Did Muslims save Christianity?

Mohammed edh-Dhib and his Ta’amireh tribe certainly changed the Bible forever

There he is, on the right. A bit camera shy? Worried, maybe, at having become one of the most famous people of the 20th century. He was the shepherd boy who found the Dead Sea Scrolls. I was thinking over his life: a Bedouin, from a Muslim community, who finds a trove of ancient Jewish scriptures that change how Christians read the Bible.

A Palestinian Arab shepherd who—to Western people—seemed to go by the name Mohammed edh-Dhib. I just finished writing a scholarly paper on him, to be published this fall. In scrolls’ histories he has just been a minor player, but I wasn’t sure.

Someone had to notice what hadn’t been noticed before. Someone had to go into the dark.

I found another photo of him, or a man identified as him, uncited by any later scholar, in a 1974 archaeological report. This would be about twelve years after the previous photo.

He had continued working in scroll excavation. He seems to holds out, here, a bit of scroll.

I like his somewhat shadowy face. His knowing expression. His eyes, now, carefully trained on the subject, as if he’s looking at you.

Then note the standard photo of the shepherd typically used to document him for historical purposes. It’s from a 1965 book. Is that the same man, on the right?

I don’t think so.

In my paper I laid out the case that the “man on the right” in the second photo was an imposter, interviewed in order to assert a different date for the find—he said it happened in late 1946, when the man in the first photo said it was 1945. (In the world of the scrolls, where the state got to claim found antiquities, such details could shift the perceived ownership.)

But I would like to dwell on a religious, or spiritual idea. The scrolls were found because of Muslim people. The shepherd and his tribe of Ta’amireh Bedouins were primarily responsible for unearthing the scrolls.

The scrolls are often said to have ‘revolutionized’ biblical studies. The revolution is ongoing.

The scrolls propose very different readings and interpretations of the Bible, as have not really filtered down yet to the rank-and-file Christians, who often don’t even know they’re there.

But, looking back, I do think the shepherd, and then his tribe, saved Christianity. And maybe—that was a divine suggestion.

Maybe we’re here to get along.

Rank and file Christians don’t really study the scrolls. A church Bible study would never be about them. The Temple Scroll. The War Scroll.

Do the Dead Sea Scrolls illuminate Christianity? They obviously do.

In Matthew 5:34, Jesus cites a teaching he says is a reference his audience has heard before: “Love your neighbor, hate your enemy” — but the reference has never been known.

Magen Broshi notes that the Dead Sea Scroll known as the Community Rule is prefaced with: “and in order to love all that He has chosen and to hate all that He has rejected…”

An expanded discussion of ‘hate’ appears later in the same scroll:

These are the norms of the way for the Master in these times with respect to his love and his hate. Eternal hatred against the men of the pit in the spirits of concealment. (1QS 9.21–23)

It then seems Jesus’ followers were familial with Qumran teachings, and understood him to be revising them. The ‘hatred’, by the way, is not to human beings, but to spirits.

The Scrolls suggest: Maybe spirits are the bad actors. Maybe humans are loved.

Christians haven’t even dealt with the clear that that the scrolls have different readings of many biblical passages. Try Deuteronomy 8:6 in the KJV:

“Therefore thou shalt keep the commandments of the LORD thy God, to walk in his ways, and to fear him.”

Here is 4QDeut 8:6: “Therefore keep the commandments of the Lord your God, by walking in his ways and by loving him.”

The change is small. The word “love” changed into “fear.” Some ‘new’ readings from the scrolls have been adopted into new translations, but not that one.

Here is the KJV of Isaiah 53:11, which Christians read as a prophesy of Jesus: “He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied . . .”

Here is the text from the scroll the shepherd carried out of the cave: “Out of the suffering of his soul he will see light, and find satisfaction.”

A different text. We are still working on all the implications. But the text suddenly seems alive. You have to look at every part. You realize the tradition isn’t able to explain it all.

You must go into the text for yourself.

In that, the shepherd his people would be a powerful guide.

The scholar Frank Moore Cross reflected on the period after the first cave discovery: “They ranged the sterile wastes of the Judaean desert, peering into caves, scratching in their floors, oblivious to passing months, patient and undiscouraged by persistent failure.”

John Allegro remembers them in his 1956 book, The Dead Sea Scrolls:

Nobody in the world knows that desolate area like these people, and it is certain that if it had not been for them the Dead Sea Scrolls would still have remained undiscovered. If the prices are high, the work is tedious and back-breaking in the extreme, and certainly no member of the expedition who scaled the cliffs and combed the hundreds of caves, sifting the dust between their finger-tips for days on end, in a stifling atmosphere which is just indescribable, would begrudge the Ta’amireh a penny of their gains.

In the archaeologist Paul W. Lapp’s 1974 summary report on the 1962 excavations is a description of the caves.

The pungent smell of excrement still lingers in Dead Sea Scroll caves cleared over a decade ago. It is so loosely packed that a foot plunges two to three feet into it before stopping. Each footstep raises clouds of fine dust which soon obscures the faint torchlight in the cave.

I realized that, if God needed people who would go into the dark holes where the scrolls were buried, He had only one choice.

The archaeologist Roland de Vaux remembers them in the caves: “these crouched black figures in a cloud of dust around these little lamps that lit up the underground night like stars.”

Muhammed edh-Dhib has never been presented as a man who noticed the unexpected. He is not understood as the one person who saw something, and acted on it in a way that no one ever had. He clearly saw the value of the scrolls as manuscripts.

Scholars have often been eager to strip him of significance. The word ‘stumbled’ is regularly used to describe the discovery. It happened by ‘accident’ almost always, often by ‘coincidence’.

There’s pretty good suggestion, actually, that the Bedouin had known about the cave previously. For them, caves were the homes to jinn spirits. They didn’t really go in them. But they probably knew about it.

But he went in. He wasn’t afraid of the dark.

If God, for example, wanted the documents to come to light, then He worked through Muhammed edh-Dhib. Could God work through all people? That is not always a Christian thought.

Scholars of the Scrolls often tell a story about the shepherd that is intended to diminish his involvement and even his cognition. They say he hadn’t realized the scrolls were manuscripts, so took them to a cobbler and tried to make shoes out of them.

This has no real evidence in support, and was rebutted back in the early 1960s, with regular reminders by secular archaeologists that it reads as racist.

That didn’t seem to stop anybody.

The actual facts of the shepherd’s life are so interesting. He had been to school—a Christian school.

He was an orphan. That fact lay buried in scholarly sources, never cited before. He may have left school only because his father or parents died.

And then the cave was there.

Géza Vermès, a scholar of the scrolls, recalls hearing of their discovery as “a sign of an impending mutual understanding between Jews and Arabs and the rest of the world.”

He’d later regard this as naiveté. Was it? I started to think the Bedouin were more Christian than the Christians were. They talk to everybody. They deal with everybody, or do in Scrolls’ histories.

In one important scene, edh-Dhib and two other shepherds go to the Syrian monastery in Jerusalem with all the scrolls in hand. They have an appointment, but the presiding cleric is away at lunch. A monk who receives them is repulsed by the “rough-looking Bedouins,” and by the condition of the scrolls, especially the smell (often described as corpse-like). The shepherds are sent away, without coffee! A gesture received as startlingly rude.

So Edh-dhib, instead, heads over to a Muslim dealer who sells his two scrolls to a Jew — the professor E.L. Sukenik of the Hebrew University. But even this gesture comes with a bit of a bite.

Sukenik takes them home and reads, for the first time in two millennia, the War Scroll (1QM) — as the state of Israel is being created, and fighting breaking out with Arab neighbors. He relates to the New York Times: “I was thrilled with it,” he says. “Because there outside the modern sons of Ammon from Transjordan were fighting against the people of Israel. I gave the scrolls a title, ‘The battle between the sons of light and darkness.’”

Sukenik might have noted some of those “sons of darkness” had located the scrolls, and offered them to him, while treating him, as he notes, with painstaking courtesy.

Is anything chance or ‘accident’? Freud and I don’t think so. But for many Christian scholars, I found, the discovery was understood in those terms. That would never be, however, a Muslim teaching.

“The Qur’anic universe works with full purpose, harmony, divine guidance, and providence,” as Mustafa Ruzgar says. The perspective is one of “order, purpose, and denial of chance.”

Talk of chance would not seem to be Christian either. “In Christian history,” Josh Reeves notes, “the outcome of seemingly unpredictable events was often seen as a vehicle of divine revelation and therefore sacred.”

I had the interesting idea, all along, that it was all supposed to happen this way. That’s it’s all a big effort to get humans to notice the small things—the unnoticed detail, that changes everything.

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