- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 1999

OKLAHOMA CITY - In his mind, Curt Niccum handles a piece of leather, fingering its softness. His eyes dance over the characters in the leather, looking for clues.

The sporadic marks suddenly begin forming characters in Hebrew and Aramaic, and entire passages of text materialize. He has pieced together the manuscript.

On the computer screen before him is a photograph of a time-worn, tattered fragment. It may be leather, papyrus or copper. Whatever the material, the condition is the same so fragile that when it's not being photographed, the fragment is wrapped in linen or carefully unrolled so it can be viewed behind glass.

Mr. Niccum is part of an elite team of 50 or so scholars struggling to reconstruct the Dead Sea Scrolls from tens of thousands of fragments. Beginning in March, translations of all recovered portions of the scrolls are expected to be published.

He scans the piece for legible characters in languages foreign to most, yet almost as familiar to him as his native English. For more than two years, he pored over computer images and microfiche, looking for the scattered, minuscule marks and fragmented sentences that remain in the native scripts.

His link to a past unearthed more than 50 years ago is a connection that Mr. Niccum, 37, feels in his soul. It stirs him, strengthens his faith in God and gives his life purpose.

"In general, the work has confirmed my faith in the reliability of the Scriptures," said Mr. Niccum, who lives in Oklahoma City and belongs to the Church of Christ. "Seeing these things has strengthened my faith."

For him, this work is akin to solving a puzzle in which all but a few of the pieces were missing.

For those who will read the manuscripts, the work is only beginning, though. From that point on, Christians and Jews, believers and nonbelievers must sort through the religious significance if any contained in the ancient manuscripts.

Mr. Niccum, an assistant professor of Bible at Oklahoma Christian University, said the public's interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls is nearly universal. Anyone he encounters who learns of his work with the scrolls has the same reaction.

"Believers or not, they have a high degree of respect for these scrolls, and they're fascinated by them," he said. "I'm not sure their reasons are all the same, but their reaction seems to be.

"Sometimes I'm treated with an undue amount of awe."

Mr. Niccum teaches freshman general education Bible courses and graduate-level specialty classes. Despite his rigorous theological studies, he's credited with having a knack for phrasing things so everyone can understand.

As one teaching colleague at Oklahoma Christian puts it, "Freshmen love him. Seniors hate him."

Mr. Niccum laughed. He admits he's harder on those who major in Bible, especially upperclassmen as opposed to those fulfilling a general education credit.

Sometimes students are surprised when Mr. Niccum lets them take a peek at his Bible, a Hebrew version with books arranged in the traditional style, from back to front.

And, of course, it's written in Hebrew, but he reads it aloud in English.

It was his knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic that landed Mr. Niccum a spot on the team of scholars translating the scrolls. Through his studies at Notre Dame University, he became an assistant on the project.

Once he'd caught a few mistakes that some scholars had missed on the scrolls, he was promoted to deciphering passages that contained the Book of Daniel. That was many long nights ago.

Now the main translation is finished, and the printer's proofs lie before him. Next year, manuscripts of the team's translations will be published.

It won't mark the first time translations from the Dead Sea Scrolls have been made available to the public, Mr. Niccum said. Some were published shortly after the discoveries in 1947, but others were unavailable because of disputes between Israeli and Palestinian officials.

In 1991, photographs of the scrolls were made available to all scholars. A few months later, language specialists from varied religious backgrounds were assembled.

"Every religion you can imagine is represented, I think," he said, adding that a few people with no religious beliefs are also part of the project. "It's a varied group, for sure."

Traditionally, the scrolls are viewed as the work of an ascetic Jewish sect, the Essenes, who lived in a monastery near the caves in the Judean Desert between about 200 B.C. and A.D. 100.

But there is a school of thought that says some of these scrolls the Habakkuk in particular refer to some Christian leader, maybe Christ or John the Baptist.

Mr. Niccum holds a slightly different view of the scrolls' origins.

"I believe a conservative splinter group of the Essenes is responsible for the collection of scrolls found at Qumran [in Jordan]," he said. "They did not copy or compose all of them. Some were brought to the compound by members, some of which are older than the community itself."

In 1947, young Bedouin shepherds, searching for a stray goat in the Judean Desert, entered a long-untouched cave and found jars filled with ancient scrolls. Mr. Niccum says lore has it that the shepherds threw a rock in the cave.

"They heard a clink," Mr. Niccum said, "and knew they'd struck something. So they went in."

At first the boys didn't know the significance of their findings. Mr. Niccum said they unrolled the fragments, hung them up, looked them over.

"It was quite some time before anyone else was alerted to the findings," he said.

News of the discovery was received by those who could identify the fragments as ancient writings, and a search lasting nearly a decade began. The initial discovery by the Bedouins yielded seven scrolls; thousands of scroll fragments since have been retrieved from 11 caves.

Some people believe about 2,000 years elapsed between the time the scrolls were deposited in the caves of barren hills surrounding the Dead Sea and their discovery in 1947.

The scrolls have been the subject of great scholarly and public interest. In addition to the oldest known versions of some Old Testament books, the scrolls include long-lost originals of several books and non-biblical Jewish religious works such as the Book of Enoch, Jubilees and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Secular documents include military dispatches and legal writs.

But it is the religious text that has most intrigued Mr. Niccum.

"In particular, the vast amount of data about first-century Judaism found in the scrolls has confirmed the trustworthiness of the portrait of Jesus found in the four canonical gospels," he said.

"This is just one reason why I believe the Bible we have is truly the word of God."

Distributed by Scripps Howard

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