Okay, none of the stories that recently appeared on the web about a recent discovery in the Judean desert bore quite the headline above, but it’s not too far off from the tone of some of the reports. As posted on the National Geographic website among other places, archaeologists have found a twelfth cave in addition to the eleven previously excavated near the famous ruins in the vicinity of the Wadi (i.e., “dry stream-bed”) Qumran, a stone’s throw from the northwest shore of the Dead Sea.
Inside the cave these excavators found the remains of ancient clay jars, the pickaxes used to smash them in the mid-twentieth century by previous (and less scrupulous) explorers, and scraps of the material originally stored in the jars, including no actual scrolls but only the linen in which they would have been wrapped, plus some blank parchment. Biblical scholars, and scholars in general, are stereotypically sober and cautious types, not easily excited. What, then, would lead one scholar who knows the Qumran site well to characterize such a seemingly mundane find as “hard to believe,” “truly exciting,” and “truly significant”?
The reports may call to our mind Paul’s metaphorical statement, “We have this treasure in clay jars” (2 Corinthians 4:7 NRSV), or “earthen vessels” (KJV, RSV, NASB). The metaphor, like the news reports, presupposes the ancients’ use of clay jars as storage containers for valuables, including texts one wanted to preserve. As Victor Paul Furnish suggests in his commentary, Paul’s metaphor depends also on the contrast between the “treasure” of the gospel and the cheap and fragile clay vessel in which it’s preserved — namely, Paul’s mortal body; clay isn’t a valuable commodity like gold (Lamentations 4:2), so it’s no great loss if a clay jar should be smashed (Jeremiah 22:28).
What excavators found recently, though, is only some of these cheap clay jars, with their “treasure” of valuable scrolls long since removed. Why, then, the excitement?
The beginning of an answer is suggested by the above mention of the Dead Sea, as this is the area that yielded one of the most spectacular discoveries for the study of ancient Judaism and Christian origins in the past century, the famous “Dead Sea Scrolls.” (The competitors for “most spectacular discovery” in the past 150 years all hail from Egypt: the Cairo Geniza, or synagogue “repository” for documents past their useful life; the Oxyrhynchus papyri; and the Nag Hammadi codices.)
Between 1948 and 1956, near Khirbet Qumran (“the ruin of Qumran”), the remains of an ancient complex of buildings that ceased to be occupied after the Romans put down the rebellion in Judea, a series of caves was discovered. Inside these caves lay a number of mostly intact parchment scrolls of ancient Jewish texts, biblical and extra-biblical, and thousands of decayed scraps from other scrolls. The work of transcribing and publishing the scrolls, connecting the scraps where possible, took decades and involved considerable scholarly controversy. (The “Introduction” to the translation of the extra-biblical Scrolls by Martin Abegg and Michael Wise offers an informative survey, on which I have drawn freely for this post.)
The Scrolls vastly increased the number of primary sources for the study of Judaism in the Greek and early Roman eras. One collection of non-biblical scrolls detail the beliefs and practices of a sectarian Jewish fellowship that called itself the “Unity” (yachad), usually identified with the sect of the Essenes, previously known from the writings of the first-century Jewish authors Josephus and Philo of Alexandria.
The beliefs of this “Unity” sect included the conviction that God was on the point of acting decisively to fulfill the promises he had made to Israel through the prophets, and that the Scriptures of Israel spoke of the days in which the sectarians lived. Both of these convictions are strikingly similiar to those of Jesus and the early Christians, as recorded in the New Testament. The Scrolls and the New Testament sometimes even base their expectations of God’s coming salvation on the same biblical texts, including the promise of a coming heir to David in 2 Samuel 7, the enthronement of a royal son of God in Psalm 2, and the appearance of a prophetic herald in the wilderness in Isaiah 40.
Since the Dead Sea Scrolls began to be published and studied, their significance for understanding early Christianity has soometimes been exaggerated. The suggestion, for example, that Jesus or John the Baptist or one or more early church leaders lived for a time as a member of the “Unity” and owed their understanding of the Scriptures to that sectarian group goes wildly beyond the conclusions the evidence will support. One major difference between the early church and the “Unity” group is found in their attitude to gentiles, whom the “Unity” sect despised and shunned but the followers of Jesus welcomed and embraced (after some debate, as we see in Galatians 2 and Acts 15). But the Scrolls have nonetheless helped us see the early church within its Judaic context more clearly than any previous writings from antiquity.
One reason for excitement over the blank parchment is that it may supply comparative material to help scholars detect modern forgeries executed on ancient writing materials looted from the caves; Lawrence Schiffman of New York University has noted that such forgeries are an increasingly common phenomenon. Excavator Randall Price of Liberty University is further energized by the prospect of discovering further caves, starting with a thirteenth he may have identified with a concealed entrance. He speculates this cave might thus have escaped the looting that removed the treasure from the clay jars of Qumran Cave 12 and so might preserve additional texts.
Schiffman, however, prudently downplays the likelihood of new Dead Sea discoveries as remarkable as those of previous decades, commenting, “We’re not going to find the diary of the three wise men. We might find new books that help us understand [individual] passages of the New Testament or Talmudic literature. But the notion that a bombshell text will come and overturn our picture of ancient religion at the turn of the era really isn’t a realistic one.” Still, the possibility of new information coming to light will continue to attract the attention and fire the imagination of all those intrigued by the study of ancient Judaism and Christianity.
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