The Dead Sea Scrolls and The Da Vinci Code

Ancient manuscript of the Psalms from the Dead Sea Scrolls (courtesy: Library of Congress).

Overview of Fact and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code

In Chapter 55, Sir Leigh Teabing tells a shocked Sophie Neveu about the "real" history of the Bible, which was created by Constantine at the Council of Nicea. He says all earlier gospels that depicted Jesus as a man were burned, and these include the recently-discovered Dead Sea Scrolls.

In The Da Vinci Code

  1. "Fortunately for historians, some of the gospels that Constantine attempted to eradicate managed to survive. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the 1950s hidden in a cave near Qumran in the Judaean desert." (ch. 55)
  2. "...In addition to telling the true Grail story, these documents speak of Christ's ministry in very human terms." (ch. 55)
  3. "Of course, the Vatican, in keeping with their tradition of misinformation, tried very hard to suppress the release of these scrolls. And why wouldn't they?"
  4. "The scrolls highlight glaring historical discrepancies and fabrications, clearly confirming that the modern Bible was compiled and edited by men who possessed a political agenda - to promote the divinity of the man Jesus Christ and use His influence to solidify their own power base."
  5. "[The Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi:] The earliest Christian records. Troublingly, they do not match up with the gospels in the Bible."

In Reality

Virtually all of these claims are false, primarily because the Dead Sea Scrolls are not early Christian records. They are completely Jewish and they do not mention Jesus even once. Thus they do not "speak of Christ's ministry in very human terms," nor is it "troubling" that they don't match up with the biblical gospels.

Brown also gets his dates wrong with regard to the Dead Sea Scrolls: they were found in 1947, not the 1950s. But he is right that they were found in Qumran.

The mistake probably comes from the fact that the Dead Sea Scrolls do shed light on the historical Jesus, but indirectly. The Scrolls were written by Jews around the time of Jesus, and therefore tell us a great deal about the context in which Jesus lived and taught.

The Dead Sea Scrolls also contain the earliest copies of many Old Testament books - centuries earlier than any we had before - and they provide valuable information on an ancient Jewish sect, the Essenes.

Documents and Historical Evidence

Following is an excerpt from the Encyclopedia Britannica's entry on the Dead Sea Scrolls:

Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient, mostly Hebrew, manuscripts (of leather, papyrus, and copper) first found in 1947 on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is among the more important finds in the history of modern archaeology.

Study of the scrolls has enabled scholars to push back the date of a stabilized Hebrew Bible to no later than AD 70, to help reconstruct the history of Palestine from the 4th century BC to AD 135, and to cast new light on the emergence of Christianity and of rabbinic Judaism and on the relationship between early Christian and Jewish religious traditions.

The Dead Sea Scrolls come from various sites and date from the 3rd century BC to the 2nd century AD. The term usually refers more specifically to manuscripts found in 11 caves near the ruins of Qumran, which most scholars think was the home of the community that owned the scrolls. The relevant period of occupation of this site runs from c. 100 BC to c. AD 68, and the scrolls themselves nearly all date from the 3rd to the 1st century BC.

The 15,000 fragments (most of which are tiny) represent the remains of 800 to 900 original manuscripts. They are conventionally labeled by cave number and the first letter (or letters) of the Hebrew title—e.g., 1QM = Cave 1, Qumran, Milhamah (the Hebrew word for “war”); or 4QTest = Cave 4, Qumran, Testimonia (i.e., a collection of proof-texts). Each manuscript has also been given an individual number.

The discoveries at the various sites include a wide variety of texts, but the greatest interest remains with the sectarian writings, which can be classified as follows: (1) rules, or manuals, like the Rule of the Community, describing the dualistic doctrine, constitution, and regulations of the “Union,” as the community owning the scrolls at Qumran called itself; and the War Scroll, which tells how the “children of light” finally conquer the “children of darkness”; (2) interpretations of biblical texts, such as commentaries on Isaiah, Habakkuk, Nahum, or Psalms; or groupings of texts by topic, such as the Florilegium or the Melchizedek Fragments—all of these typically relate scriptural passages to the sect and its times; (3) liturgical texts, including the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, which focus on angelic worship in the heavenly Temple (anticipating later Jewish mystical traditions), and the Thanksgiving Hymns, which express a powerful anthropology of human depravity redeemed through divine grace; (4) collections of laws, frequently dealing with cultic purity, such as the Halakhic Letter, the Damascus Document, and the Temple Scroll; and (5) ethical tracts (e.g., several sapient works, and the Song of the Sage).

The group at Qumran has been identified with many Jewish sects of the time. Even though some scholars believe the community to have been a branch of the Sadducees or Zealots, most believe that they were Essenes. The group is believed to have fled, or been driven out, to the Judaean wilderness as a result of a dispute with the priestly leaders in Jerusalem over the sacred calendar and matters of legal interpretation. At Qumran this group not only preserved their beliefs but developed a worldview that rejected the rest of the Jewish people, espoused a highly dualistic view of the world (i.e., a world sharply divided between good and evil, light and darkness), and looked for an imminent divine judgment of the wicked. They also cultivated a communal life of extreme ritual purity, necessitated by their rejection of the Temple cult.

You can read translations of selected texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls online.

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