The chronology of earthquakes in the Holy Land from the Bronze Age to the present is alarming

The green hills of Jerusalem should be covered in wild flowers this Easter. Record winter rainfalls have transformed the sandy Judean desert and its dry wadis. But there wasn’t enough rain to dislodge stubborn rocks concealing possible ancient apertures to hidden caves on the craggy cliffs of Qumran. Since the Dead Sea Scrolls – the oldest existing copies of the Bible – were unearthed there on the north-western shore of the Dead Sea­ in the 1940s and 1950s, archaeologists haven’t found one cave with a cache of biblical parchments.

“Yes, there could well be Dead Sea scrolls waiting to be discovered,” said the eminent archaeologist, Prof Jean-Baptiste Humbert, a French Dominican priest at the École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem. “Some roofs of caves may have collapsed during earthquakes making them difficult to find.

“Devastating though it might be, another earthquake could also reveal a tiny entrance to a secret cave,” he said. “Four of the caves with scrolls hadn’t been noticed at first by archaeologists because their entrances had collapsed. But an earthquake could also destroy any unknown caves with pots and scrolls. We should get in before the next earthquake with up-to-date technology – the equivalent of radar – to detect empty spaces in the cliff.”

Indeed, the chronology of earthquakes in the Holy Land from the Bronze Age to the present is alarming. There has been a notable earthquake nearly every century. The last major one was in 1927, with a magnitude of 6.3 on the Richter scale, resulting in 500 deaths in Jerusalem, Nablus, Tiberias and elsewhere. That occurred only 90 years after the previous destructive quake in 1837, which killed 5,000 people. Its epicentre was in the Dead Sea.

According to the historian Josephus Flavius, in 31BC 30,000 people lost their lives in an earthquake. And, of course, Matthew and Mark mention an earthquake in Jerusalem following the Crucifixion.

Fr Humbert added: “Qumran was abandoned after an earthquake, and since then there have been many others. Who knows when the 21st century earthquake will occur at Qumran? It could be any moment.”

Fr Humbert, who has worked on Qumran material for 30 years, is currently completing the third volume of a substantial work, Khirbet Qumran et Ain Feshka III, which will be published this year. Given the heated disputes, controversies and enigmas about Qumran, especially over the purpose of the site and its occupants, the Essenes, a breakaway sect of pious Jews, it was no surprise to hear Fr Humbert say: “I’m dangerous. I have new interpretations.”

But his latest book will mainly go back to the essentials, including a dialogue with Roland de Vaux, the archaeologist of the 1950s, who did the original research at Qumran. “One theory is that Qumran only had a small permanent population as, being close to Jerusalem, it was the spiritual centre of the Essenes, whose followers lived in other areas, including settlements scattered around the shores of the Dead Sea,” he said. “Numbers living at Qumran have often been overestimated as the main Essene burial ground was there.”

Fr Humbert also believes that, despite inkwells found in the Qumran scriptorium, the majority of the scrolls were brought from other places to be hidden from the advancing Roman army.

Another example of how archaeologists interpret information in different ways appeared in a newspaper article here in Jerusalem last week: ‘‘First-century house unearthed in Nazareth could be Jesus’s childhood home’’. The house, of simple mortar and stone walls cut into a rocky hillside, was discovered in the 1880s by nuns at the Sisters of Nazareth convent. When I asked a biblical scholar whether Jesus had lived there, he looked at me with amusement and scepticism: “Some argue that only a few hundred people lived in Nazareth in the early first century. Others say that there were a thousand or more. So, say there were around 50 families living in Nazareth at the time of Jesus, then there’s a one in 50 chance.”

There’s no dispute about the documents I have been unearthing from the archives of the sharia court on the al-Haram al-Sharif, adjacent to the al-Aqsa mosque. My research adds a new layer of history to Muslim-Christian relations in the Holy Land. Most of the Qadi judgments belong to the Ottoman era (1517-1917); some go back earlier and show that Arab Christians, even women, monks and priests, sometimes turned their backs on their own church courts and took disputes, especially over inheritance and matrimonial matters, to the sharia court. Because of restrictions over divorce in the church courts Christians sometimes availed themselves of sharia law to terminate marriage.

Interestingly, the records reveal that there was a standard oath for Christians. Instead of saying: “God is Allah and there is no other God,” before giving evidence, they recited: “The Lord who endowed Jesus, son of Mary with the Bible.”

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (13/3/15).

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