"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21
  • Biblical manuscripts dating back to at least 200 BC are for sale.
  • This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group. Box F 206.

Such was the advertisement that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on 1 June 1954. Were an advertisement of this sort to appear today, it would no doubt be thought some species of practical joke, not entirely in the best of taste. Alternatively, it might be regarded as a coded message – to mask an arms deal, for example, or something involving espionage.

Today, of course, the Dead Sea Scrolls are well enough known, if only by name. Most people, while having an extremely nebulous idea of what they are, will at least have heard of them. If nothing else, there exists an awareness that the scrolls are in some way genuinely precious items, archaeological evidence of immense importance. One doesn’t expect to find a specimen of them while digging in one’s back garden. One doesn’t regard them even as one might the rusted weapons, the domestic utensils and appliances, the remnants of equipment or apparel that might be found at, say, the site of some Roman excavation in Britain.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 generated a flurry of excitement both in scholarly circles and among the general public. But by 1954 that excitement had been skillfully defused. The scrolls, it was assumed, had revealed everything they were going to reveal, and this was made to seem less dramatic than had been expected. In consequence, the advertisement for their sale elicited no particular public interest when it appeared on page 14 of the Wall Street Journal.

Immediately below it was an advertisement for industrial steel tanks, electric welders and other equipment. In the adjacent column were lists of premises for rent and situations vacant. It was the equivalent of offering items of Tutankhamun’s treasure amidst lots of surplus plumbing or computer supplies. This book will show how such an anomaly could have occurred.

In tracing the progress of the Dead Sea Scrolls from their discovery in the Judaean desert to the various institutions that hold them today, we found ourselves confronting a contradiction we had faced before – the contradiction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Our investigation began in Israel. It was to extend to the corridors of the Vatican, and, even more ominously, into the offices of the Inquisition. We also encountered a rigidly maintained ‘consensus’ of interpretation towards the content and dating of the scrolls, and came to understand how explosive a non-partisan examination of them might be for the whole of Christian theological tradition. And we discovered how fiercely the world of orthodox biblical scholarship was prepared to fight to retain its monopoly of available information.

For Christians today, it is perfectly possible to acknowledge the Buddha, for example, or Muhammad, as historical individuals, just as one might Caesar or Alexander, and to differentiate them from the legends, the traditions, the theologies that have become associated with them. So far as Jesus is concerned, however, such differentiation is altogether more difficult.

At the very heart of Christian belief, history and theology are inextricably entangled. Each suffuses the other. Yet each, if looked at separately, is a potential threat to the other. It is therefore easier, and safer, to blur the demarcation lines between them. Thus, for the faithful, two quite distinct figures are fused into one. On the one hand, there is the historical individual, the man who, according to most scholars, actually existed and walked the sands of Palestine two thousand years ago.

On the other hand, there is the man-god of Christian doctrine, the divine personage deified, extolled and promulgated by St Paul. To examine this personage as an historical individual – to regard him, that is, as one might regard Muhammad or the Buddha, Caesar or Alexander – is still, for many Christians, tantamount to blasphemy.

During the mid-1980s, we were engaged in precisely such blasphemy. In researching the project we’d undertaken at the time, we were trying to separate history from theology, to distinguish the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith. In the process, we blundered head-on into the muddle of contradictions that confronts all researchers into biblical material; and like all researchers before us, we found ourselves bewildered by that muddle.

In the kind of research we’d embarked on, scriptural accounts, needless to say, could provide only the most meager aid. As historical documents and testimony, the Gospels, as every scholar knows, are notoriously unreliable. They are essentially accounts of stark mythic simplicity, seemingly occurring in an historical limbo. Jesus and his disciples appear centre stage of an extensively stylized tableau, from which most of the context has been stripped away. Romans and Jews mill confusingly in the background, like extras on a film set.

No sense is conveyed of the social, cultural, religious and political circumstances in which Jesus’ drama is embedded. One is, in effect, confronted with an historical vacuum.

The Acts of the Apostles fleshes out the picture only slightly. From the Acts, one derives at least a tenuous sense of a milieu – of internecine strife and doctrinal squabbles amongst Jesus’ immediate followers, of a coalescing movement which will gradually take the form of ‘Christianity’, of a world that extends beyond the circumscribed confines of Galilee and Judaea, of the geographical relation of Palestine to the rest of the Mediterranean. But there is still no accurate rendering of the broader social, cultural, religious and political forces at work. Everything is focused on, and restricted to, St Paul.

If the Gospels are stylized, the Acts are no less so, albeit in a different way. If the Gospels are reduced to the stark oversimplification of myth, the Acts comprise a kind of picaresque novel – a picaresque novel, moreover, intended for specifically propagandist purposes and with Paul as protagonist. There may be some insight into Paul’s mentality, attitudes and adventures, but there is no reliable perspective on the world in which he moved. From the standpoint of any historian, any responsible chronicler, no account of the epoch would have been complete without some reference to Nero, say, and the burning of Rome.

Even within Palestine, there were developments of momentous importance to those living at the time. In AD 39, for example, Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee, was exiled to the Pyrenees. By AD 41, both Galilee and Judaea – administered by Roman procurators since AD 6 – had been conferred on King Agrippa, and Palestine was united under a single non-Roman monarch (puppet though he might be) for the first time since the days of Herod the Great nearly half a century before.

None of these developments is so much as mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. The effect is akin to reading a biography of, say, Billy Graham which makes no mention of his friendships with presidents and other prominent individuals, no mention of Kennedy’s assassination, no mention of the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, the transformation of values during the 1960s, Watergate and its aftermath.

Contrary to Christian tradition, Palestine two thousand years ago was as real as any other historical setting – that of Cleopatra’s Egypt, for example, or of Imperial Rome, both of which impinged upon it. Its reality cannot be reduced to a bald mythic simplicity. Whoever Jesus or Paul were, and whatever they did, must be placed against the backdrop of broader events – against the swirl of personalities, groups, institutions and movements that operated in 1st-century Palestine and composed the fabric of what is called history.

To obtain any real sense of this period, we, like every other researcher, had to turn to other sources – Roman accounts, historical chronicles compiled by other writers of other orientations, allusions in later documents, apocryphal texts, the teachings and testimony of rival sects and creeds. Jesus himself was, needless to say, seldom mentioned in these sources, but they furnish a comprehensive and detailed picture of the world in which he moved. In fact, Jesus’ world is better documented and chronicled than, for example, that of King Arthur, or of Robin Hood. And if Jesus himself remains elusive, he is no more so than they.

It was therefore with surprise and zest that we plunged into the background of the ‘historical Jesus’. But no sooner had we done so than we found ourselves confronted by a problem that besets all researchers into biblical history. We found ourselves confronted by an apparently bewildering spectrum of Judaic cults, sects and sub-sects, of political and religious organizations and institutions, which seemed sometimes to be militantly at odds with one another, sometimes to overlap.

It quickly became apparent to us that the labels used to differentiate between these various groups — Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, Nazorenes – were neither accurate nor useful. The muddle remained, and Jesus seemed to have connections of one kind or another with virtually all its components. Thus, for example, insofar as anything could be established about him at all, he appeared to have come from a Pharisee family and background, and to be steeped in Pharisaic thought.

Several modern commentators have stressed the striking parallels between Jesus’ teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount, and those of Pharisee exponents such as the great Hillel. According to at least one commentator, Jesus ‘was himself a Pharisee’.

But if Jesus’ words were often interchangeable with those of official Pharisee doctrine at the time, they also appear to draw heavily on mystical or ‘Essene’ thought. John the Baptist is generally recognized as having been an Essene of some sort, and his influence on Jesus introduces an obvious Essene element into the latter’s career.

According to scriptural accounts, however, John’s mother – Jesus’ maternal aunt, Elizabeth – was married to a priest of the Temple, thereby giving both men Sadducee connections. And – most sensitive of all for later Christian tradition – Jesus clearly seems to have included Zealots among his followers: Simon Zealotes, for example, or Simon the Zealot, and possibly even Judas Iscariot, whose name, as it comes down to us, may derive from the fierce Sicarii.

In itself, of course, the mere suggestion of association with the Zealots was highly provocative.

Was Jesus indeed the meek lamblike savior of subsequent Christian tradition?

Was he indeed wholly non-violent?

Why, then, did he embark on violent actions, such as overturning the tables of the money-changers in the Temple?

Why is he portrayed as being executed by the Romans in a fashion reserved exclusively for revolutionary activity?

Why, before his vigil in Gethsemane, did he instruct his followers to equip themselves with swords?

Why, shortly thereafter, did Peter actually draw a sword and lop off the ear of a minion in the High Priest’s entourage?

And if Jesus was in fact more militant than generally depicted, was he not also, of necessity, more politically committed?

How, then, could one explain his preparedness to ‘give unto Caesar’ what was Caesar’s – assuming that to be an accurate transcription and translation of his words?

If such contradictions surrounded Jesus during his lifetime, they also appeared to have survived him, continuing for at least another forty-odd years after his reported death. In AD 74, the fortress of Masada, having withstood a sustained Roman siege, was at last overrun, but only when its defending garrison committed mass suicide.

The defenders of Masada are generally acknowledged to have been Zealots – not a religious sect, according to conventional interpretations, but adherents of a political and military movement. As it has been preserved for posterity, however, the doctrine of the garrison’s defenders would appear to have been that of the Essenes -the allegedly non-violent, mystically oriented sect who were believed to have disowned all forms of political, not to say military, activity.

Such were the contradictions and prevailing confusion we found. But if we were flummoxed by it all, so, too, were professional scholars, ‘experts’ far more deeply versed in the material than ourselves. After threading a path through the maze, virtually every reliable commentator ended up at odds with his colleagues. According to some, Christianity arose as a quietist, mystery-school form of Judaism, which couldn’t therefore have any connection with militant revolutionary nationalists such as the Zealots.

According to others, Christianity was itself, at first, a form of revolutionary judaic nationalism, and couldn’t possibly have anything to do with pacifist mystics like the Essenes. According to some, Christianity emerged from one of the mainstreams of Judaic thought at the time. According to others, Christianity had begun to deviate from Judaism before Paul appeared on the scene and made the rupture official.

The more we consulted the ‘experts’, the more apparent it became that they knew, effectively, little more than anyone else. Most disturbing of all, we encountered no one theory or interpretation that satisfactorily accommodated all the evidence, all the anomalies, inconsistencies and contradictions.

It was at this point that we came upon the work of Robert Eisenman, Chairman of the Department of Religious Studies and Professor of Middle East Religions at California State University in Long Beach. Eisenman had been an undergraduate at Cornell at the same time as Thomas Pynchon. He studied Comparative Literature there under Vladimir Nabokov, receiving his BA in Physics and Philosophy in 1958, and his MA in Hebrew and Near Eastern Studies from New York University in 1966.

In 1971 he was awarded a PhD in Middle East Languages and Cultures by Columbia University, having concentrated specifically on Palestinian history and Islamic law. He has also been an External Fellow of the University of Calabria in Italy and a lecturer in Islamic law, Islamic religion and culture, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian origins at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

In 1985-6, he was Research Fellow in Residence at the William F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, and in 1986-7 Visiting Senior Member of Linacre College, Oxford, and Visiting Scholar at the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies.

We came upon Eisenman’s work initially in the form of a slender text cumbersomely entitled Maccabees, Zadokites, Christians and Qumran, which was published in 1983 by E.J. Brill of Leiden, Holland. The book was precisely the sort of thing one might expect from such an author writing for an academic publisher. There were more footnotes than there was text. There was a presupposition of enormous background knowledge and a forbidding welter of sources and references. But there was also a central thesis of exhilarating commonsense and lucidity. As we hacked our way through the density of the text, the questions that had perplexed us began to resolve themselves, clearly and organically, without ingeniously contrived theories, and without crucial fragments being ignored.

We drew extensively on Eisenman’s work in the first section of The Messianic Legacy (London, 1986). Our conclusions owed much to the perspective he had opened for us on biblical scholarship and the historical background to the New Testament. However, certain questions remained unanswered. We could not have known it at the time, but we had overlooked a crucial link – a link that has, over the last five years, become a focus for controversy, a topic for front-page articles in national newspapers.

That link proved to be the information provided by the Dead Sea Scrolls.

At the centre of the puzzle, we were to discover, was a hitherto unknown connection between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the elusive figure of St James, Jesus’ brother, whose dispute with Paul precipitated the formulation of the new religion subsequently known as Christianity. It was this link that had been painstakingly concealed by a small enclave of biblical scholars, whose conveniently orthodox interpretation of the scrolls Eisenman came to call the ‘consensus’.

According to Robert Eisenman:

A small group of specialists, largely working together, developed a consensus… In lieu of clear

historical insight… preconceptions and reconstructions, such as they were, were stated as facts,

and these results, which were used to corroborate each other, in turn became new assumptions,

that were used to draw away a whole generation of students unwilling (or simply unable) to

question the work of their mentors.1

The result has been the upholding of an official orthodoxy of interpretation – a framework of assumptions and conclusions which, to outsiders, appears to have the solidity of established and undisputed fact. In this fashion, many of the so-called données, the ‘givens’ of history, were produced.

Those responsible for developing the consensus view of Christianity have been able to exercise a monopoly aver certain crucial sources, regulating the flow of information in a manner that enables its release to serve one’s own purpose. This is the phenomenon explored by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose, where the monastery, and the library within it, reflect the medieval Church’s monopoly of learning, constituting a kind of closed shop’, an exclusive ‘country club’ of knowledge from which ill but a select few are banned – a select few prepared to toe the ‘party line’.

Those purveying the ‘party line’ can bolster the authority they arrogate to themselves by claiming that they alone have seen the relevant sources, access to which is closed to all outsiders. For outsiders, assembling the disparate available fragments into a coherent order amounts to an exercise in semiotics – and in the realm of semiotic exercises it becomes perfectly possible to hold the Knights Templar responsible for everything, and Umberto Eco himself responsible for the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano.

Thus, most outsiders, in the absence of any access to the relevant sources, have no choice but to accept the interpretations of the ‘party line’. To challenge those interpretations is to find oneself labeled at best a crank, at worst, a renegade, apostate or heretic. Few scholars have the combination of courage, standing and expertise to issue such a challenge and hold on to their reputations.

Robert Eisenman, whose currency and credibility have placed him among the most prominent and influential figures in his field, has done so.

His story provided the impetus for this book.

by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh

from Scribd Website

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