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Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh's
The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception
Simon & Schuster, 1993

Reviewed by Robert M. Price




This publication in paperback represents an updating of the 1991 hardcover edition. It takes account of the furor over the scholarly monopoly of the Scrolls and how it was finally broken, essentially adding a final chapter to the investigative history of the Scrolls and Scrolls research provided by the original book. This revisionist history takes up the bulk of the book. Baigent and Leigh provide a clear and fast-paced account of the discovery of the Scrolls and the establishment of the International Team, as well as that body's scholarly consensus on the Scrolls, the origins, provenance and meaning, opinions and conjectures which rapidly became critical orthodoxy. We have heard this story too often in nearly every book devoted to the Scrolls, but this time around the tale is anything but stale. The authors/reporters have gone behind the scenes in order to show in fulsome detail how the shocking arrogance and dog-in-the-manger stubbornness of Strugnell and his cohorts during the ruckus immediately preceding the release of the Scrolls had been standard operating procedure all along.

                Most scholarly and journalistic commentators, in wake of the final "War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness" that issued in the Scrolls going public, chalked up the four-decade delay to scholarly pomposity and vanity, assuming that Strugnell and the rest had simply wanted to have the last word before anyone else could put in their first word on the texts. This would have been scandal enough. But Baigent and Leigh go on to do a disconcertingly plausible job of reviving the old village atheist suspicions that the real reason for the delay was ecclesiastical/theological suppression of evidence deemed dangerous for the credibility of Christian orthodoxy. In an age of ecumenical sensitivity, this is a charge that many will not even wish to entertain. But the fact remains that the International Team that so long sequestered the Scrolls and controlled their interpretation were all Roman Catholics, most on the payroll of the Ecole Biblique. Was it an accident that this tight-knit group propagated a reading of the Scrolls in convenient accord with the "maximal conservative" (James Barr), not to say apologetical, stance of the Ecole?

We might dismiss such a charge as an instance of the circumstantial ad hominem fallacy except that the Maccabean Sitz-im-Leben posited for the Scrolls, making them and their authors definitely pre-Christian, is now seen to have been the flimsiest house of numismatic, archaeological, and paleographical cards. G.R. Driver and Cecil Roth had long since pointed out sufficient internal evidence to overturn the Maccabean-era dating, but Roland de Vaux and his team were always able to hide behind their supposedly secure paleographical and numismatic evidence. Now all that has been exposed by Norman Golb, Robert Eisenman and others.

And as Baigent and Leigh tell it, it is a tale of academic high adventure. Were Father de Vaux and his brethren simply unwilling to lose face by backing away from early and ill-considered theories? Or were they engaged in apologetics? Did they fear that placing the Qumran materials in close proximity to the New Testament period would lead to a dangerous intertextual infection? Would early Christianity and the Scrolls sect be seen to be too similar, Christianity revealed as what Renan made it, a successful Essenism? Or something still closer, too close for comfort?

Yet even this exercise of the hermeneutic of suspicion will strike many readers as tame compared with the concluding third of the book in which the authors seek to popularize the controversial theories of Eisenman on the origin and character of the Scrolls, as well as the principal players in the drama for which they are the fragmentary script. Baigent and Leigh are not aliens to the far regions of Christian Origins theorizing. In earlier books including Holy Blood, Holy Grail (a book saluted, though rejected, by Schonfield in The Essene Odyssey), Baigent and Leigh argue that Jesus not only survived the cross but married Mary Magdalene and begat a line of descent traceable through the order of the Knights Templar and surviving in France to this day. No mention of these views is made in the present book, something for which Eisenman is no doubt grateful. But his own reconstruction of Christian Origins, as well as of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is scarcely less controversial. It is to be hoped that scholars will form their opinions of the Eisenman hypothesis from a careful reading of his own important books Maccabees, Zadokites, Christians and Qumran (Leiden: Brill, 1983) and James the Just in the Habakkuk Pesher (Leiden: Brill, 1986).

Briefly, Eisenman argues that the Dead Sea Scrolls are the literary product of Jewish Torah-Christianity led by James the Just. His theory proposes a radical Tübingen-style opposition between this faction and a syncretistic Hellenized Christianity with Paul in the role of the Second Founder of Christianity. (Baur's thesis is currently receiving long-overdue reconsideration by Gerd Lüdemann and others, so readers inured to the apologetical dismissals of Ward Gasque and other strange bedfellows of Harnack should not be too quick to write off Eisenman for this alone.) Like Schonfield and other scholars, Eisenman notes the fact that the Scrolls sect and the church chronicled by Luke both regard themselves as "followers of the Way." Both are said to have practiced some form of community of goods. Both were governed by a group of twelve and an inner group of three. Schonfield reasoned that these similarities implied the outgrowth of Christianity from Essenism as a mutation of the latter, since otherwise it would be difficult to account for the mushroom-like growth of the institutional framework of the early church. Instead, the Christians simply continued sectarian patterns to which they had been long accustomed. But Eisenman's inference is a bit different: the Christian church was not just the same sort of thing as the Scrolls sect, it was precisely the same thing. The Teacher of Righteousness was none other than James the Righteous.

Two questions arise at this point. If the Qumran Scrolls were written by some species of Christians, why is there no mention of Jesus anywhere in the published material (even in that recently published and edited by Eisenman himself)? One may counter that it is precisely that Epistle attributed to James in the New Testament canon which makes the most glancing and marginal references to Jesus. And suppose it is Jesus who is intended under the rubric "the Messiah of Israel" in the Scrolls. The other question raised and implicitly answered by Eisenman's theory is one that scholars should have asked more frequently before now: given the apparent importance of Essenes for the New Testament context, a basic postulate of post-Qumran scholarship, why is this sect never mentioned in the New Testament? The implied answer: "they" are never mentioned simply because "they" are in fact "we," the writers of the New Testament! And one only employs categories for those who are not among one's group.

Eisenman shrewdly points out that the two Scrolls villains, the Liar and the Wicked Priest, are never identified with each other, and indeed they cannot be references to the same person, since the Liar is said to be a betrayer and defector from within the group, while the Wicked Priest is the enemy without. Eisenman's candidate for the Liar is Paul who repudiated the Law for which James and his Covenanters were zealots. Like the Tübingen School, Eisenman sees the Pseudo-Clementine literature as the refuge of important stray traditions which furnish clues to the relations between the parties of the early Christian movement. And there the James-Paul enmity, which Luke papers over but which peeps out between the paragraphs in Galatians, is on plain display.

The Wicked Priest is Annas, he who authorized his minion Saul to seek out Christians in "Damascus." Noting that the High Priest's authority would not have reached so far as the literal Damascus, Eisenman's theory makes Saul's destination the cipher-Damascus of Qumran itself. (By contrast, Schonfield takes Saul's Damascus literally but still makes it an Essene refuge. And this enables him to clear up a different problem, namely how the city of Damascus could already have a functioning Christian congregation so early? The answer is that it was already an Essene outpost and that the Christian group was simply an outgrowth of it.) One naturally fears the force of scholarly inertia that has so much in common with the ecclesiastical dictum that novelty is the mark of falsehood. For many no doubt the very comprehensiveness and boldness of Eisenman's thesis will disqualify it. There is always resistance to new paradigms. We have all painstakingly put together our own cherished packages of theories and critical opinions, and we do not relish having to shake loose all the evidence and start all over again. It remains to be seen whether Eisenman's proposed reconstruction will prompt such dreaded expenditures, and whether Baigent and Leigh's particular representation of his theory will help or hinder the process.



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