August 1, 2002

JERUSALEM (AP)--A skeleton discovered near the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found may be the 2,000-year-old remains of John the Baptist, an American professor announced Thursday.

But Israeli archaeologists disputed his theory as being far-fetched and said the burial site unearthed is probably that of an 18th century Bedouin man.

Professor Richard Freund, director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, was part of an expedition at Qumran in the Judean Desert that made the discovery on Monday.

Freund said there was ``circumstantial evidence'' that the well-preserved skeleton may be the ``Teacher of Righteousness,'' the founder of the Jewish sect called the Essenes whose scribes authored the ancient Hebrew scrolls.

He also said that the leader of the Essenes may be the same person as John the Baptist, the prophet who anointed Christ. ``It is possible that a single person like John the Baptist, a leader in the New Testament, may have been this anonymous mysterious person, the Teacher of Righteousness, mentioned in the text of the Dead Sea Scrolls,'' he said. Magen Broshi, one of the heads of the expedition and an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, dismissed Freund's theory.

``No person in the world believes there is a connection between the two. There is nothing to it. What we have unearthed is most probably a skeleton of a Bedouin man from about two or three hundred years ago,'' he said.

Broshi said there was too much of a discrepancy in the dates of the John the Baptist who was killed in A.D. 29 and the sect who lived from 150 B.C. to A.D. 68. The skeleton was discovered near the site where the remains of two women from the period of the Second Temple, the first century A.D., were found last summer, and where a zinc coffin was also unearthed. Freund said the skeleton was found about 1.5 meters (5 feet) under the ground in an elaborate burial chamber situated in a prominent elevated position at the far eastern end of the Qumran cemetery, indicating a person of some importance. A piece of ceramic in the style of the first century era was found alongside the skeleton. The skeleton was also found facing east and the first rays of the rising sun would have hit the burial chamber, he said.

``There is no other burial like this. The Qumran sect were extremely attached to the sun. It is the most elaborate burial one can imagine in a very simple place,'' he said.

The Essenes were a monastic sect that flourished in Palestine from the second century B.C. to the second century A.D. They followed mystical interpretations of the ancient scriptures and strictly followed Jewish rituals. Detailed descriptions of their daily lives were recorded in the scrolls found by Bedouin shepherds.

Freund said there were a number of reasons scholars believed the leader of the sect and John the Baptist were the same person.

This included the similarities between ideas of John the Baptist in the New Testament and those of the Essenes, the fact that there were several ritual pools at Qumran, and that the early Christian went into the wilderness, was from a priestly family and was an ascetic whose lifestyle was close to those of the sect.

Although John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod, according to the Bible, a skull was found with the skeleton.

However, Freund said the body was not excavated intact, but that it was common to bury the skulls of people who had been beheaded together with their bodies. Freund called the discovery ``remarkable.''

``It is the closest thing anyone will ever get to establishing a major figure in the Qumran community. It is the first time we really have someone who can speak by his DNA, by his bones, who can speak for the whole community of Qumran,'' he said.

However, Hanan Eshel, head of the archaeology department at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv and another head of the expedition, dismissed Freund's theory as ``nonsense.'' ``John the Baptist was not part of this group. We don't have a clue who the skeleton buried there belonged to and we won't have,'' he said.

He said about 900 graves from the time of the Essenes buried in the Qumran cemetery faced north-south. About 50 graves faced east-west and were thought to belong to Muslims buried in cemetery in last couple of hundred years.

The skeleton was found lying in an east-west direction, but a cooking pot found at its feet dated back to the Second Temple period. ``What was found there on Monday is confusing. It is very strange,'' Eshel said, adding that the process of dating the bones would still take some time.

Adolfo Roitman, curator and director of the Shrine of the Book where the scrolls are kept at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, said some scholars tried to identify the founder of the sect with historic characters mentioned in the New Testament to try and resolve the riddle of the ancient texts.

``We don't know who the real person behind the title Teacher of Righteousness is. But attempts to try and identify these people as the first Christians is a theory most scholars including myself don't accept,'' he said.

However, Roitman said it seemed ``reasonable'' that the skeleton and the artifacts found in the gave were from the same period, ``but I won't dare to say more than that.''

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