The Story of the Scrolls: The Miraculous Discovery
and True Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls. By Geza Vermes.
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
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
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
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.