WE ARE at last drawing closer to resolving some of the controversies that have long raged over the the Dead Sea Scrolls. Earlier this month the International Congress on the Dead Sea Scrolls, held in Madrid, closed with a promise to translate and publish the remaining scrolls within five years, by 1996, finally addressing the question of still-unpublished scroll materials. Translations of many of the texts appeared in the 1950s and '60s, but the team of older scholars to whom the remaining untranslated material has been entrusted has published little in the last 30 years, and there has been speculation over whether the remaining material might contain major surprises. A new team of younger scholars is now working with computers to hasten the completion of the task: welcome news not only to the religious and scholarly communities, but to many interested laymen.

Dated by antiquities scholars to have been written between the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C., and to have lain undisturbed in desert caves since 68 A.D., the texts include material from the Old Testament, apocryphal material and sectarian writings, all generally attributed to a group of Jewish ascetics called the Essenes, who are supposed to have lived near the caves at Khirbet Qumran. Few if any archeological finds have excited as much scholarly and popular interest as the scrolls.

But now that the remaining documents will be published, this is an appropriate moment to begin addressing some of the long-overlooked anomalies of the scrolls. These include a variety of puzzling items, both internal and archeological, that must eventually be accounted for. Of particular interest are a series of marginal scroll markings that have now been identified as being Chinese symbols, probably from a period corresponding to the West's Middle Ages.

The presence of bizarre marginal scroll markings was noted early by scholars, but the markings have received little attention since then. To my knowledge, no scholar has recognized them for what they are.

I first became aware of these symbols while researching a possible book on the scrolls. They appear in photographs of the scroll known as The Order of the Community (also called The Manual of Discipline), a guide to righteous behavior. The photographs, taken soon after the scrolls were acquired by scholars, appear on pages 139 and 142 of Millar Burrows's book, "The Dead Sea Scrolls of St. Mark's Monastery."

Although the markings appeared Oriental to me, I was not in a position to identify them further, and asked Victor Mair, professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Oriental Studies to review photocopies of them. His findings are remarkable.

Mair's five-page report, prepared last August, is a careful one. His involvement, as he makes explicitly clear, was strictly as a professional Sinologist.

"When I opened the envelope," Mair wrote, "it seemed immediately obvious that the symbols were either stylized forms of or rather clumsy attempts to write {a} Chinese character. This character means 'God; divine king, deceased king; emperor.'" The reason Mair found the symbols to be "clumsy attempts" at Chinese is that, according to his report, "{T}hey remind me very much of the crude efforts to write characters of Central Asians (e.g., Sogdian Manichaeans, Khotanese Buddhists, and Uighur Moslems) who came in contact with Chinese civilization. Since I have worked extensively on such documents that were recovered from the sites of Tun-huang (in the Kansu Corridor), Turfan (near the eastern end of the Taklamakan Desert), and other sites in Chinese Central Asia, the two odd Dead Sea symbols actually struck me as having a quite familiar appearance. To a certain extent, they also have the look of characters that are often drawn by students in first- and second-year Mandarin classes or of Sinophilic autodidacts and other kinds of serious neophytes who are attracted to Chinese characters."

Mair describes in extensive detail the particulars of the symbols' calligraphy before arriving at his startling conclusion: "{T}he two strange symbols on the Dead Sea Scrolls . . . could not possibly be dated before about 100 CE {Common Era, i.e., A.D.} when the standard form of the characters came into being. My impression, moreover, is that the two Dead Sea Scroll symbols are much later, perhaps by as much as 700 or even more years. I base this judgment on the general appearance of the symbols in comparison with those on manuscripts I have examined which date to approximately that period and were found in Central Asia."

When I arrived at Mair's office to pick up his report, I showed him a page from Millar Burrows's book featuring illustrations of 10 "marginal markings" found on a scroll containing the Book of Isaiah, and asked him if perhaps they, too, might be Chinese. As Mair had written but not yet typed his notes, he included a review of these markings in his report for me.

Mair recognized six of the symbols. He thought one of them, number four, could be a script form of the symbol for "sun," which, he wrote, "would have been current from about 221-207 BCE {Before Common Era} but is still used when one wishes to affect an archaic appearance."

Number six, he wrote, "looks exactly like the hurriedly written form of {the symbol for} (shih, 'corpse, effigy used to represent a spirit during sacrificial ritual') which is still very common today but has probably been written more or less in this fashion for about 1,800 years."

The four remaining markings that Mair recognized (numbers 1,2,3 and 7 as pictured in Burrows' book) are, in his words, "extremely interesting." All four of them, he believes, are variants or deformations of the same symbol that I had already shown him. These markings, Mair notes, "do not have the natural appearance of quickly written authentic Chinese brush- or pen-writing. On the contrary, they look as though someone acquainted with, but not wholly adept at, advanced styles of Chinese calligraphy tried (more or less unsuccessfully, to my mind) to copy them."

If Mair's supposition is correct, and the markings "could not possibly be dated before 100 CE," and may even be as much as 700 years or more later than that, then for that reason alone the currently accepted history of the scrolls is in error and requires reexamination. We cannot be certain why there are amateur Chinese markings on some of the scrolls, nor precisely when they were put there. Nor, of course, can we be certain who put them there. As noted earlier, Mair believes the evidence points to a neophyte in Chinese calligraphy, and writes that they reminded him specifically of the writings of certain exotic groups of Chinese central Asia.

Is there any possible connection between the Holy Land and such peoples of the Far East? In fact there is: the Nestorian church, which was active in China during a period that matches Mair's identification of the Chinese symbols on the scrolls.

Nestorianism was one of several beliefs that arose in the early centuries of Christianity challenging the orthodox interpretation of the nature of Jesus. Founded by Nestorius, a 5th century patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorianism was eventually held to be a heresy, and Nestorius himself was exiled. His teachings, however, found many adherents, and were a powerful force for nearly 200 years, especially in the East. "If Europe owes its Christianity to the zeal of Catholic missionaries," writes historian David Christie-Murray, "the east was in the debt of Nestorians."

Its spread was eventually checked by the rise of Islam. Before it was overwhelmed, however, the Nestorian church spread not only into Syria and Egypt but also along the trade routes that connected the Middle East with the Far East. It established a solid foothold in China under the T'ang Dynasty in what is now Hsianfu. In the 9th century, however, it was expelled, only to return again. About 1100, writes Christie-Murray in his "A History of Heresy," "a prince of the Keraits, Turks of central Asia, asked for baptism. The Onguts, Tatars who lived to the north of the Yellow River, were evangelized together with some among the Uighurs, through whose territory trade routes ran between the west and China."

Today this medieval chapter of Asian Christianity is all but forgotten by the West. But Chinese Christianity was alive at a period that matches Mair's dates for the Chinese markings, from the central Asian region he cites.

There is another tantalizing piece of evidence involving Nestorians. About 800 A.D., writes Charles Pfeifer in his book, "The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible," "the Nestorian Patriarch Timotheus I wrote a letter to Sergius, the Metropolitan of Elam, in which he described the discovery of a large number of Hebrew manuscripts in a cave near Jericho," a discovery also cited by John Allegro in his account of the scrolls. The eventual disposition of these manuscripts is not known.

In this context, the translation and placement of the markings are significant. The symbols involving a "divine king" or "deceased king" appear adjacent to text containing messianic description, in the case of the Order of the Community, and messianic prophecy, in the case of the Isaiah Scroll (contrary to Burrows's own identification in at least one case). The scribe who wrote the Chinese symbols in the Isaiah scroll thus clearly connected them with the messianic expectations in, for example, Isaiah 7:8-22. In the Order of the Community, the symbol on page 142 appears near a section referring to "the coming of the prophet and the messiah . . . ." The words immediately adjacent to the symbol read, "to establish the holy spirit for truth forever and to encroach upon holy things, to atone for the guilt of sin." The history of the Dead Sea Scrolls is far murkier than many people realize. Many scrolls were discovered not by archeologists, but by Bedouins, and passed through the hands of numerous people -- shady antiquities dealers and local priests as well the Bedouins -- before scholars were able to purchase them. This is the case with both the Order of the Community and the Isaiah scrolls.

While the story is a colorful one, it has left us uncertain about important aspects of the discovery. The result is that the scrolls remain the subject of debate. From the outset, scholars have challenged even the dating of the scrolls.

Among the scroll puzzles that remain to be addressed are: The discovery of codices in one of the caves; codices are manuscripts with pages written on both sides, and came into use in the 2nd Century A.D. The presence in the caves of lamps from the 3rd Century A.D.; while this does not directly affect the scrolls, it opens the caves to later entry. The use in the scrolls of consonants to replace vowels to assist pronunciation, as Solomon Zeitlin pointed out years ago, along with the use of final forms of Hebrew letters, suggests a late date. The discovery at Qumran of Arabic and Byzantine coins, which raises questions about the use of the site after its apparent abandonment in 68 A.D. A reference in one of the scrolls to the koshering of fish; though Jews supposedly wrote this document, Jews have never ritually prepared fish. The apparent use on the so-called "Copper Scroll" of both upper- and lower-case Greek letters suggests a late date for this curious finding, as does what I believe to be the presence of anachronistic script. The possible presence of Arabic and Roman numerals raises further doubts about the history of this very unusual metal document.

Obviously, such controversies remain far from resolution; unraveling these puzzles promises to bring us closer to a full understanding of the scrolls.

Neil Altman is a Philadelphia-based writer.