We should like to thank Robert Eisenman for the generosity with
which he made available to us his time, his energy and .his
insights. We are particularly grateful for the light he has cast on
the relationship between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament,
and on the social, political and religious forces at work in the
historical backdrop. Our debt to him will become more than apparent
in the course of the following pages. We should also like to thank
We should like to thank Mrs Joan Allegro for the access she provided
to her husband's material and for her sympathy and support in our
We should like to thank the staff of Jonathan Cape, specifically Tom
Maschler, Tony Colwell, Jenny Cottom, Lynn Boulton and Helen Donlon;
and Alison Mansbridge our editor for her suggestions and the
patience she displayed in the most arduous circumstances.
We should like to thank Rod Collins for fostering fiscal well-being
and peace of mind.
We should like to thank our agent Barbara Levy for presiding over
the project, as well as Ann Evans, who co-instigated it and has now
found a new vocation as medium for the wandering and restless shade
of Jehan l'Ascuiz.
Finally, we should like to thank the staffs of the British Library
Reading Room, and of the London Library.
And, it goes without saying, we should like to thank our ladies.
Back to Contents
Qumran and the Dead Sea
THE FOUR DEAD SEA SCROLLS
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Why, then, did he embark on violent actions, such as
overturning the tables of the money-changers in the Temple?
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
Why, shortly thereafter, did Peter actually draw a sword and
lop off the ear of a minion in the High Priest's entourage?
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.