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'Dead Sea Scrolls' Live On In Debate And Discovery

A part of the Isaiah Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is seen inside the vault of the Shrine of the Book building at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (Getty Images)

The Dead Sea Scrolls are the ancient manuscripts dating back to the time of Jesus that were found between 1947 and 1956 in caves by the Dead Sea. Since they were first discovered, they have been a source of fascination and debate over what they can teach — and have taught — about Judeo-Christian history. In his new book, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography, Yale professor John J. Collins tells the story of the scrolls, their discovery and the controversies surrounding the scholarship of them.

The scrolls appear to have been hidden in the desert near Qumran in the West Bank by a Jewish sect known as the Essenes that existed around the time of Jesus. The Essenes were an extreme sect of Judaism and, Collins tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "if they existed nowadays, we would regard them as a fundamentalist cult."

Collins, who was raised Catholic, is particularly interested in what the scrolls tell us about the history of Christianity.

"I've been interested in Messianism," he says. "What kind of Messiah were people expecting? What do the scrolls tell us about that? ... Why does a movement decide to go off and live in the wilderness and — some of them at least — not marry and have all their possessions in common? What's the kind of thinking that goes into that?"

The fact that the Essenes appear to have been fundamentalists, however, does not mean that the Dead Sea Scrolls don't offer insight into life more broadly speaking during that period.

The prophets criticize the temple and the king and the use of tradition and just about everything else in sight, and they do so with the vehemence that the Vatican has never dreamt of. There isn't a prophet in the Old Testament who wouldn't be excommunicated if he were a member of the contemporary Catholic Church for the sheer vehemence of their criticism of the tradition.

"Nobody can be an extremist all the time," says Collins, "and so if you have a collection of writings held by this extremist group, there will still be an awful lot of stuff in that other people would have shared. They had the same Scriptures as everybody else. They observed the same festivals as everybody else, even if they observed them at a different day."


Interview Highlights

On what his study of apocalyptic writing has taught him about human fears and wishes

"In any apocalyptic situation ... there is a perceived lack — that the people who write this kind of thing and believe this kind of thing believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world. Now, sometimes, they may just be right and then other times other people around them may not think there's anything wrong with the world. ... In the present-day situation in North America, I think a lot of people who have this kind of apocalyptic mindset actually are quite prosperous and doing quite well, but they feel their beliefs are not respected in the larger society, and I think there's a kind of resentment that goes into that, and then the desire to be vindicated."

On what kind of Messiah people who collected the Dead Sea Scrolls expected

"Most people wanted a big, strong warrior who would drive out the Romans, who would smash heads. So if you look at this then from the viewpoint of the New Testament, the question is: Why would anybody have thought that Jesus of Nazareth fit that description? And actually, I think that bothered his followers, too, and if you read through the New Testament, the answer they come up with eventually is, 'Well, he wasn't first time 'round, but when he comes back, watch out.' And in the Book of Revelation, you know, Jesus comes as a warrior with a sword coming out of his mouth to strike down the wicked, and that's kind of the classic view of the Messiah at the time."

On his how his scholarship has affected his relationship with his own Catholicism and the current church

"I wouldn't say it's brought me closer to the church. It's made me feel independent of the church, I guess is the way I would put it. I think I have a deep attachment to the Catholic Church the same way I do to my native country. ... It's part of my identity, but at the same time, at the moment, I'm pretty alienated from the current Catholic leadership because they're very narrow-minded, and they are not good moral guides, and they have not been for the last 40 years or so."

On the long view of religion his scholarship has given him

"One of the things — especially if you study the Old Testament — one of the things that it gives you is freedom to criticize your religious tradition. ... One of the classes I'm teaching at the moment, we're going through the prophets, and the prophets criticize the temple and the king and the use of tradition and just about everything else in sight, and they do so with the vehemence that the Vatican has never dreamt of. There isn't a prophet in the Old Testament who wouldn't be excommunicated if he were a member of the contemporary Catholic Church for the sheer vehemence of their criticism of the tradition."

On being asked for Aramaic translations by Mel Gibson for his film The Passion of the Christ

"Just after I moved to Yale, I went into my office one day and picked up the phone, and the voice — that was a recorded message — [said], 'Mr. Collins, this is Mel Gibson. I'm looking for somebody to translate some material into Aramaic. You were recommended to me by Father Fitzmeyer.' I actually asked to see a copy of the manuscript, and he sent it to me, and I read it until I encountered a talking snake, and at that point, I decided I do not want to be associated with this. But I think the actual Aramaic that was produced was quite good. ... That was the least of the problems of the movie."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered after World War II, they became a treasure for scholars studying the era just before, during and after the life of Jesus, and the subject of acrimonious debate. There's still a lot we don't know about who wrote them and why they were hidden in caves near the Red Sea.

My guest, John J. Collins, is the author of the new book "The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography." That's part of a Princeton University Press series called "Lives of Great Religious Books." Collins is a professor of Old Testament criticism and interpretation at Yale.

The scrolls are believed to have been written by the Jewish sect the Essenes. They separated themselves from the world and largely practiced celibacy, leading some scholars to see them as a group foreshadowing Christian monasteries. They wrote of a teacher who has some similarities to Christ. The scrolls also contain apocalyptic writing and offer insights into what this community was expecting from the Messiah they believed was coming.

John J. Collins, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the basics: What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

JOHN J. COLLINS: The Dead Sea Scrolls are a cache of manuscripts found near the Dead Sea, near a place called Qumran, between the years 1947 and 1956. They're mostly in Hebrew, some of them in Aramaic and a few in Greek. They date from approximately 200 BCE, before the common era, to probably 68 AD, which would have - was the time when Qumran was destroyed.

And the reason they caused something of a sensation is that we really didn't have any Hebrew manuscripts from the land of Israel, from the time of Jesus, before these were found. So suddenly, we had this huge collection of perhaps 800 manuscripts.

GROSS: I think probably a lot of people knew this - I did not - that although these are ancient Hebrew texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jews weren't allowed on the original editorial team that got initial access to the texts and that were able to be the original interpreters of these texts. Would you explain why Jews weren't allowed on the team?

COLLINS: Well, the timing of the discovery was perhaps unfortunate, but certainly dramatic. It was right at the time of the declaration of the state of Israel. All the scrolls of the initial batch - but that was only seven scrolls from Cave 1 - actually ended up in Jewish hands, and you can see them today in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, which was a museum that was built specially for them. And so Jewish scholars worked on those. But then after the division of Palestine, Qumran and the rest of the scrolls were in Jordan, and that is why no Jews were allowed to work on them.

GROSS: Because they were in Jordan?

COLLINS: Because they were in Jordan. I mean, no Jews were allowed to be on the official editorial team and were not allowed to see the original manuscripts, except for the seven that had been acquired by Israelis.

GROSS: And was this because of the Jordanian government, in protest over the creation of the state of Israel?

COLLINS: It was a political decision, yes. Now, of course, Jewish scholars could work on anything that was published, but they weren't in on the inside level, so to speak, at that point.

GROSS: Right. So you mentioned the original scrolls were in Israel, but there were, like, how many caves over the years were discovered?

COLLINS: Over the years, 11, I guess, eventually.

GROSS: Right. So the majority of the documents were not in that first finding.

COLLINS: That's right.

GROSS: So how did it affect interpretation to not have any Jews on the original panel that was interpreting the scrolls? Were there Muslims on the panel, or was it just Christians?

COLLINS: Oh, no. They were all Christians or lapsed Christians.

(LAUGHTER)

COLLINS: So there were several Catholic priests. There were a couple of relatively pious Protestants, and then there was one flagrant atheist, a man named John Allegro, who had been brought up Methodist, I think, in England, and had kicked all that over, and he kind of became the bad boy who was trying to stir things up.

But to answer your question how did it affect interpretation, actually, very conspicuously. Because if you read what was published on the scrolls in the 1950s, a lot of it is about the scrolls and the New Testament, because this is what Christian scholars found interesting and engaging.

And so you had a lot written on messiahs. You had a lot written on the nature of the community at Qumran that had collected, presumably, these scrolls. And it was an interesting phenomenon in itself, because they had common possessions, and there were some similarities to what you read in the New Testament. And those got all the attention for perhaps 20 years. And then after the 1967 war, the scrolls came under Israeli control.

GROSS: Were the angles that the Jewish scholars were looking for different from what the Christian scholars had been looking for?

COLLINS: By and large, yes. Jewish scholars tend to be interested in what these scrolls have in common with rabbinic literature. Now...

GROSS: What do you mean when you say rabbinic literature?

COLLINS: By rabbinic literature, I mean the Mishnah and the Talmud and the Midrash. Now, this is literature that dates - in the form that we have it - from 200 AD or later - so, significantly later than the Dead Sea Scrolls. But it was always thought to be based on oral traditions, and so it's a big question how far that literature was representative of what was going on back around the turn of the era.

GROSS: So, a lot of the writings represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls seem to reflect the thought of a Jewish sect known as the Essenes. Who were they?

COLLINS: The most elaborate descriptions are in Josephus. And he describes a sect that is much like a religious order, where people had to go through a process of initiation that took three years, and then lived a somewhat monastic life. But he also mentions at the end of his account that some of them married, because they thought that if they didn't, the human race would die out.

And so, evidently, there were some Essenes who married, but the ones who caught the attention of the Greek and Roman world were the people who didn't, because they were the oddity.

GROSS: So we were talking earlier about how when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in a series of caves near the Dead Sea - and these are scrolls dating back to before the time of Jesus - only Christians were allowed to be on the original team reading and interpreting these ancient texts because most of the documents were in Jordan, and this was right at the time - and shortly thereafter - the creation of the state of Israel, and the Jordanian government didn't want Jews on the panel. So the interpretations were from a very Christian point of view.

And in this initial panel, the scholars were finding a lot of parallels between a character in the Dead Sea Scrolls described as the Teacher and Jesus. What were some of the parallels, and who was the Teacher? Do we know who the Teacher was?

COLLINS: The Teacher is mentioned in one of these texts called the Damascus Document. They say that in the origin of this movement, they were wandering like blind men until God raised up for them a "Teacher of Righteousness" or a righteous teacher, to guide them in the way of his heart.

And he was the person - allegedly, then - who explained to them how the law should be interpreted, and his words were from the mouth of God, as they put it. And they also refer to him in some of their biblical commentaries, and it is apparently that he was in conflict with a man that they called the wicked priest, who was presumably a high priest of the day.

And it seems from one of the biblical commentaries that the wicked priest tried to kill the Teacher. It does not really seem to most people that he succeeded in doing so. Now, we don't have a name for the Teacher. We don't really have any biographical details beyond what I just mentioned.

So the analogies made with Jesus have been, on the whole, on the sensational side. Already, within a couple of years of the publication of the first scrolls, a French scholar named Dupont-Sommer gave a lecture in which he argued that the wicked priest had indeed put the Teacher to death, and that his followers thought that he would rise from the dead and were awaiting him.

Now, this was picked up some years later by John Allegro, who was the bad boy, the one atheist on the editorial team. And he really played it up as if - he said, for example, if the Teacher had been crucified, and that the disciples took down his broken body and stood guard over it, waiting for a second coming. Now...

GROSS: What you're saying is he basically fashioned it into the story of Jesus.

COLLINS: He did, exactly, and this caused a huge storm of protest. The other editors wrote a letter to the London Times saying they found nothing of the sort in the scrolls. And Allegro subsequently became discredited because he published a book called "The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross," in which he argued that Christianity originated as a cult based on hallucinogenic mushrooms. And at that point, people figured he was gone off the deep end.

GROSS: The Vatican must have loved that.

(LAUGHTER)

COLLINS: They probably did.

GROSS: So how do you interpret the historical importance of the person who became known as the Teacher in the Dead Sea Scrolls?

COLLINS: His historical importance was he started this movement, and it was a movement that lasted for perhaps 200 years.

GROSS: The movement - is that the Essenes that you're talking about, that movement?

COLLINS: The Essenes, yes. So he was the founder, if you like, or at least, you know, the person who had the most influence on one of the major divisions of Judaism. Now, he didn't have as much historical importance as he might have had, because they disappeared after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. We really don't know what happened to them, but they seem to have been scattered and did not continue as an organization.

And so he had no influence at all, you might say, between 68 AD and 1947 or '48. And then, when he comes to light again, you realize there were characters like this, teachers who had following, and he was one of the more successful ones in his time.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Collins, and he's the author of the new book, "The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography." And it's a part of a series of books called "Lives of Great Religious Books." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Collins, and he's a professor of Old Testament criticism and interpretation at Yale and author of the new book "The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography."

I could see why Christian scholars who were originally on the panel interpreting the Dead Sea Scrolls would make all these comparisons between the Dead Sea Scrolls and Christianity and between, say, the Teacher and Christ because, you know, the Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, practiced celibacy, a kind of monasticism.

You know, you said there's, like, a three-year period of initiation. So you could say it's kind of a prototype for the monastic priesthood. And then there's this Teacher character, and you could say, well, that's a character, you know, similar in some ways to Jesus. And that was really one of the initial interpretations, right?

COLLINS: That's right.

GROSS: And so when Jewish scholars came on, did they see the Teacher completely differently, and did they see the Essenes differently, looking at a more Jewish interpretation, looking at Jewish history?

COLLINS: You know, if somebody had been asked, say, in 1960 what was the importance of the Teacher, they would probably have put it in terms of how he founded this movement that was a lot like the early church, where people shared their possessions, and at least some of them were celibate, and they tried to live a life of holiness, much like later monasticism.

But then it wasn't only the increased involvement of the Jewish scholars, but also some of the other material that came to light. And one of the big turning points in the study of the scrolls was in 1984, when a scroll that's called 4QMMT - or, it means "some of the works of the law" - was presented at a conference in Jerusalem.

And this scroll actually says pretty explicitly why it was that this group separated from other Jews. Now that all had to do with minute points of purity and interpretation of the law relating to purity. There was a long section also on the religious calendar.

Now this is a kind of material that, by and large, doesn't interest Christians at all. My favorite illustration is the purity of liquid streams: If you pour water from one cup into another, but the second cup is dirty, does the impurity travel upstream?

Now, I'd say, you know, most Christians find their eyes glazing over when you get into a debate about that sort of thing. And it was only when Jewish scholars were brought into the process that they realized the importance of this text.

GROSS: I've got to stop you here, because, like, what is the importance of whether the second cup of water can dirty water going upstream? It seems very arcane, yeah.

COLLINS: Yes, it is very arcane. But if you're obsessed with purity, and your greatest fear in life is becoming impure or being at a stage of impurity, then you worry about this sort of thing.

GROSS: Does this also fit, in some way, say, with the laws of eating kosher?

COLLINS: It does, absolutely. The whole point of the laws of eating kosher is that certain things are unclean. But the kosher laws are also a way of kind of creating a barrier between observant Jews and people who are not. And now the people at Qumran or in the Essenes were people who wanted to build a thick wall between themselves and nonobservant people, you know, to lessen the danger of impurity rubbing off.

GROSS: It sounds like they maybe wanted to build a wall between themselves and other Jews, too.

COLLINS: Very much so. Actually, it's primarily between themselves and other Jews that they're concerned with. The only time they talk about Gentiles are when they talk about what they call the Kittim, which was their name for the Romans. And they are just, you know, the enemy, sons of darkness to be destroyed in the final battle. But they don't really interact with them on a daily basis.

Their real raison d'etre was their quarrel with other Jews, that there were plenty of Jews who weren't concerned about whether impurity travels upstream.

GROSS: You describe the Essenes as extremists.

COLLINS: Yes, absolutely. If they existed nowadays, we would regard them as a fundamentalist cult. That may not be the best selling point, perhaps, for the study of them.

(LAUGHTER)

COLLINS: But they really are a very interesting phenomenon. You know, fundamentalist cults are still with us.

GROSS: In essence, by studying the Dead Sea Scrolls, what you're getting, you know, if you see them as fundamentalist extremists, what you're getting is a view of extremism in ancient times, as opposed to a view of what, you know, average life was like.

COLLINS: Well, that's true, in a sense, except that nobody can be an extremist all the time. And so if you have a collection of writings...

GROSS: Is that true?

(LAUGHTER)

COLLINS: ...you know, held by this extremist group, there would still be an awful lot of stuff in that that other people would have shared.

GROSS: Right.

COLLINS: They had the same scriptures as everybody else. They observed the same festivals as everybody else, even if they observed them on a different day or something like that. So, you know, besides the distinctive, extreme aspects of it, there is also, like, the main body of the scrolls would come out of what we'd call common Judaism.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So there is relevance to...

COLLINS: Oh, absolutely. Yes.

GROSS: ...you know, mainstream or common Judaism from these scrolls.

COLLINS: Yes, because, you know, even the extreme points are things that you also find in common Judaism, but carried to an extreme. You know, common Judaism was very much concerned with purity. One of the trademarks...

GROSS: Even ritual baths for women who were finished menstruating.

COLLINS: The ritual baths, yeah. And also in the century before the turn of the era, there was a great increase in the number of stone vessels, and stone vessels presumably would be expensive, but, you know, they weren't permeable. So they were less prone to becoming impure. These - in fact, the rise in frequency of these ritual baths and stone vessels are the distinctive things that happened in Judaism, or that you find in archaeology about Judaism in the first century before the turn of the era.

GROSS: Those stone vessels, actually, sounds like a brilliant way of dealing with microorganisms many, many, many, many years before we know what microorganisms were.

COLLINS: Yes. Well, actually, one of my sons is a scientist, and he heard me talk about this purity of liquid streams in a lecture one time. And he said, you know, I worry about that sort of thing all the time. But, of course, it was a different rationale.

(BREAK)

GROSS: One of the scrolls, which is known as the War Scroll, you describe it as a manual for an apocalyptic battle between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. So would you describe this apocalyptic scroll?

COLLINS: Well, now, when I say apocalyptic, I think most people outside of the field of biblical scholarship would associate this with the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. And one of the key elements in that is the idea of a big, final battle, Armageddon, which is how it's referred to in Revelation.

Now, in the War Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls, this is given a twist, because in this case, the opposing forces are Sons of Light and Sons of Darkness, and they are evenly matched. And the distinctive thing about it is that God - when God created the world, he actually separated humanity into two camps, Sons of Light and Sons of Darkness. And now, according to this War Scroll, at the end of days, you will have a battle in which the Sons of Light are led by the Archangel Michael, and the Sons of Darkness are led by Belial, which is their name for Satan.

And it's - Michael wins the first round, Belial wins the second round, back and forth like this for six rounds, and then God intervenes and destroys Belial in the seventh round.

Now, what were human beings to do in this - the human contingent of the Sons of Darkness? Well, first thing is they must be very careful to be pure, because if they're not pure, the angels can't come to help them. The angels can't be in their congregation. So not only do they have no women in sight, but also, they have no young boys. And then when they're assigning tasks...

GROSS: Wait. Wait. What do the young boys have to do with defeating evil and with opening the door to purity and to the angels?

COLLINS: They are occasions of sin, would be the way we would put this in Catholic tradition.

GROSS: Oh.

COLLINS: Don't want to be too explicit about it, but, you know, I guess they would've been occasions of sexual sin. And for that reason, they don't have them.

GROSS: So the young boys aren't there for the same reason that women aren't there.

COLLINS: That women are - exactly.

GROSS: OK. So, getting back to this apocalyptic book...

COLLINS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...the people who wrote it and the people who studied it believed that the end of days was near.

COLLINS: Yes.

GROSS: And...

COLLINS: And that belief runs to...

GROSS: ...did this predict the end of days, that the end of days would be this final battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, with God intervening on the side of good?

COLLINS: Yeah. Now, the book of the Bible that comes closest - or actually tries to predict a time of the end is the book of Daniel. And one of the ways that Daniel does this is by interpreting an older prophecy by Jeremiah that Jerusalem would be desolate for 70 years. And in the book of Daniel, an angel says, actually, that's 70 weeks of years, or 490 years. And this number, this calculation has fascinated people. Even just a year or more, a little more ago, a man named Harold Camping was still using that to calculate the end of the world.

Now, it seems that in the lifetime of the Teacher, there was expectation that the end, you know, the final showdown was coming. And they say in some - in one of the documents, that it will be about 40 years after the death of the Teacher. And then we have some texts - biblical commentaries - from the middle of the 1st century BC that say: Why is the end being delayed? And that gives the sense that they thought the time should be up. Now, they never said it'll be on the 21st of August in such-and-such a year. It's about 40 years. So they had some leeway in that. And when it didn't happen, well, they seemed to have gotten over it, but they still thought it would surely happen soon.

GROSS: One of the areas of specialization that you've undertaken is apocalyptic thinking and apocalyptic writing. And since apocalyptic thinking seems to have always been a part of at least the biblical era, and is certainly a part of present-day thinking in some religious circles, I wonder if you have thought a lot about why there is this persistent apocalyptic strain, what it says about human beings and their fears or wishes.

COLLINS: Well, it articulates fears and wishes. Exactly. The classic apocalyptic writings come from the times at the end of the Old Testament and through the New Testament period. The book of Revelation would be one of the classic examples. The book of Daniel would be another.

Now, in both of these cases, they're looking - it's generally now believed, I think, that at the time when the book of Revelation was written, there wasn't any acute persecution going on. But the person who wrote it, John of Patmos, thought that, you know, Roman rule was simply unacceptable, that it was idolatrous, that it was an insult to God, so to speak, and it couldn't be allowed to go on.

And he also probably realized that he didn't have any power to do anything about it. But what people do in a situation like that is that then they project things onto a cosmic plane. And if I don't have the power to overthrow an unacceptable situation, God surely does, and so God will surely intervene. And then you get speculation as to: When will God intervene to do this?

But I think that in any apocalyptic situation like that, there is a perceived lack, that the people who write this kind of thing and believe this kind of thing feel that there's something fundamentally wrong with the world. Now, you know, sometimes they may just be right, and then other times, you know, other people around them may not think there's anything wrong with the world. People may think it's going fine.

In the present-day situation in North America, I think a lot of people who have this kind of apocalyptic mindset actually are quite prosperous and doing quite well, but they feel that their beliefs are not respected in the larger society. And I think there's a kind of resentment that goes into that, and then the desire to be vindicated.

(BREAK)

GROSS: Now, you are the former president of the Catholic Biblical Association. So you talked earlier about how Christians interpret the Dead Sea Scrolls one way and Jewish scholars are, you know, on the whole, looking for different information from it. There's different questions that they're asking. So, as a former president of the Catholic Biblical Association, do you have a specific set of questions that you bring to the Dead Sea Scrolls?

COLLINS: The questions that have interested me, I guess, are classically Christian questions. You know, I've been interested in messianism. What kind of messiah were people expecting? What do the scrolls tell us about that?

And also, then, I've been interested in the sociology of the movement. You know, why does a movement decide to go off and live in the wilderness and - some of them at least - not marry and have all their possessions in common? What's the kind of thinking that goes into that? And then also, some of the wisdom material in the scrolls, just their teaching, you know, what they consider to be good behavior and the like. So I'd say those are the kinds of questions that have mostly concerned me.

GROSS: What did you learn from the scrolls about what kind of messiah people were expecting?

COLLINS: What I learned there was that most people wanted a big, strong warrior who would drive out the Romans, who would smash heads.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. A kind of action hero.

(LAUGHTER)

COLLINS: And, you know, if you look at this, then, from the viewpoint of the New Testament, the question is: Why would anybody have thought that Jesus of Nazareth fit that description? And actually, I think that bothered his followers, too.

And if you read through the New Testament, the answer they come up with eventually is, well, he wasn't first time 'round, but when he comes back, watch out. And in the book of Revelation, you know, Jesus comes as a warrior with a sword coming out of his mouth to strike down the wicked.

And that's kind of the classic view of the Messiah at the time. The Messiah was primarily the person who would clear the way so that then you could have the proper worship and you could have the proper teaching, but, you know, you've got to clear the way first. So that's, I think, what most people were expecting. And I think, actually, that goes some way to explaining why so many Jews did not think Jesus fit the bill.

GROSS: Oh, because he was so nonviolent and...

COLLINS: Yeah. And, you know, he got crucified. He didn't...

GROSS: Right.

COLLINS: He didn't drive out anybody. You know, later on, about 100 years after Jesus, there was a rebellion against Rome led by a man named Bar Kokhba, who apparently was the big, strong militant kind of messiah. And he gave it a shot but, of course, he failed. And for that reason, he was more or less discredited in Jewish tradition as a failed messiah. And I think that's the way a lot of Jews would have looked at Jesus, too. And the way his followers solved that was to say: But he'll come back, and the second time he'll get it right.

GROSS: That's really interesting. So if you don't mind my asking: Are you an observant Catholic, or more of - just a scholar of the Bible?

COLLINS: I am a Catholic. You know, I've always been a Catholic. It's part of my identity. I have not been excommunicated.

(LAUGHTER)

COLLINS: But as far as my thinking goes, I'm a scholar.

GROSS: Right.

COLLINS: So, you know, my - what I personally believe and so forth, that's determined by my scholarship. I don't give much thought to church doctrines.

GROSS: So has scholarship brought you any closer to or further from the church?

COLLINS: Well, I wouldn't say it's brought me closer to the church. It's made me feel independent of the church, I guess is the way I would put it. Now, I - you know, I think I have a deep attachment to the Catholic Church, because it's - the same way as I do to my native country. You know, it's where I grew up...

GROSS: Which is Ireland.

COLLINS: It's - indeed. Yes.

GROSS: Yes.

COLLINS: So it's part of my identity. But at the same time, you know, at the moment, I'm pretty alienated from the current Catholic leadership.

GROSS: Because?

COLLINS: Because they're very narrow-minded and they, you know, they are not good moral guides, and they have not been for the last 40 years or so.

GROSS: I guess studying all the Biblical literature can give you the long view.

(LAUGHTER)

COLLINS: That it does. And, actually, one of the things - especially if you study the Old Testament - one of the things that it gives you is freedom to criticize your religious tradition.

GROSS: Why does it give you that freedom?

COLLINS: Because I've been - one of the classes I'm teaching at the moment, we're going through the prophets. And, you know, the prophets criticize the temple and the king and the use of tradition, and just about everything else in sight. And they do so with a vehemence that the Vatican has never dreamt of. You know, there isn't a prophet in the Old Testament who wouldn't be excommunicated if he were a member of the contemporary Catholic Church, for the sheer vehemence of their criticism of the tradition.

GROSS: Well, in the remaining minute that we have, any final thoughts you'd like to share with us about the Dead Sea Scrolls?

COLLINS: You know, the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls from the viewpoint of somebody interested, say, in either Christianity or Judaism is they fill in context. They're not going to give anybody a magic bullet. You know, you're not going to find a text that says, that explains what Jesus was, or any other question like that that you might have.

But they give us, you know, they give us some depth. They give us a volume of literature that fills out what we know about the religion of the time. And I think that's very important. Because when you do that, you realize most issues aren't as black and white as you might have thought they were at the beginning.

GROSS: What's the closest - and I mean physically close - that you've come to the actual scrolls?

COLLINS: Well, I have looked at them in the Rockefeller Museum through a telescope under glass. So I haven't actually touched them. Now, of course, you can also see them at the many exhibitions of Dead Sea Scrolls that go around the country. There was one in New York quite recently. I spoke at one in Philadelphia in the fall, and I think now it's going up to Boston.

And, again, under glass you can see them. Most of them when they're put out like that are pretty much illegible because they put - the lighting generally isn't good enough for you to read them. And you'd need a magnifying glass.

GROSS: That's why you use the telescope.

COLLINS: Indeed. Yes.

GROSS: Like a magnifying glass.

COLLINS: Yes. Yes. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

COLLINS: And actually, the best way to read them is to digitize them and get them on your computer so that you can enlarge them and focus in on particular letters. And so, you know, we have much better ways of reading the scrolls now than the people had when they were working on them in the 1950s.

GROSS: And what language do you read them in?

COLLINS: Oh, in Hebrew or Aramaic.

GROSS: You can read Aramaic?

COLLINS: Yes.

GROSS: So I've just got to ask. Did you see Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"?

(LAUGHTER)

COLLINS: I have a funny story about that, actually.

GROSS: OK. Was his Aramaic correct? Yes?

COLLINS: Just after I moved to Yale I went into my office one day and picked up the phone and the voice, it was a recorded message: Mr. Collins, this is Mel Gibson. I'm looking for somebody to translate some material into Aramaic. You were recommended to me by Father Fitzmyer.

(LAUGHTER)

COLLINS: And I actually asked to see a copy of the manuscript. And he sent it to me. And I read it until I encountered a talking snake. And at that point I decided I do not want to be associated with this. But I think, you know, the actual Aramaic that was produced was quite good. It was done by a man named William Fulco who is a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles.

That was the least of the problems of the movie.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

COLLINS: Well, thank you. It's been a great pleasure.

GROSS: Well, my pleasure too. Thank you.

COLLINS: I hope it's useful to you.

GROSS: John J. Collins is the author of "The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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