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Religion: The Newest of the Dead Sea Scrolls

6 minute read

When Israeli troops occupied the West Bank of the Jordan in 1967, Israel’s leading archaeologist, Yigael Yadin, was able to fulfill a dream. Pulling strings with Premier Levi Eshkol, he got the army to assign an officer to visit a certain antiquities dealer in Bethlehem.* Under pressure, the dealer opened a hiding place under the floor of his shop and surrendered an ancient, partially worm-eaten scroll.

Nearly a decade later, Yadin has finally completed his intricate work on the so-called Temple Scroll, the latest and quite possibly the last of the celebrated Dead Sea Scrolls. Later this year he will publish the full text in the original Hebrew and in an English translation, along with substantial explanatory material. Scholars, who have eagerly awaited the event, will be able to purchase the 900-page, three-volume set for $150.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were written, most scholars agree, by the Essenes, a mysterious, ascetic Jewish sect that was wiped out by the Romans about A.D. 70. The scrolls, slightly older than the New Testament, were hidden in some caves at Qumran, near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. They were discovered by Bedouin and sold piecemeal, beginning in 1947. Yadin’s father, also an archaeologist, did the initial analysis on the first three.

The caves collection, ten scrolls and 600 scroll fragments in all, includes a full text of Isaiah and portions of all other Old Testament books except Esther. Thus the scrolls have substantiated the reliability of traditional Bible texts and have aided new translations. Other documents such as the “Thanksgiving Psalms” and the Temple Scroll were unique to the sect. All in all, the scrolls have greatly expanded knowledge about ancient Judaism and the backdrop against which Christianity developed.

Down Payment. The Temple Scroll is the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls (28 ft. 3 in.) and perhaps the most important of the entire collection, Yadin told TIME last week. He first heard about it in 1961 from an anonymous agent representing the dealer in Bethlehem, then inaccessible to Israeli scholars because it was part of Jordan. Even though Yadin did not know exactly what he was buying, he offered to pay $130,000, only to have the agent vanish —along with a down payment of $10,000. After the army officer obtained the scroll in 1967, Yadin negotiated a payment of $118,000 to the dealer.

Much work remained before the treasure could actually be read. The parchment was fragile and wafer-thin (.0039 in.), and the top edge had disintegrated into a fudgelike mass. Yadin’s team froze the scroll to help unpeel it and used infra-red and reverse photography to reconstruct damaged portions.

In the soon-to-be-published text, God generally speaks in the first person. The Temple Scroll also uses regular script to record the divine name YHWH, unlike other Qumran texts, which used a distinctive script to remind readers that the name was too sacred to be uttered. This means that the Temple Scroll must have been considered a direct revelation from God, on a level with the Bible itself.

The Essenes repudiated worship at the Herodian Temple in Jerusalem, which they considered corrupt, and scholars have long wondered whether they rejected all temple worship, as the Christians later did. The new scroll shows that temple worship was as central for the Essenes as for other Jews. Indeed, nearly half of the scroll deals with rules that the Essenes thought should have been used to build the temple and worship in it. It calls for a building of three concentric square courts, with twelve outer gates named for the twelve sons of Jacob. It also gives instructions for the surrounding area, down to the detail that the site for latrines must be 1,500 yards away “in order that it will not be visible from the [temple] city.”

Ultimately, God would create the final Temple himself: on “the day of blessing . . . I will create my Temple and establish it for myself for all time.” Yadin theorizes that the early Christians came in contact with the Essenes and turned their temporary rejection of the temple into a permanent belief.

The Temple Scroll also provides the first thorough look at the Halakhah (religious law) of the Essenes. Compared with the orthodox rabbinical thinking that was later codified in the second century Mishnah, the Qumran rules on ritual cleanliness were superstrict. Only the skins of properly slaughtered animals were to be permitted in the temple city. Blind people, as well as the ill and maimed, were barred as unclean. All sexual relations within the temple city were forbidden. One cemetery was to serve four cities since “you shall not follow the customs of the Gentiles who bury their dead everywhere.”

Royal Polygamy. One section of the scroll provides a detailed prescription for the organization of the monarchy. The king was to have an army of 12,000 men (1,000 from each tribe) and an advisory judicial council (twelve priests, twelve lay leaders and twelve priestly attendants). The scroll also declares that “from his father’s house [the king] shall take unto himself a wife . . . and he shall not take upon her another wife, for she alone shall be with him all the days of her life.” This is the earliest prohibition of royal polygamy or divorce (Jewish kings were traditionally allowed up to 18 wives).

There are other novelties as well. The Essenes celebrated Yom Kippur, Succoth and Shavuot, but the Temple Scroll contains regulations for festivals that are unknown elsewhere in Judaism: the First Fruits of Wine and of Oil, and the Wood Offering, which lasted for six days.

With his Temple Scroll labors finally behind him, Yadin, 59, is plunging into a new enthusiasm: politics. Not that his career has been confined to the campus. He was head of the operations division during Israel’s 1948 war of independence, and he served three years as chief of staff of the new nation’s army. Resuming his work as an archaeologist. Yadin led the digs at biblical Megiddo and Hazor and at the Masada fortress where Jewish Zealots held off a Roman siege for three years before committing mass suicide.

Yadin says that David Ben-Gurion offered him the premiership in 1963. Then as now, he explains, “I would love to continue being an archaeologist and let the politicians take care of public affairs.” But he decided last year to form the Democratic Movement for Change to achieve a more representative system of elections and a variety of other domestic reforms. Thus on May 17, while professors pore over ancient texts dealing with the Essenes’ struggle against the Jerusalem Establishment, Yadin’s new party will make its first foray against the modern Establishment in a national election.

*Reported to be Khalil Shahin Kando, peddler of earlier Dead Sea Scrolls, though neither Yadin nor Kando will confirm this.

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