Archaeology as "Wild Magic": The Dead Sea Scrolls in Popular Fiction

By Kissinger, John | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Archaeology as "Wild Magic": The Dead Sea Scrolls in Popular Fiction


Kissinger, John, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Prior to 1947, when a Bedouin shepherd accidentally discovered the first Dead Sea scrolls, primary sources describing events of Judaea in the first century CE were limited to a small group of texts including the New Testament, Josephus, and some writings of uncertain date and parentage. These documents, especially the New Testament books, had been copied and revised, edited and recopied by subsequent generations.

The Dead Sea scrolls, original sources two millennia old, directly address a pivotal time in Western civilization's history for which we have few documents free from the intervening influences of copyists and editors.' As such, they constitute a form of "wild magic," free of editorial activities that altered other texts describing this era, since they may say things contradicting our previously available sources.

The Dead Sea scrolls should have been artifacts of interest to historians. Much of what they say sounds arcane and confused to modem readers, but they weren't written as expositions of religious beliefs for outsiders; they were internal documents meant to confirm true believers' faith. The scrolls' real significance is in their portrayal of their original readers as an historical group, how they saw themselves and the world around them .2

However, this historical importance has been undermined because the scrolls' content is religious and may be related to the birth of two major Western religions, Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. It is therefore no surprise that control, processing, and study of the Dead Sea scrolls has for decades remained firmly in the hands of theologians, and from the day of their discovery the scrolls have been jealously guarded-some would say held prisoner-by religious scholars.3

Most theologians are strongly motivated to defend their theological positions from detractors and opponents (real or imagined). There are thus few groups of scholars on the whole less qualified to objectively study the scrolls' historical significance, or to approach the scrolls from an unbiased point of view, than the very theologians who have dominated their study over the past five decades.

So when Norman Golb in American Scholar suggests an alternate view for the scrolls' origins, the scholar responding in a later issue gives the game away by complaining that Golb is a fly in the ointment of "biblical scholarship," as if the discovery of ancient documents from two-millennia past has more to do with theological consequences than with the accurate study of history. Golb points this out in his rejoinder. To read Trever's reaction to Golb's article is to peak inside the real issue upon which controversies over the scrolls have always rested: it is not a matter of historical accuracy, or archaeological integrity, or literary critique, or textual interpretation; it is rather a matter of authority, and more specifically, religious authority.4

This dichotomy between the scrolls' historical significance and theologians' self-protective stance concerning them has not been lost on the public. The popular press periodically examines the progress of scrolls scholarship---or the lack of it-with headlines like "The Dead Sea scrolls-what do they really say?" implying that they say much more than theologians are willing to admit.

These occasional reviews in magazines like Time and Newsweek never stray too far from the fold of orthodoxy, appealing as they do to the broadest spectrum of readership. This is not the case, however, for popular fiction, where novelists have found in the scrolls a releasing and freeing mechanism that will let them challenge the bounds of religious orthodoxy and authority. Such novels are rarely destined to make the bestseller lists, but are usually written in popular forms such as mystery or suspense, and their plots appeal to popular tastes.

The Dead Sea scrolls were the playground of controversy from the day they emerged from caves. …

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