Jesus was a magic mushroom ..or he was actually the second Messiah.. while Saint Paul Was really a Roman spy..
By Nick Webster 28/04/2007
IT began with a shepherd searching for his lost goat - a simple accident in the fierce Israeli desert that uncovered the greatest archeological find of the 20th century.
And since that day in 1947 when Mohammed Ahmed el-Hamed stumbled across them in a cave, the Dead Sea Scrolls have enthralled and confounded academics and religious scholars.
For half a century they have struggled to decipher the 900 scrolls and manuscript fragments that were eventually unearthed in 11 caves near Kirbet Qumran, on the edge of the Dead Sea.
And yesterday, one of those ancient, bewildering documents went on display at the British Library in London for the first time.
Their discovery created so much excitement over the decades because they pre-date all other religious writings by a thousand years.
The Scrolls - which include most of the books from the Old Testament and Hebrew Bible, religious commentaries, rules for living and other secular texts - where written 2,000 years ago.
A team of academics was appointed to decipher and interpret the treasure trove of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek text - and in the 60 years since their discovery they have never been far from controversy.
Conspiracy theories abounded after the experts beavered away for years with little to show for their toils while other scholars accused them of suppressing information that might shake the Christian church to its foundations. It even led to sensational claims of a religious conspiracy by the Vatican led by its then doctrinal expert Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - now Pope Benedict XVI.
There were claims the manuscripts showed a very different Jesus to the one recognised in modern religious teachings.
In their book, The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh support the view of a Catholic conspiracy.
"They claimed to have uncovered the sensational story behind the religious scandal of the century," says Professor Timothy Lim, a Dead Sea Scroll expert.
"It was alleged there was a conspiracy, in the form of a modern inquisition led by Joseph Ratzinger, to suppress unpublished Qumran scrolls that might be 'harmful to Church doctrine'.
"And then, when all the scrolls were open to the world, we found there was none of the damaging information they claimed there would be. Of course, the conspiracy argument goes that the Vatican had already destroyed it."
But if there were revelations the Catholic church feared, there were others that the entire body of faith would find hard to swallow.
The late John Marco Allegro, the first British representative on original team of academics deciphering the documents, believed they proved that Christianity had grown from a cult that drew its faith from hallucinogenic mushrooms.
He was convinced that Jesus Christ never existed but was an analogy for the Fly Agaric mushroom, around which the activities of an ancient fertility cult revolved.
Another theory, apparently supported by the Scrolls, was that early Christianity was a political movement, transformed by St Paul into the peace-loving religion we know today because he was a Roman spy trying to defuse a potential revolution.
Other scholars believed they asserted there had been another Messiah who died only a few years before Jesus, calling into question his uniqueness. Another school of thought claims the scrolls were actually written by a long lost community of Chinese Jews.
Most scholars, however, are convinced there is actually no mention of Jesus in the them at all.
The Scrolls, written on animal skins, papyrus and, in one case, copper, were stored away in pottery urns in the caves by their authors, members of the austere Essene sect who lived in a nearby celibate all-male religious community. "Once a scroll was worn out they didn't destroy it because the name of God was on it. Instead it was stored away," says Professor Lim of Edinburgh University.
Among the most fascinating finds was the kind of treasure list Indiana Jones would kill to get his hands on.
Etched on the copper scroll are the locations of 64 hiding places of hoards of gold and silver, supposedly hidden throughout the region and which today would be worth billions.
Attempts have been made to track down the riches but - as far as anyone is willing to admit - with no success.
The directions to treasure hunters are obscure to say the least. For instance the scroll reveals there is wealth to be found "in the Second Enclosure, in the underground passage that looks east".
The Enclosure and the passage, wherever they were, will have long since been overwhelmed by the desert.
Today most of the Scrolls are kept at the Shrine of the Book and the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, in Israel.
The Copper Scroll is in the Department of Antiquities in Amman, Jordan, and other fragments are in French museums, including the piece loaned to the British Library which shows an excerpt from the Psalms.
Professor Lim, author of The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Very Short Introduction, says they are so important because they prove that biblical text differed over time.
He says: "Conservative Christians, such as American fundamentalists would find these things disturbing. For example, they think the Bible is completely unique, written without mistakes, almost dropped out of heaven as we know it today.
"But in general, for the more mature forms of Christianity, it hasn't been an issue. The Scrolls have contributed so much new information to a past that is only partially known."