After 10 years of research, the world-famous archaeologist and biblical scholar Yigael Yadin published this past week his long-awaited, four-volume work on the "Temple Scroll" - the longest and most recently discovered of the famous Dead Sea scrolls.
The Temple Scroll - called by Yadin "the most important of the lot" - provides entirely new material about Jewish feasts, festivals, sacrifices and laws of the temple in Jerusalem that were so central to the life of the Jewish people in the centuries leading up to the birth of Christ.
Yadin, who is deputy prime minister of Israel, says the document raises many questions about the period. These include some dealing with previous interpretations of the origins of Christianity.
Publishing of the Temple Scroll was an event of such magnitude that weeks ago invitations were sent out by the president of Israel to the cream of the country's intellectual and political establishment to hear residence on publication day.
The Dead Sea scrolls, first stumbled upon in 1947 by a Bedouin goatherd in a cave near Qumran near the Dead Sea, are the earliest Hebrew bibical texts ever discovered and their study has profoundly affected man's knowledge of Judaism and Christianity.
For the Jews, the revelations of the Dead Sea scrolls were, as Yadin has said, "like a powerful zoom lens" that focused on Jewish life and religion across a barrier of 2000 years to the end of the second temple in 70 A.D. - "a tragic turning point in Jewish history."
In 70 A.D. the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Jews were dispersed to the ends of the earth and were not to gain control of their holy city again until 1967.
Before the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls there were no known Hebrew texts of the Old Testiment earlier than the 9th century A.D.
According to Yadin, the revelations and points of difference between ancient and modern Judaism were so shocking to some orthodox Jews that they considered it a blasphemy to the scrolls in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.
For Christmas, the scrolls revealed the writings of a rigid Jewish seet called the Essenes who, two centuries before Christ, had already embodied many of the traits, beliefs and customs that were previously thought to have been Christian innovations.
The Essenes were obsessed with rigid and extreme concepts of ritual purity and half the new scroll is taken up with the building of the ideal temple in Jerusalem and its proper sacrifices and laws. Thus, for want of a better title. Yadin called it the "Temple Scroll." According to Yadin, the text was written "not later than 100 B.C.
The puritanical Essenes rejected the traditional beliefs of the Pharisees, the dominant group withing Judaism of the period, the Essenes said the Pharisees were not rigid enough. The early Christians were also critical of the Pharisees and it is almost universally accepted by shcolars that they were influenced by the Essenes.
As Yadin puts it, "Many scholars could have assumed that both the Essenes and the early Christians shared a basic approach in rejecting the temple cult." By temple cult Yadin means the great sway that the temple of Jerusalem with its rituals and sacrifices had over the Jews.
Yet, Yadin goes on, after reading the Temple Scroll. "The Essenes appear to us not only as the most extreme in their legalistic approach to all laws of purity but ardently believeing that the sacrifices and all that goes with it is essential . . .
"How then," he asks, "could such an extreme sect have influence early Christianity which broke away from this very law of Moses concerning the temple and the laws of purity?"
Yadin realizes that this question will be the subject of great debate, but he offers his own answer, "I believe that the early Christians came in touch with the Essenes in the late phase of the Essenes' existence, a phase in which, because they rejected the temple as it was, denounced the priests as illegitimate and said that the temple was polluted because their own rigid laws were not followed."
Because of this rejection they refrained from partaking in the worship of Jerusalem and, before Christian times, had retreated to the bleak caves near the Dead sea.
"Bereft of a temple they developed a theology and practices which enabled them to live without the temple," he said.
According to Yadin's theory, the Essenes held their theology only as an "ad hoc solution" until the temple could he rebuilt according to their own extreme beliefs.
Yadin suggest that "what was for the essenes an ad hoc solution, was taken over by the Christians as a final solution (a rejection of the temple cult).
Yadin offers his conclusions as only one of many possibilities and says that the Temple Scroll will "open a whole new era of scholarship.