10 - Science in the Service of Faith

According to the consensus of the international team, the historical events reflected in all the relevant Dead Sea Scrolls occurred in Maccabean times - between the mid-2nd and mid-1st centuries BC. The 'Wicked Priest', who pursues, persecutes and perhaps kills the 'Teacher of Righteousness', is generally identified by them as Jonathan Maccabaeus, or perhaps his brother Simon, both of whom enjoyed positions of prominence during that epoch; and the invasion of a foreign army is taken to be that launched by the Romans under Pompey in 63 BC.1


The historical backdrop of the scrolls is thus set safely back in pre-Christian times, where it becomes disarmed of any possible challenge to New Testament teaching and tradition.

But while some of the Dead Sea Scrolls undoubtedly do refer to pre-Christian times, it is a grievous mistake - for some, perhaps, deliberate obfuscation - to conclude that all of them do so. Pompey, who invaded the Holy Land in 63 BC, was, of course, a contemporary of Julius Caesar. At the time of Pompey and Caesar, Rome was still a republic, becoming an empire only in 27 BC, under Caesar's adoptive son, Octavian, who took the imperial title of Augustus.


If the Roman invasion referred to in the scrolls was that of Pompey, it would have involved the armies of republican Rome. Yet the 'War Rule' speaks of a 'king' or 'monarch' of the invaders. And the 'Habakkuk Commentary' is even more explicit in its reference to victorious invaders sacrificing to their standards. It would therefore seem clear that the invasion in question was that of imperial Rome - the invasion provoked by the revolt of AD 66.

Professor Godfrey Driver of Oxford found numerous textual references within the scrolls that provide clues to their dating. Focusing in particular on the 'Habakkuk Commentary', he concluded that the invaders could only be 'the Roman legions at the time of the revolt in AD 66'. This conclusion, he added, 'is put beyond doubt by the reference to their sacrificing to their military standards'.2


His statements, however, elicited a vicious attack from Father de Vaux, who recognized that they led inexorably to the conclusion that 'the historical background of the scrolls therefore is the war against Rome'.3 This, of course, de Vaux could not possibly accept. At the same time, however, he could not refute such precise evidence.


In consequence, he contrived to dismiss the evidence and attack only Driver's general thesis:

'Driver has started from the pre-conceived idea that all scrolls were post-Christian, and that this idea was based on the fallacious witness of orthography, language and vocabulary.'4

It was, he declared, for professional historians 'to decide whether [Driver's] motley history... has sufficient foundation in the texts'.5


It is interesting that de Vaux, who taught biblical history at the Ecole Biblique, should suddenly (at least when he had to answer Professor Driver) don a cloak of false modesty and shrink from considering himself an historian, taking refuge instead behind the supposed bulwarks of archaeology and palaeography.6 In fact, archaeological data reinforce the indications of chronology provided by the internal data of the scrolls themselves. External evidence concurs with internal evidence - evidence of which the consensus would seem to remain oblivious. At times, this has led to an embarrassing faux pas.

De Vaux, it will be remembered, embarked on a preliminary excavation of the Qumran ruins in 1951. His findings were sufficiently consequential to justify a more ambitious enterprise. A characteristic lassitude set in, however, and no full-scale excavation was undertaken until 1953. Annual excavations then continued until 1956; and in 1958, an associated site at Ein Feshka, less than a mile to the south, was also excavated.


In his eagerness to distance the Qumran community from any connection with early Christianity, de Vaux rushed his conclusions about dating into print. In some instances, he did not even wait for archaeological evidence to support him. As early as 1954, the Jesuit professor Robert North noted no fewer than four cases in which de Vaux had been forced to retract on his dating. North also found it distressing that, even on so crucial a matter, no specialists 'independently of de Vaux's influence' were asked to contribute their conclusions.7


But it was not de Vaux's style to invite opinions that might conflict with his own and shed a more controversial light on the material. Nor was he eager to announce his errors when they occurred. Although quick to publish and publicize conclusions that confirmed his thesis, he was markedly more dilatory in retracting them when they proved erroneous.

One important element for de Vaux was a thick layer of ash found to be blanketing the surroundings of the ruins. This layer of ash patently attested to a fire of some sort, which had obviously caused considerable destruction. Indeed, it had led to Qumran's being partially, if not wholly, abandoned for some years. A study of the coins found at the site revealed that the fire had occurred at some time towards the beginning of the reign of Herod the Great, who occupied the throne from 37 BC until 4 BC. The same data indicated that rebuilding had commenced under the regime of Herod's son, Archelaus, who ruled (not as king, but as ethnarch) from 4 BC until AD 6.

According to de Vaux's thesis, the Qumran community consisted of supposedly placid, peace-loving and ascetic 'Essenes', on good terms with Herod as with everyone else. If this were the case, the fire which destroyed the community should have resulted not from any deliberate human intention - from an act of war, for example - but from an accident, or a natural disaster. Fortunately for de Vaux, a large crack was found running through a cistern. Although independent researchers found no indication that the crack extended any further, de Vaux claimed to have traced it through the whole of the ruins, the whole of the Qumran community.8


Even if it did, a number of experts concluded, it could probably be ascribed to erosion.9 For de Vaux, however, the crack, such as it was, seemed the result of one of the many earthquakes the region has suffered over the centuries. Instead of trying to identify the cause of the crack, in other words, de Vaux went rummaging for an earthquake that might have been responsible.


As it happened, there was a more or less convenient earthquake on record. Josephus speaks of one that occurred towards the beginning of Herod's reign, in 31 Be. This, de Vaux concluded, had caused the fire which led to the abandoning of the community. He did not bother to explain why rebuilding did not commence for a quarter of a century before, suddenly, proceeding with noticeable rapidity.

Robert Eisenman points to the strikingly precise timing of the delay in rebuilding. It coincides perfectly with Herod's reign. No sooner had he died than reconstruction promptly began - and part of this reconstruction consisted of strengthening the defensive towers, as well as creating a rampart. It would thus seem clear, for some reason which de Vaux chose to ignore, that no one dared to rebuild Qumran while Herod remained on the throne.


But why should that be the case if the community were on as congenial a footing with Herod as de Vaux maintained, and if the destruction of the community resulted from an earthquake? It would appear much more likely that the community was destroyed deliberately, on Herod's orders, and that no reconstruction could begin until after his death. But why should Herod order the destruction of a community so placid, so universally loved, so divorced from political activity?

Whether willfully or through negligence, de Vaux remained oblivious of such questions. Eventually, however, the logic he mustered to support his hypothetical earthquake became too strained even for the closest of his supporters, the then Father Milik.


In 1957, Milik wrote of the fire and the alleged earthquake that:

the archaeological evidence from Qumran is not unambiguous as

to the order of these two events... the thick layers of ashes suggests

a very violent conflagration, better to be explained as a
result of a conscious attempt to burn down the whole building;

so the ashes may show the traces
of an intentional destruction of Qumran.10

Whether the fire was caused by earthquake or by deliberate human agency cannot be definitively established. Certainly the evidence offers less support to de Vaux than it does to Milik and Eisenman, who, on this unique occasion, are in accord. Nevertheless, many adherents of the consensus still invoke the earthquake, and it still figures with metronomic regularity in their texts.

In another instance, however, de Vaux's misinterpretation of the evidence - or, to put the matter charitably, wishful thinking - was much more conclusively exposed. Very early in his excavations, he found a heavily oxidized coin on which, he said, he 'believed' he could discern the insignia of the Roman 10th Legion.11


Purporting to cite Josephus, he also said that the 10th Legion had conquered Jericho, eight miles away, in June of AD 68. Everything seemed to fit nicely. On the basis of his coin, de Vaux argued that Qumran must have been destroyed by the 10th Legion in AD 68. 'No manuscript of the caves', he later declared, waxing dogmatic on the basis of questionable data, 'can be later than June, AD 68.'12

De Vaux had first described his discovery of the coin in 1954, in Revue biblique. He repeated his account five years later, in 1959, in the same journal.13 The 'fact' of the coin, and de Vaux's emphatic dating on the basis of it, thus became enshrined in the established corpus of evidence routinely invoked by adherents of the consensus. Thus, for example, Frank Cross would write that the coin stamped with the insignia of the 10th Legion constituted 'grim confirmation'.14

De Vaux, however, had made two bizarre errors. In the first place, he had somehow contrived to misread Josephus, ascribing to Josephus precisely the opposite of what Josephus in fact said. Josephus most emphatically did not assert that the 10th Legion captured Jericho in AD 68. As Professor Cecil Roth demonstrated, of the three Roman legions in the vicinity, only the 10th was not engaged in the conquest of Jericho.15


The 10th Legion had remained a considerable distance to the north, guarding the top of the Jordan Valley. In the second place, the coin de Vaux had found proved not to be from the 10th Legion at all, or, for that matter, from any other. Although badly damaged and oxidized, the coin, when subjected to expert scrutiny, proved to have come from Ashkelon and to date from AD 72 or 73.

Here was a blunder that could not be equivocated away. De Vaux had no choice but to publish a formal retraction. This retraction, however, appeared only as a footnote in his opus L'archeologie et les manuscrits de la mer morte, published in French in 1961 and in English translation in 1973.

'Mention of this was unfortunate', de Vaux says laconically, 'for this coin does not exist.'16

On the whole, de Vaux tended to be shamelessly cavalier in his conclusions about coins. When he found any that did not conform to his theories, he simply dismissed them. Thus, for example, he found one dating from the period between AD 138 and 161. He shrugged off its possible relevance with the comment that it 'must have been lost by a passer-by'.17 By the same token, of course, an earlier coin, on which he attempted to establish his dating and chronology for Qumran, could also have been lost by a passer-by; but de Vaux seems not to have considered this possibility.

Of the archaeological evidence found at Qumran, coins have been particularly important to the international team and the adherents of their consensus. Indeed, it was on the basis of this evidence that they deduced the time-span of the community; and it was through their interpretation of this evidence that they established their dating and chronology.


Prior to Eisenman, however, no one had bothered to question their misinterpretation. Roth and Driver, as we have seen, endeavored to establish a chronology on the basis of the internal evidence of the scrolls themselves. De Vaux and the international team were able to discredit them simply by invoking the external evidence supposedly provided by the coins.


That this evidence had been spuriously interpreted went unnoticed. Eisenman recognized that Roth and Driver, arguing on the basis of internal evidence, had in fact been correct. But in order to prove this, he had first to expose the erroneous interpretation of the external evidence. He began with the coin distribution, pointing out that they revealed two periods of peak activity.

Some 450 bronze coins were discovered at Qumran in the course of excavation. They encompassed a span of some two and a half centuries, from 135 BC to AD 136.


The following table groups them according to the reigns in which they were minted:

  • 1 coin from 135-104 BC

  • 1 coin from 104 BC

  • 143 coins from 103-76 BC

  • 1 coin from 76-67 BC

  • 5 coins from 67-40 BC

  • 4 coins from 40-37 BC

  • 10 coins from 37-4 BC

  • 16 coins from 4 BC-6 ad

  • 91 coins from 6-41 AD (time of the procurators)

  • 78 coins from 37-44 AD (reign of Agrippa I)

  • 2 Roman coins from 54-68 ad

  • 83 coins from 67 AD (2nd year of the revolt)

  • 5 coins from 68 AD (3rd year of the revolt)

  • 6 additional coins more precisely from the revolt, too oxidized to identify

  • 13 Roman coins from 67-8 ad

  • 1 Roman coin from 69-79 ad

  • 2 coins from 72-3 ad

  • 4 coins from 72-81 ad

  • 1 Roman coin from 87 ad

  • 3 Roman coins from 98-117 ad

  • 6 coins from 132-6 AD (revolt of Simeon bar Kochba)18

The distribution of coins would appear to indicate two periods when the community at Qumran was most active - that between 103 and 76 BC, and that between AD 6 and 67. There are a total of 143 coins from the former period, 254 from the latter.


For adherents of the consensus, this did not mesh as neatly as they would have liked with their theories. According to their reading of the scrolls, the 'Wicked Priest' was most likely to be identified as the high priest Jonathan, who lived between 160 and 142 BC - half a century before the first concentration of coins. In order to support his thesis, Father de Vaux needed a very early date for the founding of the Qumran community.


He was thus forced to argue that the solitary coin dating from between 135 and 104 BC served to prove the thesis correct - even though common sense suggests that the community dates from between 103 and 76 BC, the period from which there is a concentration of 143 coins. The earlier coin, on which de Vaux rests his argument is much more likely to have been merely one that remained in circulation for some years after it was minted.

De Vaux ascribed particular significance to the disappearance of Judaic coins after AD 68 and the nineteen Roman coins subsequent to that year. This, he maintained, 'proves' that Qumran was destroyed in AD 68; the Roman coins, he argued, indicated that the ruins were 'occupied' by a detachment of Roman troops. On this basis, he proceeded to assign a definitive date to the deposition of the scrolls themselves: 'our conclusion: none of the manuscripts belonging to the community is later than the ruin of Khirbet Qumran in AD 68. '19

The spuriousness of this reasoning is self-evident. In the first place, Judaic coins have been found which date from Simeon bar Kochba's revolt between AD 132 and 136. In the second place, the coins indicate only that people were wandering around Qumran and dropping them; they indicate nothing, one way or the other, about the deposition of manuscripts, which could have been buried at Qumran as late as bar Kochba's time.


And finally, it is hardly surprising that the coins subsequent to AD 68 should be Roman. In the years following the revolt, Roman coins were the only currency in Judaea. This being the case, they need hardly have been dropped solely by Romans.

Eisenman is emphatic about the conclusions to be drawn from de Vaux's archaeology. If it proves anything, he states, it proves precisely the opposite of what de Vaux concludes - proves that the latest date for the scrolls having been deposited at Qumran is not AD 68 but AD 136. Any time up to that date would be perfectly consistent with the archaeological evidence.20


Nor, Eisenman adds, is the consensus correct in assuming that the destruction of the main buildings at Qumran necessarily meant the destruction of the site.21 There are, in fact, indications that at least some cursory or rudimentary rebuilding occurred, including a 'crude canal' to feed water into a cistern. Rather unconvincingly, de Vaux claimed this to have been the work of the Roman garrison supposed, on the basis of the coins, to have occupied the site.22


But Professor Driver pointed out that the sheer crudeness of the reconstruction does not suggest Roman work.23


De Vaux maintained that his theory, conforming as it did to the alleged destruction of Qumran in AD 68, was in accord with 'les données d'histoire’ the 'accepted givens of history' - 'having forgotten', as Professor Driver observed drily, 'that the historical records say nothing of the destruction of Qumran in AD 68 by the Romans'. In short, Driver concluded, 'the "données d'histoire" are historical fiction'.24

There is another crucial piece of archaeological evidence which runs diametrically counter to the interpretation of the consensus. De Vaux himself studiously, and justifiably, avoided referring to the ruins at Qumran as a 'monastery'. As he explained, he 'never used the word when writing about the excavations at Qumran, precisely because it represents an inference which archaeology, taken alone, could not warrant'.25


It is clear, however, that he nevertheless thought of Qumran as a species of monastery. This is reflected by his uninhibited use of such monastic terms as 'scriptorium' and 'refectory' to describe certain of the structures. And if de Vaux himself had some reservations about dubbing Qumran a 'monastery', other adherents of the consensus did not. In his book on the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, Cardinal Danielou babbled happily about the 'monks of Qumran', even going so far as to state that 'the monasticism of Qumran can be considered as the source of Christian monasticism'.26

What de Vaux, his colleagues and adherents of the consensus chose consistently to overlook was the distinctly and unmistakably military character of some of the ruins. When one visits Qumran today, one will inevitably be struck initially by the remains of a substantial defensive tower, with walls of some feet in thickness and an entrance only on the second storey.


Less obvious, but just across a small passageway from the tower, there is another structure whose function may not be immediately apparent. In fact, it is what remains of a well-built forge - complete with its own water supply for tempering the tools and weapons crafted within it. Not surprisingly, the forge is something of an embarrassment to the scholars of the international team, clinging to their image of placid, pacifist 'Essenes'.


Thus de Vaux scuttled away from the issue as fast as tongue and pen could carry him:

there was a workshop comprising a furnace above which was a plastered area with a drainage
conduit. The installation implies that the kind of work carried on there required a large fire as well
as an abundant supply of water. I do not venture to define its purpose any more precisely than

Which is rather like not venturing to define the purpose of empty cartridge cases and spent projectiles of lead scattered around the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Professor Cross, following in de Vaux's footsteps but incapable of the same disingenuousness, grudgingly alludes to 'what appears to have been a forge'.28

In fact, arrows were found inside the ruins of Qumran; and while one could argue that these were loosed by attacking Romans, they are, as Professor Driver asserted, 'as likely to have belonged to the occupants'29 - if not, indeed, more likely. On the whole, the military character of the ruins is so flagrant that another independent scholar, Professor Golb of the University of Chicago, has gone so far as to see in them an entirely martial installation.30


According to Golb, the scrolls were never composed or copied at Qumran at all, but were brought there, from Jerusalem, specifically for protection.

'No fragment of parchment or papyrus', Golb has pointed out, 'was ever found in the debris... nor any tools of scribes... '31

Apart from coins and the physical ruins, the most important body of external evidence used by the international team for dating the Dead Sea Scrolls derived from the tenuous science of paleography.


Paleography is the comparative study of ancient calligraphy. Assuming a strictly chronological and linear progression in the evolution of handwriting, it endeavors to chart developments in the specific shape and form of letters, and thus to assign dates to an entire manuscript. One might find, for example, an old charter or some other document in one's attic. On the basis not of its content, but of its script alone, one might guess it to date from the 17th as opposed to the 18th century.


To that extent, one would be practicing a species of amateur paleography. The procedure, needless to say, even when employed with the most scientific rigor, is far from conclusive. When applied to the texts found at Qumran, it becomes feeble indeed - and sometimes tips over into the ludicrous. Nevertheless, de Vaux invoked paleography as another corpus of external evidence to discredit the conclusions, based on internal evidence, of Roth and Driver. It was, therefore, the alleged paleographical evidence pertaining to Qumran that Eisenman had next to demolish.

Paleography, according to Frank Cross of the international team,

'is perhaps the most precise and objective means of determining the age of a manuscript'.

He goes on to explain:

we must approach the problems relating to the historical interpretation of our texts by first
determining the time period set by archaeological data, by paleographical evidence, and by other
more objective methods before applying the more subjective techniques of internal criticism.32

Why internal evidence should necessarily be more 'subjective' than that of archaeology and paleography Cross does not bother to clarify. In fact, this statement inadvertently reveals why paleography should be deemed so important by adherents of the consensus: it can be used to counter the internal evidence of the documents -evidence which makes sense only in the context of the 1st century AD.

The most prominent paleographical work on the Dead Sea Scrolls was done by Professor Solomon Birnbaum of the University of London's School of Oriental Studies. Birnbaum's endeavors received fulsome endorsement from Professor Cross, who hailed them as 'a monumental attempt to deal with all periods of Hebrew writing'.33


Attempting to parry the copious criticism to which Birnbaum's exegesis was subjected, Cross asked his readers to remember 'that it was written by a professional paleographer tried to the limit by the Lilliputian attacks of non-specialists'.34 Such is the intensity of academic vituperation generated by the question of paleographical evidence.

Birnbaum's method is bizarre to say the least, reminiscent less of the modern scientific method with which he purports to dignify it than of, say, the nether reaches of numerology. Thus, for example, he presupposes - and the whole of his subsequent procedure rests on nothing more than this unconfirmed presupposition - that the entire spectrum of the texts found at Qumran extends precisely from 300 BC to AD 68.


Thus, in one instance, he takes a text of Samuel found in Cave 4 at Qumran. Having methodically combed this text, he cites forty-five specimens of a particular calligraphic feature, eleven specimens of another.

'Mit der Dummheit', Schiller observed, 'kämpfen Götter selbst vergeben.'

For reasons the gods themselves must find mind-boggling, Birnbaum then proceeds to set up an equation: the proportion of 56 to 11 equals 368 to x (368 being the number of years the texts span, and x being the date he hopes to assign to the text in question).


The value of x - calculated, legitimately enough, in purely mathematical terms - is 72, which should then be subtracted from 300 BC, Birnbaum's hypothetical starting point. He arrives at 228 BC; 'the result', he claims triumphantly, 'will be something like the absolute date' for the Samuel manuscript.35 To speak of 'something like' an 'absolute date' is rather like speaking of 'a relatively absolute date'. But quite apart from such stylistic solecisms, Birnbaum's method, as Eisenman says, 'is, of course, preposterous'.36


Nevertheless, Birnbaum employed his technique, such as it was, to establish 'absolute dates' for all the texts discovered at Qumran. The most alarming fact of all is that adherents of the consensus still accept these 'absolute dates' as inexpugnable.

Professor Philip Davies of Sheffield states that 'most people who take time to study the issue agree that the use of paleography in Qumran research is unscientific', adding that 'attempts have been made to offer a precision of dating that is ludicrous'.37


Eisenman is rather more scathing, describing Birnbaum's endeavors as 'what in any other field would be the most pseudo-scientific and infantile methods'.38


To illustrate this, he provides the following example.39

Suppose two scribes of different ages are copying the same text at the same time, and the younger scribe were trained more recently in a more up-to-date 'scribal school'? Suppose the older scribe were deliberately using a stylized calligraphy which he'd learned in his youth? Suppose either or both scribes, in deference to tradition or the hallowed character of their activity, sought deliberately to replicate a style dating from some centuries before - as certain documents today, such as diplomas or certificates of award, may be produced in archaic copper-plate? What date could possibly be assigned definitively to their transcriptions?

In his paleographic assumptions, Birnbaum overlooked one particularly important fact. If a document is produced merely to convey information, it will, in all probability, reflect the most up-to-date techniques. Such, for example, are the techniques employed by modern newspapers (except, until recently, in England). But everything suggests that the Dead Sea Scrolls weren't produced merely to convey information.


Everything suggests they had a ritual or semi-ritual function as well, and were lovingly produced so as to preserve an element of tradition. It is therefore highly probable that later scribes would deliberately attempt to reproduce the style of their predecessors. And, indeed, all through recorded history, scribes have consistently been conservative. Thus, for example, illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages contrived to reflect a sacred quality of antiquity, not the latest technological progress. Thus many modern Bibles are reproduced in 'old-fashioned' print. Thus one would not expect to find a modern Jewish Torah employing the style or technique used to imprint a slogan on a T-shirt.

Of the calligraphy in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Eisenman concludes that,

'they simply represent a multitude of different handwriting styles of people working more or less at the same time within the same framework, and tell us nothing about chronology at all'.40

Cecil Roth of Oxford was, if anything, even more emphatic:

'In connection for example with the English records, although a vast mass of dated manuscript material exists covering the entire Middle Ages, it is impossible to fix precisely within the range of a generation the date of any document on the basis of paleography alone.'

He warned that 'a new dogmatism' had arisen in the field of paleography, and that,

'without any fixed point to serve as a basis, we are already expected to accept as an historical criterion a precise dating of these hitherto unknown Hebrew scripts'.

He even, in his exasperation at the complacency and intransigence of the international team, had recourse to the unscholarly expedient of capital letters:


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