In 1947, near the banks of the Dead Sea, Bedouin tribesmen found seven crumbling scrolls hidden in caves since the time of Christ. By the end of 1956, archaeologists had discovered 800 scrolls in the desolate Judean wilderness near the ruins of Khirbet Qumran. In biblical times, a mysterious religious sect lived in the place twenty miles east of Jerusalem, deemed by historians to be both a monastery and a fortress. While its exact nature is uncertain, the sect is said to have been Essene, and author of the scrolls.
Yet the question of who wrote the scrolls is now a matter of fierce international debate. Renegade scholars contend the site was not home to a sect at all, but in fact, the outpost of a militant, nationalistic movement. These militants who wrote the scrolls, they say, were the early Christians.
If so, the ship of religion and Western civilization may be foundering in high seas. We, of the Judeo-Christian world, it seems, may have to take another look at who we are and where we come from. It isn’t easy though. A mysterious veil has settled over the Dead Sea, over the scrolls and their meaning, keeping them hidden still. In the meantime, tantalizing clues link them with sources found as far away as Tibet. Some of the most important texts, one fourth of the entire corpus, have only recently seen the light of day. Dominican priests, said to be fearful of their implications, kept the scrolls secret for decades, while publicly denying their relevance. And today, the scrolls remain one of the most controversial and puzzling finds of our time.
From the beginning, an atmosphere of intrigue cloaked the discovery. Early on, an agent of the newly formed CIA examined one of the manuscripts in Damascus, Syria. But any possible roll the CIA could have played in the subsequent drama remains unclear. In the political turmoil surrounding the formation of the state of Israel, it was uncertain what nation owned the texts, let alone who wrote them. The scrolls changed hands on the black market, passing from Bedouins to shady antique merchants. Years passed. As if some sinister force had cast a spell upon the discovery, the world, it seemed, had failed to realize its significance. Indeed, in 1954, an intriguing advertisement in the Wall Street Journal offered some of the genuine Dead Sea Scrolls for sale. Shortly thereafter, the already enigmatic scrolls were hidden behind another veil of secrecy, the Vatican’s.
Under the lax auspices of the Israeli Antiquities Department, which had painstakingly acquired the scrolls from black market and other sources, the Ecole Biblique et Archéologique, a Dominican body, took possession of the scrolls. While slowly translating and publishing copies of Biblical and apocryphal texts, the Ecole kept another category of manuscripts secret. Until recently, one fourth of the entire corpus—scrolls dealing with the political, cultural and mystical nature of the mysterious Qumranians—remained unpublished. Some scholars suggest that the Dominicans—in keeping the scrolls secret for so long—acted on the Vatican’s behalf, because the texts threaten beliefs about Christian origins. The suggestion, it turns out, is based on history.
In the nineteenth century, just as science was taking up the empirical method, the Vatican was assembling an institution to deal with archaeological discoveries and scientific theories pertaining to biblical history. With newfound authority, archaeologists were demonstrating the truth or falsity of religious myths—Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of ancient Troy being a notable example. As archaeologists excavated the ruins of the Temple at Jerusalem, the Vatican recognized a threat. In the old days, heretics would simply be burnt at the stake. But this was the nineteenth century, so the Vatican created an intellectual guardian of the faith, the Ecole Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem. Today the Ecole, while financed in part by the French government, is still composed largely of Dominican priests.
To deal with the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Ecole worked in semi-secrecy, forming an international team composed mostly of Dominicans. The team, after monopolizing the texts, meticulously pieced them together, translating them from Aramaic and ancient Hebrew. Secrecy notwithstanding, a few facts about the Ecole and its team are known with certainty. Their reason for being: the interpretation of archaeological evidence that pertains to Roman Catholic dogma. Their methods: refusing access to certain Dead Sea texts, and perhaps others, that deal with the pivotal period between 150 B.C. and A.D. 60. Their motive: to neutralize debate about the political, cultural and religious context of early Christianity. We know, also, that other finds, such as the Nag Hammadi Corpus, went public rather quickly compared to the Dead Sea texts.
In the press, the Ecole’s delaying tactics provoked charges of scandal. Scholars trying to gain access protested, having been refused for decades. The Ecole’s Father De Vaux promised publishing dates as early as 1970, and then, in 1989, offered 1997 as a possibility, an incredible fifty years after the initial discovery. Herschel Shanks, editor of the prestigious Biblical Archaeological Review in Washington, D.C., charged that piecing together and decoding thousands of crumbling fragments written in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic, an ancient jigsaw puzzle, was too great a task for the team. He said they would never publish the scrolls because the team was too small. Shanks, as we shall see, was right. The scrolls went public through other channels.
In the fall of 1991 everything changed. The Huntington Library in California announced, magically, that it had a set of photographs of all the Dead Sea Scrolls. Back in 1961, Elizabeth Bechtel, wife of Kenneth Bechtel of the megalithic but shadowy Bechtel Corporation, somehow acquired the photos and entrusted them to the Huntington. How Mrs. Bechtel came into their possession is unclear, perhaps through her husband’s connections with middle-eastern governments. The Ecole team and the Israeli government demanded the photos. The Israeli Antiquities Department even charged the library with theft—without legal basis since Israel had taken possession of the scrolls as a form of war bounty. Undaunted, the Huntington Library responded by offering scholars access to the photographs for a mere ten dollars. The ancient veil had parted, at least somewhat.
So, what do the scrolls actually say? Interpretations vary. But some phrases suggest the Qumranians may have had a lot to do with the early Church. What gives the scrolls weight is that the Bible, and Jesus, speak in Qumran-like phrases and cadences, using terms like zeal, liar, law, and others that renegade scholars Robert Eisenman and Michael Wise, in their book The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, associate with the mentality of the militant Zealots who challenged the Roman domination of Palestine. Moreover, Jesus’ fierce denunciations of the Pharisees imitates the tone and character of the scrolls, specifically the community council curses the Sons of Belial, as translated by Eisenman, a fierce execration of the Angel of The Pit and The Sons of Belial. John the Baptist also speaks and acts much like a zealous Qumranian. And the route to the Jordan River, where he baptized Jesus, passes very near the Qumran ruins. Jesus and his followers would at least have known of the settlement. Moreover, the gospels, the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, repeat key words and concepts from the scrolls as if the terminology and context were second nature to Jesus and the early Christians. In short, since the scrolls predate the Bible, written after A.D. 60, early Christianity may derive from the Sect at Khirbet Qumran.
So the scrolls may be as relevant to early Christianity as the Bible, though most scholars squeamishly reject this. But looking at the New Testament, the renegade scholars identify specific passages that suggest not only a connection to Qumran, but also an origin there. Some texts refer to Qumranians as Followers of the Way, using the exact phrasing found in the New Testament. The Bible in fact is rife with Qumranianisms that, when put in context, give those phrases a revolutionary meaning. Especially revealing is the use of the Hebrew ebionim, meaning the poor, found in The Hymns of the Poor. Synonyms familiar to Christians appear as well, i.e., the meek, the downtrodden.
Steven Feldman, also with the BAR in Washington, states that the common phraseology of the scrolls and the New Testament was simply that, ‘the talk of the times,’ and that linkage of Qumranians with early Christians springs from the fringe of biblical scholarship. Yet historical evidence has often contradicted Christian dogma—the beginning of creation in 4,000 B.C., for instance. If historical evidence links early Christianity with the militant Zealots, then the contradiction becomes dramatic indeed.
Ancient copies of the scrolls turned up at Masada, the Jewish fortress besieged by Rome in the first century. Jewish Zealots there apparently revered the scrolls, presumably as adherents to the Qumranian form of Judaism. Outnumbered and starving, the rebels committed mass suicide rather than succumb to Rome’s suppression of their spiritual and national identity. That some historians see Khirbet Qumran as a fortress, not a monastery, with connections to the Maccabean Revolt of the first century B.C., contradicts the long-held notion of a pacifist Essene community on the banks of the Dead Sea. With New Testament links to the scrolls, and scrolls turning up at Masada, the image of early Christians appears more akin to that of the rebels in Star Wars fighting the Darth Vader of Roman hegemony than that of meek followers of the Lamb.
Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, authors of The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, argue that a pacifistic Jesus was very unlikely. As the authors point out, Qumranian phrases flowed from his lips, sometimes word for word. Traditionally, scholars concede that at least some Zealots made up Jesus’ inner circle. The Bible itself reveals him acting in a Zealot-like way, driving the moneychangers out of the Temple. He states in the gospels: I am come not to bring peace, but a sword. In the same vein, when a cohort of Roman soldiers comes for him in Gethsemane, Peter raises his sword against them, hardly the act of a meek Christian. As revealing is the number of soldiers in a Roman cohort—six hundred. Why send six hundred soldiers except in anticipation of armed resistance? And crucifixion, remember, was the method of execution for rebels, not rabbis. These biblical events, in conflict with Christian tradition, do not conflict with the Qumran context. On the contrary, they fit.
Through gleanings from the gospels, however, and from more obscure sources that we shall explore, Jesus appears nothing less than a revolutionary, albeit a deeply mystical one, drawing on traditions from a far broader geographic and spiritual context than even the renegades of modern scholarship dare speculate. Was the master of Galilee far from Palestine, as some claim, during the time of unrest? Could he have been in India, or Tibet, and returned to political chaos? The Bible itself, specifically the letters of Paul, supplies some clues.
Woven through the poetic and mystical language, the scrolls reveal a devotion to Jewish Law that, if we are dealing with early Christianity, seems to preclude Paul’s evangelism among the Gentiles, who were strictly off limits to the supposedly xenophobic Qumranians. Unfortunately, the Bible provides little historical information about the early church. What is known has been gleaned from historians writing centuries later. Reliable accounts vanished with the fall of the Jewish Temple in A.D. 70, the burning of the library at Alexandria and, as Morton Smith has suggested, with the possible suppression of texts written by Jesus himself. The writings of the apostle Paul, however, help explain how early Christianity may have evolved from a fervent nationalistic Judaism into the spiritual movement that swept the Western world. Also, Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus may provide another piece in the puzzle—mystical communion.
After the death of Jesus, Paul traveled and preached beyond Judea and Palestine, actions inconsistent with the religious nationalism of the Qumranians, or Judaism for that matter, although his language resembles that of the scrolls. Was he a Roman agent infiltrating the Jewish rebels, co-opting the movement, as Baigent and Leigh suggest? Or was he a mystic teacher inspired by progressive revelation? Let’s look more closely at his story.
After being struck by his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul sets out for Rome, Greece and Asia Minor, spreading a new religion that extolls faith in Christ, in contrast to the scrolls, the writings of James’ Jerusalem church, which, we are told, extoll Jewish Law and works over faith. Keep in mind the New Testament did not yet exist. Christian doctrine, as we know it, did not manifest until the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. Yet Paul makes Jesus into an eastern-style avatar, like Krishna, capable of leading his followers into a divine state, a mystical promised land. He preaches joint heirship with Christ, a oneness through inner contact, the force of the Star Wars trilogy, a blend of eastern mysticism and Persian dualism that to this day, though biblical, defies orthodoxy (where spiritual parity with Christ is blasphemy). Paul speaks of an inner man of the heart much in the way the Vedas of ancient India speak of an inner spiritual identity united with Brahman, the All. The Dead Sea Scrolls also speak of this identity, suggesting ties, or at least shared knowledge, between eastern mystics and the Jews of the New and Old Testament. The fact that the scrolls resemble the Jewish mystical writings known as Kabbalah support this, as well.
Eisenman offers the following revealing translation from a Dead Sea text, called The Beatitudes for its similarity to the biblical passage of the same name. His translation reads: “Bring forth the knowledge of your inner self.” This phrase (among others in Western scripture) appears to derive from the Vedas of India, just as Jesus referring to himself as the Light of the World evokes Krishna’s language in the Bhagavad Gita. Implicit in the translation is that this self, or atman in the Sanskrit, is the identity of Brahman, or God, residing mysteriously within the individual—the Force? This teaching is not Judeo-Christian in the orthodox sense. So do the traditions of East and West have a common origin in eastern mystical experience?
Other evidence tells us that Jesus taught the initiatic mysteries, the science of immortality, like the great eastern mystics. In 1958, at a Greek Orthodox monastery in the Judean desert, Morton Smith discovered a letter written in A.D. 200 by Clement of Alexandria. The letter speaks of a secret gospel of Mark, “a more spiritual gospel,” Clement writes that it is to be “read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries.” This intriguing letter, written long before Eusebius, speaks of a secret mystical tradition without nationalistic borders. That Jesus taught and participated in this tradition is more than likely. So doing, he, in all likelihood, was no slave to regional agendas, rising beyond symbols of relative good and evil, Jew and Gentile, while fiercely opposed to spiritual evil embodied in corrupt priests.
Could it be that Paul seized the kernel of Christian and Vedic wisdom, which he attempted to bring to the Western world, and as a mystical initiate in eastern wisdom, leaving behind the rind of politics? The teachings of joint heirship and the inner man of the heart seem to do exactly that, suggesting spiritual parity with Christ, the path of oneness in the Dead Sea Scrolls, stated as: Bring forth the knowledge of your inner self. Could this be the real threat the scrolls present—spiritual freedom, individual enlightenment as opposed to subservience to orthodoxy? Going a step farther, was this pursuit of mystical oneness at the heart of early Christianity? Texts from a Tibetan monastery provide some clues.
For many years rumors have suggested that the Vatican holds exotic texts about the life of Jesus Christ, which would drastically alter traditional beliefs about Christian origins. In 1887 a Russian traveler, Dr. Nicolas Notovitch, claimed he discovered these texts in a monastery at Himis, Tibet. Returning to Russia he wrote The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, a book about Jesus’ journey eastward as a young man, his lost years. Another book by Notovitch, The Life of Saint Issa, describes Jesus studying and teaching the Vedas in India. Taking up with a caravan at an early age, the story goes, Jesus traveled the Silk Road, then to Kapilavastu, birthplace of Buddha. While in India, he fiercely denounces the Hindu priest-class, the Brahmins, in much the same way he denounces the Pharisees in Matthew’s gospel, which, as stated, resemble the tone of the Dead Sea texts. An Indian Swami, Abhedananda, published a Bengali translation of the Buddhist texts in 1929. As Elizabeth Clare Prophet recounts in The Lost Years Of Jesus, that same year, Nicholas Roerich, the painter and explorer, explored the Far East. Transcriptions from his travel diary reveal a mystical teaching on the Divine Feminine given by Jesus in India—again, similar to teachings in the scrolls, and a decidedly different view of reality than that of the Vatican.
If it seems a stretch that Jesus traveled to India, studied the Vedas, that Vatican clerics stashed away Buddhist accounts of his journey, then remember the Vatican-founded Ecole Biblique and its handling of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Consider that Thomas, the follower of Christ, journeyed to and built a mission in India, where faithful Christians worship to this day.
If Jesus spent much of his short life in India and Persia, as the texts say, far from the din of Palestine, the alleged militancy of early Christianity becomes less of an issue. On his return, Jesus would have found himself in the midst of zealotry and rebellion—which he would have, it seems likely, honored in principle. If he was God, he was also man, as the gospels point out, telling us he wept and got angry—much like the rest of us. Why should we deny him the right to be caught up in the struggle of his people?
Pieces of this puzzle scattered across time tell us there is more to early Christianity—more to ourselves—than Western tradition reveals. The battle over the nature of Christian origins rages nevertheless, like the battle over the Holy Land itself, as if the most sacred treasure—the Truth—still stands to be won or lost.