Scrolls may reveal more of early church

February 10, 1994|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Sun Staff Writer

A new cache of scrolls that may shed light on the early Christian church was unearthed two months ago in Petra, Jordan, a Dead Sea scrolls expert told an Anne Arundel church this week.

P. Kyle McCarter, the William Foxwell Albright Professor of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University, spoke Sunday in the last of four lectures he presented recently at Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park.

Experts believe the find -- 40 to 50 unopened, fire-charred papyrus scrolls -- may contain the private papers of a fourth- to fifth-century Christian bishop, Flavianus, who apparently was exiled for heresy to Petra for the last six years of his life.

The scrolls, more than 1,400 years old, were carbonized in a fire that burned a Byzantine church found on the site, probably after the building collapsed in an earthquake.

Each scroll is the size of an 8-by-11-inch piece of paper. They are rolled in a style that suggests the documents are correspondence, sermons or other personal papers, Dr. McCarter said.

"They're probably the archives of a fourth-century church," he said. "We don't know much about the church in the Holy Lands during that period."

The scrolls were discovered by a team of archaeologists excavating Petra, a city in southern Jordan that played an important role in the Nabatean empire.

Petra is famous for its natural rock fortifications of rose-colored sandstone. The last scenes of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" were filmed in Petra.

The fortress city, which can be reached only through a narrow stone passage, was a major Nabatean center from about the third century B.C. to the second century A.D. The Nabateans controlled important trade routes along the incense, silk and spice route from China, India and southern Arabia to Rome.

The city also features remains from the Byzantine period of 324 to 640 A.D. The major basilica church, which had burned, was discovered in 1990. The charred scrolls were found in a building next to the church, said Michael Shoemaker, associate editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.

No one will know for certain what the scrolls contain until they are read, but that will be a difficult task, Dr. McCarter said.

Mr. Shoemaker said the writing on a few fragments is exposed and readable, "but a lot are fused together, carbonized from the fire. It's a delicate task, the need to separate and conserve the scrolls simultaneously," he said.

The bishop's name appears on one of the exposed fragments.

The excavation of the church is being done by the American Center for Oriental Research, with a grant from the United States Agency for International Development.

Speaking to the Woods church, Dr. McCarter also reviewed the fierce debate over publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Strict limits on access to the scrolls were lifted more than a year ago.

The approximately 800 documents, considered one of the great archaeological finds of the century, were discovered more than 40 years ago in caves near the Dead Sea. They were written between the second century B.C. and A.D. 70.

Dr. McCarter predicted that the finding of ancient scrolls will be a continuing process.

"As soon as we think we've learned everything there is to know about the Dead Sea scrolls, we come up with another discovery like this at Petra," he said.

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