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September 25, 2009

Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Géza Vermes visits with ULM students

Géza Vermes – one of the first scholars to examine the Dead Sea Scrolls after their discovery in 1947 – spoke Wednesday evening, Sept. 23, with a master’s level history class focused on biblical lands at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.

Vermes authored the standard translation into English of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls have been called the "greatest manuscript discovery of modern times" and represent some of the only known surviving copies of Biblical documents made before 100 BCE.

Vermes said that several remarkable features have distinguished the Dead Sea Scrolls since their discovery, not the least of which is how well preserved the ancient texts were at the time.

In fact, since their removal from the caves in which they were found, the texts have deteriorated significantly in spite of technological advances to try and preserve them, according to Vermes.

“They were in better shape back then, than they are now,” he said.

The scrolls, which consists of more than 900 manuscripts founds in 11 caves under sea level in Pakistan, offered fresh material as well as the whole of the early Hebrew Bible, said Vermes. Fragments of every Biblical book except Esther have been found, as well as many other non-Biblical texts, he said.

Vermes said the scrolls highlighted two contradictions among religious scholars. One is that the biblical texts are, if not identical, then very similar to the substance of so-called traditional texts. On the other hand, said Vermes, “There are plenty of variations.”

Vermes said that these variations upended deeply held views among religious authorities asserting a particular version of Bible represented the correct one, because that version was the inspired word of God.

Nor did the Dead Sea Scrolls answer the question about which books are definitively considered Holy Scripture, according to Vermes. However, three books of the Old Testament are notable for the number of copies of each that was found in the caves: The Book of Psalms, Deuteronomy and Isaiah.

“Now, if you look at these three books and you go to the New Testament and try to find which of the Old Testament books are most frequently quoted, then once more you have the same books,” he said.

Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls actually appeared for sale in the Wall Street Journal, said Vermes. The attempt was to sell the manuscripts to an educational or religious institution for about one million dollars; the texts were eventually purchased for $250,000 and returned to Jerusalem.

Vermes said about 60 percent of the Dead Sea Scrolls represent what later became the Hebrew Bible, and 20 percent are a peculiar Dead Sea Scroll form of the spelling, language and grammar of Hebrew, appearing in both biblical and non-biblical texts.

Interestingly, some of the texts were written in Greek – the language of the early Christians – and five percent represented what became the Greek Bible.

Vermes’ visit to ULM is supported through the generosity of Linda Noe Laine.

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