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2.24.2010 The Dead Sea scrolls: Voice of reason

From The Economist print edition

WITHIN a century or so of Christianity’s emergence, Jews and Christians were having heated disputes over certain prophetic passages in the Hebrew scriptures. They were arguing not only over the meaning of those verses, but over their precise wording. Each side suspected the other of doctoring manuscripts in order to support its own interpretations.

At least until the late 20th century, it was almost impossible for modern scholars to throw any light on the substance of these disputes: in other words, to say which party was correct in its claims as to which wording was the oldest. There are clearly some small but significant differences between the Hebrew used by most Jews for at least 1,400 years or so—the Masoretic text—and the Septuagint, a translation into Greek made for Hellenistic Jews in Egypt about 800 years earlier, using a Hebrew original which has been lost. But nobody could really explain the source of these differences. Was it the case that the translators deliberately set out to mislead, or did later editors alter the Hebrew?

Debate about this and many other delicate matters was transformed by the discovery, starting in 1947, of nearly 900 documents, in a series of caves in the desolate landscape east of Jerusalem. The scrolls, the first of which was found by a young goatherd, are a mixture of biblical and quasi-biblical texts, plus some previously unknown writings, all apparently possessed by (and perhaps produced by) a dissident Jewish community just before and during the time of Jesus Christ.

The analysis of such ultra-sensitive material requires calm judgment—and Geza Vermes, a retired Oxford professor, is widely credited with having the coolest head among the scholars who have devoted their careers to studying the scrolls and sharing their insights. Some of his writing is controversial. He has, for example, strong personal opinions on the “historical Jesus”, and like anybody who enters that field he has attracted both admirers and detractors. But in this short personal memoir, he sticks mainly to the known facts about the scrolls, and the arguments they have caused. On this matter, he is careful and fair-minded.

It may help that his personal story stands at the tragic interface between Christianity and Judaism in the 20th century. As the 85-year-old Mr Vermes recalls, his Hungarian Jewish parents died in the Holocaust, even though the family, which was not religious, had converted to Catholicism in the 1930s. Young Geza was saved by the family’s Catholic contacts and went on to study in western Europe. Ordained as a Catholic priest and educated at Catholic universities, he later reverted to his Jewish roots. As a lifelong analyst of the scrolls, whose efforts to maximise scholarly access have been gratefully recalled by younger biblical scholars, such as Britain’s Philip Davies, Mr Vermes is well placed to dissect the precise significance of this unique discovery, and to assess the many theories it triggered.

One popular conspiracy theory held that the Catholic scholars who did the initial analysis of the scrolls kept their conclusion secret because it challenged the Christian faith. Mr Vermes, who was close to that research effort, finds good reason to criticise it for slowness and carelessness—but no ground to assert a conspiracy. Nor does he accept oversimplified theories that directly link the community which gave rise to the scrolls with the advent of Christianity. The manuscripts are relevant to the study of Christian beginnings, but they are not the whole story.

For Mr Vermes, the Dead Sea scrolls provide both reassurance and difficult questions for believing Christians and Jews alike. The reassuring news for Jews is that the scrolls, comprising versions of the Hebrew scriptures in use about 2,000 years ago, are mostly pretty close to the later Masoretic version.

Although Mr Vermes does not spell this out in detail, there is also some intriguing news for Christians: certain “Old Testament” passages which they hold dear—but which are mysteriously absent in the Masoretic version—do feature in the scrolls. They don’t seem to have been late Christian inventions. The challenging thing for both faiths to accept is that multiple versions of the Hebrew scriptures appear to have been in circulation for a very long time—to a degree that casts doubt on the existence of one original set of words. Indeed, the very idea there was a single Ur-text from which later versions diverge either more or less is hardly tenable, as Mr Vermes persuasively argues.

Many believers in revealed religion, especially those who regard text as the primary medium of revelation, will find that hard. But if they do accept it, it will be much easier for believers in different religions to have civilised debates without coming to blows. As someone who has significantly advanced that cause, Mr Vermes can look back on a life well lived.