Alternative Scriptures: Finding the First Scrolls

Alternative Scriptures: Finding the First Scrolls June 12, 2017

I began this “Alternative Scriptures” series by noting the discovery of a “Dead Sea Scroll” type manuscript in the Genizah of a Cairo synagogue, in the 1890s. Tracing the probable history of that document tells a fascinating story.

This “Zadokite Fragment” originated either at Qumran or another site belonging to the same sect, presumably around the first century BC. It found its way to the Cairo synagogue, among many thousands of other Jewish texts, which ranged in date from about 870 through the nineteenth century. So how did it get there? Where had it been between, say, 100 BC and 900 AD?

Actually, we can make a good educated guess about that. We know the Dead Sea Scrolls form the hugely significant collection discovered in 1947. These had been stashed by the Qumran sect, presumably as they feared conquest and destruction during the great Jewish-Roman War of 66-73. But we can be quite sure that the Dead Sea cache was only one of several. Some of those might have been destroyed, but there are two records of earlier discoveries long before 1947. One came in the third century, and the other, better recorded, around 810. The evidence comes in a letter of the Baghdad-based Patriarch Timothy, of the Church of the East, about whom I write at length in my book The Lost History of Christianity. The letter is reproduced at length here.

Here is the critical passage, as translated by Sebastian Brock. Probably around 820, Timothy writes,

We have learnt from certain Jews who are worthy of credence, who have recently been converted to Christianity, that ten years ago some books were discovered in the vicinity of Jericho, in a cave-dwelling in the mountain. They say that the dog of an Arab who was hunting game went into a cleft after an animal and did not come out; his owner then went in after him and found a chamber inside the mountain containing many books. The huntsman went to Jerusalem and reported this to some Jews. A lot of people set off and arrived there; they found books of the Old Testament, and, apart from that, other books in Hebrew script. Because the person who told me this knows the script and is skilled in reading it, I asked him about certain verses adduced in our New Testament as being from the Old Testament, but of which there is no mention at all in the Old Testament, neither among us Christians, nor among the Jews. He told me that they were to be found in the books that had been discovered there. When I heard this from that catechumen, I asked other people as well, besides him, and I discovered the same story without any difference.

(When I first read this, I thought Timothy was demeaning an Arab hunter as a dog, but no, he is quite politely referring to an Arab’s dog).

Timothy then consults with fellow clergy, and they engage in a scholarly discussion of the texts, comparing them with the standard Hebrew texts, and the Septuagint. Their questions are all the more impressive when we think what scholars in the Latin West would have made of such a find at this time – around 820! Westerners had no inkling of such textual distinctions, nor knew the relevant languages in any but the most rudimentary form, even in the spiritual powerhouse of Ireland. Literally, only a very few Western Christian scholars at the time would have known how to hold the manuscripts: which way was up?

Timothy then speculates where the books came from. Had they perhaps been deposited

either by Jeremiah the prophet, or by Baruch, or by someone else from those who heard the word and trembled at it; for when the prophets learnt through divine revelations of the captivity, plunder and burning that was going to come upon the people as a result of their sins, being men who were firmly assured that not one of God’s words would fall to the earth, they hid the books in the mountains and caves to prevent their being burnt by fire or taken as plunder by captors. Then those who had hidden them died after a period of seventy or fewer years, and when the people returned from Babylon there was no one surviving of those who had deposited the books.

That is a very plausible reconstruction of what actually happened – although he is thinking of the conquest by Babylon in 586 BC, not that by Rome in 70 AD.

But if we think of the chronology here, it works very well for the Genizah document, the Zadokite Fragment. The new “Scrolls” were found around 810 AD, and were much sought after by Jews and Christians alike. As far as we know, all others have now perished, although some might yet resurface. But one manuscript found its way to Cairo, presumably in the ninth century, and that is what came to light in the Genizah.

If this reconstruction is not provable, it is likely.


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