The Reason God Tested Abraham

And other revelations from a half century of Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship.

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In 1947, the year that a Bedouin shepherd stumbled upon a stash of ancient jars while exploring a rocky cave in the Judean desert, Emanuel Tov was 5 years old and living in the Netherlands. The desert find proved to be monumental: Hidden inside the jars were hundreds of brittle manuscripts, including some of the earliest known texts of the Bible and other early Jewish writings. By the time Tov was 10, the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls had found their way into the hands of biblical scholars, who began the painstaking task of reconstructing and deciphering the documents--some of which had disintegrated into fragments the size of a dime. The work was agonizingly slow, and as the scholars labored, Tov grew up, went to college, and became a Bible professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Now, at 55, he has become the leader of the scholarly team still toiling to complete the task. "It has been a long and arduous process," says Tov, "but we are near the end." In late July, Tov and other biblical scholars from around the world will gather in Jerusalem to commemorate a half century of scroll research. In the 50 years since their discovery near the desert ruins of Qumran, the scrolls have fascinated and amazed but also stirred frustration and controversy. They reveal a Bible much more unsettled, a Judaism much more diverse, and a fledgling Christianity much more Jewish than anyone previously had imagined. The glacial pace of publication has infuriated many scholars, who for years were excluded from examining the scrolls--a task reserved for a small cadre of experts. The delays even triggered speculation that the scrolls contained explosive material that might topple Christianity. But suspicion dissipated as the documents slowly made their way to public view. The logjam broke in 1991, when a California library released photographic images of the remaining unpublished fragments. Since then, research and publication have accelerated. Roughly 80 percent of the scrolls' content has now been published by Oxford University Press in an official series, Discoveries in the Judean Desert. Tov says the final volumes may be completed by the year 2000. Biblical potpourri. The Qumran cache consists of scrolls or fragments from 800 different documents written between about 200 B.C. and A.D. 50. About 127 of them are biblical texts, including the oldest known versions of the Old Testament minus the book of Esther. The remainder are biblical commentaries, prayers, prophecies, hymns, and sectarian rules of conduct and worship. On the whole, says Eugene Ulrich, a University of Notre Dame professor and editor of the biblical texts, the scrolls show that the Hebrew Bible "has been amazingly accurately preserved" through centuries of hand-copying. One scroll that contains a major portion of the book of Isaiah, for example, shows only 13 minor variations from the modern version. Yet among the multiple copies of some biblical texts discovered at Qumran, scholars have found that "variant literary editions" of the Bible existed side by side. That, says Ulrich, suggests that at the time there was in Judaism no single "authorized" version. The sacred texts, he theorizes, were updated occasionally with new theological ideas or to explain changing historical circumstances. Only later, when doctrinal debates arose between Christians and Jews, did religious leaders settle on preferred editions of the Hebrew Bible. Roughly half the Old Testament texts at Qumran contain passages that do not appear in modern translations, or they omit passages that appear in later texts. Some variations are startling. Among them: A new collection of Psalms containing nine compositions not included in the traditional Bible. The texts claim King David as their author. One declares that David wrote the book "through prophecy given him by the Most High." Most scholars doubt that David actually wrote the unfamiliar Psalms. Even so, says Ulrich, it is likely the collection was accepted as a biblical book by its readers 2,000 years ago. A new passage in the book of 1 Samuel that may help explain the "missing prophecy" referred to in the Nativity story that appears in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew cites five ancient prophecies that he says were fulfilled by the birth of Jesus. Four of those appear in the traditional Hebrew Bible. The fifth prophecy--that the messiah "will be called a Nazorean"--does not. "It is clear," says Ulrich, "that Matthew was reading an edition of the biblical prophets that we don't have." The location of that prophecy remains a mystery. But Ulrich says a passage in the Qumran version of 1 Samuel contains language that "is startlingly close." A new version of the book of Joshua that portrays the invading Israelites building an altar to the Lord immediately after crossing the Jordan River at Gilgal. In the traditional Bible, the Israelites erect the altar far to the north on Mount Ebal and then inexplicably abandon it and return to the south. Scroll scholars now think the traditional passage may have been edited. The Qumran version, says Ulrich, "makes much more sense" and is corroborated by the Jewish historian Josephus. A provocative rewrite of the story of Abraham's near sacrifice of his son Isaac. In the traditional Bible, God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. At the last second, an angel stays Abraham's knife and points to a ram trapped in a thicket as a substitute sacrifice. The biblical tale, says James VanderKam, a scroll editor and professor at the University of Notre Dame, has always posed a difficult theological question: How could God tempt Abraham to slay his son? The Qumran text, says VanderKam, attempts to "soften the blow of God's action" by introducing a Satan figure, called Mastemah or "prince of malevolence," who goads God into the test. God thus does not originate the evil but merely countenances it and permits Abraham to prove his faithfulness. Mystery authors. Some corrections based on the Qumran texts already have been incorporated into the latest editions of the Bible. But other issues still divide scholars. One is the nature and identity of the people who wrote the documents and hid them from Roman invaders in the caves near Qumran. The strongest theory is still that the scrolls belonged to a zealous sect of ascetic Jews known as Essenes, who withdrew to the desert to await an apocalyptic messiah. But some scholars now think the scrolls may have been transported from Jerusalem shortly before the Roman invasion. If that is true, says Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, the diversity of views contained in the scrolls suggests that "mainstream Judaism" of the era "was much more pluralistic" than scholars previously had thought. While no Christian writings were discovered in the Qumran caves, the scrolls have shed important new light on the religious milieu that gave rise to Christianity. Some texts contain themes and images that closely parallel those in the New Testament. References in some fragments to the "Son of God," the "Son of the Most High," and to the spiritual dichotomy between the powers of darkness and light, for example, indicate that those ideas--long thought to be of Christian or even Greek origin--were present in Judaism before Christianity arrived on the scene. "Early Christianity, we learn, was not a hybrid of Judaism and Hellenism," write authors Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, and Edward Cook in The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation. "It was rooted in the native soil of Palestine." After a half century of study, that may prove to be the most important finding of Emanuel Tov and his colleagues. The scrolls of Qumran are a powerful reminder of the shared heritage of these two faiths.