Atomic Clock Verifies Oldest Bible Manuscript (Dec, 1951)

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Atomic Clock Verifies Oldest Bible Manuscript

By James T. Howard

They shall heat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

—Isaiah II, 4.

WHEN the atom bomb first mushroomed its message or death and destruction into the sky six years ago, there were many who speculated on the future uses of atomic knowledge. But few if any put Bible study on their list.

Now, as Christmas of 1951 nears, we find the seeming miracle has come to pass. Science is revealed as the handmaid of religion; radioactive carbon-14 and the Geiger counter are instruments for casting new light on the accuracy of our modem Bible. Cosmic rays that bombarded the earth when Christ was born have left behind a coded message for nuclear physicists to decipher.

It was strangely fitting that nuclear scientists, turning from war to peacetime research, should undertake the task of determining the age of an ancient transcript of the Book of Isaiah, usually considered the greatest of the Old Testament prophets.

For it was Isaiah who, 25 centuries ago, envisioned a time when the weapons of war would be reconverted forever into the tools of peace. And it was Isaiah who asked: “Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?”

Science hasn’t yet achieved all the answers to that all-embracing query; but it has established, with its strange modern tools, that an ancient Hebrew scroll of the Book of Isaiah is the oldest known Biblical manuscript in the world, dating back approximately to the time Christ walked the earth.

This Isaiah is one of the famous “Dead Sea scrolls” which made headlines back in 1947 when they were found in Palestine. A band of Bedouin smugglers, traveling a back-country route to Bethlehem to avoid arrest, camped one night at the oasis of Ain el Feshkhah on the hot north shore of the Dead Sea. There a goat escaped and led the Bedouins a merry chase over the rocky desert terrain. One of the pursuers lost interest in the chase when he suddenly came upon a small opening in the face of the rock about four feet above the ground.

Presently it was discovered that he had stumbled on the mouth of a small cave, an opening through which a thin man could crawl, proceeding to an antechamber jammed full of earthen jars, many of them sealed with earthen covers.

Like greedy treasure hunters the world over, the illiterate Bedouins quickly smashed jar after jar, cursing their luck because the treasure that tumbled out was neither gold nor precious stones. To their minds, the rolled parchments were so much brittle rubbish to be crushed underfoot and kicked aside.

Fortunately, among the smugglers were one or two who sensed a chance for making at least a small profit from the disappointing windfall. They salvaged an armful of scrolls, ones that appeared to be in better condition, and undertook to peddle them as curious antiquities in the black market of Jerusalem.

Isaiah in Bargain Buy

Buyers included Jewish and Arabian scholars and collectors, but the best bargain went to the Assyrian Archbishop of Jerusalem, Yeshue Samuel. For a handful of coins he acquired a package lot of five scrolls. One of these proved to be the priceless Isaiah, a complete script closely written over almost 24 feet of parchment, all in a remarkable state of preservation.

Samuel didn’t realize the full extent of the bargain he had bought until experts from the American School of Oriental Research visited his monastery and assured him that these were the most important Biblical documents unearthed in perhaps a thousand years. In due time, the Archbishop journeyed to America with his five precious scrolls, depositing them temporarily in the Oriental Institute at Chicago for translation and study.

Experts Disagree on Age

Meanwhile, there developed a bitter conflict over the age and authenticity of the scrolls. The archeologists, with few exceptions, agreed that the scrolls dated from the first or second centuries. They reached this conclusion by traditional methods of dating: by comparing the texture of jars and parchment and wrappings with other products of the early Christian era. Arrayed against them was another band of experts, including scholars, who maintained that the literary style of the Isaiah definitely marked it as a product of the Middle Ages, the period from 600 to 900 A.D.

So the dispute stood, seething and uncertain, when an unidentified peacemaker with a realistic, modern mind proposed a solution. The Dead Sea scrolls were in Chicago. Virtually around the corner was the University of Chicago, where nuclear physicists had established a technique for measuring the age of plant and animal matter. What could be simpler than to have the physicists settle the dispute once and for all?

“Atomic Calendar” Put on Job

Dating by radioactivity is the brain child of Willard F. Libby, a radiochemist, who, with several associates, had developed the technique known now as the “atomic calendar.” Libby discovered that the constant bombardment of cosmic rays from stellar space turns nitrogen in the atmosphere into radioactive carbon-14. Every breathing thing—plant or animal—takes in some of this carbon-14, which is retained even after breathing stops. Because the radioactivity of carbon-14 declines by half in 5,600 years, it is possible to arrive at the approximate age of any plant or animal matter by measuring the radioactivity of its carbon-14.

By this technique, Libby already had estimated the age of wood from an Egyptian mummy’s casket, flooring from a Syrian palace, cedar from an Egyptian funeral boat and other items, checking in each instance with dates established by archeologists using traditional methods.

Dating the Isaiah scroll was just another chore for Libby who had just finished determining an age of 3,798 years for a charcoal sample from Stonehenge, 6,381 years for a handful of grain from an Egyptian pit, and 11,109 years for a scrap of burned bone from a Paleolithic hearth. For the Isaiah job he selected fragments from the linen wrapping of the scroll.

Geiger Counter Goes to Work

Following the established practice, Libby burned an ounce of this material to the state of pure carbon. This he smeared inside the tube of a Geiger counter. To eliminate interference by current cosmic radiation, the whole apparatus was shielded with thick blocks of steel. Then the radioactivity of the carbon-14 in the tube was carefully counted to arrive at the date when the carbon-14 was created by the action of cosmic rays. In this way we get the answer to the Isaiah riddle:

The Dead Sea scrolls were wrapped in linen which was made from flax that was alive and breathing 1,917 years ago!

Dead Sea Scrolls Are Oldest

Libby, however, cautioned that this answer is not to be accepted as final and exact. The technique of dating gives an exact age—in this instance, 1,917 years—but one must always allow a margin of error, a century or two either way. Ignoring this margin of error, the figure of 1,917 takes us back to the year 34 A.D., approximate date of the Crucifixion.

This daring of the Dead Sea scrolls is of tremendous importance to Bible scholars who, until now, have had no physical evidence to prove that any part of the Bible existed that long ago. They are now reasonably certain that the Book of Isaiah, much as we know it today, was available in the original Hebrew in the time of Christ or shortly thereafter. The oldest known Biblical manuscript heretofore is a fragment of a letter of John, drafted perhaps a century after Christ’s time.

There is no such thing as an original manuscript or first edition of the Bible or any of its parts. The Bible is an omnibus of many books written by many authors. Roughly, these books date from about 1000 B.C. to 150 A.D.

Except for fragments, such as the John letter, the oldest versions available when our modern Bibles, were prepared have dated back only to the Middle Ages, to about the eighth or ninth century of the Christian era. These were copies or translations of still older manuscripts, dating conceivably to a time more than 10 centuries before Christ, to the time when the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic Code -were scrawled on papyrus or parchment and first “published.”

Settles 300-Year Debate

The King James version of the Bible, which we read today, was translated from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek versions by 54 learned men of the Church of England during the years 1604 to 1611. Experts have debated for 300 years over questions of authenticity, quality of source material and accuracy of translation.

Isaiah, for instance, lived in the seventh century B.C. The book of Isaiah, as it appears in our Bible, was translated from a Hebrew version drafted at least 14 centuries after the prophet’s time. Thanks to carbon-14 and the Geiger counter, this time lapse has been cut approximately in half, bringing us centuries closer to the lost “first edition.” Our confidence in King James’s translators gets a sharp lift when we discover that their version checks accurately against the older script.

Did Cave Hold Other Treasures?

But who were the men who stored these scrolls in a desert cave near Ain el Feshkhah? Probably religious leaders of an ancient Jewish sect (the scholars say) who fled from invaders after hiding their religious library in the safest place they could find. Didn’t they have anything to hide but scrolls in earthen jars? Isn’t it possible they were wise men who sought to store the essence of their knowledge in a natural time capsule where it would be found and appreciated by wiser men, perhaps, in some distant future?

The grim joke is that when the precious cache was found the bulk of it was lost in a few ruthless minutes under the rough feet of ignorant tribesmen, men who live today much as their ancestors lived when the cave at Ain el Feshkhah was sealed 20 centuries ago’.

But now that we know such hot and dry caves will preserve parchment through the centuries, there is hope archaeologists may strike such treasure again.

1 comment
  1. inertia says: February 12, 20079:08 pm

    For more information about the Dead Sea Scrolls:


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