Authors: Jack Cavanaugh
“For seven summers Heritage College has teamed with Texas A&M University to explore archeological sites of biblical significance. Each year two or three select students participate in the program as partial fulfillment of their academic degree. This summer one of our students had the unique privilege of working in association with the Institute of Nautical Archeology on a site in Northern Africa, specifically Alexandria, Egypt. To say that she was a participant in a finding of historic proportions is an understatement. Her discovery of two scrolls in an undersea cave rivals that of the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
A buzz swept through the crowd, as small as it was.
“Mr. Dutton, if you please.”
Whitson motioned to a student seated at a table laden with projection equipment. The boy pecked at a laptop computer keyboard and moments later images of ancient manuscripts illuminated two flanking screens.
Dr. Whitson turned to the screen on his left. “What you see on this screen is a manuscript unseen by human eyes for over sixteen hundred years, since the day it was placed in the underground cave. The manuscript itself—though its dating has yet to be confirmed—is believed to be older than any of the Dead Sea Scrolls. At present, we estimate it to be approximately 2,230 years old.”
Dr. Whitson turned toward the front and spoke to the cameras directly.
“But it’s not the age of the manuscript that fascinates us. What makes both of these manuscripts worthy of a press conference is that they are copies of books that have been lost to us for centuries, books that are mentioned by name in the Bible.”
He pointed to the projections. First one, then the other.
“Ladies and gentlemen, on my left you are looking at the Book of Jasher. And on my right, the Book of the Wars of the Lord.”
A chill went down my spine even though I’d already seen the projections in the president’s office. Dr. Whitson himself was likewise caught up in the emotion of the moment. I turned to see if the reporters shared our feelings. They didn’t. But neither were they uninterested. They took notes dutifully.
Dr. Whitson went on to describe each of the books.
“The Book of Jasher is a sacred songbook, the national anthology of the ancient Israelites. A collection of verse, it describes great events in the history of Israel and is mentioned in the Book of Joshua. It includes the Song of the Bow, David’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.
“The Book of the Wars of the Lord is a collection of odes dating back to the time of Moses himself. It is a celebration of the glorious acts of the Lord among the Israelites.
“As you might imagine, Heritage College is humbled to be part of an archeological find of this magnitude. Now, allow me to introduce you to the student who made the actual discovery, our very own Tiffany Sproul.”
There was a smattering of applause, from the assembled representatives of the college, not the media.
An unassuming young lady moved to the lectern. She wore a simple print dress. Straight brown hair fell to her shoulders. At first impression she appeared unsophisticated, but that was misleading. Her eyes flashed intelligence and her speech was articulate. But there was no enthusiasm in her voice. She’d been thrust into the national spotlight and she spoke as though she didn’t want to be here.
She didn’t. Having been briefed ahead of time, I knew that for a fact. I also knew why she’d agreed to make an appearance and I admired her for her courage.
“Louder! We can’t hear you!” one of the reporters shouted.
Miss Sproul leaned closer to the microphone and began again.
“One of the requirements to be selected to the team was the ability to scuba dive. I have been a certified diver for five years. Because I was a summer intern, my assignment was to gather pottery shards on the periphery of the site, an area that had already been explored and mapped.”
A map of the Northern African coastline appeared on the left screen with a red crusader’s cross marking the location of the city of Alexandria.
The same reporter who had complained she wasn’t speaking loudly enough interrupted her a second time. “Are we going to be given a copy of that map?”
Miss Sproul stepped aside so that Dr. Whitson could field the question.
“Press packets have been compiled for you with everything that you see here this morning. They will be made available to you at the end of the press conference. Please hold all questions until the end.”
“Why can’t we have them now?” the reporter complained. “We always get press packets before the start of a conference.”
Exhibiting the patience of a host, Dr. Whitson said politely but firmly, “Today you will be getting them at the conclusion of the press conference. Now if you’ll—”
“Is there a reason you’re keeping them from us?” the reporter persisted.
“Please,” Dr. Whitson said, his patience growing thin, “hold all questions and comments to the end.”
He motioned for Miss Sproul to continue. She took a deep breath and once again approached the microphone. She began softly, glanced at the pesky reporter, and spoke louder.
“My pouch—a net I used to collect the shards—was getting full and I was about to swim to the surface when I noticed some plants waving, which isn’t unusual given the swirling currents in the area, but these were at the base of a rock formation and were waving steadily in a direction different from all the other plants.”
Her eyes had a distant look to them. She was reliving the experience.
“When I swam down to investigate I could feel an underground stream coming from a fissure in the rocks. When I explored further—”
She hesitated. Her eyes darted side to side. She was envisioning the rock formation.
“—it was like Aladdin’s cave, you know? All I did was touch it and it crumbled open, as if it were magic.”
As she relived the moment, excitement crept into her face and voice. Then she caught herself and the thrill faded.
“My instructions were that if I were to find anything of significance, I was to notify my supervisor immediately.” She shrugged innocently. “But how was I to know if the finding was significant. I had to look inside, didn’t I?”
Her playfulness made me grin.
“When the water cleared I found a cave roughly ten meters in diameter. Shards from what we have since concluded were the remains of at least five jars littered the floor. One jar remained intact. The jar containing the manuscripts.”
A color photo of the vessel appeared on the screen. It was cylindrical, about two meters tall with a lid. On the second screen there appeared a picture of the interior of the cave. Miss Sproul pointed to where she had found the unbroken jar.
She continued, “Of course at the time I didn’t know what was in the jar. I suspected manuscripts, but it could have been a government census or a grain inventory or a scientific or philosophical treatise. I alerted my supervisor and the experts took over from there.”
Miss Sproul glanced over at Dr. Whitson to signal she was finished. The president thanked her and she left the platform. She’d agreed to give a statement only after the president promised her she wouldn’t have to field any questions.
To cover her departure Whitson expounded on the historical and theological significance of the lost manuscripts. The preacher in him surfaced and when he concluded I almost expected him to give an invitation to those who had experienced a conversion experience. Instead, he called for questions.
The obnoxious reporter was the first to speak. “What was in the other five vessels?”
“We’ll never know, will we?” Dr. Whitson replied. “Once their seal was broken the contents were exposed to the sea. They disintegrated centuries ago.”
“Other than the jars,” the reporter asked by way of follow-up, “were there any other artifacts in the cave? Any human remains?”
“No, and again, understandably so. While we wouldn’t expect to find human remains in the cave, had there been any, they wouldn’t have lasted long.”
Jana raised her hand to ask a question.
“Yes, Miss Torres,” Dr. Whitson said, obviously pleased to call on a friendly representative of the press.
“Wasn’t there a third manuscript in the jar?” she asked.
To a person, the expressions onstage soured.
Whitson glanced at the professor before answering. “Yes, well—” He took a moment to formulate his reply. “As with the other two manuscripts, it is being examined with the utmost care. However, compared to the magnitude of finding the Book of Jasher and the Book of the Wars, the third manuscript is not worth commenting on at this time. Are there any other questions?”
Without waiting to be called on, Jana followed up. “Dr. Whitson, I’m afraid the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt disagrees with you.”
Standing beside her, Ostermann handed her a sheet of paper from which she read.
“According to Dr. Zahin Pasha, general director of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, Egypt, ‘Of the three manuscripts, while the two have great significance in the field of ancient history, the third manuscript is most intriguing and may prove to be the most significant.’ Would you care to comment now?”
She looked to Dr. Whitson for a response.
Whitson’s eyes narrowed defensively. The professor was frowning. Sue Ling silently implored Jana to back off with subtle but urgent shakes of her head.
“I assure you, Miss Torres,” Dr. Whitson said, adopting a fatherly tone, “the third manuscript is nonsense. Its authorship is uncertain, and its content appears to be little more than bizarre ramblings. If anything, it will give us insight into ancient humor. And while any manuscript discovered in Alexandria merits close academic study, to give this manuscript equal time with the other two manuscripts is sacrilegious. Any other questions?”
Jana took a couple steps closer to the platform.
“Dr. Whitson,” she pressed, “obviously, the person who placed the third manuscript in the jar thought it comparable in value with the other two.”
“Miss Torres,” Whitson countered, “while I cannot speak for the man who placed the scrolls in the jar, I can tell you with the utmost assurance that in time the third manuscript will prove to be nothing more than an amusement.”
“Exactly what is it about the third manuscript that frightens you?”
“That’s enough!” the professor said.
He wheeled to the edge of the platform. His outburst startled everyone in the room, including President Whitson.
Glaring at Jana, he said, “This press conference is over.”
But Jana wasn’t finished asking questions. Again, Ostermann fed her ammunition. “Dr. Whitson, correct me if I’m wrong, but according to my sources, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities has carbon-dated the manuscripts and found that the papyrus of the Book of Jasher and the Book of Wars dates back to sometime in the third century. Yet you say that they record events that occurred centuries earlier.”
“That is correct,” Whitson said, somewhat distracted by the professor, who continued to glare at Jana. “Given the fragile nature of the writing materials it is unlikely we will ever find one of the original manuscripts. What we found in Alexandria is a copy. But that is also true for all the books of the Bible. All we have are copies. We do not have the originals. That said, the copies we have are sufficient for us to be confident that the text in our Bibles is an accurate representation of the originals.”
Jana consulted her sheet. “And yet this third manuscript may very well be an original, not a copy. Is it true that the carbon-testing dates the third manuscript to the early second century?”
“That is my understanding.”
“Which would place it where? In the early what? Hundreds?”
“One hundred to 125.
“Common Era. It used to be
“So then, this third manuscript was written around the time the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament were written?”
“Correct. The New Testament writings date roughly from 50 to 100
Jana smiled. “So that explains why Professor Forsythe, a New Testament professor, is on the platform for a press conference about two manuscripts that are linked to the Old Testament.”
A murmur rippled through the assembled press corps. They scribbled furiously on their notepads.
The professor and Jana squared off across the room, gazes locked.
“Dr. Forsythe is here at my request,” Whitson said, “as a representative of the faculty.”
“Do you have any further questions, Miss Torres?” the professor snapped.
His statement was not a question, but a challenge.
Jana didn’t back down. “Are you familiar with the content of the third manuscript?”
“No comment. Any further questions?”
Behind the professor Sue Ling had abandoned her attempts to motion Jana to back down. Instead, she directed her efforts at me. There was an urgency in her eyes that bordered on panic.
What did she expect me to do? Put my hand over Jana’s mouth and drag her out of the room?