From the time of their discovery in 1947, the “scrolls from the Dead Sea” have been a source of fascination, speculation, consternation, confusion, and, in the view of these two authors, a far-reaching religious conspiracy. Deception reads like a thriller, or the best of the many books on the assassination of President Kennedy. It is furnished with considerable documentation, which lends weight, or at least an appearance of weight, to its thesis. In the authors’ view, the scrolls, properly and fully published and understood, would force a virtually total revision of the traditional historical understanding of the Palestinian sect known as the Essenes and, much more significantly, overthrow most of the historical data on which Christianity is built. The degree to which their thesis, if proved and accepted, would change our understanding of the origins of Christianity—and therefore, necessarily, of the truth of Christian doctrines—is similar to the degree to which the revisionists, who claim that the Nazi Holocaust of 1933-45 is a fiction, would change our understanding of those years.
The scrolls were discovered in 1947, during the last days of the British mandate in Palestine, and until the Six Days’ War they were principally under Jordanian oversight in Arab-held Old Jerusalem. When news about their discovery began to spread, there was a burst of excitement at the prospect that they might destroy the historical basis for Christianity, and demonstrate that the Faith was just a variation on a preexistent Jewish sect. However, as their contents were released—selectively and slowly, as Baigent and Leigh point out—rather contrary results appeared. For example, the scrolls contained extensive material from precisely the books of Isaiah and Daniel that liberal biblical scholarship had argued were scissors-and-paste productions of a number of different writers. The scroll texts were virtually identical to the traditional Masoretic text of the Hebrew Scripture, and thus proved that the material of Isaiah, for example, had remained intact for almost a millennium between the date the scrolls were stored away and the oldest existing Hebrew manuscripts of the Masoretic text. This evidence lends weight to the traditional view that the Isaiah we have is a unified work going back to the great prophet of the seventh century before Christ.
The Dominican-sponsored Ecole biblique in Jerusalem, under its celebrated but extremely strong-willed if not tyrannical head. Father Roland deVaux, O. P. (1903-1973), quickly established a kind of monopoly on the publication and analysis of the scrolls from their discovery almost to the present. The thesis of Baigent and Leigh is that this monopoly was used with calculation, determination, and scholarly ruthlessness to prevent the truth about the origins of Christianity, which the scrolls would reveal, from coming out. The Roman Catholic Church, aided and abetted by numerous Protestant scholars, is the chief culprit.
Although Baigent and Leigh sound like journalists interested only in truth, it soon becomes apparent that they have some rather strong preconceptions. In their postscript, they claim that they are by no means likely to “‘topple the Church,’ or anything as apocalyptic as that. The Church today, after all, is less a religious than a social, cultural, political, and economic institution. Its stability and security rest on factors quite remote from the creed, the doctrine, and the dogma it promulgates. But some people, at any rate, may be prompted to wonder whether the Church—an institution so demonstrably lax, biased and unreliable in its own scholarship, its own version of its history and origins—should necessarily be deemed reliable and authoritative in its approach to such urgent contemporary matters as overpopulation, birth control, the status of women, and the celibacy of the clergy.”
The authors’ basic thesis is this: the role of the Essenes, usually thought of as a pacifistic, celibate, monastic community, has been misunderstood and misinterpreted since the days of the Jewish historian turned Roman propagandist, Josephus. hi reality they were both married and militant and were involved in the great revolts against Rome. Jesus himself may not have been a militant, but he was a zealot for the Law and was probably put to death, more or less legitimately, as a political troublemaker. The Apostle Paul was a kind of double agent, probably in Roman pay, and protected by the Romans from the Jewish religious authorities in a program similar to our government’s witness protection plan. Nothing could be more evident to them than the fact that Paul totally transformed the program of Jesus into something that Jesus himself would have repudiated, making of him a divine Savior and eventually the incarnate Son of God.
Readers unfamiliar with the field may wonder at the fact that apparently virtually all of the scholars who have dealt with the scrolls share the consensus view, which Baigent and Leigh call a conspiracy to deceive. They rely rather heavily on the work of Professor Robert Eisenmann of California State University, Long Beach, and of the late J. M. Allegro. Eisenmann and Allegro have impressive credentials in Near Eastern studies, although Allegro gained the reputation of being a crank when he published The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross in 1970. Baigent and Leigh make much of the fact that Allegro alone among the early investigators was not religiously committed, but was an agnostic. Does this make him less partisan than the Catholics? Allegro’s death leaves Eisenmann as the chief surviving “iconoclast,” and the only really scholarly witness for the authors’ case.
In short, Baigent and Leigh write an impressive thriller. They plainly have a strong bias against the Roman Catholic Church, which plays the role of chief conspirator throughout. They present as assured fact certain things that are at the least debatable, such as the thesis that the Gospel writers and early Christians devised miracle stories to enable their Jesus to compete with Adonis and other Near Eastern savior-figures, or that Paul turned the teachings of Jesus upside down. When they subsequently find evidence of a massive pan-Christian conspiracy, with some Jewish complicity, to undergird their assertions, the resemblance to Oliver Stone’s JFK becomes patent.
The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception is indeed fascinating reading. Fortunately for those of us who are not enthusiastic about having to throw out traditional Christian doctrines about the origins of the faith, the book includes enough internal evidence to make it plain that the authors’ impartiality is at least as suspect as that of those they judge to have been conspirators. When Michael Drake of the Belfast Telegraph called it “a great detective story” on the dust jacket, he spoke well. It’s a great story; but a story, not history.
[The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh (New York: Summit Books) 268 pp., $20.00]
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