Scholar speaks on Dead Sea Scrolls at Wellesley parish

WELLESLEY — Australian Old Testament scholar Father Brian Boyle delivered a talk on the dramatic discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946 in the Judean desert, at St. Paul parish hall in Wellesley on Nov. 27. The visiting scholar is a former professor of Old Testament Studies at Notre Dame University in Perth, Australia and spent October and November in Biblical research at Boston College while staying at St. Paul. He is a member of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and now teaches at a seminary in Melbourne, Australia.

Father Boyle called the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls “the most important Biblical discovery since Christ left the earth.” About 900 scrolls were discovered in 11 caves above the Dead Sea close to an ancient ascetic community named Qumran. Father Boyle also called their discovery “a gift of the Holy Spirit.”

One day in 1946, a Bedouin shepherd boy noticed that one of his goats had wandered off. He threw a rock at the ridge above him in hopes of scaring the goat back to the flock but instead heard the sound of breaking pottery. Investigating, he discovered a cave containing clay pots with parchment and copper scrolls inside the pots. For several years, their great importance lay unknown while the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem cared for them. Then, an Old Testament scholar realized their authenticity and immense value. A thorough excavation of the entire area took place and about 230 Old Testament scrolls and 670 non-Biblical scrolls relating to the religious life of the Qumran community were discovered.

Father Boyle said that until “the outstandingly important” discoveries at Qumran, our oldest copy of the Old Testament was dated 1009 A.D. Now we have Old Testament manuscripts written 200 years before the birth of Jesus Christ; 1200 years earlier than our previously oldest manuscripts.

The oldest copy at Qumran is from the Book of Genesis; written two centuries before Christ. Many other Old Testament manuscripts were written a century before Christ. Father Boyle stated that “the Old Testament manuscripts found were almost identical to the Bible... The discovery at Qumran did not change the canon of Scripture.”

Mainly fragments of books from the Old Testament were discovered, but Father Boyle revealed that 11 chapters of the Book of Job were found, along with the entire Book of Isaiah wrapped in a purple cloth and closed in a clay pot. It was written 150 years before the birth of Christ. Because these Old Testament manuscripts are 1100 -1200 years older than any previous copies of the Old Testament, they are now regarded as “the litmus test of canonicity of Scripture,” said Father Boyle.

The non-Biblical scrolls along with research revealed that the Qumran community was composed of about 80 males, celibate, peace loving, and a break-off from the high priests tradition at Jerusalem. “They regarded the high priests in Jerusalem as illegitimate,” said Father Boyle. About 170 years before the birth of Christ the community was established at the northwest corner of the Dead Sea near Jerusalem, and it lasted until 70 A.D. when destroyed by Roman legions on their march to the southern end of the Dead Sea to destroy the fortress of Masada.

Father Boyle explained that the Qumran community did not edit any of the Old Testament books but “meticulously and scrupulously” copied them handing them down from generation to generation. The most copied Old Testament book was the Book of Psalms. Next was the Book of Deuteronomy, third the Book of Isaiah and fourth the Book of Genesis. The more copies found of one particular book, the more the community valued that book, he explained.

The scrolls are written in Aramaic and Hebrew with a “close parallel between the teachings of Christ and the Qumran religious community teachings,” said Father Boyle. But there is no mention of Jesus or John the Baptist in the Qumran scrolls and Father Boyle does not believe either ever lived at Qumran; though both Christ and John the Baptist might have been aware of Qumran during their lifetimes and St. Paul certainly was, he stated.

The vast majority of scrolls have been translated and published and ownership has passed from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to the State of Israel, and they are now kept at the Museum of Israel in Jerusalem. Father Boyle related that he was able to see the 2,150 year-old Book of Isaiah while visiting Jerusalem in 1982, but currently only photocopies are shown to the public for security reasons. Yet thanks to their priceless discovery, “we are gaining a better understanding of the formation and transmission of books of the Old Testament as well as the formation of the canon of Scripture.”