By Fred Camper

It all began, some say, with goats wandering up the side of a cliff. They were being tended by three bedouin cousins of the Ta’amireh tribe one day in the winter of 1946-’47 in a desolate area of rocky desert just northwest of the Dead Sea. Climbing up after his goats, one of the cousins noticed two small openings. Throwing a rock into one, he heard the sound of breaking pottery. Soon he and his cousins were exploring the cave, hoping for treasure.

They were disappointed with the manuscripts they found, but a decade later, this had become known as Cave 1, the first of 11 caves found to contain about 100,000 fragments of over 800 manuscripts dating from between 250 BC and 68 AD: the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some were actual scrolls as much as 27 feet long, while others had deteriorated into tiny pieces of parchment or papyrus. Among them were the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible and numerous other religious texts, most previously unknown, that reveal much about Judaism at the time and, according to many scholars, about the origins of Christianity. But the scrolls have had a troubled, divisive history, and not only on a scholarly level, though they’ve generated plenty of controversy among scholars, some who take a mainstream view and others, like University of Chicago professor Norman Golb, who dissent from the original theory of the scrolls’ origins.

Kenneth V. Mull, a professor emeritus of religion and archaeology at Aurora University who’s made 18 trips to the region around Jerusalem and lived there for three years, has recently been giving seminars in suburban churches, usually Methodist, on the Dead Sea Scrolls to help prepare people for the exhibit now at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. It includes 15 scroll fragments, which rarely travel outside of Israel, texts in Hebrew and English, and pottery and textiles from the region where the scrolls were found.

Calling himself more a popularizer than a specialist, Mull points out that even the story of how the scrolls were found varies somewhat. “The Ta’amireh pride themselves on their storytelling. In some versions they were throwing rocks to summon the goats back down. In others, they were trying to see who could get one into the hole in the cliff wall and got scared when they heard the sound.” But James Phillips, curator of the Field exhibit, says that the currentconsensus among archaeologists is that this story–retold in many books–is inaccurate, that the bedouin were actively looking for caves knowing full well that there was a market for antiquities.

The bedouin cousins eventually brought the scrolls to a Bethlehem cobbler, Kando, who also dealt in antiquities. Mull thinks the bedouin were hoping to have sandal straps made from the leather. Instead Kando sold most of the scrolls to the metropolitan, or archbishop, of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem for about $100, of which the bedouin received two-thirds.

This was a time of great chaos in Palestine, a virtual three-way war between the British, Arabs, and Jews. E.L. Sukenik, an archaeologist with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, had to view an unsold scroll fragment through a barbwire fence before he purchased the remaining Cave 1 scrolls. This happened within a day of the United Nations’ vote to partition Palestine in 1947, leading to the war that created the state of Israel. Mull says, “Some pious Israelis see this as an act of God: when the new state came into existence, these scrolls came into our hands.” A few months later a leading archaeologist from Johns Hopkins specializing in Palestine called the scrolls “the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times,” and soon afterward the metropolitan was in the United States trying to sell his scrolls for a million dollars–without success. Finally a small Wall Street Journal ad brought him a buyer at one quarter the price; unbeknownst to him, the purchaser was acting for the state of Israel. Meanwhile East Jerusalem and the other ten caves fell under Jordanian rule, and Jewish scholars were denied access to the other scrolls–Jews were denied entry into Jordan. Indeed, the committee of scholars who worked on editing and publishing the scrolls were all Christians even long after the 1967 war brought the scrolls into Jewish hands again.

Mull’s daylong seminars (the next are in Dundee on April 29, in Saint Charles on May 6, and in Barrington on May 13) are collaborations with Scott Cheffer, a former student of Mull’s. The two are unpaid, though some of their expenses and equipment are funded by Aurora University and the Methodist Conference of Churches.

An ordained minister born in an Oregon sawmill town in 1930, Mull says history is of “vital interest because I think we can learn from it. I don’t think that [what happens] is inevitable–history is the result of human choices. I make a very poor fundamentalist even though I was raised as one.” The branch of the Evangelical Church that he grew up in prohibited drinking, dancing, and movies–though “that doesn’t mean that the teenagers were all necessarily pure.”

One thing the scrolls tell us, Mull says, is that the text of the Hebrew Bible has been preserved quite accurately despite myriad recopyings. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls are manuscripts, some complete but most fragmentary, of every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther. Because the oldest previous texts were from about 1,000 AD, the scrolls can confirm the accuracy of the copies our translations are based on. One of the Cave 1 scrolls is a complete copy of Isaiah in excellent condition; based on that scroll, only 13 minor corrections were made to the Revised Standard Edition of the Bible.

On the other hand, Mull says, “They were making changes in the text of the Bible at the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are also little transcription mistakes. This blows the fundamentalists right out of the water. There’s a place in Isaiah 21 where a watchman is looking out from the city walls. He sees some donkeys, horses, camels, and he shouts out ‘a lion.’ In the Gideon Bible they have a note indicating, ‘Maybe he shouted like a lion.’ Obviously it bothered them or they wouldn’t have put in an explanation.” But in the Isaiah scroll the word is not “lion” but “watchman”–the person who shouts out. “What apparently happened is at some point in the later copying process you had a dyslexic scribe: ‘watchman’ is resh-aleph-he in Hebrew, and ‘lion’ is aleph-resh-he.” Some fundamentalists argue that such errors don’t discredit the sacredness of the text. “Their answer is that God only permitted harmless errors in copying, that there are no errors in faith or morals.”

“I don’t want to give fundamentalists any kind of problem,” says Eugene Ulrich, a professor of Hebrew scriptures at Notre Dame and now chief editor of the biblical scrolls. But he says that originally there wasn’t just one text for each book but several developing versions; when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD, putting down the First Jewish Revolt, “the rabbis saved one copy of each book from the collection of texts they had. That became our Bible.” Historians agree that there were many kinds of Judaism before 70 AD and that the form we know today descended from the Pharisees, which became “a text-based lay movement,” Ulrich says, different from the “Temple-based” Sadducees.

No one can be certain who wrote the scrolls. Majority opinion has long favored the Essenes, a Jewish sect that, according to one theory, originated in the second century BC in response to a politicization of the Temple priesthood. Pliny the Elder called this group “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.” Excavations in the early 50s near the site that Pliny named revealed the ruins of a community now known as Khirbat Qumran, very near some of the caves. No manuscripts were found, but some considered a few inkwells in one room evidence of a scriptorium. Though some scrolls may have been put in the caves earlier because they were worn, it’s theorized that most were hidden from the advancing Roman army in the caves shortly before the community was destroyed in 68 AD. “[The Essenes] planned to come back,” Mull says, “and the fact that no one came back probably tells us more about the thoroughness of the Roman army than about how highly the Essenes valued their manuscripts.”

The Essenes practiced communal ownership of property, ate meals together, and enforced very strict discipline. Mull points out that one of the scrolls, the Manual of Discipline, prescribes 30 days’ penance for falling asleep during meetings or spitting; gesticulating with the left hand drew 10 days. More serious offenses resulted in permanent expulsion. “They had a rule that someone had to be studying scripture at all times, around the clock. They were very critical of the practices at the Temple–the people there were following the wrong calendar, had the wrong priests, were performing the wrong sacrifices.”

Mull accepts the Qumran-Essene theory of the scrolls’ origin. And at the seminar I attended, in a basement meeting room of Gary United Methodist Church in Wheaton, he and Cheffer kept things lively, using slides and video and describing the desolate landscape around Qumran in dramatic terms: “There’s an Arab story,” Mull says, “that when God created the world he sent an angel with two bags of rocks. One broke over Palestine, dropping half the rocks of the world there.” At the Dead Sea–the lowest spot on earth at 1,300 feet below sea level–temperatures of 115 degrees are not uncommon. “The bedouin wear overcoats, which strikes people as nutty,” Mull says. “But it keeps the moisture in. Westerners wear short pants and T-shirts and have to drink about two gallons of water a day.”

The seminar is often entertaining but includes some odd moments. The church pastor introduces the prayer before lunch as a “Judeo-Christian” grace then prays to Jesus Christ. Commenting on the wealth sharing of the Essenes, Mull says that he’s “not opposed to communal wealth. My Jesuit friends have nothing, but they live extremely well.” Mull makes a sarcastic reference to the Book of Mormon: “The plates were taken back up into heaven, so they can’t be checked.” (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is actually a sponsor of the exhibit at the Field Museum.) Cheffer, who could have been a stand-up comedian, tells a long, funny joke about an atheist being eaten alive by the Loch Ness monster. He also refers twice to the Roman wars against the Jews as early attempts, “unfortunately not the last, at the ‘final solution to the Jewish question.'” When I asked the Wheaton College student sitting next to me if those references struck her as inappropriate, she didn’t recognize the phrase “final solution.”

Someone asked near the end how much the scrolls have changed our views of religion, and Cheffer answered, “Hopefully not too much. Nothing was found that alters the theology of Christianity and Judaism. Some details were cleaned up, a little tuck-pointing here and there, some cleaned windows, but the house is the house. I guess the good news is there’s nothing to be worried about.”

But some of Mull’s information and interpretations differ from other sources. He calls one of the major manuscripts, the Temple Scroll, “so different from reality that it has to be about the end of time. Jerusalem will be a holy city, no sex, nobody will be allowed to defecate on the Sabbath.” But the Jewish historian Josephus, who lived among the Essenes, wrote that they did refrain from defecating on the Sabbath. And Yigael Yadin, the noted Israeli archaeologist who purchased the Temple Scroll for the state in 1967, considered it a kind of Essene Torah, a record of actual beliefs–“above all a book of the Law, laws for the community both for the present and for the [future].”

Curator Phillips, also a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, points out that Josephus might have embellished his account for the Romans’ entertainment, to curry favor with them. Still, Mull’s view of the Temple Scroll effaces the possibility that this ancient religion and our own, their times and ours, might be extremely different. Making light of what could have been a religion based on real self-sacrifice adds to the seminar’s almost smug tone.

U. of C. professor of Jewish history and civilization Norman Golb argues against the Qumran-Essene theory of the scroll’s origins. A leading exponent of one opposing view, he was unable to visit Qumran early on because he’s Jewish. When he went in 1969, “I was amazed. I didn’t see the evidence of a sect living among the palm trees. The stone tower had a protective slope. It’s definitely military–you can see the entire northern half of the Dead Sea from that tower.” Golb eventually concluded that Pliny’s Essene community was at En-Gedi, not Qumran, which was a fortress for the defense of Jerusalem rather than a spiritual community. The Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden at Qumran by Jews anticipating the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD and were from diverse Jerusalem libraries. He makes a case for his views in Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? (and will be lecturing on the subject May 2 at the Newberry Library).

Golb acknowledges that “the Manual of Discipline indeed has some ideas that remind us of Josephus’s Essenes. It suggests that money is spiritually defiling. But in a scroll published during this past decade, MMT, nowhere do you find anything about the defiling power of money.” And the Copper Scroll–actually written on copper–describes the locations of many buried treasures (the directions have never been fully deciphered).

“So many scholars were deeply entrenched in the old theory,” Golb says. “In Israel school groups visit the site–it’s used to encourage Jewish national pride. Eminent professors at Hebrew University subscribed lock, stock, and barrel to the theories of Father de Vaux”–the leader of the original Qumran excavation–“instead of critically investigating his claims. It’s an irony that this Dominican priest fired by zeal to find traces of his spiritual forebears should have had such an influence.

“By now there have been countless books and articles focusing on the Essenes as the sources of many ideas of Christianity. They disregard the findings that show the Jews of all Palestine influenced early Christianity. I think many Christians still feel more comfortable with the idea of the pervasive influence of this small sect, different from the body politic of the Jews. That’s regrettable because it leaves the Palestinian Jews out of the picture.”

Golb objects to the Field Museum exhibit because it presents only the Qumran-Essene theory of the scrolls’ origins: “What the Field is doing is against modern American museum practice–the exhibit only gives one side, which is exactly what a museum should not do.” Golb says that the tide of scholarly opinion is turning in his direction and points out that the just published third volume of the Cambridge History of Judaism has two main articles on the Dead Sea Scrolls, one by a traditional scholar and the other by him. He’s posted his disagreements with and corrections of 27 of the Field exhibit labels on the Web (

Asked to comment on Golb and his work, Notre Dame professor Ulrich says, “I do not like polemics. Golb has this conspiracy theory. It was a bright idea 30 years ago, but it turned out not to be correct–90 percent of scholars disagree with him. If you stand at Khirbat Qumran you can hit a number of the caves with a rock. If the scrolls were left by people fleeing with precious documents, why were there no deeds of houses, like you do find in Wadi Daliyeh, where they were fleeing from Alexander’s troops?”

Phillips says that, early on, “de Vaux and most of the others would have said that all the scrolls were Essene, and correctly Golb brought up that the scrolls represented a variety of…books [not all Essene], and there’s no question that he was right that it was a library.” Phillips agrees that not all the scrolls were written at Qumran or even copied there, and that they could represent more than one sect. But otherwise he strongly disagrees with Golb. “The scrolls are all against the Temple, that’s the commonality,” Phillips says. That would argue against any of them being from the Temple library. “And the site is not a fortress–there are no defensive walls.”

The Qumran-Essene advocates also say that the pots that some of the scrolls were found in were unique to Qumran, but Golb claims that it was a regional style and that similar jars have been found at two other sites. Phillips says that only tiny shards were found at the other sites. Golb replies that, even if the pots were unique to Qumran, they could have been borrowed from nearby inhabitants by the scroll hiders. “Golb doesn’t know anything about pottery,” says Phillips. “He depends on I don’t know who. He has a hypothesis and will do anything to push it. This should be an intellectual discussion with data to back one up, not a polemic.”

Phillips makes no apologies for the exhibition labels: “This is a public museum. It’s not a display for Norman Golb. It’s going to present the mainstream because we’re dealing with the lay public. There is one label that includes the view that the scrolls come from Jerusalem. It’s also in the catalog. Who put it in there? Me. Other than making the statement that there are divergent views, why should I have to include his? But we did. Professor Golb is a brilliant man in medieval Judaism, but as a Dead Sea Scroll scholar he’s never translated one–what he’s done is criticize.”

It’s true that Golb has never officially translated a scroll–for a long time he didn’t even have access to the scrolls. And he points out that he’s translated many scroll passages in his book. Mull provides the history: “In the early days there was an international team of scholars who were being paid by a grant to assemble this material. There were two Americans on the team”–but no Jews. They worked on the task for some years, and then the grant money dried up. “The research kind of went to pot,” Mull says. “So there were a couple of decades when little was happening. This gave rise to anger and conspiracy theories–that there were things that were embarrassing to Christianity and to the Catholic Church, that the Vatican had put the lid on this. The assumption behind this wouldn’t fit the American Catholic scholars I know–they’re a pretty damn defiant lot.”

Years of increasing international pressure, by Golb and others, resulted in previously unpublished facsimiles of the scrolls being made available to scholars in 1991. One immediate result, Mull says, is that “some people rushed into print with some crappy stuff. One publication mistranslated a text as referring to a ‘pierced Messiah,’ suggesting that the Christ story was shared with a pre-Christian sect.”

The “pierced Messiah” story is one of many examples of the ways the scrolls have been interpreted to reinforce one or another agenda. At the seminar Mull shows slides of amusing tabloid headlines. The Weekly World News of February 9, 1999, blared: “Dead Sea Prophecy…Bible scrolls predict second great depression in 1999!” Another tabloid announced in 1993 that, according to the scrolls, “Elvis grave dug up–and it’s empty.”

George Nickelsburg, a professor of religion at the University of Iowa who’s studied the ways the press has treated the Dead Sea Scrolls, agrees that they’ve often been “a handy tool for making points that you want to make anyhow.” In a 1949 New York Times article E.L. Sukenik–speaking while holding the War Scroll, a description of an apocalyptic final battle between the Sons of Light (the Israelites) and the Sons of Darkness–is quoted as recalling that he compared its battle with Israel’s struggle when he first read the scroll in 1947. Nickelsburg also found the theories of a Vatican conspiracy, most of which came out in the 80s, foreshadowed in an early-70s novel. But to Nickelsburg the cover-up theories don’t make much sense: the earliest publication of the scrolls had already “challenged the uniqueness of much of Christianity–ritual ablutions, the church sharing its wealth, the notion that the end of the world is at hand.”

Most of the scrolls were found in fragments–Mull calls them “788 incomplete jigsaw puzzles.” The 575 manuscripts from Cave 4 are in 25,000 fragments; for a few manuscripts only one fragment exists. For those that were still in rolls, unrolling them was often a long process; the Copper Scroll had to be cut apart piece by piece. Worms, soil acids, and moisture have taken their toll; many scrolls were damaged in their discovery, others in the exposure that followed. The texts of some manuscripts have faded, and the most readable copies of those are now early photographs. Ultraviolet and infrared photography have been used to help make some texts more legible.

In the 1950s, cellophane tape was used to fasten fragments to glass in the process of trying to assemble them properly, and the residue has proved difficult to remove. The Field exhibit includes a lab where a conservator from the Israel Antiquities Authority can be seen at work; a video shows us the microscopic view of what she’s doing, and on one visit she seemed to be painstakingly scraping away the tape’s gelatinous residue.

Why is it desirable to see the manuscripts themselves? Three experts offer three different answers. Mull says he’s not that interested in the physical scrolls but rather in what they say. For curator Phillips, seeing fragments allows us to get a sense of the problem of reassembling them. And for Golb the scrolls symbolize the destruction of prerabbinic Jewish civilization in Jerusalem, evoking “the war that was the cause of the Jews having to spirit them out before the siege. Looking at these shreds we can envision the hands of the people who hid them.”

Of course the show’s visitors will bring their own beliefs to it. As I was reading the translation of a fragment from Enoch–“And they became pregnant by them and bo[re…giants three thousand cubits high]”–I noticed a woman reading along with me. “How big is a cubit?” she asked. “About a foot,” I guessed (it’s somewhat longer). She looked troubled: “How can this be possible?” I tried joking, “Don’t believe everything you read.” Her response was “But this is the Bible.” When I explained to her that the Book of Enoch is not part of the official Bible, she seemed greatly relieved.

Mull and Cheffer have a number of seminars scheduled, all free except for a lunch fee, among them the ones in Dundee (April 29, call 847-426-2113), Saint Charles (May 6, call 630-584-6880), and Barrington (May 13, call 847-381-1725); visit for more information. The Field Museum offers various public programs and symposia on the Dead Sea Scrolls; call 312-665-7400 or visit Event_home.asp. Norman Golb will lecture on “The Dead Sea Scrolls and Hebrew Manuscript Investigation” on May 2 at the Newberry Library; call 312-255-3700 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.