Publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls – 15,000 papyrus documents discovered in the desert that have changed scholars' views on the Bible – is finally being completed, after more than half a century of bitter squabbling, censorship and academic controversy.
Fifty-four years after the first of them was found in a cave in Qumran, on the north-western shore of the Dead Sea, publication of all the scrolls and fragments has been completed in 37 volumes. All but two have been published in scholarly editions, and those two are being edited.
The scrolls are believed to have been written by a Jewish sect sometime between 200BC and early in the 1st century AD, and the first were rediscovered in a cave by a shepherd boy in 1947. The theory is that they were hidden there in 68AD during the Jewish revolt against the Romans. Others were found in nearby caves during the 1950s.
The completion of publication is a landmark for academics and for Christians and Jews, whose most dearly held beliefs have been challenged by the scrolls – including that of the Virgin birth of Christ, which arose from the use of the word for virgin in early Greek versions of the Bible.The scrolls reveal that this was a mistranslation: the original Hebrew word used simply meant young woman.
Now the completion of the scrolls' publication coincides with an admission by the Vatican that it is to revise parts of the Bible accordingly, a task likely to take five years.
Academics and historians also have to revise their views. For years academics fought one another for access, and until 1990 just eight volumes had been published. But in 1991, after the Antiquities Authority of Israel pledged to speed up publication, conservation and restoration of the scrolls, work on the rest began.
Professor Geza Vermes, who has spent 50 years studying the scrolls, said that completion of their publication was very important. "These are the only texts of their kind which have survived in their original form and language and geographical setting.
"They are texts which were written by the Jews for themselves, and without them we would have to rely on the Greek versions of the Old Testament. The originals had been lost. The Dead Sea Scrolls allow us to jump back another 1,000 years to the original documents."
Professor Vermes, who has been director of Qumran research at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies since 1991, added that publication would not stop controversy but would lead to further debate about the Bible. "We will see even more interpretation and re-interpretation now."
Experts have studied the scrolls and discovered much about the way the Bible was written, including its discrepancies, contradictions and repetitions. The first five books – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – were ascribed to the same writer, Moses, but they have many inconsistencies. The scrolls include several different editions of the books of Exodus and Numbers, and the Psalms. They revealed that the Bible was not a rigidly fixed text, but was edited and adjusted to make the text more relevant to its audience.
It was not only the religious significance of the work that the scrolls questioned but also their historical truth, for they revealed that the writers would have coloured their accounts with their prejudices too.
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