More Voices from the Dust

Even if it were only fiction, the story of the finding of the Qumran Manuscripts (also called the Dead Sea Scrolls and the ‘Ain Feshkha manuscripts) would be exciting reading. In a hundred journals the tale has now been repeated of how in June 1947 an Arab shepherd looking for a lost sheep came across the all-but-invisible entrance to a cave in which reposed “the first major biblical manuscripts of great antiquity” ever found—”older by more than a millennium than the Hebrew texts which are the basis of our biblical translations.”1

In the same cave with the now famous Isaiah text were found fragments of Genesis, Judges, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, the apocryphal book of Jubilees, and the extensive writings dealing with the doctrines and practices of an ancient Jewish sect that had inhabited that part of the desert in the time of Christ. Small wonder that “the little world of biblical scholarship has been turned topsy-turvy by the discoveries,” or that “the howling wilderness of Ta’amireh also has been turned upside down in consequence of the finds.”2 As a result of this feverish search, more than forty caves have now come to light, many of them containing ancient writings; for example, the first six caves opened around Qumran “have produced manuscript material representing an original collection of some four hundred to five hundred works that included all of the Old Testament books, numerous apocrypha, both known and unknown, and sectarian documents of all kinds.”3 From another group of caves nearby, two of which are described as nothing less than “mighty caverns,” even richer treasures came forth in 1952. The now famous Cave IV at Qumran has yielded three hundred fragments of writings, some of which are thought to go back to the fourth century B.C. As a result of these finds “we now have larger or smaller fragments of every book of the Old Testament except Esther, most of the known Apocrypha, and many new ones.”4

Thanks to this material, the conventional ideals of Christian and Jewish religion are even now undergoing major revisions. We are told, for example, that “one conclusion is difficult to avoid: John, so far from being the creation of Hellenistic Christianity, has exceedingly close ties with sectarian Judaism, and may prove to be the most ‘Jewish’ of the Gospels.” 5 At the same time we learn that the all-but-discredited Septuagint is really a very ancient and reliable text, “a literal and faithful translation of its Hebrew predecessor.”6 As to church history, “All the problems relative to primitive Christianity—problems examined for so many centuries—all these problems henceforth find themselves placed in a new light, which forces us to reconsider them completely.”7

The texts are packed with matter of greatest interest to Latter-day Saints. The people who wrote and hid these records had our own conception of continued revelation, of this life as a probation, of the preexistence and resurrection, of the dispensations of the gospel with falling away and restoration; their covenants and ordinances closely resemble ours; and their book of doctrine and covenants (now called the Manual of Discipline) is surprisingly like our own, as are their ideas of priesthood, prophecy, heaven and earth, marriage and eternal progeny, and so on. To go through the scrolls illustrating these things point by point would require a whole book. Here one significant illustration must suffice.

Speaking of the Qumran manuscripts, Time magazine recently reported:

     The most startling disclosure of the Essene documents so far published is that the sect possessed, years before Christ, a terminology and practice that have always been considered uniquely Christian. The Essenes practiced baptism and shared a liturgical repast of bread and wine presided over by a priest. They believed in redemption and in the immortality of the soul. Their most important leader was . . . a Messianic prophet-priest blessed with divine revelation. . . . Many phrases, symbols, and precepts similar to those in Essene literature are used in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospel of John and the Pauline Epistles.8

This was not only a “startling disclosure” but also a very disturbing one. Many Jewish and Christian scholars heaped scorn on the scrolls years after their discovery, or even refused to consider them at all, calling them a hoax, a “conglomeration of words . . . written by an uneducated Jew in the Middle Ages,” “a garbage collection,” and whatnot, 9 for a Dupont-Sommer pointed out from the first, if the scrolls are genuine, then the scholars have been wrong all along in their conception of Christianity and Judaism. Worst of all is the maddening habit these writings have of “jumping the gun” on the New Testament. The Gospel of John, for example, “employs the vocabulary characteristic of the DSD,” that is, the Manual of Discipline, written years before the gospel.10 Much of this literature is biblical, and yet it is not biblical: thus “the hymns in the collection are reminiscent of the latest biblical psalms, and more especially the psalm in the prologue of Luke. They draw heavily on the Psalter and Prophetic poetry for inspiration, and borrow direct phrases, cliches, and style. However, neither in language, spirit, or theology are they biblical.”11 That is to say, they are not “biblical” in the sense that modern critics use the word, though they were obviously believed by their authors to be completely biblical. Either those ancients did not understand the Bible, or else the moderns don’t. Yet Dr. Brownlee is willing to concede that their rendering of the scriptures “greatly enriches and improves upon the original form [sic],” and that “it will no doubt receive considerable use on the part of both ministers and rabbis who become familiar with it.”12

Forced to accept the proofs that something like a New Testament church was in full bloom before New Testament times, Mr. G. L. Harding, who has been a most active figure in the discovery and preservation of the scrolls, can only conclude that John the Baptist and even Christ must have acquired much of what they taught in the bosom of the Qumran community itself: “John the Baptist . . . must have studied and worked in this building [the main assembly hall of the sect, near the Qumran caves]: he undoubtedly derived the idea of ritual immersion or baptism from them. Many authorities consider that Christ himself also studied with them for some time. . . . These, then, are the very walls He looked upon, the corridors and rooms through which He wandered and in which He sat, brought to light once again after nearly 1900 years.”13

Now with the discovery and admission of the existence of typical New Testament expressions, doctrines, and ordinances well before the time of Christ, the one effective argument against the Book of Mormon collapses. 14 Within the past year a distinguished European scholar has written an ambitious study on the Book of Mormon, in which he praises it as the most significant work or historiography to appear in America, but at the same time denounces it as a fraud and forgery, stating as his proof that “the character of the forgery is made clear by the revamping of biblical accounts and expressions, especially in the founding of the Church, baptism, and sacrament as accompanying the appearance of Christ in America.”15 That is exactly what was held against the scrolls when they first appeared and almost up to the present moment: they were accused, like the Book of Mormon, of being nothing but a phony rehash of the Bible, with a new slant on particulars and a totally incongruous setting. And had not the evidence continued to pour forth, year after year and cave after cave (“discoveries tread on the heels of discoveries,” says Mr. Cross), the learned could never have been persuaded to admit that the documents were anything but clumsy forgeries.

Dr. Cross, eager to allay the misgivings that must inevitably follow the overthrow of accepted ideas of Church history and doctrine, explains the resemblance between the Christian and pre-Christian churches as traceable to a common tradition: both “draw on common resources of language, common theological themes and concepts, and share common religious institutions.” 16 But this common tradition was not that of conventional Judaism, let alone Hellenistic philosophy; it was the ancient tradition of the righteous few who flee to the desert with their wives and children to prepare for the coming of the Lord and escape persecution at the hands of the official religion. Qumran seems to have been the camping-place of such holy fugitives as early as the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., that is, as early as the days of Lehi.17 The Book of Mormon clearly states that its people consider themselves to be in this particular and peculiar line of Israelite tradition.18 The discoveries at and near Qumran now prove not only that such people existed, but also that they produced a peculiar type of literature, and it is to the Book of Mormon that one may turn for some of the most perfect examples of that literature. And so the voices whispering out of the dust on the shores of the Dead Sea may yet provide some of the most powerful confirmation of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.


*   “More Voices from the Dust” appeared in the Instructor (March 1956), pp. 71—72, 74.

1. Cross, Frank Moore, “The Manuscripts of the Dead Sea Caves,” The Biblical Archeologist 17, 1 (February 1954): 3. The fullest general description of the finding of the scrolls is still Harold Henry Rowley, The Zadokite Fragments and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Oxford University Press, 1952).

2. Cross, p. 4.

3. Fritsch, Charles Theodore, “Herod the Great and the Qumran Community,” Journal of Biblical Literature 74 (September 1955): 174.

4. Harding, G. Lankester, “Where Christ Himself May Have Studied: An Essene Monastery at Khirbet Qumran,” Illustrated London News 227 (September 3, 1955): 379.

5. Cross, p. 3.

6. Cross, p. 18. It should be noted that the Inspired Version of the Bible as we have it from Joseph Smith greatly favors the Septuagint.

7. Dupont-Sommer, A., The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Preliminary Report (New York: Macmillan, 1952), p. 100. Time has vindicated this verdict, which Dupont-Sommer has repeated in his latest work. (See Time, “Dead Sea Jewels” [September 5, 1955], p. 34.)

8. Courtesy Time; copyright Time, Inc., 1955.

9. Nibley, Hugh W., “New Approaches to Book of Mormon Study,” Improvement Era (March 1954), pp. 148ff.

10. Brownlee, William H., “A Comparison of the Covenanters of the Dead Sea Scrolls with Pre-Christian Jewish Sects,” The Biblical Archeologist 14, 3 (September 1951): 58.

11. Cross, p. 3; compare Brownlee, “Biblical Interpretation among the Sectaries of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” The Biblical Archeologist 14, 3 (September 1951): 58.

12. Brownlee, ibid., p. 60.

13. Harding.

14. We pointed this out in 1954 (note 9 above), but the recent admissions of such authorities as Cross, Brownlee, and Harding now lend real force to the argument.

15. Meinhold, Peter, “Die Anfänge des Amerikanischen Geschichtsbewusstseins,” Saeculum 5 (1954): 86.

16. Cross, “The Scrolls and the New Testament,” The Christian Century 72 (August 1955): 971.

17. Kelso, James L., “The Archaeology of Qumran,” Journal of Biblical Literature 74 (September 1955): 145. “The roots of the Sect undoubtedly do go back to the pre-Maccabean Hasidim,” according to Fritsch, ibid., p. 177.

18. Nibley, Improvement Era (May 1954), pp. 326—30.