AN INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT EISENMAN
Robert Eisenman is a highly respected historian, archaeologist, writer and Biblical scholar, renowned for his pioneering work with the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Eisenman’s work is influential, and at times controversial, having questioned the identity of Jesus, while introducing the importance of the historical James, the brother of Christ, about which he has written extensively. His books, which are scholarly works, include:
Eisenman received his BA from Cornell University in 1958, an MA from New York University in 1966 and a PhD from Columbia University in 1971. His work is varied, such as his book, The New Jerusalem, which chronicles poetry from his travels in the Middle East, India, Europe and America in the early 1960’s. Eisenman’s illustrious career has also taken him to Rennes-le-Château and his involvement there will be the focal point of our conversation.
Robert, welcome to 17 Questions. We are thrilled to have you as our guest.
1. What was your reaction when informed by an admirer of your work on the Dead Sea Scrolls that the workman in charge of Bérenger Saunière’s restorations had left behind a letter indicating that the priest had buried a chest or casket beneath the foundations of the Tour Magdala, in Rennes-le-Château?
I was amazed. The individual, Jean Genibrel, seemed legitimate enough, though he did seem a little too spellbound by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s work, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Anyhow, we were doing radar ground scans at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, and the underwriter, John Merrill, expressed interest in Rennes-le-Château and the Templars, so we thought, why not have a go at Rennes-le-Château with the same team.
For my part, I was mainly interested in manuscripts. If there could be any manuscript evidence that could connect what happened in the Rennes-le-Château region with anything remotely resembling the Scrolls at Qumran, I would find this a big plus in connecting an earlier possible find of Qumran manuscripts, like that in the 8th century which so influenced the ideology of the Jewish Karaites, with the creation and ideology of the Templar movement. That was my one and probably only interest in the project which, aside from that, seemed highly speculative and not a little phantasmagoric.
2. Having conducted extensive ground scans of Qumran in 1990-91, by the time you arrived in Rennes-le-Château you were no stranger to explorative excavations. What did you expect to find when you and Andrea Barattolo set out to excavate beneath the Tour Magdala in August 2003, and what did you hope to find?
In the first place, we did not set out to ‘excavate’ anything when we visited the region in August 2003. ‘Excavations’ can only be done with the permission of the proper Authorities – in this case the DRAC (Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles). We attempted to secure this numerous times, but were unable to do so even though Andrea submitted all the correct paperwork. Therefore, we never set out ‘to excavate’ anything. With Harry Jol’s team from Qumran we were, however, able to do the radar ground scan. To find anything in this manner ‘under the Tower’ as you put it, would have been very difficult even using ground scans. We tried, but with little effect. Here and there, at other locations in the garden and near the tower, interesting anomalies were found.
When the then Mayor, Jean-François L’Huillier, invited us to use our ground scan equipment inside the church itself, we were quite pleased and most happy to accommodate him. As most of the world now knows, we discovered some interesting anomalies – some oddities behind the altar but, in particular, the appearance of two sepulchres beneath the floor of the church – this, according to the professional analysis of Professor Harry Jol of the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, a universally-acknowledged radar ground scan expert.
3. Is there any truth in the rumour that you and Andrea are planning to return to Rennes-le-Château and, if so, what do you hope to find? Also, what do you think Saunière discovered, if anything, all those years ago?
I think you are mixing up two expeditions here. The first I have described in Question 2 and occurred under the auspices of US TV journalist Bill Kurtis and the History Channel for his series ‘Investigating History’. In the second, we were accompanied by Michael Baigent, which thrilled Mr Kurtis and with whom he quickly established a close rapport.
Again, even though we had applied to the DRAC on several occasions to pursue some of the results of the earlier ground scans, we were never successful. Whatever occurred on this second trip (I think it was in 2004-05 – my chronological memory is not exactly precise here, but the sequence is clear) occurred under the auspices of the Mayor. We went along as spectators and commentators only. We knew we could not dig or ‘excavate’, as you call it, and therefore we did not bring Harry Jol and his group along. Bill Kurtis and his team were paying the bills and we were subservient to them. I think both Mr Kurtis and the Mayor wanted a show of some kind, both for the History Channel and for tourism at Rennes-le-Château. The Mayor gave it to them. Not us.
You will not see any pictures of me doing anything or touching anything at this time. I only came along as an interested observer and interviewee, just as Baigent and Baratollo did. The Mayor did instruct some of his own workmen (not us – we did not have any workmen or anyone willing to lift a spade) to do some digging in the floor of one of the buildings, under his auspices, where he felt he had a right to dig, and some radar signatures had earlier been found. For reasons known only to him, he immediately called a halt to the proceedings when his people came upon a stone or some such thing. This is all recorded in Kurtis’ television programme. You won’t find me anywhere in sight, as I was very wary of this and knew enough to stay away from any digging not authorized by the DRAC. Again, I think the whole exercise was performed for the promotion of tourism to Rennes-le-Château and to add spice to Kurtis’ programme.
I was not aware of any press conference that had been called, as has been oddly reported elsewhere, and certainly did not participate in any ‘press conference’ myself. However, there were some press people hanging around, who had ‘gotten wind’ of something going on at Rennes-le-Château, which was always news. One managed to collar my assistant with questions, and I severely rebuked him for responding in any shape or form. We (Michael Baigent, Professor Baratollo, and I) had come along only as spectators and as potential interviewees for Kurtis’ show; and that’s what we did, as anyone who has seen the programme will be able to verify. However, Mr Baigent played a particularly large part in the show, as anyone who has seen it will also be able to verify.
As you will see from the programme, as it was finally edited and, as you have elsewhere properly reported, the only questions I answered concerned the possible relationship of potential manuscript finds with those from Qumran. To this end, I had brought with me an actual copy of what is called at Qumran, The War Scroll, or what others like to call ‘The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness’, and I was filmed pointing out passages with possible parallels to late medieval movements, such as the Templars. I have always denied any interest in ’treasure’ or ’treasure maps’; manuscripts and documents have always been, and still are, my only interest in the Rennes-le-Château matter – those, and the identity of the two sepulchres we found indications of beneath the church floor in our original ground scan. Professor Jol, Baratollo and I made continual representations to excavate the two sepulchres, this being also in the interests of the Municipality and the former Mayor L’Huillier. As before, we were denied.
So, now to your question of whether we are planning a possible return to Rennes-le-Château; the answer is: of course, but only when proper permissions can be obtained from the DRAC. It now appears (after the success of the movie, The Da Vinci Code) that some persons have been given permission by the DRAC and the new Mayor to do just this. We would, of course, always be interested in returning and cooperating in such a project, based on the results of our original ground scan work. In particular, I would like to know the identity of just who is buried in the two sepulchres we found indications of in our original ground scan work.
‘Treasure’ I leave to others and I am already pretty confident that no manuscript finds will be forthcoming. If they are, I would be pleasantly surprised. As to what Father Saunière discovered, I have no idea. If he discovered manuscripts of some kind, which he copied, and these somehow survived from his time or earlier, I would be overjoyed; but, as I have already expressed in the ‘Bloodline’ movie two years ago, in the damp climate of southern France and Rennes-le-Château – so unlike Qumran and Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt – I cannot imagine how this could have occurred, not only from 500 to 800 years ago or, as in the case of Saunière, from the last century.
4. Many believe that a Solomon’s Temple-like necropolis of great historical, religious and political importance exists in the vicinity of Rennes-le-Château. What are your thoughts on this possibility?
I have no thoughts on this matter. As you know, the rumour mill is always in progress where Rennes-le-Château, the Templars, Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail are concerned, but I cannot imagine anything relating to the biblical Solomon being found, except insofar as the latterday Templars (so-called after his Temple) might have recreated it in the vicinity, by virtue of their own imaginations. Some have said there are such ruins. I cannot say. As for the town itself, as you know, the ‘Christians’ in the Roman period often built on old pagan religious sites, which the area of Rennes-le-Château appears to have been.
5. So, you are not supportive of a notion of a Solomon’s Temple existing in the area. Similarly, what historical evidence, if any, would support the notion that a biblical treasure, such as the original Menorah, the Ark of the Covenant, or even the bodies of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ may be buried in or around Rennes-le-Château?
I can imagine no such evidence. As you know, people have been looking for the original Ark of the Covenant from Ethiopia to Stephen Spielberg’s ‘Indiana Jones.’ It would be hard for me to imagine it could have somehow wandered off to southern France. Any so-called ‘treasure’, as you know, is usually devoured by people in its own time, as the Romans obviously did to the treasure indicated on the Qumran ’Copper Scroll’. This is clearly indicated today by the Arch of Titus in Rome where the Menorah, you refer to, is depicted. Made of pure gold, it stood at the entrance to the Temple and was donated by Queen Helen of Adiabene and her sons as an indication of their piety and their zeal (see my New Testament Code, Watkins/Sterling, 2006). Present theories support the idea that the Flavians (the family of Vespasian, Titus, Domitian and, curiously enough, ultimately Josephus) melted most of these things down and used the proceeds for the construction of the arena for blood sports, which we now call “the Coliseum”, to replace Nero’s ship basin, which the latter had used for naval engagement depictions. I support this position – a travesty and reversal as frightening and horrific, in my view, as the Auschwitz site. Therefore, I do not go into the Coliseum.
As for the ‘Jesus’ and ‘Mary Magdalene’ part of your question, the quest for ‘the Historical Jesus’, as it is called, has been going on for some two centuries now with little issue. Of course, before there can be a significant persona, known as ‘Mary Magdalene’, there has to be a “Jesus Christ”.Therefore, from my vantage point, I have little or nothing to add to this speculation – except to encourage people to read my books, The New Testament Code, 2006 and James the Brother of Jesus, Penguin, 1997-8!
6. A couple of years ago, when the excitement of the Bloodline documentary and the apparent discovery of the body of Mary Magdalene, and the alleged artifacts from her alleged marriage to Jesus Christ, were unfolding, you were quoted on the film’s website as saying:
“Any finds that turn out to be genuine and can be dated to the 1st century and having a Palestinian provenance are certainly interesting and provide food for further thought by scholars and enthusiasts alike concerning the presence of the Templars in southern France."
What intrigued you initially about the alleged discovery and what do you think of it now?
I did not know anything about any such alleged ‘discovery’ and for me there was no excitement whatsoever. I was asked to give a statement and this is what I gave. In the actual movie, into which I was ’shoe-horned’ at the end, you will see me ’pooh-poohing’ all notions of any bona fide discoveries in it. It was all, as you have realized, pure speculation and possible subterfuge as well. I have always been, and still am, interested in any manuscript finds that can connect the Templars in Southern France, and elsewhere, to a Palestinian context or milieu. This is all I said above and still say it.
As you can see, I crafted this response very carefully. As for ‘bodily remains,’ I never imagined them at all, nor did they interest me to any degree. Before there can be a ‘body,’ there has to be a ‘person’ in a real historical sense; and when you can prove to me the latter, which has not been embellished by literature and/or mythology, such as Plato abhorred, I will take an interest in and consider the former.
7. As long as we are discussing some of the more speculative aspects of contemporary theology, let me ask you about another: the notion that Scotland was the original Holy Land.
I really am unfamiliar with this theory, so I cannot comment on it to any extent; but I must say, there are similar early presentations of the Indians in America being ‘the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel’ and there are also other such groups still today, as there seem to have been then, who, similarly, still see themselves as ‘the British Israelites’. The Mormons have not unsimilar ideas, so nothing of this kind would surprise me.
When, in my youth, which I recount in my collection of anti-Beat travel poetry, noted above – The New Jerusalem – I was travelling through Afghanistan and Beluchistan, I encountered many who insisted – with probably even more cause – that they were “the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel”. This has more recently been shown to have a more causal basis than many thought since, of course, this was the area in the eastern Persian Empire, where many of these groups might have finally been exiled to.
There is also a series of books, popular even today in Britain, which would place most of the Israelite stories and, I think, even those about Jesus in an early Egyptian geographical and chronological sphere; so I really do not have too much to say about all such approaches, which I am not really that familiar with. As for myself, since my wife is part Scottish – of ‘the Seton Clan’, made famous in Baigent and Leigh’s The Temple and the Lodge – I wouldn’t mind at all if Scotland turned out to be the original Holy Land and I am sure that this is what, in her soul, she already believes and would probably prefer.
8. If I remember correctly, you were the first to go public and debunk the discovery of the ‘James Ossuary’ back in 2002, based almost entirely on what the inscription said, not the context of where or how it was found. Politically speaking, what do you think would happen if real, demonstrable and truly irrefutable evidence for any of the above (biblical artifacts or bodies) were discovered? How do you feel this would change things in the Middle East, if at all?
I do not think there are any political ramifications to this at all. Where the Middle East is concerned, very little, if anything, ever changes much. Where the ossuary is concerned, what I have just said about Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ also holds for James. As you know too, because you say you read and liked them, in my book, James the Brother of Jesus, Penguin/Faber and Faber, 1997-98, I began with the proposition that perhaps the best proof that there ever was a ‘Jesus’ was the fact of his brother, named James; and my very last sentence was: “Who and whatever James was, so was Jesus”.
The New Testament – mainly the Gospels, the Book of Acts, the Pauline Corpus – do not generally portray a ’Jamesian’ Jesus. Therefore, until we can reconstruct that which, so far, no one seems to have succeeded in doing, what can we say? What I will say is that I do not consider it a coincidence that my book, James the Brother of Jesus, appeared in 1998 and, directly after that, appeared this suspicious ’ossuary’ (see my article: A Discovery That’s Just Too Perfect, The Los Angeles Times, 29 October 2002, or my website, RobertEisenman.com).
9. The situation in Jerusalem seems frustratingly paradoxical, as your 2009 article, Remember, the Temple was built by Herod, highlights:
“The Temple, over which we now see such weekly struggles, was built by Herod who, for all intents and purposes, was not Jewish. He had not an ounce of Jewish blood in him… SO THE Jews go today to worship at the remains of a stone edifice built by their arch-enemy, responsible more than anyone else for their destruction, who was himself certainly not native born and hardly Jewish at all, except where convenient”, before concluding, “People need positive symbols to rally around. The time is late. There is plenty of room on the Mount for everyone.”
What do you believe you will change or what will emerge in this situation over the next 20 years?
I stand by what I said there: “People need positive symbols [historical or modern] to rally around.” In a follow-up to this article, remember, I proposed an International Architectural Competition of ‘utopian’ or ‘theoretical’ proposals for what to do with the Temple Mount that would be agreeable to all parties concerned. This can be found in both The Jerusalem Post: ’Enough Crying Over Herod’s Stones: We Know how to Commemorate the Dead but Do We Know How to Commemorate the Living?’ from 13 March 2010 and, more fully, The Huffington Post: ‘The Greatest Heritage Site of All’, from 2 August 2010. I do hope that at least people will begin thinking in these terms.
Before something practical can be done, however, people must first of all have a look at, and consider, the utopian or theoretical proposals; and this was why I proposed this competition, not just recently, but actually 25 years ago, as I recount in the article. It was my feeling then, and still is now, that the greatest architectural minds and designers can often come up with solutions to problems, both in terms of beauty and reality, that the rest of us can hardly imagine.
10. The Dome of the Rock is a particularly frustrating element of the whole situation, and on so many different levels. In your 2007 article, Digging on the Temple Mount: A Modest Proposal, you say:
“What then is possible? First, the necessary archaeological spade work must be done, regardless of outcries, regardless of objections – period. Here we are standing and witnessing a situation where it is possible that archaeological remains, either from the First or Second Temples or their appendaged buildings, are simply being damaged, destroyed or insensitively cut through with earth-moving or bulldozing equipment and what is done about it? Nothing.”
Further, you add: “There is ample room on the Temple Mount Platform for a shrine or shrines that can be Holy to three Faiths.”
Under what circumstances would excavation under the Temple Mount be permitted today and what do you think we would find?
I have no idea. Nothing is stopping anyone from doing anything. As Roosevelt put it, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself”. One must have only the ideological impulse, the spiritual will and the desire to move forward. It is not necessary to, as it were, ’step on anyone’s toes’. Everyone likes pure knowledge. In the present political situation, though, I cannot envisage any circumstances where excavation under the Temple Mount will go forward. It would become too much of a political ’cabal’, to coin a phrase. As to what would be found, why, I imagine the remains of both the Solomonic and Herodian Temples – and even perhaps either the Nehemiah one or the one restored by the Maccabees. But you cannot find these things if, a priori, you are not permitted or, in the case of some persons or ideologues, do not wish to look. For myself, I cannot imagine who or what could be harmed by a careful and responsible search for real knowledge, being cognisant of everyone’s sensibilities.
11. What do you believe the Knights Templar found beneath the Temple Mount, if anything?
I just do not know. If they found anything, I imagine somewhere, somehow, they came into contact with some Dead Sea Scrolls – in particular, with something resembling the Qumran War Scroll, as I previously mentioned. We know the Damascus Document or its copies somehow ended up in the Cairo Genizah. We also know that scrolls from Cave 1 were found earlier than the coming of the Templars, as there are definitely other broken jars in that cave.
So, who can say what they might have found? They would certainly have met the Jewish ‘Karaites’ and the movement called ‘The Mourners for Zion’, who were themselves influenced by previous finds of the Scrolls. They sent their representatives out far and wide. Who can say what manuscripts they might have found? Where ‘treasure’ is concerned, however, I think the Romans, careful booty-takers as they were, got all this; but whatever ‘treasure’ the Templars amassed, in my view, they did so via their economic activities – later perhaps disguised as the ‘Temple Treasure’.
12. In your 1997 book, James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls, you discuss the notion that James was the historical character who most closely matches the descriptions of ‘the Righteous Teacher’ at Qumran. Why, exactly, did this claim garner so much controversy at the time?
This I cannot say. It is so obvious. I had been writing about this in articles, papers and short books from 1976 onwards and Baigent and Leigh borrowed extensively from me in their Dead Sea Scrolls Deception in the early 1990’s. I had even received a grant from the American National Endowment for the Humanities from 1985-86 to compare precisely these two categories, ‘The Jerusalem Community of James’ and ‘The Qumran Community of the Righteous Teacher’; this at the famous Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, “the American School”, where the first Scrolls were examined.
These ideas had dawned on me in the classes I taught on the Dead Sea Scrolls and Early Christianity at my home university, California State University Long Beach, beginning in 1973. I had been given the privilege of teaching Early Christianity, owing to a faculty vacancy. In doing so repeatedly over a number of years, it became clear to me that James – whom I had never even heard of before teaching the New Testament and Early Christianity, and reading Galatians (I think most Christians had never heard of him before reading my 1997 book on him either) – headed a community in Jerusalem and was always called, in all Early Church literature, ‘the Righteous One’ or ’the Just’ (sometimes even in place of his actual name itself), just as ‘the Righteous Teacher’ had been and was at Qumran.
As it turned out, the only thing preventing one from drawing parallels or conclusions of this kind was the dating of the Scrolls – particularly what are known as the ‘sectarian’ or ’extra-Biblical’ Scrolls – which was being promoted by what was called the ‘International Team’, which generally won the day, owing to its more advantageous position. So, what was the problem and why did it seem so controversial? Primarily because the documents at Qumran did not resemble what was thought of as ‘Christianity’ at all. One had to remember that what we thought and still think of as ‘Christianity’ is Pauline Christianity and primarily conditioned by the Gospels and Paul’s Letters; not ‘Palestinian’ or ‘Jamesian Christianity’, if we can speak of such a thing.
I prefer to use the term ’Palestinian Messianism’ (an idea that Baigent and Leigh, in their work, The Messianic Legacy, basically borrowed from me) or even ’Essenism’, ’Zealotism’ or ’Ebionism’; or, indeed, a combination of these four (remember, at one point the Qumran Hymns even refer to themselves as the ‘Ebionei-Hesed’, the ‘Poor Ones of Piety’. Other terms used are the ‘Perfect of the Way’ or the ‘Perfection of Holiness’ (which Paul actually uses in 1 Corinthians). Remember, too, that even the Book of Acts (11:26 – if one wants to rely on this) insists that the Disciples were first called ‘Christians’ in Antioch in Northern Syria and this in a Greek-speaking, basically ‘Paulinised’ or ‘Pauline Community’ in the mid-50’s CE.
The question then becomes, what was ‘Christianity’ called or what did it look like in Palestine earlier than this – in other words, what did ‘Jamesian Christianity’ look like? I think it looked more like the Dead Sea Scrolls, particularly in the Commentaries and other ‘Sectarian Documents’, as they were called, where, of course, their authors actually refer to themselves as ‘the Ebionim,’ i.e., ‘the Ebionites’ – not to mention that they are unmitigatingly ‘Messianic’. Need I say more?
I think it was, and still is, primarily because if this is true, people felt seriously threatened by such a proposition and this is understandable and they probably should have. I have just been on a tour of several countries in the Muslim World and they don’t feel threatened by propositions such as these at all, when they are explained to them, and I am sure the same could or would be said for Buddhists, Hindus, Confucianists, Shintos or what have you. Why do you think this is?
In any event, it is time people really faced up to the truth (isn’t this supposed to ‘set you free’?) about what really was happening in Judea/Palestine in the First Century and put all this myth-making or story-telling behind them. That is what the Scrolls help us do. They are a real, unadulterated ‘time capsule’ out of the past – one that has not gone through the editorial processes of the Roman Empire. Anyhow, I guess this is why some, particularly scholars, but also lay persons, feel so threatened by them and fabricate stories about them, and why the same editorial processes are taking over once again as the consensuses reform themselves, even in the face of what occurred in the Nineties and the ‘freeing of the Scrolls’.
Brilliant answer. Thank you, Robert.
13. In 2011, where do you believe we are with carbon dating? That is, how reliable is it and what is its proper place in archaeology and theology?
You have hit upon the real problem. It was Professor Philip Davies of the University of Sheffield, England (whom I included in the process – as I did Professor Robinson later, when we finally published all the unpublished Scrolls in the Facsimile Edition in 1991 – to give it both a non-sectarian cast and increased weight), and I who wrote a letter in June 1989 to the then Head of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Amir Drori, suggesting that, since they (the so-called ‘International Team’ and the ‘Antiquities Authority’) were denying persons like us access to the previously unpublished Scrolls; he could at least do ‘AMS carbon dating’ on the Scrolls and sent him a scholarly description of what the process actually consisted of.
We did this at the height of the struggle to free the Scrolls and gain access to them for all scholars, regardless of background or point-of-view (or, for that matter, all persons of whatever background), when we thought the prospects of achieving this end appeared particularly bleak. We had just been contemptuously dismissed (as ‘California lotus eaters’) in our request for access to the Scrolls by the recently-appointed Head of the International Team (appointed by his Authority), the late John Strugnell. We had written Strugnell a letter earlier in March the same year, requesting access to the unpublished fragments of the Damascus Document, whose plate numbers we knew and which we knew existed, because by that time we had the print-out of all Scroll fragments in the possession of the Israelis and/or the Rockefeller Museum.
We wrote this letter purposefully, so that we could determine how accurate or authentic the Cairo Genizah copies of the Damascus Document actually were (Cairo was where they had originally been found and published by Dr. Solomon Schechter of Cambridge University at the end of the Nineteenth Century, and everyone was using these copies) and because we expected to be and, in a way, wanted to be refused, so that we could take the rejection to the Court of Cassation for Civil Complaints in Israel, the Supreme Court acting as a High Court of Justice.
Not two months after receiving our letter (to which Drori, like Strugnell, did not reply), the IAA announced its intention to conduct just the kind of tests we were asking for – of course, with no acknowledgement or ‘shout out’ to us as to from whom the suggestion had originally come. Nor were either Professor Davies or myself – nor, for that matter, any other so-called ‘Opposition Scholars’ – included in the process. All were, rather, to be appointed by Drori and his Authority and the whole subject has been adequately treated in Baigent and Leigh’s The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, Jonathan Cape, 1992, mentioned above.
The problem, however, from our perspective, was that those now charged with overseeing, evaluating and/or conducting the tests did not understand why we had called for them in the first place, nor which documents were important to test, nor what the limitations of such testing – as you allude to in your question – might be. Had we been included in the process, we could perhaps have explained these things to them, as it was we who felt the most need for them and we who had originally called for them, not the people ultimately appointed to be responsible for evaluating them; but we were not included.
Another pretty-well documented, but not widely-appreciated parallel, external issue was the tendency of research institutions or laboratories, even some as prestigious as the FBI Crime Laboratory in Washington DC (in forensics tests, for instance), to come up with results more or less in keeping with the point-of-view or intent of those originally requesting the tests. Moreover, all such tests, AMS carbon in particular, did involve outside interpretation, another issue connected to this tendency. This was, in fact, pretty clear in the reports issued by the labs carrying out these tests (all chosen by the IAA), which were generally framed as an answer to ‘opposition’ positions such as my own; so, one might say I, or we, had brought this situation – in a manner of speaking – on ourselves.
I have covered these matters in detail in the second chapter (pp 40-56) of my book, The New Testament Code: The Cup of the Lord, the Damascus Covenant, and the Blood of Christ, Watkins/Sterling, 2006, above; but fine points of this kind are, understandably, normally far beyond the ability of the average novice to either comprehend or appreciate; in fact, as it seems, far beyond the ability of most scholars as well. The point is that they just hear “the tests prove this” or “do not prove that” and, in general, go no deeper into the matters than these superficial statements, and this is what stands.
They do not understand, for instance, that what we were requesting was ‘relative dating’ not ‘absolute dating’, in order to test the other dating tool, claiming infallibility in Qumran Studies, paleography and the highly suspect ‘paleographic sequences’ that had been produced as sacrosanct by its practitioners. (For a detailed discussion of this see my Maccabees, Zadokites, Christians and Qumran: A New Hypothesis of Qumran Origins, E. J. Brill, 1984, also reproduced in my The Dead Sea Scrolls and the First Christians, Watkins/Harper Collins, 1996).
Again, such fine points are, for the most part, completely beyond the range of most persons unfamiliar with this field and these techniques to grasp. As noted, what many fail to appreciate is that all such data and such things require ‘interpretation’ and for this one must depend upon the abilities, expertise and non-partisanship of those carrying out the ‘interpretation.’ The same is true of paleographic sequences. They may be accurate or ‘true’ sometimes (and this only ‘sometimes’), but not always, because this depends upon the existence of secure ’dating pegs’, the ability of the scribe, his teachers, his place of origin, how conservative or progressive he was, etc., etc. Still, people were using these tools (and these sequences) as if they were ‘absolute.’
In proposing these tests, therefore, we were only asking that ‘relative dating’ be carried out to test the relative dating of the supposedly ‘secure’ paleographic sequences, by which Qumran dating was being done up till then (and is still being done); but this was completely lost on the public at large, to say nothing of those conducting the ‘tests,’ such as they were. Moreover, we had no illusions that any ‘absolute dating’ could be achieved with anything like the accuracy necessary to materially affect the debate over Qumran chronology. Not being included in the process, we could not explain this, nor that we had called for the tests because we were primarily interested in showing that the debate over paleographic sequencing of the Scrolls, the results for which were being taken as sacrosanct, were not sacrosanct at all, but actually highly questionable. This was because there were only a few absolute pegs, as they were called, i.e., dated manuscripts with a colophon, and these were mostly far beyond the margins of error of the debate.
This was all we were really interested in demonstrating and this is why I have talked at such length about such fine points; but what happened was that the dates, when they were announced, were more or less taken – and, for that matter, given – as ‘absolute,’ not only by the public at large, but also by most of the academic community (as one can see from most papers presented even today at conferences). This matter also hinges on the difference between ‘internal’ and ‘external evidence.’ Most of the dating of the Scrolls was carried out on the basis of what must be called ‘external evidence’ and, as I have also said previously, this was, and still is, often taken as sacrosanct. This was also true for your ‘James Ossuary’ question above, i.e., things like archaeology and, relatively speaking, pseudo-sciences like paleography, patina analysis and even, as it were, carbon testing.
’Internal evidence’ is what the Scrolls themselves actually say – and is what I have been attempting to explain in almost all my work, which is why my books are often so long and overwhelmingly detailed – but which is generally ignored by those you allude to above, who find the parallel between the ‘Righteous Teacher’ and the ‘James Community’ so controversial or threatening. This is why a contrary analysis must be so long and detailed, so it can pass muster among both the scholarly community and the lay audience and, where the Scrolls are concerned, the ‘internal evidence,’ that is, what the documents themselves say, is just about overwhelming.
This includes not only references to themselves over and over again as ‘the Ebionim,’ i.e., ‘Ebionites’ (the name for the followers of James in Christian heresiology); but also the following:
The repeated citation of ‘the Star Prophecy’ in Numbers 24:17, which Josephus himself says was the thing that “most moved our young men to revolt against Rome”;
The citation of “this being the Time of making a Way in the wilderness” from Isaiah 40:3 – which the Synoptic Gospels insist on associating with what is usually referred to as “the Mission of John the Baptist” – twice in the Community Rule;
The citation and interpretation in the Habakkuk Pesher of Habakkuk 2:4, the basic building block of ‘Christianity’ as we know it, not only in the Letters of Paul, but even in the Letter of James as quoted in the New Testament;
The picture of “the Last Priests of Jerusalem” also in that Document, not to mention “the Last Times” or the almost overwhelming power, booty-taking and brutality of the foreign armies invading one country after another with “their soldiers and pack animals”, “who come from afar – the islands of the sea”.
But most of all the absolutely explicit picture in its exposition of Habakkuk 1:14-16 about “fish of the sea”, “hooks”, “nets”, “sacrificing to his net and burning incense to his dragnet”, in terms of the foreign armies invading the country – the so-called ‘Kittim’ which scholars are unable to agree as to whether they are ‘the Seleucid Greeks’ or ‘the Romans’ (this is laughable) – who “sacrifice to their standards and worship their weapons of war” (the military practice of Imperial and not even Republican Rome of the First Century, when the Emperor had already been deified and his bust was carried on the Legionnaire’s standards) – to say nothing of “parcelling out their yoke and their taxes” (the Roman administrative procedure of ‘tax-farming’, which they used so promiscuously, e.g., through families such as ‘the Herodians’) and “have no pity even on the fruit of the womb” (cf. Josephus’ description of the Roman taking of the towns along the Sea of Galilee in 66-67 CE, in particular, Tarichaeae).
One could go on; this is what is meant by ‘internal evidence’ or ‘data’ where the Dead Sea Scrolls are concerned. However, the academic community and the public at large, which is, of necessity, both dependent upon it and, in general, obliged to follow it as I have now repeatedly emphasized, are not very much interested in ‘internal evidence.’ This is what Professor Davies and I were attempting to overturn in our request that the Israel Antiquities Authority, at least, do some AMS carbon testing on the Scrolls, while attaching to our request an article about such testing. We wanted to show how perilous the reliance on ‘external evidence,’ such as paleographic sequencing of the kind being practised in Qumran Studies, actually was.
On the other hand, we were well aware that the margins of error, where carbon testing was concerned, were perhaps equally as worrisome, being, in fact, plus or minus some 100-200 years in even best-case scenarios for this time frame and often being dependent upon dendrochronology, or tree-ring analysis. In addition, carbon testing often tended to archaize and was very much dependent on the interpretive skills and preconceptions of the laboratory or research institution involved (as, for instance, in the case of forensic evidence, at the FBI Crime Laboratory, mentioned above, in Washington DC). This is why we only had in mind ‘relative chronology’ and not ‘absolute’; we wanted to test the ‘relative dating’ or ‘sequencing’ on a single test run, but we were not able to explain this to anybody. Instead, in return, we got the well-known attempts to press ‘absolute dating’ from this very kind of tenuous data, where we were only speaking of a time-span of perhaps 50-100 years; and this is where things presently stand and how the situation has largely remained up until today.
So, in this answer to your question (I am sorry it has been so long-winded), “how reliable is carbon testing and what is its proper place in archaeology and theology today”, I would say that, like paleography, it is only one of many external dating tools and, in some instances, it is very tenuous indeed, especially where ‘absolute dating’ is the goal in mind, and must be used with much caution and extreme care. But I would go further and say that ‘external’ tools of this kind cannot stand in the face of powerful ‘internal evidence’ or ‘data’ to the contrary – in particular, such as that which the documents themselves at Qumran have to say.
As already noted in the case of carbon testing for a period such as this, there are margins of error of some + or –100 or more years (which themselves require a good deal of analysis and interpretation by the given laboratory or research institution) and, as I have just said but cannot emphasis too frequently, these tests cannot stand in the face of ‘internal evidence’ of the kind that exists at Qumran to the contrary. In fact, the opposite is true and this is the problem with these perilous tools, such as paleography, carbon testing, and patina analysis (which everyone knows is routinely being faked). They are good only up to a point and, in particular, when not accompanied by ‘internal evidence’ to the contrary, as they are at Qumran. In the best-case scenario they work fine, but in the worst they can lead to disaster and must be handled with great care.
This is what has happened at Qumran. The scholarly community generally and the public at large – of necessity, its followers – has been convinced of their efficacy and general reliability; and, because of this – that is, because they contradict the ‘internal evidence’ of what the Scrolls themselves actually say – they have made the Scrolls impossible to interpret and, in effect, rendered them mute. For example, how can “the Last Priests of Jerusalem” or even the character known as “the Wicked Priest,” responsible for the death or destruction of “the Righteous Teacher” be one or another of ‘the Maccabeans’? They (or he) are (or is) one or another of ‘the Herodians’, yet this is the view of the general public and most scholars today.
Given the kind of ‘external evidence’ that exists at Qumran, ‘the internal evidence’ has been rendered impossible to analyse. But equally important and, by the same token, given the tenuous nature of ‘the external evidence’ as it also exists at Qumran today, it must give way to ‘the internal evidence’ that now exists there. And this is the answer to your question. No sense has still really been made of the documents at Qumran, but given the types of ‘external evidence’ we have, ‘the internal evidence’ must take precedence; and this ‘internal evidence’ – as I have just, to some degree, summarized – is clear.
14. What do you believe with respect to the Shroud of Turin and, in particular, the peculiar announcement in 2009 that the Knights Templar had hidden the Shroud for over 100 years during the period following the crusades?
I think you will perhaps find it strange to hear me say that I have always felt the Shroud of Turin to have a certain air of ‘authenticity’ about it and I am, perhaps, not alone in this. Millions of believers have thought likewise. In fact, I was first introduced to and saw discussions of it way back in 1961 in, of all places, an Arab village in Northern Galilee, near the Kibbutz (Sasa) I was working on at that time, Gush Halav or, as the Arabs then called it, “Geesh.” A Catholic priest, whom I was staying the night with there (see my autobiographical book of anti-Beat travel poetry, The New Jerusalem, 1959-62 with an Afterword on the Six-Day War, April-June, 1967, Berkeley, 2007), showed me a pamphlet on it. In a sense, it started me on my present path, since, as I was first reading the Bible seriously at that time, it quickened my interest in these matters, as I considered the figure on the Shroud a very impressive one indeed, having never seen it before.
This does not mean that I necessarily considered it authentic, nor did I think it had to be the character called “Jesus”, since I knew there had been so many crucified ‘freedom-fighters’ in Palestine at the time (I had also begun reading Josephus in this period too). Still, it was clear to me that it had all the attributes of a reverse photographic image. Since there were so many such crucifixions in this period, who could say that some chemically-intriguing occurrence had not taken place on one, or even many, of these burial cloths? It never occurred to me that it might be a painting, nor could I imagine it as a Medieval or Renaissance ‘camera obscura’ image, which I had never heard of either at the time.
As you can tell, I never gave much credence to the more recent carbon dating of it, having already had my fill on this subject in the environment of Qumran studies. That also seemed to me curious – full of question marks as to who took it, from where was it cut, its handling and contamination, etc; but what has particularly impressed me, concerning it since, is the seeming evidence of Palestinian pollen residue from the Judean hills on it, according to skilled Israeli specialists in this subject and, even according to some botanists, the images of flora only found in this area of the Holy Land.
Now I cannot comment on such things, as I am not an expert in these areas; but a person or persons have also said the same thing about the weave and the linen; so, if it is a painting or a camera obscura image of some kind, then it is a very good one indeed. As I have said, it is impossible for me to say. If it is an image of, and gamesmanship on the part of the master craftsman and technical and mechanical genius, Leonardo da Vinci, as some have suggested (since, one must admit, it does have some of his physiological characteristics, and the beard does look to me just a little too medieval or modern), then so be it. This is possible.
But I must say, I am unfamiliar with the 2009 ‘announcement’ you refer to, that the Shroud had been in the possession of the Knights Templar and they had hidden it for 100 years following the Crusades. But, if it is authentic, I would have thought this to be obvious anyhow. I never knew it needed an ‘official announcement’ and, if one did occur, it certainly would not surprise me. Again, as I say, this is the only way it could have traveled to Turin in the first place. In any event, perhaps this ‘announcement,’ as you call it, was made in connection with its public display last year in Turin in one of the accompanying guide brochures or some such thing. As I said, it is self-evident anyhow.
The De Charnay family, who obviously possessed it, were the immediate relatives of one of those (Geoffroi) tortured and executed in the repression and destruction of the Templars in France by Philip the Fair in 1314. That their origins seem to have been in that part of France (Burgundy), not far from what is now the Swiss/Italian border, only reinforces this presumption and, again, cannot be seen as surprising at all. From there to the Church in Turin, where it first appeared a hundred or so years later, is a very small step indeed. It is patently obvious that, if it did come from Constantinople and the Middle East (which, if authentic, is the general assumption), then this is how it would have traveled – so the ‘announcement’, as you put it, just states the obvious.
Let me simply put it this way. I cannot say whether it is authentic or not. None of the evidence is incontrovertible but it is certainly one of the most interesting of relics in existence anywhere in the world. As I said, I never saw it as ‘a painting,’ but rather a very curious photographic-style negative of some kind. Ancients would have appreciated this too.
Some have theorised that it was created by bacterial sweat, generated by the physical trauma of being on a Roman cross, when this became mixed with ointments, which to me as well seems the most likely way it was created, if it is indeed authentic. The Romans certainly intended crucifixion to be an exemplary punishment, terribly painful and traumatic and for all to see, in order to throw fear into and discourage others from similar revolutionary behaviour and since it is first documented during the Spartacus Revolt, when persons were hung on crosses until their bodies putrified (from Rome to Naples along the Appian Way) as a public exhibition and warning, there can be no doubt that this was how it was intended to be used in Palestine where, as even Josephus testifies, it was used so promiscuously by Governors like Felix (with whom Paul converses so amicably in the later Chapters of Acts) that “there was not enough room for their erection, nor enough wood for their construction”, i.e., ‘Jesus’ was hardly the only crucified man among the Jews – there were literally thousands, or even perhaps hundreds of thousands of them.
To repeat, certainly a very clear chain of custody can be traced from Byzantine days to Champagne or Burgundy and, from there, on to Turin. That the Templars could have taken it from the sack of Constantinople during in the Fourth Crusade in the Thirteenth Century (1202-04), where a similar relic was revered, is obvious. In turn, that the Byzantines obtained this object they so revered – called by them “the Mandelion” – from Edessa in Northern Syria (a city which was also an object of such intense interest among the first Crusaders that, even during the First Crusade in the 1090’s, it was subdued and a ‘Christian Kingdom’ established there that endured for another century or more) is certainly also clear.
But more than this – Edessa plays a very big role in much of my more recent work since James the Brother of Jesus, especially when I realised how important Queen Helen of Adiabene (bordering on Edessa) and her putative husband, ‘Agbarus’ or ‘Bazeus’ (‘Monobazus’), from this city seem to have been and especially in my New Testament Code, London/New York, 2006, which – to my sadness – very few seem either to know about or fully read. What can I say?
Eusebius recounts the story of how the King of Edessa at that time, whom he calls “the Great King of the Peoples beyond the Euphrates”, asked that a picture of “Jesus” be sent to him. This story is reinforced and has further variations in Syriac and Armenian sources, which are beyond what I can say here, but I do fully discuss these things in my latest book, The New Testament Code. This is the area in which, and among “the Peoples” of which (i.e., “Gentiles”), Paul was active.
This “King”, as I have said, was called by some “Agbarus” and I think Acts’ “Agabus” story is taken from his name as there was, most certainly, never a Jewish Prophet named “Agabus” and this is for sure! For me, he or one or the other of his sons by Queen Helen of Adiabene, who converted to a proper ‘circumcision’-oriented form of Judaism, is the recipient of ‘the Letter’ or ‘Letters’ known in Qumran Studies as “MMT” – the only extant letter in the corpus – so important was he perceived to be.
As already remarked, he either seems to have been the brother or husband (or both – large harems were common in this part of the world, as was, apparently brother/sister marriage, upon which the Abraham story is based) of Queen Helen of Adiabene, herself even more important in both Jewish lore and Josephus and who contributed the golden candelabra, you picture above, to the Temple. It is she, and not Paul, who sent her famine-relief representatives up to Jerusalem and beyond, to Cyprus and Egypt, to buy grain. In fact, Paul and Barnabas in Acts may have been among these representatives and the former, the unnamed accomplice of the “Ananias” in Josephus’ writings (also pictured as his colleague in Damascus in Acts, when he is first converted) – to say nothing of Eusebius’ portrait of him as the bearer of this “portrait of Jesus” to this “King of the Peoples East of the Euphrates” in Edessa, when Queen Helen and her sons were first converted to a curious form of Judaism that did not require circumcision (of which Josephus says “she had a horror”).
To my mind, all these things are of a kind and if ‘the Holy Shroud’ is authentic (certainly a very big ‘if’), then this was what was being used by these traveling emissaries to convince people of “the Resurrected Christ”, as Paul puts it – if they were indeed convincing people of this. The Templars were reputed to have similar secret ceremonies of initiation and, if the Shroud had come into their possession of, which seems likely, then this was how they were using it too. Such an unfathomable image would have made as much of an impression on people then as it does now – perhaps even more so. It would be something like the impression mirrors made on native peoples, both in the Americas and in the Pacific, when they were shown to them to impress them of the power of the colonists. In fact, in my view, if “the Shroud” does turn out to be authentic and was being used in this way, then this was how the idea of an actual physical “resurrection” came into being or, at least, this contributed to it. It would have been as amazing to people then as it is now, even though to us it is simply a photographic negative image of some kind; but they too were capable of appreciating these things – everyone has seen his own shadow.
But this does not prove that there was a ‘Jesus’ or that it is the individual whom Paul first begins calling the ‘Christ’. In fact, it may be just the other way round. There were literally thousands – perhaps even hundreds of thousands, as I said – of crucified men at that time in the Roman Empire. That one such crucifixion created this powerful image and relic, as I have also said, would have left a powerful impression on people; and perhaps the story we know surrounding ‘Jesus’ was taken from the fact of this relic – what we now see as an amazing reverse photographic image – and not the other way round.
Who knows whether there were not hundreds of shrouds created in this manner in these kinds of burials? Who can say? But, if authentic, at least this one was produced and preserved and I have no doubt that, if it had been produced, preserved and known, it was being used in this manner in secret initiation ceremonies among the converted or in order ‘to convert’. This is just a theory of mine, but I do not consider it ‘proven’, as I do not know whether ‘the Shroud’ is authentic or not. But, as to your question about its transmission via the Templars, certainly the Templars were using the Byzantine ‘Mandelion’ (which had somehow come into their possession) in this manner and this is how it ended up in Turin – that is, unless Da Vinci painted or took a rather vain portrait of himself, which seems to me, though possible, a rather dubious proposition. Do I make myself clear?
15. What are your thoughts about the dualism of the Cathars – what do you feel may have been the source of their ideology?
I am not a great expert on the ‘Cathars’ of Southern France but, given what we know about them, it is clear that they owe a lot to earlier dualistic and Gnostic movements, both in Eastern Europe (particularly in the Balkans) and Asia Minor. Of course, these too were ‘wiped out’ by ‘High Church’ Crusades against them in Southern France (1209-1229, not long after ‘the Mandelion’ would have been taken from Byzantium and not long before the Templars were also ‘wiped out’ in France), so I suppose we shall never know.
16. What do you believe to be the importance of the Jewish community in Spain, from the 12th century, with respect to the important Kabbalistic schools and the work that took place there? Has its importance been overlooked, in your estimation?
Of course, the Jewish community of northern Spain and, for that matter, southern France and the ‘Jewish Kingdom’ that was said to have existed at some point after the compilation of The Zohar – the compendium of the literature of these ‘Jewish Kabbalistic Schools’, as you put it – in this area (supposedly around the 13th century too) is important and has been overlooked, just as the Jewish Kingdom that existed in southern Arabia before the coming of Islam has generally tended to be. However, what its influence on these matters and the transmission of manuscripts might have been is difficult to say.
I have this to say: as far as I am concerned, the Qumran materials do have an influence on Jewish Kabbalah, either direct or indirect, and I have expressed this in my work. In the dedication to Maccabees, Zadokites, Christians and Qumran (also found in my The Dead Sea Scrolls and the First Christians) I have given two quotes from The Zohar – considered by many scholars to have originated in these areas also in the Thirteenth Century as just noted (I, for one, am not so sure): one quote is from the chapter on “Noah” on the nature of ‘the Zaddik’, which very much resembles Qumran material and Early Church literature on the same subject; and another is from the chapter on “Phineas” on both “the Messiah” and “the Righteous One”, which also very much resembles the War Scroll from Qumran and, in addition, how the former is portrayed in this same Early Church literature.
Let me just say that, if somehow there does turn out to be some transmission of materials from Qumran in some form into these locations in Northern Spain and Southern France – which I admit is a very unlikely possibility – this is how the transmission may or would have occurred and this is why I have been interested at all, as I have explained above, in this area in the first place. Not only in relation to ‘the Cathars’, but also in relation to ‘the Templars’, some very peculiar things were taking place in Southern France and certainly these ‘Kabbalistic’ tendencies in neighbouring areas in Northern Spain are one way of explaining or trying to come to grips with them.
17. What’s next? What are you working on at present and what can we expect from you in the future?
At the moment, I have done all the work I intend to do on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Everything I know is in my two books, James the Brother of Jesus and The New Testament Code, both 1,000 pages – the second with 200 pages of footnotes online that can be obtained from my website. If people read these books, fine; if people do not, well then, fine too. I have done all I can do to render these matters comprehensible and viable, both to scholars and the general public alike. I can do no more than this and that is why they are so long and so dense. In fact, I have the impression that people, as I said, are not reading or taking seriously the second work at all. That is their loss, not mine. In that regard, there is nothing further I can do.
At the moment, I am working on An Insider’s Account of the Struggle to Free the Scrolls, which will tell the whole story as it really occurred, unlike something like Hershel Shanks’ recently-published, and somewhat superficial, similarly-titled Freeing the Dead Sea Scrolls, in which he calls himself – somewhat disingenuously – “an Archaeology Outsider”. So, that’s what I’m working on – that and some of my early poetry to go along with the collection I mentioned above, out in 2007 by North Atlantic Books, The New Jerusalem: A Poetic/Prophetic Millennium Travel Diario. If anyone knows a good agent or publisher for the former, just let me know.
[This Interview is posted ‘as is’, unedited, at the request of the author.]