Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mormonism and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Mormonism expresses much interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This presentation will explain why. First, it must be stated that this interest has made possible the production of a noteworthy, invaluable contribution to the advancement of Dead Sea Scrolls study and scholarship, a CD-ROM known as The Dead Sea Scrolls Electronic Library. This program features actual photographs of the scrolls alongside their translation into standard Hebrew.

Prepared by the [Mormon] Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, under the editorship of [non-Mormon] Emanuel Tov. …

This third volume of the DSS CD-ROM gives a more complete coverage of all of the published non-biblical DSS materials, including scrolls identified in 2004 and 2005.

Anyone using the CD-ROM will be able to access texts, images, and reference materials quickly and efficiently. The combination of a powerful text search engine and sophisticated image-manipulating software will enable scholars and students unparalleled research possibilities.
Perhaps a future edition of this fine resource will include the biblical DSS materials.

We will now review an article from the above Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship explaining why Mormonism is attracted to the Dead Sea Scrolls. My comments are noted.

Article Review:
“Why the Scrolls Interest People of all Religions?

Around the time of Jesus, the lands of Judea and Galilee were home to a variety of Jews. One group of Jews known as the Essenes (the name in Hebrew means “Saints”) was critical of the temple in Jerusalem, believing it to be operated by an illegitimate priesthood and in need of purification.
JS: Such an etymology for “Essenes” is far from conclusive and appears to be self-serving, possibly to connect them to the Latter-day Saints by name, as other alleged similarities between them are presented below. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia gives a compelling etymology, comparing the Essenes to their “kindred sect in Egypt,” the Therapeutae mentioned by Philo. After clarifying that the final “n” in Essene “is due to the desire to render the word suitable for Greek accidence,” it states:
We may say that to us the two most likely derivations are `asiya', “doers” or 'aciya', “healers.” Our preference is for the latter, as one of the characteristics of the Essenes dwelt upon by Josephus is the fact that they were healers by means of herbs and incantations (BJ, II, viii, 6).
See also the Jewish Encyclopedia on page 224 under “Essenes,” which says, “etymology doubtful.”

They withdrew into the desert and, according to most scholars, settled at Qumran, where they collected, copied, wrote, and eventually hid the writings that later became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Seeing themselves as the only true covenant Israel, the Essenes waited on the Messiah to establish a new kingdom of God in holiness. (As a group they did not accept Jesus Christ as that Messiah.)

In A.D. 68 the Romans destroyed the community at Qumran—but not before its inhabitants concealed their scrolls, which contained important biblical manuscripts and other texts, in 11 nearby caves. In 1947 the first cache of what turned out to be a massive collection of scrolls and scroll fragments was discovered.

Several parallels naturally attract members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes known as Mormons) to the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls and to some of their teachings, even though these two religious groups are not linked with each other directly.

Like the community at Qumran, the Latter-day Saints also strive to live holy lives.
JS: Unfortunately, and quite ironically, being dishonest over the meaning of Essenes runs contrary to leading a holy life. By dishonest I mean being self-servingly selective and ignoring and not presenting other legitimate possibilities that run counter to one’s agenda.

At odds with 19th-century American culture, they were persecuted and sought sanctuary in the desert.

Further, one of the Latter-day Saints' sacred books—The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ (translated from a record that had been buried in the earth for more than a millennium)—begins with the history of a group of Jews who opposed the rulers in Jerusalem around 600 B.C. and fled into the Arabian desert.
JS: But this is only based on Mormonism’s claim that Mormonism is true, therefore this is circular reasoning.

Translated by Mormonism's founding prophet, Joseph Smith, and then published in New York in 1830, the Book of Mormon speaks of additional books prophesied to come forth in the last days to further establish God's truth. Other LDS scripture and teachings reinforce this belief in sacred books yet to be revealed.
JS: Aside from the circular reasoning of Smith being a translator and prophet, it must be known that Smith was actively expanding the Mormon canon, including his embarrassing partial translation in 1843 of the Kinderhook Plates hoax. Related to this is the Mormon belief that the lost 116 Book of Mormon manuscript pages, otherwise known as the Book of Lehi, will be restored.

Latter-day Saints believe that the Book of Mormon restores the writings of prophets who ministered among the peoples of ancient America. They also believe that the Pearl of Great Price, another book in their sacred canon, contains the writings of Abraham and portions from the book of Moses. They look forward to the coming forth of other ancient texts as well, including those authored by Adam, Enoch, and Joseph.
JS: Ironically, Joseph Smith claimed he did have the Book of Joseph, but did not translate it. This, along with the Book of Abraham, were claimed to be written on Egyptian papyri in what was later dated to the first-century CE and containing hieratic text (a later cursive version of hieroglyphics)—thus exposing the Book of Abraham as fraudulent. Aside from that, the later-day Mormon prophets have not taken the time to produce the Book of Joseph from the remaining first-century CE hieratic text. Yet, the Mormon intellectuals responsible for this website “look forward to the coming forth” of the impossible-to-produce Book of Joseph. This is incredible irony! Additionally, clearly they must be aware of the pseudepigraphic Book of Enoch also represented among the Dead Sea Scrolls. No mention of this?

It is no wonder, then, that many Latter-day Saints have developed a serious interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
JS: Actually, the existence of a manuscript trail for the Bible is devastating for Mormonism, as it totally lacks one in comparison. The only manuscript trail it has is for the Book of Abraham. But those manuscripts are of no help as the Egyptian papyri post-date both Abraham and Joseph by a ridiculous amount of time!

Like the Book of Mormon, the scrolls acquaint the world with a people lost to history—a people whose recovered writings, buried in the earth for centuries, now enables them to “speak out of the ground” and “whisper out of the dust” (Isaiah 29:4).
JS: Of course, this comparison is based on Mormon claims being true about itself, which is circular reasoning.

Although the Dead Sea Scrolls do not contain the lost records the Latter-day Saints await,
JS: Like the Lost 116 Pages/Book of Lehi.

they are of great interest to LDS scholars and others. The scrolls provide not only new information about the transmission of the Old Testament but also greater evidence for the variety of beliefs and practices within Judaism shortly before and after the time of Jesus Christ.

More generally, the Latter-day Saints view the scrolls' discovery as part of a wider pattern of increasing knowledge about the Bible lands and their people that the Lord is making available for study in this day.
JS: Thus widening the gap between Mormonism and the Bible. How ironic then that “the Lord” is responsible for making this available for study!

Also, the Dead Sea Scrolls and other manuscript finds (e.g., the Nag Hammadi library from Egypt and scrolls from ancient Herculaneum and Petra) augur well for discoveries of religious import in the near future. For the LDS faithful, such manuscript finds are a significant part of the fulfillment of prophecy, even if the finds are but prelude to greater discoveries and revelations to come.

The February 2006 Ensign Magazine
This official LDS magazine carried the article on page 44, “The Dead Sea Scrolls and Later-Day Truth.” On page 46 it displayed a popular illustration of the beardless Jew Moroni burying the golden plates in a New York State hill, with this caption:

The discovery of a copper scroll at Qumran gives significant credibility to Joseph Smith’s claim to have translated the Book of Mormon from metal plates engraved by Moroni.
(This is repeated in the text on page 47.) This copper scroll is codified as 3Q15, and is popularly known simply as “the Copper Scroll.” However, contrary to the above Mormon claim, it most certainly adds little or nothing to the credibility of Joseph Smith’s claim to have translated the Book of Mormon from engraved metal plates. Three reasons for this are:

  1. Detailed histories were never recorded on metal sheets like the alleged Book of Mormon gold plates.
  2. 3Q15 is a treasure map, and likely a fictional one at that.
  3. 3Q15 is composed of three copper sheets riveted together and rolled into a scroll, not bound into a book by rings like the alleged Mormon gold plates. (Refer to figure 1.)
Additionally, even if 3Q15 was a lengthy history, how in the world would that add “significant credibility” to Joseph Smith’s claim(s) of (1) having golden plates (2) engraved by Moroni (3) that he translated into the Book of Mormon? His claim of having golden plates is one thing that finds some similarity, but his other two related claims need to be substantiated separately.

Figure 1
A portion of the Copper Scroll 3Q15 (top) and a Mormon restoration of the alleged Mormon gold plates (bottom).
The “Gold Plates” from: “A Model of the Plates,” New Era, July 2007, 32.

Thus, we can see that this is a wildly sensational claim, and it can only hurt the credibility of the ones responsible for the production of this magazine article. Perhaps then it is not surprising that the article, while accurate in places, also falls victim to circular reasoning so typical of Mormonism. The same page (46) declares:
Joseph Smith’s experience with ancient buried records is exemplified by the coming forth of the Book of Mormon as well as the Book of Abraham.
There is actually no independent verification or substantiation for the alleged discovery of a golden archive in a hill in New York State. Secondly, the surviving papyri associated with the Book of Abraham have nothing to do with Abraham, both textually and chronologically. Yet, these two books are used in comparison with the factual, documented discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Amazing. Why is Mormonism so resistant to lucid thought? Could it be that Mormonism is a fantasy land? This conclusion, however alarming, has become inescapable.

An Alma Scroll?
From June 29, 2007 to January 6, 2008 the Natural History Museum of San Diego, California sponsored a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition. This exhibition also displayed related collections, such as the Bar Kokhba scrolls of the Second Jewish Revolt. Regarding one scroll from this later collection, there is a curious mention of Mormonism in its museum description in the last paragraph:
8. Papyrus Bar Kokhba 44—the Alma Scroll
5/6Heb 44
Scroll type: Simple deed
Date: 28 Marheshvan, Year 3 of Revolt (134 CE)
Language: Hebrew
Discovered: Cave of the Letters, Nahal Hever, 1961

This scroll demonstrates that people outside the Qumran community also hid scrolls in the mudstone caves. It is a lease agreement, which dates to 134 CE, after the destruction of the Qumran settlement by Roman soldiers. It describes a transaction for land previously owned by the government of Simeon Bar Kosiba (Bar Kokhba); leader of the second Jewish Revolt against the Romans (132-135 CE). The document mentions Bar Kokhba by name and as the “Prince of Israel,” a historical reference to his brief tenure as leader in this period.

Latter-day Saints find this scroll of particular interest, because it specifies “Alma son of Judah” as one of the people involved in the agreement on the fourth line and at the bottom of the document. This text contains the oldest known occurrence of the name “Alma” outside of the Book of Mormon.
One Mormon under the moniker “Fe2O3” explained further why the second-century “Alma Scroll” is important for them:

For over a hundred years the name Alma in the Book of Mormon has been used as “proof” that the Book was a fraud because Alma is of Latin origin and female in gender. Bar Kokhba 44 shows early semitic [sic] and male use for Alma which completely counters the argument. (July 20, 2007)
Unfortunately, it appears the Natural History Museum of San Diego was using a marketing ploy to attract Mormons to its manuscript exhibition, as the translation of “Alma” is not as secure as Mormons would like it to be. Three months after “Fe2O3” provided that explanation, the following critique of the exhibition was published:

Norman Golb
The University of Chicago
22 October 2007

(Page 17) The catalogue calls this interesting autograph deed “The ‘Alma’ Scroll,” offering the curious, but hardly scientific, explanation that it is of special interest to Mormons because one of the names mentioned in it is “Alma son of Judah,” which is “the oldest known occurrence of this name that is also found in the Book of Mormon.” While Yigael Yadin spelled the name this way in a 1962 publication, the scientific edition of the Nahal Hever papyri (Jerusalem 2002, p. 45) transcribes the term as Allima, indicating (p. 47) that while the vocalization is uncertain, the name may reflect the Aramaic term meaning “the strong one.” Indeed, the catalogue’s author used the 2002 publication for the translation of the second text (Papyrus Bar Kokhba 46, pp. 36-37), and could thus hardly have avoided noticing how the same work’s translation of the first papyrus differed from Yadin’s pioneering, but only tentative, effort of forty years earlier. Instead of the misleading no-holds-barred method by which the Mormon-Alma theme is introduced, the author could surely have found a reasonable way, particularly given the sumptuous amount of blank space, to inform readers of the difference of opinion.
Thus, the ones responsible for this Mormon-attracting description should have been more cautious and less sensational, less interested in marketing for Mormons and more interested in intellectual integrity. Therefore, Bar Kokhba 44 does not show early Semitic and male use for Alma, so the argument has not been ‘completely countered’ and in fact remains intact.

In summary, Mormonism has produced the invaluable Dead Sea Scrolls Electronic Library of the non-biblical texts. However, the article by the same institution that produced this work ignored the fact that there is no manuscript trail for Mormonism like there is for the Bible. Additionally, it has been shown that:
  1. 3Q15, while composed of text engraved on copper sheets rolled into a scroll, offers no credibility to the Mormon claim of having a lengthy history engraved on golden sheets bound by three rings.
  2. The non-DSS Papyrus Bar Kokhba 44 in fact offers only dishonest support (thus no solid support) for the historicity of the male name Alma, thus it is of no real help.
Thus, the Mormon interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls is appreciated on one hand, and ironic on the other.

(Image for An Alma Scroll? from the Book of Mormon Seminary Student Study Guide, page 115.)

See also:
Dead Sea Scrolls are Alive!