In his blog for The Times of Israel of March 25, 2016, journalist Simcha Jacobovici claims to have made a significant “discovery”. Jacobovici claims to have upset the current scholarly consensus that the community responsible for the Dead Sea scrolls was unconnected with the early followers of Jesus:
Now, I’ve made a discovery that may change all this. Put simply, I believe that one of the fragments called by scholars by the very unappealing name of “4Q541” explicitly refers to Jesus.
Jacobovici claims that the text in question, fragment 24 of 4Q541 (or “4QApocryphon of Levi”), mentions several items connected with Jesus: a “dove” (יונא), “crucifixion” (ותליא), a “nail” (וצצא), and the words “do not mourn for him” (אל תתאבל בה).
Jacobovici’s blog post goes on to claim that scholars have avoided what he has “discovered”. Jacobovici claims that Florentino García Martínez “must have been nervous about the original reference to ‘the nail’ [in Martínez’s earlier translation] and changed his translation”. In the Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, Martínez (with Eibert Tigchelar) translates וצצא as “night-hawk” rather than “nail”, and omits any translation of ותליא. Jacobovici infers that scholars are avoiding finding Jesus in the Dead Sea scrolls: “Were scholars worried about finding Jesus in any ancient texts other than the New Testament?” Jacobovici examined 4Q541 to check that the word ותליא is there, and acknowledges that the ת is fragmentary and less than fully certain. But he believes that it is ת, so comments, “So now I became really suspicious.” When he checks the translation with Dead Sea scrolls translator Émile Puech, Jacobovici concludes that, in omitting the translation “dove”, “Puech purposely fudged the translation so that the reference to Jesus would be lost”.
There are several things wrong with Jacobovici’s article, in addition to its conspiracy-theorist tone.
First, Jacobovici’s claim that “now, I’ve made a discovery that may change all this” makes it sound as if he is the first to discover possible references to a crucifixion and related motifs in 4Q541. He is not. In fact, Émile Puech, with whom Jacobovici spoke, had proposed such a meaning in the official publication of the text, fifteen years ago, in 2001. Not only that, but Puech’s interpretation of the text has been largely followed by George Brooke, in his comparison of the Dead Sea scrolls and New Testament (Fortress Press, 2005). This is by no means, contrary to Jacobovici’s sensationalism, a “discovery”.
Second, Jacobovici is simply flat-out incorrect that 4Q541 “explicitly refers to Jesus”. For there to be an “explicit” reference, the reference must be, er, just that: explicit. Yet there is no mention of the name Jesus/Yeshu(a) in 4Q541. It doesn’t appear explicitly. Therefore, it is wrong to claim that there is an explicit reference to Jesus in the text.
Third, there is a very good reason for the hesitation of many scholars to translate the text with the words “crucifixion”, “nail”, or even “dove”. 4Q541 is a fragmentary text, and its meaning – as a result – is unavoidably uncertain. It is normally the case, in any reconstruction of fragmentary Dead Sea scrolls, that different scholars come up with quite different meanings. Nothing is unusual here, let alone worthy of conspiracy-theory sensationalism. In particular: the ו and ת in ותליא are unclear, which makes the translation “crucifixion”/”suspension” uncertain. In addition, the term צצא is rare, so we can’t be at all sure that the text refers to a “nail”. On top of all this, there are gaps in the fragment which make the context and meaning difficult to determine. This is not an instance of scholarly bias, despite Jacobovici’s attempt to portray it that way. It is, rather, an example of appropriate scholarly caution. We have a fragmentary text and we are uncertain about its meaning and significance.
Fourth: the text predates Jesus by a century or more. Let’s assume that the text does mention crucifixion and nails, mourning, and a dove. Would we then be compelled to conclude that it must refer to Jesus? Not at all. Palaeographical (handwriting) analysis of 4Q541 indicates that the text dates to the end of the second century BCE or about 100 BCE. Its style of handwriting matches that of other texts from this period (eg. 1QS, 1QIsaa, and 4Q175). Although Jacobovici does not mention it in his blog post, Puech himself dated the text some 100-150 years before Jesus. The obvious conclusion is that 4Q541 cannot refer to Jesus.
Simcha Jacobovici has a history of seeing Jesuses where there are no Jesuses. A few years ago, he made the claim, since comprehensively disproved, that a portrait of a vase in a Jerusalem tomb was “a Jonah fish”, an early Christian symbol. As Mark Goodacre summarized, “He’s seeing things that simply aren’t there.” And so it continues, in the next, sensationalist Simcha TV show.