Dylan Bergeson reports: A line of rental cars crawled up the side of ribbed sandstone formations, mounded high like giant termite nests. In the distance, the city lights of modern Jericho twinkled on the northern horizon. In this haunted landscape where the West Bank meets the Jordan River, the Dead Sea Scrolls — the oldest-known biblical record — remained hidden for millennia.
The discovery of the scrolls 50 years ago galvanized a resurgent evangelical movement, many of whose members heralded the creation of Israel as evidence of the coming rapture. Since then, the Holy Land has attracted a long succession of academic zealots seeking to tether stories in the Bible to the archaeological record.
For Randall Price, a mid-50’s, sun-reddened pastor from Texas with a neat side part and a booming voice, archaeology is both a scientific and a devotional endeavor. “This was the area where great men of God were tested,” he said. “When you’re excavating there it puts you in touch, physically, with the reality of those events.” Price has spent the last ten years searching for remains of an ascetic Jewish priesthood whom he believes settled in the desert wilderness of Qumran to await the coming of the Messiah and the End of Days. These remains, he said, could provide unprecedented evidence of a biblical text.
At first blush, Price seems like an unlikely candidate to head excavations amid one of the bitterest land disputes in the modern world. Though he never actually received a degree in archaeology, he built a global network around his brand of Near East biblical scholarship with an apocalyptic bent. He has written extensively for the website RaptureReady.com, given lectures suggesting that Iran is fulfilling the role of Antichrist, and has openly called for the United States to declare war on Islam.
Price says his own work underwrites Israeli precedence in some Palestinian land. “Despite the fact that Qumran is probably on the map as the Palestinians’, the fact is we’re unearthing ancient Jewish heritage,” he said. “There’s nothing here that speaks to any other people.”
Price’s politics are unlikely to disrupt his access to the Qumran plateau, however. Located in the West Bank, permits to excavate around Qumran are not issued by the Palestinian Authority, but rather by Israel’s Civil Administration. It’s a bizarre arrangement, which critics say allows Israeli officials and religious pseudo-scientists to cooperate in raiding cultural treasures. [Continue reading…]