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Dead Sea Scrolls Debate
Debate on scrolls rolls on
THE OREGONIAN

Scholars argue whether the "Son of God" text and others, in the Dead Sea Scrolls were Written after Christianity's rise

By NEIL ALTMAN and DAVID CROWDER

"He shall be hailed as Son of God, and they shall call him the son "of the most high" sounds like a passage from the New Testament describing Jesus Christ.

It comes, in fact, from a Dead Sea Scroll scholars say was written a generation before Christ was born.

And some scholars say it bolsters an increasingly popular theory that there was little original about the divine claims by the carpenter from Nazareth that led to his crucifixion and later became the cornerstone of Christianity itself.

But overlooked for decades is evidence that the scholars are wrong and that this little‑known document called the "Son of God" text‑-along with other Dead Sea Scrolls--could not have been written until well after the rise of Christianity.

The Son of God text contains long-ignored Hebrew vowel markings and words written in tiny letters, neither of which came into usage until centuries after 25 B.C., the year scholars estimate the Son of God text was written.

Just as important as the physical evidence attesting to the scroll's age are the ideas it contains and the way they are expressed.

Written on a piece of leather the size of a business envelope, the Aramaic verses contain language almost identical to the New Testament account of the angel Gabriel's words to Mary in the book of Luke.

Those verses also describe the coming of a divine Messiah who would be the son of God ‑ terms that some rabbis and scholars say would have been even more foreign and offensive to Jews before Christ than they are today.

Even after seeing a copy of the original Son of God text, Murray Friedman, director of Feinstein Center for American‑Jewish History at Philadelphia's Temple University, could not believe it was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Friedman, who emphasized that he is not a biblical scholar, likened the verses to Handel's "Messiah" and belted out the familiar line over the telephone to make his point, "And he shall live forever and ever."

Were the Dead Sea Scrolls written a generation before Christ was born?
Many scholars say they came along well after the rise of Christianity.

"It's unbelievable!" he said. "if this is real ... Jesus has been authenticated. If it's a B.C. document, it announces in strict, clear‑cut terms the arrival of the Messiah.  But if it's after, it's worthless.

Disagreeing with the views of established scroll scholars, Milton Fisher, a professor of Old Testament at Philadelphia Theological Seminary and former president of that institution, said he does "not think the Son of God text was written before the time of Christ."

"This is a Christian commentary on Daniel," he said, referring to a book of the Old Testament that Christians say points to Christ.

Hanoch Guy, professor of Hebrew and coordinator of Hebrew Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, agreed that "the language is absolutely Christian."

"There is no doubt that this is a Christian text," he said of the Son of God text. The Dead Sea Scrolls supposedly were written by Jewish scribes or ascetics over a period that began as early as 200 years before the birth of Christ and ended early in the first century.

Then, most scholars, believe, the scrolls were stashed in caves overlooking the Dead Sea in about 68 A.D. to protect them from Roman soldiers in the process of crushing the Jewish revolt that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem's great temple in 70 A.D.

And there in the caves, the story goes, the scrolls remained undisturbed until 1947, when an Arab shepherd boy stumbled upon a trove of ancient texts. Some were still preserved in sealed jars; others lay in pieces on the floor of Cave 1.

Questions about the origins of the scrolls and their discovery won't go away.

For Christians and Jews, the implications are as important as the Bible itself.

Despite unresolved questions about who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls and when, Bible publishers have made hundreds of changes in some recent editions of the Old Testament based on the belief that the scrolls are the oldest existing books of Scripture.

Harold Scanlin, a translator for the American Bible Society, chronicles many of the changes made so far in his 1993 book, "The Dead Sea Scrolls and Modern Translations of the Old Testament."

But support for those changes was not unanimous.

Fisher, a member of the team of translators behind the New International Version of the Bible, said he opposed using the scrolls to support certain changes made in the New International Version's Old Testament book of Isaiah.

If the case for the early dating of the scrolls goes unchallenged, there will be even more changes to the Bible, along, with a gradual acceptance among scholars of new and controversial ideas about the origins of Christianity ‑ ideas that will work their way into university classrooms and the seminaries that train priests, ministers and rabbis.

For decades, the existence of the Son of God text ‑ reportedly found in Cave 4 in 1952 ‑ was known only to a few scholars. And, until recently, its contents were disclosed only in dribbles and drabs in scholarly lectures and papers.

But in a 1993 article, the director of the Caspari Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, Torleif Elgvin, stirred interest in the text by observing that one verse contains "remarkable parallels" to a New Testament passage read in churches every Christmas for centuries.

That scroll text reads, "He shall be hailed as the Son of God, and they shall call him the son of the most high."

In the book of Luke, angel Gabriel tells Mary of her son Jesus, "He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High ... and of his kingdom there will be no end." (Luke 1, Revised Standard Version)

Preceding verses of the Son of God text, damaged in the scroll and reconstructed, read in part: "But your son shall also be great upon the Earth and all people shall make peace with him, and they shall serve him for he shall be called the Son of the great God... ."

For Dead Sea Scroll scholars, explaining the Son of God text leads to dilemmas at every turn.

There is yet another scroll that speaks of a divine deliverer and of the "sonship of the Messiah." So if these texts are pre‑Christian, then they contain prophecies that would seem to point to Jesus Christ ‑ a possibility that no scroll scholar would accept but one that other scholars, like Friedman, could hardly miss.

But if the scrolls were written later, maybe much later, than now believed, then they are not the find of the century but merely medieval documents that should not provide the basis for changes to the Bible nor pose any threat to Christianity.

The evidence in the Son of God text strongly suggests that the writer had the benefit of New Testament theology to provide him with a clear understanding of who Jesus Christ was and of the end of the world that Christ himself described.

Neil Altman is a Philadelphia based writer who specializes in the Dead Sea Scrolls. David Crowder is an investigative reporter and former editorial page editor with the El Paso (Texas) Times.

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