Religious questions: Was there a Dead Sea Scrolls conspiracy?

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Question: Explain why the Dead Sea scrolls were highly dismissed by the Catholic Church. Is it because they suggest an actual church is not necessary to be a Christian?

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a crucial document in understanding the roots of Christianity and the religion's connection with Judaism. The scrolls, discovered in the 1940s in the Qumran caves of what is now the West Bank, are not Christian documents. Instead, they detail the culture and work of Jews around 700 years between the third century B.C. to the first century A.D.

Almost since their discovery, the scrolls have been a been a flashpoint for conspiracy.

When they were discovered, the scrolls represented the earliest known religious texts. They were written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and the nearly 1,000 texts were in pieces after centuries of decay. In the 1950s, a small research team began piecing together the scraps, a task that would take years, before they could begin translating.

Much of this time-consuming work was done in private by a small group of scholars, which expanded the timeline. There was never a cover-up, said Molly Zahn, University of Kansas associate professor of religious studies.

"It really did take 40 years until the mid-1990s before most of those were available to other scholars in the general public," Zahn said. "That gave rise to all these conspiracy theories, like, 'Is the Vatican suppressing them because they destroy Christianity?' I always tell people, unfortunately, the story is much more boring. Scholars are slow and don't like to share."

However, before the scrolls were made public, books such as "The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception" and "Jesus & the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls" were published, claiming a cover-up by the Catholic Church or other religiously motivated people. Such conspiracy theories have been widely and numerously discredited.

The number of ancient texts discovered and the questions the documents could answer, paired with the slow reveal of what they contained, made the perfect combination for perceived conspiracy, said Lawrence Schiffman, New York University professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies.

"It seems pretty obvious that you can't ask for a better medium to grow cultures of conspiracy theories," Schiffman said. "... We have to realize that religious texts and religious issues are always fodder for people with conspiracy theories and people who have prejudices. So it's like the 'Da Vinci Code' in reality instead of understanding that it's a novel."

The Dead Sea Scrolls conspiracies were undermined when the scrolls were made public, including being shown at the Vatican, and translations were published, mostly since the 1990s. Also, the scrolls deal entirely with ancient Judaism before and after the Christian church formed. The scrolls do not mention Jesus or John the Baptist, Zahn said.

Schiffman said he has yet to read anything in the scrolls that threatens anyone's religious beliefs.

The conspiracies have at times overshadowed the value the scrolls offered to understanding religious history. The scrolls fill in important gaps in historical and cultural understanding in ancient Judaism and the start of Christianity before the New Testament was written, Schiffman said.

Before the scrolls, little was known about that time period apart from an unemotional historical timeline, Schiffman said. For religious scholars, it was like trying to understand the American Civil War with a short timeline of events and none of the literature, art or philosophy from the Civil War era, he said.

The scrolls are a kind of library of various writings, including versions of books in the Hebrew Bible, and detail different various thoughts in Judaism at the time.

The timing of the scrolls' discovery, on the heels of World War II, showed the many connections between Judaism and Christianity at a moment in history when some Christian churches were promoting anti-Semitism, Schiffman said. The scrolls are foundational for Christian support of Judaism.

Zahn said the scrolls show how Christianity would later adopt ideas that were present in ancient Judaism, such as the "coming of the kingdom." Early Christians would combine several of these themes present in Judaism, Zahn said.

Some of the scrolls contain differing versions of books that are in the Bible, while others are nearly identical to modern translations. The variations show how early versions of the Hebrew Bible were being created, Zahn said.

"It's pretty clear that ancient Jews, at least some of them, they had different views on what books were holy and what books counted as scripture," she said. "This idea that what a community sees as scripture is evolved and it's subject to what different groups think at different times and what groups find meaningful. You can't just see the Bible as dropped out of the sky at one particular point if you take seriously the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls."

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Find him on Twitter at @News4Mass.