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UNDERSTANDING THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS

Edited by Hershel Shanks

Random House -- 336pp -- $23

The characters could come from an Indiana Jones tale: Bedouin shepherds, Arab antiquities dealers, an Israeli archaeologist-soldier, a U.S. TV evangelist, mysterious Catholic clerics--all vying for a cache of scrolls that could unlock the secrets of Western religion. One text may hold coded instructions to a hidden treasure. The documents are worth millions. But this is no fable. It's the saga of this century's great archaeological find, the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Editor Hershel Shanks makes sure the controversies about these ancient fragments are presented in scholarly context. But it's still a riveting tale, from the discovery of the first scrolls at Qumran in 1947 to the final push in 1991 to make unpublished texts available. (The official team of scholars had been releasing them at an excruciatingly--some have said unconscionably--slow pace.) Shanks then introduces each of 19 short, readable articles by a dozen experts.

In one fascinating article, Yigael Yadin explains how early Christianity may have adopted certain customs--including baptism, celibacy, even Sunday worship--from the Essenes, an ancient Jewish sect believed by many to be the scrolls' originators. The scrolls thus deepen our sense of an inextricable link between the two religions. Moreover, as Yadin writes, they bring the Essenes' apocalyptic Judaism--and the birth of Christianity--"into immediate focus across a barrier of two thousand years."

In the book's final section, Shanks returns to the controversies about the scrolls, cutting down to size some of the wilder theories, such as the notion that the Vatican tried to suppress the scrolls. The book makes clear that the unpublished texts contain no bombshells. And while the reader may sometimes wish for a unified view of the scrolls, instead of a dozen only partly convergent ones, this diversity sharpens one's sense of how difficult it is to interpret this pivotal slice of history. Even the most dispassionate scholars must grapple not only with the distance of time, but with their personal views of eternity.JOE MANDEL


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