The revolution that never was

“I refuse to prove that I exist” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith, I am nothing.” “Oh,” says man, “but the Babel Fish is a dead give-away, isn’t it? It proves You exist, and so therefore You don’t. Q.E.D.” “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that.” says God, who promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

Modern religion and ancient history make uncomfortable bedfellows. Like a senile married couple, they shuffle alongside each other with only the vaguest of recollections about why they remain together. On the one hand, history is an unavoidable and beneficial part of religion, serving to set the context as well as to provide a factual basis for beliefs. On the other, some modern religions seem to prefer to leave things to faith alone, as though historical fact might somehow damage the assumptions upon which they are founded.

In late 1947, just east of Jerusalem in an unpopulated area of what is now Israel, a Bedouin goat-herd made a most remarkable discovery. Whilst searching for a lost goat, the boy, known as Muhammad adh-Dhib (“the Wolf”), came across a cave which later proved to contain no less than forty earthenware jars, each stuffed with ancient scrolls in Hebrew and Aramaic. Thus began a tale of intrigue of which the ending has still, over fifty years later, to be played out.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, as they are commonly called, have been stolen, traded on the black market and advertised in the small ads of The Wall Street Journal. They have witnessed, and been affected by the many wars which have involved Israel since 1948. Most interestingly, the scrolls appear to have been subject to a bizarre cover-up by the institution that is the Catholic Church. From the earliest days following the discovery, when a team of Catholic priests took control of the scrolls, there are repeated examples of how the team sought to reveal a minimum about their content and to play down their importance, much to the chagrin of other scholars and the wider public.

It was not until the early nineties – up to fifty years following their discovery – that copies of some of the more controversial scrolls were released to a wider audience. Why the Church wanted to keep a cap on the bubbling volcano that is the Dead Sea Scrolls remains unknown, largely because a number of scrolls in their possession remain unpublished. It is thought that they contain material about a Jewish sect known as the Essenes, whose beliefs seem to echo those of Jesus of Nazareth: however the Essene writings may predate Jesus’ time on earth by up to one hundred years. If it were true, this would cast doubt over the fundamental belief of Christianity, that the Christian teaching espoused in the New Testament originated with Jesus. Heady stuff – it is no wonder, then, that the religious institutions were (and probably remain) worried. Such facts could rock the faith of the whole Christian Church and cause a revolution in its ranks. As yet, however, it would appear that the attempts to play down and delay the evidence have paid off. The controversial ideas that could have been spawned by the two-thousand year old texts have not resulted in anything other than frustrated scholars and a still-ignorant public.

Incidentally, technology has not been able to resist joining the fray. There are over 13,000 mentions of the Dead Sea Scrolls on the Internet, referencing specialist sites, exhibitions, translations, academic publications and discussion groups. To be sure there will also be a fair handful of cranks and off-the-wall sites, but they are part of the rich tapestry of online humanity. The Internet is bringing the scrolls to the widest possible audience and this can only be a good thing.

Overall, the story behind the scrolls could be subtitled “the revolution that never was.” Unlike the writings of Darwin and Marx, and despite the fact that their content ranks just as highly in terms of the impact they might have had, the publication of the scrolls is now unlikely to have any profound effect on humanity. The institutional conservatism of organised religion, this time, has quashed any potential there may have been for a revolution in either thinking or teaching.

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