The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 was, along with the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, the greatest archaeological sensation of the 20th century. An exhibition at Paris’s National Library puts the scrolls in their historical and theological context and questions the mainstream hypothesis about their origin.
It’s the first show of this kind in France. That’s all the more amazing as French scholars were deeply involved in the deciphering of the scrolls and the tens of thousands of fragments on papyrus or parchment.
Most of the work was done at the Ecole Biblique et Archeologique in Jerusalem under the direction of the Dominican archaeologist Father Roland de Vaux.
To fund excavations at Khirbet Qumran on the western shore of the Dead Sea, De Vaux sold, in 1953, 377 fragments to the French government. Presented in airtight cases, they occupy the center of the theatrically staged show.
The big scrolls are too delicate to travel. They haven’t budged from their home, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Instead, you have to content yourself with a facsimile of the best-conserved scroll containing the complete book of the prophet Isaiah.
You also find a facsimile of the intriguing copper scroll, which may refer to the treasure of the Jerusalem Temple hidden for safekeeping before the temple’s destruction in 70 A.D. The treasure has never been found.
The organizers only mention in passing the criticism leveled at Father de Vaux and his successors for the slow pace of their work and the secrecy rule which prohibited access to unpublished texts to all but a happy few. No wonder conspiracy theories abounded, accusing the group of suppressing discoveries incompatible with Christian traditions.
The monopoly came to an end only in 1991 when the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, which had managed to obtain a complete set of negatives, opened its photo archives to all qualified scholars.
In fact, nothing of what was found in the 11 caves refers to Jesus or other characters of the New Testament. On the other hand, all the books of the Hebrew Bible (save Esther) are represented at least in fragments. These are by far the oldest versions of the sacred texts.
The greatest excitement was caused by the religious writings that didn’t make it into the biblical canon. Some were known from other sources, many were not.
Following Father de Vaux, most experts believe that the scrolls were composed by the Essenes, an austere Jewish sect praised by historian Flavius Josephus and located by Pliny the Elder in the desert near the Dead Sea.
The organizers of the show don’t buy that interpretation. Josephus and Pliny, they argue, are unreliable and contradictory sources; the Essenes appear neither in the New Testament nor in the vast rabbinical literature nor are they mentioned in the scrolls themselves.
The curators seem to agree with the Israeli historian Eyal Regev, who denies the existence of a Qumran community: It is, he says in his book “Sectarianism in Qumran” (2007), “an invention of scholars.”
You don’t have to take sides in that learned dispute to admire the Sherlockian skills of those who patiently deciphered and identified the often minuscule snippets. The fragments are flanked by old Bibles, Torah rolls, illuminated manuscripts, pottery, coins, maps and photographs of Qumran.
A splendid catalog (29 euros or $35) gives you additional food for thought: Is Qumran, as some believe, identical to the wicked Gomorrah? Are the scrolls, as the U.K. orientalist John Alegro surmised, the missing link between Sumerian drug cults and Christianity?
The sky’s the limit for speculation.
“Qumran -- Le Secret des Manuscrits de la Mer Morte” runs through July 11 at the Bibliotheque Nationale (Site Francois Mitterrand). For details, go to http://www.bnf.fr or call +33-1-5379-5959.
(Jorg von Uthmann writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)