The Dead Sea Scrolls, 1947–1969

Wilson’s updating of his readable summary is of interest to BYU Studies mainly because of his eight-page treatment of Mormonism in closing. As an eminent critic and author, Wilson has shown himself a man for all subjects. Though a self-confessed nonexpert on the scrolls, his narrative powers brought his work wide attention as a model of conciseness. Incorporated with small modification into the new edition, the original six chapters average some twenty pages each. But the revision’s main characteristics are shown in roughly doubling the length by adding seventeen chapters, averaging some ten pages each. The result is a series of vignettes, at first on the significance of post-1955 discoveries, followed by essentially impressionistic travelogue. Thus personal tastes of the author predominate, both on the main subject and the closing incidental comments on Joseph Smith.

The revision continues to popularize a point of view that has caused distinct Christian squirmings. “A born shrinker of myths” (p. 275), Wilson has thrown the light of the scrolls on “the myth of the origins of Christianity” (p. 276). New environmental parallels, he believes, would tend to reduce Christian “divine revelation” to a mere “episode of human history” (p. 109). Messianic proof-texts, similar programs of the scroll brotherhood and John the Baptist, indicate that Qumran “is perhaps, more than Bethlehem or Nazareth, the cradle of Christianity” (p. 98). But there is a paradox in method here. Such conclusions are based on the certainty of knowing Essene teachings through scrolls of the same period as the oldest Gospel manuscripts, which Wilson finds essentially untrustworthy in recording the history and teachings of Jesus. Human proneness to the legendary he considers a sufficient explanation of Christian origins. In a similar fashion, the creation of the mythology of Mormonism “right under our noses . . . and as lately as the last century” (p. 279) shows how imagination and pretense may produce a “metamorphosis” resulting in prophethood for Joseph Smith, and perhaps even Messiahship for Jesus. Concerning Wilson’s writings in general, one scholar finds the “characteristic vices” of “irritability, resentment, the impatient dismissal of what cannot be absorbed without a basic recasting of his own fixed attitudes.” This may be more the real issue than specific data about either Jesus or Joseph Smith, since Wilson confesses inability “to identify myself imaginatively with the Christian who believes that Jesus was actually the Son of God…” (p. 287) and admits that “one cannot help feeling a certain contempt” for human super-naturalistic cravings that permitted acceptance of Joseph Smith(p. 278).

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