Scrolls Not Living

Of the many ancient finds in Western Asia, none captured the imagination like the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The timing and romance of the find itself, the scandals that almost immediately broke out, and the subsequent “secrecy” over the contents made the secular news.  I’m convinced that a large part of the mystique has to do with the somewhat spooky name—Qumran scrolls never caught on, even though it is more accurate for many of the documents.  Their discovery came after the Second World War when people were wanting good news, and, perhaps, an indication that all of this stuff was somehow predicted.  Enter the scrolls.  No doubt, these documents gave us quite a lot of information on the Second Temple Period—the time from the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple in the sixth century BCE until its destruction under the Romans in the first century CE.  Now the scrolls are back in the news.

A story by Nicola Davis in The Guardian announces that the origin of the scrolls is once again open to interpretation.  The reason is somewhat technical—scrolls that were written on vellum (animal skins) had to be prepared for writing.  One of the steps involved chemically treating the writing surface with a fine powder (the details are beyond me) so that it could be written upon.  We’ve reached the point where the salts left behind can be tested for place of origin.  The Guardian story notes that the Temple Scroll—one of the important non-biblical texts—was not prepared at Qumran (the site where most of the scrolls were found).  That means that the scroll itself came from elsewhere, depending upon with whom you speak.  The scrolls gather controversy like the Ugaritic tablets gather dust.  

Part of the charm here is that there are many unanswered questions about these ancient texts.  Who exactly wrote them is debated.  Their find-spot suggests they were hidden away by the quasi-monastics who lived in nearby Qumran, but this doesn’t mean they necessarily wrote them.  It’s still debated whether the Qumran community was made up of Essenes or not.  One thing we do know about them is that they were able librarians.  The scrolls themselves are symbolic of the strife in the region, having been discovered just as Israel was declared a nation.  The scrolls were quickly politicized.  They were kept under the auspices of a small group of academics and priests for many decades.  And they still have a way of catching headlines.  Even when its a matter of who powdered their faces.

 

 

 

 

 

If Onlyists

A special brand of Fundamentalism called King James Onlyism is a particularly odd variety of faith simply because of its required backing and filling.  In brief, this particular evangelical position claims that the only inspired translation of the Bible is the King James Version.  It’s best not to look too closely at the KJV, however, or the problems start.  Primary among them is that the version most Onlyists cite is not the original King James.  Published in 1611, this translation is immediately evident by its use of “I” for “J” and for the long s (the one that looks like an f).  Perhaps more troubling for Onlyists, it also includes the Apocrypha.  There was still some debate at the time concerning the status of these deuterocanonical books, and they were part of the actual KJV.

The typical King James used by Onlyists is a revised KJV.  In England, where the translation was done, revisions were made from time to time, leading to an Oxford version (Blayney text of 1769) and a Cambridge version (Scrivener text of 1873).  On these shores further adjustments were made leading to the rather strange situation where there is no single King James Version of the Bible.  There are many King James Versions.  Attempts to control Scripture often end up like that.  The underlying problem is the belief that there is a single version of Holy Writ.  Inerrantists are pledging their faith to something that doesn’t exist.  Defending this approach many would claim that the revisions are minor, but small changes can make huge differences.

The belief in one single version relies on the belief that God inspired not only the original writers, but the translators as well.  It denies that the better manuscripts that have come to light since the early seventeenth century (including the Dead Sea Scrolls) contain any authentic information of what the Good Book says.  Textual criticism, in the absence of any original manuscripts, is the best way we have of discovering what the original likely said.  Onlyists argue that the manuscripts from which King James’ translators worked were the divinely selected ones and their work was inspired—a position against which no empirical proof can be offered.  This faith trades in certainties that only bringing in direct heavenly control can achieve.  And it means that Catholics are wrong, despite King James’ inspired error to include the Apocrypha.  That’s the thing about a trump card like inspiration—once it’s played there’s no way to overcome it.

Ancient Perspectives

Around the holiday season, on social media, stories relating to the Bible tend to pop up. When my wife mentioned a New York Times story about “Gabriel’s Revelation” on the second day of Christmas, I was suspicious. The story, which was nearly a decade old—the internet keeps things in circulation far longer than those old library tomes consisting of physical newspapers bound together—describes the unprovenanced inscription as predicting a messiah will rise after being dead for three days. I assumed this meant evangelicals would be overjoyed, but it turns out that the artifact, if authentic, predates the New Testament. That means that it can’t be traditionally ascribed as a prophecy, since it’s not in the Bible, and therefore it becomes a threat because it suggests Jesus’ story isn’t unique.

Image credit: The Telegraph, from Wikimedia Commons

This is an interesting dynamic. A potentially important ancient artifact can only have value if it’s in the Bible or proves the Bible “true.” When that happens the faithful crow about how the evangelical position was right all along. If such a document implies that the gospels were borrowing from widespread cultural assumptions, however, it becomes just another unimportant bit of junk from days gone by. Confirmation bias, of course, is something in which we all indulge. Nobody likes being wrong. The difference is that the scholar is obliged to admit when the evidence overthrows his or her position. New options have to be considered.

Since I was between jobs in 2008 when the inscription was announced, it escaped my notice. Now that nine years have settled the dust a bit, there seems to be no sustained case for declaring Gabriel’s Revelation a forgery. Neither does it appear to have changed Christianity at all. The period known as that of Second Temple Judaism has shown itself to have been rich in messianic expectations. We know little, historically speaking, of Jesus of Nazareth. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that some were expecting a messiah along the lines of what Jesus was said to have been. But those documents aren’t part of the magical book that contains the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In as far as they back the Bible up, they are celebrated. When they call the Good Book into question, they are rejected. I have no idea whether Gabriel’s Revelation is authentic or not. It seems pretty clear, however, that a faith that’s based on one unquestioned source might be more fragile than even other artifacts that have managed to survive, somehow, from ancient times.

Not So Gnostic

A certain, amorphous indignation comes over those of us trained in history when we encounter abuses of the same. In my case, some thought me conservative when I argued in my first book that Asherah as Yahweh’s wife wasn’t nearly the slam dunk some scholars were making it out to be. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to see Yahweh as happily married as the next deity, but it was a matter of the evidence being weak and not thoughtfully examined. That is to say, I sympathize—maybe even empathize—with Philip Jenkins. His book, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, is an historical dressing down of many in the New Testament scholarly community who’ve perhaps let a bit of historical rigor slip in order to understand the world of early Christianity.

You see, once upon a time, scholars took the Gospels as, well, the gospel truth. Contradictions were simply harmonized or glossed over. When newer ancient material began to be discovered, however, adjustments had to be made. Perhaps the “orthodox” story of Christian origins wasn’t the only option available. In the twentieth century some spectacular manuscript finds were made, including the “library” of Nag Hammadi—largely Gnostic—and the Dead Sea Scrolls. New understandings of early Christianity were possible when these texts were considered. Some scholars engineered sweeping theories about revolutionary ideas concerning Jesus and his buds. Jenkins laments the lack of historical precision that many of these reconstructions demonstrate, and he comes across as somewhat annoyed.

Sensationalism, as we all know, sells publications and gets presidents elected. We all like a good story. In the case of Jesus, this means that the reconstructions of scholars often challenge traditional views, and popular publications love it. Jenkins finds it distasteful. Although this book is well written, as all of Jenkins’ material tends to be, it probably doesn’t do his arguments any favor to have retained the tired trope of heresy. Heresy means nothing without a supernatural bias, something that historians must avoid. Heresy, after all, assumes that one and only one version is correct (orthodox) and the four Gospels demonstrate that such a simple dichotomy is more difficult to sustain than it might appear to be. Yes, the Gnostic texts may not be as early as the traditional Gospels, but the ideas may have been circulating from near the beginning. We know surprisingly little about Jesus, so it’s not unexpected that rumors would’ve flown, even in antiquity. A solid source of information on some of the early “other gospels,” Jenkins’ book serves as a useful reminder that history is almost never as simple as it seems it should be.

Dead Sea, Live See

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Nothing fascinates quite like the Dead Sea Scrolls. That is, unless you’re a disgruntled Ugaritologist. Mention the Dead Sea Scrolls and the journalists will form a queue. Never mind the relative importance of Ugarit. But I digress. There is something quite dramatic about the discovery and recovery of the scrolls. It involves science and sculduggery and that utterly captivating name “Dead Sea.” This past week the scrolls were in the news again as a new technology was used to read an illegible roll. The New York Times story by Nicholas Wade describes how something like a CT scan can be used to find the ink on an unrolled scroll and software can be devised that associates the ink to its nearest surface. A little virtual unrolling and you have a legible document that has no visible letters that the naked eye can see. Turns out this one happens to come from Leviticus. Figures.

You might think this would lead to joyful leaping on the part of someone who used to make a living reading ancient documents, but such are the times in which we live that even silver linings turn to lead. Years ago I learned about Van Eck phreaking from Neal Stephenson. I thought it was sci-fi, but in fact it is a legitimate—or illegitimate—method of reading a person’s electronic device without being able to see the screen. Since so few people are eager to read my blog, I can’t think anyone would be wanting to spy on my laptop. Nevertheless, with the advent of new technology that can—think about it—read a closed book, I have to wonder about the implications. Reading some dead scribe’s Dead Sea Scroll is one thing. Your sister’s locked diary can be quite another.

Being more of a clay-and-stick man, I was pleased when it was discovered that rapid flashes of light around the circumference of a clay tablet could lead to a virtual computer model that could be rotated 360 degrees with illumination from any angle. The technology had other applications as well, of course. (It certainly wasn’t developed to read forgettable texts.) With a clay tablet we can be reasonably certain that nothing too private was being impressed. But then that’s what you’d expect an Ugaritologist to say. It seems that my days of reading ancient documents are a closed book anyway. But that’s just the problem. Not even a closed book is safe any more. If I were in any danger, I’m sure it would show in my stats before anyone bothered to park a nondescript van outside my door and scan through all the countless tomes with which I surround myself daily. But I do wonder.

Dead See Scrolls

Despite her ability to overlook my obvious deficiencies, my wife has good eyesight. Last week she spotted an article carried by the Associated Press entitled “Dispute over ancient scrolls changes modern law.” Although many ancient documents (notably those from Ugarit) outweigh the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for understanding the religion of ancient Israel, the Scrolls have continued to be headliners. There never seems to be some sort of scandal very far from the Scrolls, and this article by Jennifer Pletz reaffirms that assessment. The name of Norman Golb is familiar to just about any Hebrew Bible scholar. His work on the Scrolls is highly regarded. The story, however, brings the scandal down a generation to Golb’s son Raphael, a lawyer and literature scholar. In a case whose details rival the minutiae of the Scrolls themselves, the younger Golb is accused of sending emails putatively said to have been sent from his father’s rivals confessing plagiarism. To what point, beyond alleged family honor, one hesitates to speculate.

Dead_Sea_Scrolls_Before_Unraveled

“Sculduggery,” J. C. L. Gibson once said, “is always just around the corner in archaeological circles.” The same might be said to apply to the Scrolls. Episode after episode of scholars behaving badly have attended the controversial documents since their accidental discovery on the eve of Israel becoming a state. Ironically, the Scrolls in some symbolic ways represent the struggles of the Israelis. No one doubts their importance, but access has always been an issue. Careers were made and secured by the Scrolls, reaching to the highest academic offices in the land. And yet, we can learn more by turning back the pages of history just a little further.

The Scrolls date from that troubled time period when Christianity was just beginning to emerge from Judaism. Tempers flare at implications masked or insinuated. As if the Scrolls were really the much sought philosopher’s stone. The original generation of Scroll readers is going the way of all nature. Those associated with the more solid tablets of Ugarit have long passed that way already. And yet we still have Bible museums being built and implications left dangling. Law suits are filed and ownership of the Scrolls is disputed. In the twenty-first century scholars are still willing to risk it all on some parchment fragments that have the appeal of the esoteric. Hidden truths, almost apocalyptic, squirreled away in desert caves. Knowledge is indeed money, unless, of course, you actually know how to read the Scrolls for yourself.

Manuscript Madness

A friend recently pointed me to a story of a “new” manuscript, recently discovered, that portrays Jesus predicting the advent of Mohammad. The article on sott.net, suggests that the manuscript, wanting to be seen by the Pope, may be the Gospel of Barnabas. Of course, the Gospel of Barnabas is already known from a medieval Italian manuscript and a new, authentic discovery would be of great excitement to epigraphists and text critics, but few others. Barnabas is not a canonical gospel and is considered by the majority of scholars to have come from centuries after the fact. Quite apart from the sensational headline “1,500 year-old Bible found in Ankara, Turkey: Vatican in Shock!” (posted in September of last year, before Francis came along), the manuscript raises a number of questions concerning what one colleague calls “the iconic book.” To be sure, there are documents yet to be discovered. The Bible, however, will not be reconstituted and the door has long been sealed shut on written revelation. What remains is the perception of sacred books.

How many movies and novels are based on the premise that an ancient document has been discovered and suddenly everything about the world changes? It is a common enough theme. This idea is based on the magical concept of scripture—the hidden wisdom of the ancients somehow overrides all that we know of the world. It lies in some cave or monastery or synagogue, waiting to be discovered, unleashing divine power. No doubt the dramatic (and dramatized) discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls plays into this mythos. Nobody knew they were there, but suddenly, new information! How many people on the street today, however, can say anything of what was contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls? They’ve been mulled over by furrowed-browed scholars for over half a century, but haven’t triggered any apocalypses, at least not yet.

There are hidden documents. Working for Gorgias Press put me in the place where I could learn about some texts kept under lock and key in remote monasteries in Syria. They are generally kept for their monetary value rather than their spiritual revelations. The manuscript on sott.net made me think of those manuscripts for the first time in years. In all likelihood, if a manuscript is being hidden it is lucre, not illumination, that is at stake. The Vatican library, researchers who’ve been there tell, requires immense patience and a willingness to be repeatedly turned away. There’s just something about those old texts. No surprise that the Bible and Qur’an lead to such fiercely protective sentiments in some believers. In the meanwhile, I wouldn’t advise selling all your possessions and anticipating the apocalypse. Unless, of course, you take some ancient documents literally.

An ancient manuscript (not the hidden one).

An ancient manuscript (not the hidden one).