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  • Published 16.04.10

The story of the scrolls: The miraculous discovery and true significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls By Geza Vermes, Penguin, Rs 350

Sometime between the end of 1946 and the summer of 1947, three nomadic Palestinian Arabs belonging to the Taamire tribe were looking for a stray goat near the Dead Sea. One of them threw a stone into a hole and heard the sound of breaking pottery. He climbed into the hole and discovered several ancient manuscripts in a jar. This was the beginning of the discovery of a treasure trove called the Dead Sea Scrolls: a collection of manuscripts written in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek that has completely transformed the understanding of the Biblical world, the history of Judaism and of early Christianity.

Geza Vermes is one of the world’s acknowledged experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls. But he was only 23 when they were first discovered. He gives a cogent and objective account of how his life has come to be inextricably linked with the scrolls. He remarks at the end, lightheartedly, that he was once introduced as the man who has written the Dead Sea Scrolls in English. Most people who are aware of Vermes’s work will agree that such a description of him is entirely justified even though it does not encompass all aspects of his phenomenal scholarship and erudition.

This book is addressed to the intelligent layman who is interested in the scrolls and in the history that emerges from them. Vermes does two things in this book. First, he tells the story of their discovery, decipherment, collation, editing and annotation. This was not a smooth operation and it took inordinately long. There were too many groups of scholars involved. As a result, there were bickerings, vested interests, clash of egos, blunders and so on — all leading to the stalling of the project. This part will be of interest to those who are interested in the academic background of the project.

The other dimension of the book concerns the significance of the scrolls: how and to what extent have they extended and altered the understanding of the period. He precedes this by providing a sketch of the state of knowledge of biblical studies before the discovery of the scrolls.

Biblical studies, by definition, begin with the Old and the New Testaments. The OT has a longer and a shorter version. The Palestinian Jewish Bible consisted of books written in Aramaic and Hebrew; the Jews in the Greek-speaking countries had translated these 39 books and had added to them the Apocrypha, 15 works composed in, or later rendered into, Greek. The Christians enlarged the Greek Bible by adding 27 books that are together called the NT. In the 1940s, it was taught that the purpose of textual criticism was the reconstruction of the authentic document — the Uretext — composed by the original author with the help of variants attested in the surviving copies. Research was thus concentrated on the comparative study of various manuscripts and edited texts. It was the consensus among scholars — and this was handed down from master to pupil — that there could be no pre-Christian text recorded on perishable material like skin or papyrus.

The first thing that the discovery of the scrolls did was break this consensus. The scrolls yielded over 900 original compositions, most of them written on leather, 14 per cent on papyrus and a handful on broken pottery known as ostraca. The other immediate novelty was that the manuscripts were not organized as codices — leaves of leather or papyrus sewn together as a volume. The Dead Sea manuscripts were inscribed on one side of the sheets and then rolled up. Thus the term scrolls. The mode of writing was vegetable ink on sheep or goatskin specially prepared by craftsmen. Having chosen the correct number of sheets to copy, the scribe lined them horizontally for writing of the text, and vertically at both ends of the columns. A sheet carried five columns of text.

The Dead Sea Scrolls “proved the presence of all the books of the Bible except Esther either in scroll form or in fragments’’. This allows for the deduction that these books commanded at Qumran (where they were found) the same respect as in the rest of Palestinian Jewry. Thus, there was no difference between the Qumran Bible and the Hebrew Bible. The scrolls also make it evident that the biblical text passed through a degree of enforced unification since the scrolls display textual elasticity. The scrolls thus make for an enhanced understanding of the history of the Bible.

The scrolls also reveal the existence of a particular Jewish group, which recorded its special customs, laws, scriptural interpretations and beliefs. This group refused to interact with its Jewish contemporaries. This group has been identified as the Essenes, a religious group that practised a primitive communism of life without money. Vermes’s reading of the text does not allow for a complete identification, but makes such an identification a distinct possibility.

Vermes is strongly against the view that sees a strong link between the scrolls and Christian writings. He believes that the scrolls and the NT stand apart despite some parallels. What cannot be denied, however, is that the views of the community that are recorded in the scrolls did influence the early followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

This booked, packed with information and analysis, is also the story of a life dedicated to scholarship. Vermes has the rare gift of making the Dead Sea Scrolls come alive.