Captivated by the Scrolls

A testimonial to a great scholar’s enduring love affair with the ancient documents.

dead sea scrolls 248.88 (photo credit: The Israel Museum)
dead sea scrolls 248.88
(photo credit: The Israel Museum)
This article was published in The Jerusalem Report on May 16, 2010. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report, click here.
One Sunday morning in 1948, a Jewish-born Hungarian student at the Fathers of Notre Dame de Sion Catholic order’s seminary in Louvain watched as his professor in class held up a photograph of Chapter 40 from the Book of Isaiah. The young seminarian’s curiosity was instantly piqued: the photograph was of a 2,000-year-old manuscript fragment from a cache discovered a year before by Bedouin shepherds in caves at Qumran near the Dead Sea.
“Staring at it, I became captivated,” Geza Vermes told The Jerusalem Report by phone from his home in Oxford, England, where he is Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at Wolfson College. “With youthful zeal I vowed to solve the greatest Hebrew manuscript discovery of all time. Ever since, the scrolls and my life have been intertwined.”
Six decades on, Vermes clearly remains captivated by the ancient documents unearthed in the Judean desert. At the slightest prodding he declaims at length on them with undiminished enthusiasm. And while the world’s leading authority on the historic manuscripts may not wear his love of the scrolls on his sleeve, he does often wear it on his tie. Emblazoned on a custom-made necktie that Vermes, an owlish man with old-world charm, wears for his public lectures are fragments of the Community Rule, a sectarian document recovered from Cave 4 at Qumran, which the Oxford professor personally worked on deciphering.
In a summing-up of his career-long involvement with the scrolls from shortly after their discovery, the 86-year-old scholar, who is still a prolific author, has just published “The Story of the Scrolls,” a lucid, comprehensive look at the ancient texts’ history and importance and the insular, enigmatic Dead Sea community that produced them.
Part memoir, part popular scholarship written in an engaging style, the book recounts Vermes’s decades-long high-profile crusade to secure unlimited access for scholars worldwide to documents jealously guarded from unauthorized eyes by the scrolls’ self-appointed guardians, a close-knit cabal of recalcitrant editors. Although the book may offer little that’s radically new to readers familiar with Qumran scholarship, it helps demystify the controversial, frequently misrepresented documents by placing them in a rigorously vetted historical and scholarly context. “More than 60 years after their discovery,” Vermes explains, “the Scrolls have still not made their full impact on the general public.”
Dated between the 2nd century BCE and 68 CE (the year of the Qumran community’s presumed destruction by the Romans), the ancient documents comprise fragments of more than 900 manuscripts of 215 compositions discovered between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. Most were written in vegetable ink on sheep and goat skin, the rest on papyrus and potsherds. They include books of the Torah, the Prophets, and Psalms, as well as sectarian writings peculiar to the Qumran community.
“The most amazing novelty of the Dead Sea Scrolls consists in their sheer existence,” Vermes writes. Prior to the scrolls’ discovery, only the Nash Papyrus, a single sheet of four fragments with brief Torah passages, had ever been found from that period. “The Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate, if proof is needed, that the Bible did not fall from heaven,” Vermes tells The Report. “They illustrate how ancient Hebrew manuscripts were composed. The great variety of textual traditions is living proof that multiplicity preceded unity, which was attained only after the intervention of religious authorities – priests and rabbis among Jews, the early Church among Christians.”
Right from the get-go, the fervid controversy surrounding the scrolls was both a product of their contents and the cantankerous shenanigans of scholars assigned to decipher, interpret and publish them. Father Roland de Vaux, the director of Jerusalem’s Dominican-run École Biblique et Archéologique Française, took charge of the painstaking process of piecing together and cataloguing the myriad scroll fragments in Jordanian possession, stored at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem.
De Vaux’s handpicked team consisted of four Catholics, a Presbyterian, a Lutheran, a Methodist, and an Anglican – two of whom also happened to be alcoholics – but no Jews. “Even without the wisdom of hindsight,” quips Vermes, who wrote the world’s first doctoral dissertation on the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1952 but was likewise shut out, “it would have been easy to foresee troubles looming on the horizon.” After some encouraging signs, he adds, the promised publication of most scrolls stalled – for decades.
Arrogant and impervious, de Vaux had a proprietary attitude toward the scrolls and relinquished his iron grip on them only upon his death in 1971. Yet his insular group of privileged scholars continued to reign supreme over specific documents individually assigned to them, refusing outsiders any access while not doing much productive work themselves. After over two decades the editorial team had managed to publish a mere three out of what would ultimately become 26 volumes in total – and that based on the contents of only one of the Qumran caves.
For all scholarly purposes, the scrolls might as well have been left undiscovered in the caves of Qumran. “Dissatisfaction grew and the atmosphere turned explosive,” Vermes notes pithily. Yet the onetime priest, who left the priesthood and Catholicism in 1957 before embracing his Jewish roots, dismisses the oft-touted charge of a Vatican conspiracy to withhold crucial manuscripts in an effort to save Christianity from the unsavory revelation that its founding myths had been plagiarized from an obscure, long-extinct sect on the Dead Sea. The real reason was more prosaic: intransigence and petty squabbles about scholarly priority.
For Jewish scholars, it further aggravated matters that “most of the old staff and the majority of the editorial team at the École Biblique,” Vermes writes, “were decidedly pro-Arab and anti-Israeli.” They saw the Six Day War and the subsequent realignment of the archaeological and political landscape in Israel’s favor as “a profound blow.” Some refused flat-out to collaborate with Jewish scholars and persisted in calling Jerusalem by its Arab name Al-Quds in academic correspondence. In a 1990 interview with the Haaretz newspaper, John Strugnell, a mercurial alcoholic who had taken over from de Vaux as editor, would label Judaism “a horrible religion,” lamenting its continued existence.
Yet the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which now controlled the Rockefeller Museum and the scrolls housed there, agreed – “foolishly” in Vermes’s opinion – not to interfere with the editorial team’s work. For several years after 1967, editorial activity stopped altogether. Frustrated, Vermes went on the offensive, publicly putting pressure on the procrastinating editorial team. In 1976, in an instant classic of a sound byte Vermes labeled the affair “the academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century.” His indictment fell on deaf ears. After adding a couple of Jewish experts to the roster of privileged academics, Israeli archaeological authorities kept the insular scholarly monopoly firmly in place.
By the late 1980s, Vermes was in full attack mode, rallying scholars and journalists behind him to the cause of universal access to the ancient documents. Finally in 1991, the Oxford professor and other disgruntled scholars managed to pry open the “closed shop” of Qumran editorship by convincing the Huntington Library in California (which ironically specializes in the works of Shakespeare) to publish the complete microfilm copy of all unpublished manuscript fragments it had in its possession. The monopoly was at last broken – almost a half-century after Bedouin goatherds first stumbled on the priceless manuscripts.
Today photographic and digital images of the scrolls are readily available – something for which Vermes, who published “The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English” (2004) in a long overdue update to his landmark “Dead Sea Scrolls in English” of 1962, deserves plenty of credit.
Ask various scholars and you’ll receive various answers as to the Qumran sectarians’ identity –  world-weary Essenes, bellicose Zealot nationalists, priestly Sadducees, studious Pharisees, Jewish Christian Ebonites. The Qumran settlement has in turn been seen as a monastery, a country estate, an isolated fortress, a wayside caravanserai, a pottery workshop, and a balsam factory. As no scroll fragments have ever been located at the ruins proper, some scholars, Prof. Norman Golb of the University of Chicago chief among them, have even proposed that the manuscripts had belonged to a library in Jerusalem and had no connection to the settlement at Qumran adjacent to the caves where they were hidden.
Vermes, who endorses the consensus view that the authors of the scrolls were monastic Essenes living at Qumran, weighs the relative merits of each revisionist theory, but finds them all wanting. “[The Essene] theory cannot be taken as absolutely demonstrated, but it stands on firmer foundations than alternative suggestions,” Vermes tells The Report. Yet he acknowledges that “despite six decades of unceasing intellectual struggle, Qumran archaeology, group identity and history still constitute ‘unfinished business.’”
The Qumran Community, Vermes surmises in his book, “was a free association of Jewish families, governed by the priests [who called themselves] Sons of Zadok and embrac[ed] a more stringent version of the Mosaic law.” The community’s founders, led by the enigmatic “Teacher of Righteousness,” split sometime in the 2nd century BCE from normative Judaism, then headed by an adversary they called the “Wicked Priest,” over ritual matters. Yet for all their poetic detail, the scrolls are short on tangible historical specifics and modern scholars have proved themselves adept at filling in the blanks. Vermes himself identifies the “Wicked Priest” as Jonathan Maccabeus, who, he argues, Qumran sectarians believed had usurped the high priesthood from their “Teacher of Righteousness.” Other scholars have identified the “Wicked Priest” with Simon Maccabeus, the high priest Ananias, Paul of Tarsus, even Jesus.
What isn’t in doubt is this: The sectarians, who were the haredim of their time, were fervently preparing for the imminent arrival of a longed-for priestly messiah, whose advent they believed to be hastening through their ritual and spiritual purity. The pious sect’s inner core, strictly male, remained celibate and pledged to lead austere monastic lives, fully abiding by the Law of Moses, as they primed themselves for an apocalyptic showdown between the Sons of Light (themselves) and the Sons of Darkness (the Romans and perhaps Hellenized Jews). Their applied Bible exegesis, Vermes says, anticipated the interpretative traditions of the rabbinic Midrash by seeking to derive contemporary norms of virtuous behavior from scriptural proof texts.
Vermes refutes any much-ballyhooed connection between the Dead Sea Scrolls and formative Christianity – propagated by American Bible scholar Robert Eisenman and Australian historian Barbara Thiering – beyond pointing to “a common spiritual atmosphere” of fervent end-of-time hopes for divine redemption invested in the person of a messianic leader who comes to grief at the hands of secular authorities. “Having spent a lifetime studying Christianity, I can attest that the Galilean hasid followed ideas very different from those of the Qumran community,” the Oxford don says in our interview.
Yet Vermes’s own abiding interest in Jesus has made him something of an iconoclast. By refusing to confine himself to the theological comfort zones of traditional scholarship, he’s been seen by Christian scholars as too eager to shore up Jesus’ Jewishness while his Jewish peers view him as too obsessed with Jesus. Since his seminal “Jesus the Jew” in 1973, Vermes has written numerous well-received books on Christianity’s founder from a Jewish perspective. Yet despite the distinctly Talmudic flavor of such works as “Jesus and the World of Judaism” (1983) and “Jesus in His Jewish Context” (2003), none have been published in Israel. “I would breathe a sigh of relief if they were translated into Hebrew,” he tells The Report wistfully.
Vermes’s ecumenical academic interests are reflected in his biography, which reads like a far-fetched tale of redemptive self-discovery penned by Hollywood screenwriters with overactive imaginations. Born in 1924 in the small town of Makó in southeastern Hungary (the birthplace of Joseph Pulitzer, another famed Hungarian Jew), he was baptized as a Catholic at age seven by his assimilated Jewish parents, a journalist father and schoolteacher mother.
Yet not even conversion would save the family from Auschwitz, where his parents perished in 1944. Vermes survived only by “losing myself in the crowd” after joining a Catholic seminary in Budapest. After the war, the young theologian emigrated to France and joined the Fathers of Sion, a Catholic order dedicated to the conversion of Jews. He was ordained a priest, yet in 1957 Vermes turned his back on Catholicism. He rediscovered his Jewish roots and in 1965 joined Oxford University’s Faculty of Oriental Studies, becoming its first professor of Jewish Studies in 1991.
Christianity and Judaism have remained defining features of his life – in a scholarly, if not spiritual sense. “Organized religion of any description with set rites and customs no longer suited me at all,” Vermes, who belongs to a Liberal synagogue, writes in his autobiography, “Providential Accidents.” “My religion had become that of the ‘still small voice,’ which those who listen can hear, as did the Prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:12), the voice of an existential God, acting in and through people, who stood behind all the providential accidents of my life.”
Yet there seems to have been no accidents, providential or otherwise, in his dogged pursuit to gain access to the scrolls and unravel their secrets. A fine account of a lifetime of scholarship, “The Story of the Scrolls” is a fitting testimonial to a great scholar’s enduring love affair with the ancient manuscripts.
This article was published in The Jerusalem Report on May 16, 2010. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report, click here.