Good Question... well-respected are the theories of Eisenman, Allegro, Thiering, and Baigent & Leigh concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls?

[Created Dec 27/97]

Every so often I find articles or arguments that reference the works of these authors. I don't really have time to go through their stuff in detail, and much of modern scholarship does not take them seriously enough to refute them, so it is hard to provide important data to readers on these issues.

What I decided to do was simply to post a couple of the reviews and/or references I COULD find on them (all bold emphases mine; italics are from the original source).

"Should poor, silly books be reviewed? The answer is not an easy one. Even Solomon, the wisest of all humans, vacillates. In Proverbs 6:4-5, he advises, "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like unto him,-- then immediately counsels the opposite, "Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit."

"The reason we believe this book deserves a review is not to denigrate the authors, but to warn potential readers of the false theory it advances. In the last few years, the Dead Sea Scrolls have been a subject of heated controversy...

"This [confusion], it should be said in their defense, is sometimes the feeling of the uninitiated when confronted with a complex problem. To use their own word, they found themselves in a "muddle." To their relief, they found a scholar with whom they agreed--Robert Eisenman, Professor of Middle East Religions at California State University in Long Beach. The book is essentially a mouth-piece for Eisenman's theories.

"This is not the place to deal with all of Eisenman's theories, the primary one of which is that the members of the Qumran community were not Essenes, but proto-Christians cum Zealots. The thesis I wish to discuss is whether the publication of the Scrolls was suppressed due to a Catholic conspiracy headed by the late Dominican priest, R.P. Roland de Vaux. As a matter of fact, the thesis was invented by the late John Allegro long before Eisenman tried to circulate it. Therefore, Allegro is eulogized throughout the volume. On page 45, the authors, in just three lines, heap on him a series of superlatives: "most dynamic, original and audacious . . . the most spontaneous, the most independent minded, the most resistant to suppression of material." The truth is that Allegro is unanimously regarded as the black sheep of the profession, lacking both in integrity and scholarly standards. His Discoveries in the Judaean Desert V is so replete with errors that the review article of this sloppy piece of work is the only case known to me of a review almost as long as the original. His later books are, to say the least, strange. For instance, in The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Myth (1979), he ascribes to the celibate authors of the scrolls lewd practices. This makes the index read as if it was borrowed from a sex manual.

"Allegro alleged that the team headed by de Vaux, which included Catholic and Protestant scholars, was concealing material that robbed Christianity of its originality. Even though he had free access to all the material (a prerogative he abused when he published a pirated edition of the Copper Scroll), Allegro never produced any evidence to back his allegations.

"This theory was revived by Eisenman and is elaborated upon in this book. The authors back up their allegations with dubious circumstantial evidence and insinuations. Such accusations are hard to refute--how can anybody prove that there are no scroll fragments hidden in the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem (page 101)? However, I will try to show that these invidious allegations are most unlikely.

"The conspiracy theory is based on two assumptions: that the Catholic church, especially the Jerusalem circle headed by de Vaux, had reasons to fear the DSS might contain material of an embarrassing nature to Christianity; and that de Vaux was a reactionary and a bigot who was capable of suppressing material that he deemed damaging to his faith.

"The truth is that Catholic scholars (the Ecole Biblique being among the pioneers) studied the scrolls from the very beginning with enthusiasm and went to great pains to show the indebtedness of Christianity to the Dead Sea sect, the Essenes. This can be discovered in any bibliography of the Dead Sea Scrolls, or by looking at Krister Stendahl's The Scrolls and the New Testament published in 1958 (an excellent collection of articles written in the first decade of research) to see what a prominent role Catholic priests played.

"However, the identification of the Dead Sea sect with the Essenes (which Deception opposes vehemently) is not a Catholic invention. It was first suggested by E. L. Sukenik (a Jew) and later, perhaps independently, by A. Dupont-Sommer (a lapsed Catholic priest who was a full-fledged agnostic when the Scrolls were discovered). It is interesting to note, however, that only about a dozen scholars propose identifications other than Essenes for the sect. Of these, almost all are Jewish (most notably, G. R. Driver). Israeli scholars are almost unanimously of the Essene school, with the notable exception of Y. Baer. What is the matter with those Israelis. Aren't they Jewish enough?

"The second argument--that de Vaux, out of religious zeal, deliberately suppressed the publication of the scrolls--is utterly absurd. He might have belonged to the Action Francaise, an extreme, nationalistic, monarchic party with Fascist elements, and he was most probably anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. Even so, he was an imminently progressive scholar, which can be seen in his excellent paper "On Right and Wrong Uses of Archeology" (pages 64-80) in Near Eastern Archaeology in the Twentieth Century (ed. By J.A. Sanders), where he challenges biblical traditions. In many respects, de Vaux was more progressive that some of the famous agnostic scholars of his era. It is only out of sheer ignorance that the authors and their message could attribute obscurantist misdeeds to de Vaux.

"One of the people who took advantage of the Huntington Library's offer to open its archives to interested parties was Robert Eisenman, the man who had done so much to publicize discontent with the official team. On November 1, 1991, the university where he teaches (California State University, Long Beach) issued a press release in which Eisenman announced that he had found a text that was not only revolutionary but also showed how wrong the official team had been about the scrolls.

Robert Eisenman, the first scholar given access to the Huntington Library's collection of Dead Sea Scrolls microfilms, has announced the discovery of a text that refers to the execution of a Messianic leader. "This tiny scroll fragment puts to rest the idea presently being circulated by the Scroll editorial committee that this material has nothing to do with Christian origins in Palestine," said the California State University, Long Beach professor of Middle East religions.

Leading scroll editors have been saying there is nothing interesting in the unpublished scrolls and that they have nothing to do with the rise of Christianity in Palestine.

"Eisenman is also quoted as saying that the text (4Q285) "makes concrete reference to 'the putting to death' or 'the execution of the leader of the community,' an individual the text appears to refer to as 'the branch of David.' 'Though this passage can be read in either the past or future tense, the reading is not subject to doubt,' said Eisenman." As noted in chapter 6 B.4.a, Eisenman's reading is very much subject to doubt, since he opted for a less likely interpretation of the key line (it is more likely that the messianic figure does the killing) and failed to draw the proper conclusion from its relation to Isaiah 11. Eisenman's discovery was soon trumpeted abroad in the newspapers. It is only fair to say that the press release is quite misleading. It gives the impression that the official team had a monolithic view about the scrolls and that they were trying to distantiate them from Christian origins. Anyone who has read the varied opinions of the team members will know that they disagreed on many points and that no one of them tried to separate the scrolls from the beginnings of Christianity. All of them were quite aware of the significant parallels between the two literatures; they did not, however, draw the thoroughly implausible conclusions (for example, that Jesus' brother James was the Teacher of Righteousness) that Eisenman preferred.

"One more publication should be mentioned, even though it has done much to spread misconceptions. Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh authored a book called The Dead Sea Scroll Deception: Why a Handful of Religious Scholars Conspired to Suppress the Revolutionary Contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Summit Books, 1991). The first part of the book--in which the authors describe the scrolls, arrangements for publication, the so-called consensus that was developed about them, and all the problems that resulted--makes for interesting and informative reading. It is particularly valuable to read their citations from the letters of John Allegro and to observe firsthand how his relations with the other team members soured.

"But after a rather good start the book quickly degenerates into a disgraceful display of yellow journalism. The authors try to foist on the reader the idea that the delay in scrolls publication came about because the Catholic-dominated team was under the control of the Vatican, which, fully informed of what was in the unpublished scrolls, was anxious to suppress all the information in the fragments that would undermine Christianity. De Vaux, who according to those who knew him was a pleasant man, turns out to be a monster who masterminded and enforced the Vatican's conspiracy to suppress the scrolls. After this tortured and remarkable bit of nonsense, they advance a form of Eisenman's theory about the scrolls--one that somehow gave them satisfactory answers to the questions that the Essene hypothesis just could not handle. It is hard to imagine a book with a more bizarre combination of discipline and credulity. But conspiracy theories tend to get a lot of attention, and Baigent and Leigh's book has become a bestseller. Now that all the scrolls are available for consultation, no one has been able to find anything damaging to Christianity or anything that the Vatican would be interested in suppressing. One of the beneficial side effects of full access to the scrolls has been to show that the Baigent-Leigh conspiracy theory is baseless.

"The second theory was maintained in the fifties by J. L. Teicher and has been revived quite recently by B. E. Thiering and R. Eisenman. The discrepancies in detail between these writers are remarkable, and so are the individuals with whom they identify the principal characters. (The Teacher of Righteousness would be Jesus and the Wicked Priest, Paul; or the Teacher of Righteousness would be John the Baptist, the Wicked Priest, Jesus of Nazareth; the Teacher of Righteousness would be the apostle James, the Wicked Priest Ananias, and the Man of Lies, Paul). However, common to all these theories is denial of the conclusions reached by archaeological investigation, which infers that all the manuscripts were deposited in the caves (and by the same token, were written) prior to the destruction of Khirbet Qumran in 68 CE. Above all, these theories deny the conclusions from palaeographic analysis of the manuscripts. This shows that they were all copied between the third century BCE and the final quarter of the lSt century CE. In particular, the proof from palaeography used in dating the manuscripts has been the target of attack and disagreement.

"At the start of analysis of the Qumran manuscripts, Hebrew palaeography for ancient times had not advanced very much, for lack of comparative material. In actual fact, it amounted to no more than W. F. Albright's detailed analysis of the Nash Papyrus in 1937. His analysis had succeeded in dating this text by means of comparing its script with the forms of letters in inscriptions on stone of the period, and it had caused Trever to acknowledge as ancient the first manuscripts which the American School was offered. The avalanche of new material, some of which, like the Samaria papyri and the contracts and letters from MurabbaCat were actually dated, enabled a typology of the evolution of the different kinds of script between the 4th c BCE and the 3rd CE to be drawn up for the first time. This work was undertaken initially by S. A. Birnbaum, and much more comprehensively and exactly by N. Avigad and F. M. Cross. The results led to establishing the date on which a manuscript was copied with margins of error of about 25 years. However, it was a new field of research, with results which were difficult to check objectively. (In order to make an analysis by means of the Carbon 14 method it was necessary to use between 1 and 3 grams of carbon. This entailed destroying a significant part of each manuscript). Accordingly, the attacks by Thiering and by Eisenman in particular focused on the dates suggested for the different manuscripts, since these totally exclude their interpretation. Luckily, the discovery of a new technique in 1987 (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry) reduced the amount of material needed to be destroyed for analysis using the Carbon 14 method to 0.5-1.0 milligrams of carbon. The method could now be applied directly to the manuscripts to establish whether the dates put forward by the palaeographers were correct or not. In 1990, this new technique was used on 14 manuscripts. Four contained dates (a papyrus from Samaria, a contract from Wadi Seiyal, a deed of sale from MurabbaCat and an Arabic letter from Khirbet Mird), eight manuscripts came from Qumran which the palaeographers had dated between the second half of the 2nd century BCE and the first half of the 1St century CE, and two others stemmed from Masada. The results of this analysis have completely substantiated the method of dating by palaeography. This new analysis has shown that not one of the manuscripts from Qumran and Masada was copied after 68 CE. It has also shown that the much earlier dates ascribed to some manuscripts by the palaeographers were completely vindicated. In all the samples analysed, the palaeographic date falls within the date margins reached by the analytical-methods. These latest analytical techniques eliminate once and for all the theories of a Zealot or Jewish-Christian origin for the manuscripts. The manuscripts found in the Qumran caves can now be regarded as ancient and genuine beyond any kind of doubt.

"Most controversially, Thiering claims that Jesus was not crucified in Jerusalem but at Qumran, along with Simon Magus (see Acts 8) and Judas Iscariot. All three somehow failed to die on their crosses and were revived in their tombs, with Jesus receiving lifesaving medicinal assistance from Simon Magus. Thus, Jesus never rose from the dead as the divine Savior and Lord. He simply survived the crucifixion, and "it is probable that he died of old age in seclusion in Rome" after A.D. 64. She dismisses the traditional New Testament evidence and quotes a third-century Gnostic source (The Gospel of Philip) that claims that Jesus did not die on the cross. Christianity must give up its supernatural claims and adjust itself to Thiering's non-supernatural explanations. The idea of the supernatural is for "babes in Christ" who cannot handle the hard facts.

"Does Thiering's daring reconstruction of Christian history give us any reason to abandon historic Christianity? New Testament scholar N.T. Wright notes that "the only scholar who takes Thiering's theory with any seriousness is Thiering herself." There are many reasons for scholars to reject her.

"First, Thiering's entire argument depends on an idiosyncratic dating of the scrolls themselves. We have argued that there is no good reason to date the scrolls as late as she does in order to allow them to refer to Jesus. If this is true, then the scrolls could not be speaking of Jesus and John the Baptist at all, since they were not yet born. Wright comments that "this of itself would be enough, in fact, to bring the whole structure toppling down."'

"Second, although Thiering correctly observes that the Qumran community used the pesher method to find itself referred to in certain Hebrew scriptures, this method was never used in writing the history of the community itself. As Wright notes, the pesher method "was a way of hooking in to the past, not of writing quite new works for the future."" This style of interpretation was "a way of saying 'we are the people spoken of by the prophets,' not 'we are the people who can set new crossword puzzles for others to solve."" If this code was employed to interpret the Gospels and Acts, we would expect to discover some ancient writings to back up this point. Thiering provides no such evidence. She simply asserts her pesher interpretations. Neither does she attempt to explain why this pesher understanding of the Gospels and Acts was supposedly lost.' Therefore, there is no reason to believe that the Gospels and Acts are written in some secret code language.

"Third, Thiering's claim that Jesus had children rests on material from late and unreliable Gnostic documents and tortuous misinterpretations of New Testament passages. For instance, she interprets Acts 6:7, which says "The Word of God increased," to mean that Jesus' family grew larger.' Of course, the book of Acts is the history of the early church after the resurrection and ascension of Christ into heaven (Acts 1:1-11). Jesus' "family" increases as people accept him as Lord, not as he physically fathers children. When Luke writes that "the Word of God increased," he means that God's truth was received by more and more people, as is clear from the rest of the verse: "The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith." The idea of Jesus divorcing and remarrying is similarly unhistorical and illogical.'

"Fourth, Thiering is not even consistent in applying her far-flung innovations. She abandons the pesher method in her account of Jesus' crucifixion and subsequent appearances. As Wright notes, "Granted her own method, this ought to have been 'code' for Jesus' demotion within the community and then his promotion to high office once more. Instead, she resorts to a laughably incredible retelling of the story."'

I hope this gives you a flavor of how some of these writings are seen in the scholarly community. The lack of acceptance by scholars of all religious and ideological background should be a clue to avoid uncritical use of these sources.

Hope this helps,

Glenn miller (Dec 1997)

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