion would veer in this direction. The genuineness of the scrolls and their dating have been discussed by numerous scholars from many lands. Now, however, new facts have come to light which seem definitely to settle the matter.

It was very hard to do much investigating in Palestine immediately after the scrolls became known, since the land was then in the throes of war between the Jews and the Arabs. After the situation had quieted down, and a definite borderline had been established, it became possible to examine the cave from which the Bedouins said that the scrolls had been taken. Here many jars were found, together with hundreds of fragments of manuscripts, some of which demonstrably came from the very manuscripts which the Bedouins had sold. Archeologists, who have examined the jars found in the cave, declare that many of them are of a type which was not produced after 100 B.C. Paleographers have argued strongly for a similar date for most of the scrolls. Some of the linen cloth found in the cave was sent to the Institute for Nuclear Studies of the University of Chicago, which reported in January, 1951, that investigation of its Carbon 14 content indicated that its origin could be dated at 33 A.D. plus or minus two hundred years. This certainly fits with an early date rather than with a medieval date for the scrolls.

The contents of the non-Biblical scrolls found in the cave have been much discussed, and it was suggested that they were related to the so-called Zadokite Fragments, found in Egypt fifty years ago, which told of a sect of Jews living in the desert, which had fled from persecution to Damascus.

Near the cave where the tablets were found, there was an old ruin, known as Khirbet Qumran. This was excavated in 1951 and 1953. It proved to be the headquarters of a group of Jews which began to use it in the second century B.C. Remains of a scriptorium were found, which was evidently the place where the scrolls had been copied. Near it other caves were discovered. One of these, situated in the opposite direction from Cave One, contained pieces of over one hundred scrolls. Many of these pieces have been fitted together, and portions of almost every book of the Old Testament have been identified. Some of the manuscripts contain parts of the Zadokite Fragments, verifying the theory that the group which produced these scrolls is the very one described in the Zadokite writings which were found in Egypt fifty years ago. The non-Biblical writings have many allusions to contemporary events, expressed, however, in veiled language. Some of them are thought to refer to incidents in connection with the Maccabean revolt of around 168 B.C.

All this naturally stimulated the seven hundred Bedouins who live in the area to hunt through these wild and desolate desert regions for more caves. Soon other manuscripts began to appear for sale in Jerusalem. Many of these came from two caves which had been discovered in a distant wadi two hundred feet up the side of a six hundred foot cliff. These caves were so large that about fifty men could work in them at one time. They have provided us another great collection of manuscript fragments, mainly written in letters of a type used a century or two later than those previously discovered. Among them are many which deal with the Second Jewish Revolt against the Romans (132 to 135 A. D.). They throw much light on the history of that time, and give further evidence of the early date of the other manuscripts.

The study of the manuscripts from the various caves is found to be of great value in giving new understanding of many points of Biblical interpretation, and in fixing the exact text of the Old Testament in many places. In general they agree so well with the established text that they show how very excellently it has on the whole been preserved. The non-Biblical texts are also of great interest, as they reveal the life and views of the sectarian groups of Jews who wrote these manuscripts. They should greatly enlarge our knowledge of this period of Jewish history, should give us a better understanding of the Jewish world at the time of Christ, and should cause great change in many of the theories of the origin of Christianity and of the development of Judaism which are now widely held. There are so many texts and so many problems connected with them that it is too early to draw conclusions much beyond what we have already stated. It is already a most exciting and complicated developinent in archeological study, and one which should result in bringing many facts of great interest to light, as these scrolls are studied in coming days,

Faith Theological Seminary
Elkins Park

Phi!adelphia 17, Pa. November 5, 1954