Scroll fragment challenges basic tenet of Christianity: Oliver Gillie considers the implications of a portion of Dead Sea text published for the first time today

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A FRAGMENT of ancient text from the Dead Sea Scrolls challenges the fundamental Christian belief that Jesus was the unique Son of God, or at least that he was the only person to have been given such a title in ancient Judeo- Christian literature.

Another 'Son of God', who, in total contrast to Jesus, was a wicked usurper, has been identified in a Dead Sea text, which has only recently become fully available to scholars.

For years the words of the fragment were kept secret, but now, translated and published in full for the first time, they present a dilemma for Christian dogmatists.

The existence of the fragment was known only to a small group of scholars who worked under the supervision of Father Roland de Vaux, the Dominican archaeologist, and his intellectual descendants. Anxious to preserve their scholarly interests and fearful, perhaps, that the scrolls would shake Christian belief, they jealously guarded their secrets.

The text of the fragment, translated by Professor Geza Vermes, of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew Studies, is published for the first time today, in the Independent.

The text, which was almost certainly composed more than 100 years before the birth of Christ, contains the words: 'The son of God he will be proclaimed and the Son of the Most High they will call him.' It is the first time that the expression 'Son of God' has been found in a text written in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. The use of the expression in this ancient source shows that it was applied at one time to someone other than Jesus.

Words almost identical to those in the fragment are used to describe Jesus in Luke's account of the annunciation (Luke i,32 and i,35), originally written in Greek.

According to Luke, an angel appears to Mary and tells her that she has found favour with God and will give birth to a son. The Angel said: 'He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High . . . the Son of God.'

A few lines of the fragment were released some years ago and there was a flurry of speculation among scholars over the identity of the Son of God referred to. According to a theory of David Flusser, a former professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the person is the Anti-Christ, a mythical ruler of the pagan world.

But it is only now, with the fragment available in full, that a considered interpretation can be made. By scholarly detective work Professor Vermes has deduced the words 'Son of God' refer to a wicked pagan despot, the last ruler of the final world empire.

The fragment containing the words can be tentatively dated, from the script in which it is written, to the first century BC. But the content has close resemblances to sections of the Old Testament Book of Daniel, from the second century BC, suggesting the words of the fragment were composed at this time or earlier.

The first portion of text on the fragment is damaged and so cannot be translated properly. But it begins with a speaker, similar to Daniel, who explains a vision to a King seated on a throne. Oppression and massacre are mentioned in connection with the King of Assyria and probably the King of Egypt and the speaker refers to one who will be great on earth and will be served by all. This person is called Son of God and Son of the Most High in the second undamaged half of the fragment.

The text refers to a Kingdom, which Professor Vermes believes is the Kingdom of the people of God who are referred to in Daniel (vii,27) as the people of the saints of the Most High: The dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High. Their Kingdom shall be an everlasting Kingdom, and all the dominions shall serve and obey them.

Professor Vermes said: 'The people of the saints of the Most High, called the people of God in the Dead Sea fragment, are the good Jews. The Jews who lived at Qumran near the cave where this fragment was found would have seen themselves as the people of the saints of the Most High.

'The personality called Son of God in the fragment appears to be the last ruler of the final world empire whose reign is characterised by warfare among nations. It would seem that, during the rule of the Son of God, everyone was oppressed by him, including the people of God. The story comes to a conclusion when God defeats all his pagan enemies, including the people ruled by the Son of God. God then hands over dominion to the people of God and thereafter eternal peace reigns.'

The subject matter of the fragment, the coming of the Kingdom of God, provides another link with Jesus, who taught that the Kingdom of God was at hand. There are references in various Old Testament books to good Jews or Kings of Israel being God's sons, but use of the phrase Son of God as an actual title seems to be known only in the New Testament and the Dead Sea fragment.

'It is tantalising,' said Professor Vermes, who is publishing his study of the Dead Sea fragment next month in the Journal of Jewish Studies. 'In Jewish texts it is sometimes a Messiah who delivers the people from their torments and achieves victory over evil. And sometimes it is God himself. In the text of the fragment it is God himself. Son of God would have been quite a normal title for a King Messiah among Jews about that time. But I believe the fragment refers to a usurper.'