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orion Update on Possible Chinese Connection

I promised to provide an update on Victor Mair's views on the Chinese-like
characters in the margins of 1QS, 1QIsa\a/, and most recently 4Q246
ps-Daniel\d/. Here it is, as briefly as I can muster:

Victor Mair prepared a private report for Neil Altman on 17 August 1990 in
response to Neil's query about some marginalia from two of the MSS in
Qumran cave one. The concluding sentences bear quoting: "My sole intent
has been to describe the symbols as accurately and objectively as possible
from the viewpoint of a Sinologist." "I shall refrain from making any
other statements concerning the significance of these remarkable symbols
on the DSS because I am wholly ignorant of what issues are involved." As
Victor stated to me in a recent private communication, "I do not believe
that I have ever declared that the symbols are indeed Chinese characters. 
I certainly did not mean to do so" (email, 29 Aug 1997). [He also
mentioned, in response to an insuation made on ORION, that no pressure had
been put on him to modify or moderate his views by anyone at Penn (email,
2 Sept 1997, and subsequent luncheon).]

Nevertheless, the 1990 report included a number of statements that could,
and did, encourage the conclusion that at least two of the "symbols" in
the margins of 1QS (between cols 6/7 and 8/9; see also 1QIsa\a/ cols
21/22) could be read as crude attempts to represent the Chinese character
for "God" (<ch>ti</>). Mair records his initial reaction upon seeing the
xeroxes as "it seemed immediately obvious that the symbols were either
stylized forms of or rather clumsy attempts to write the Chinese
character" for "God" -- he might add now, "if we read them in a
Sinological context."  Further, if these are read as Chinese characters,
Mair suggested a date of no earlier than about 100 CE and perhaps as late
as 800 CE, based on the historical development of Chinese calligraphy,
which in this case changed significantly between the second century BCE
and the second century CE (thus, Mair now explains, there is some
flexibility with regard to the 100 CE date that he mentioned in 1990).
[For a convenient view of the problematic images, see the materials that
Jay Treat has mounted at <http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jtreat/chinese> --
Jay plans to add other relevant material as well. Thanks, Jay!]

In the 1990 report, Mair also commented on some of the other symbols in
the Isaiah scroll: between cols 20/21, a symbol "looks exactly like the
hurriedly written form of ... <ch>shih</>, 'corpse...,' which is still
very common today but has probably been written more or less in this
fashion for about 1,800 years." Another symbol, from the bottom of col 32,
I think, "could well be the Small Seal ... script form of ... <ch>jih</>,
'sun,' which would have been current from about 221-207 BCE but is still
used when one wishes to affect an archaic appearance."

The second report is dated 2 Sept 1997, in response to further inquiries
by Neil Altman about a symbol in 4Q246, published by Puech in RevBib
(1992) 98-131. Mair describes resemblances between this symbol and the
Chinese character <ch>feng</>, "bountiful," which occurs as early as 1200
BCE, but concludes that this identification is not likely because the
representation in the 4Q fragment is too clumsy and the Chinese character
has changed over the centuries from its early simple form.

Mair continues: "In general, my position regarding all of the mysterious,
hitherto inadequately identified symbols on the DSS, especially those in
the margins, is that it is the duty of Hebrew epigraphers and
paleographers to study them more seriously. If these symbols are puzzling,
I cannot comprehend why more effort has not been expended on their study.
Surely they are of great importance and should not simply be ignored!"

Again: "As a non-specialist on the DSS, I am intensely curious about the
meaning and significance of these symbols, but am not qualified to make an
authoritative pronouncement upon them. It is true that several of these
symbols <em>look like</> Chinese symbols, but I have no convincing
explanation for how they would have come to be written on the DSS. The
"God"-like character is still particularly puzzling to me because it is so
complex and has apparently not received any convincing explanation from
Hebrew epigraphers and paleographers. Nonetheless, I am not prepared to
state unequivocally that any of the symbols definitely are Chinese
characters because, in the first place, I cannot justify to myself how
they would have gotten there. ...Secondly, none of the questionable
symbols are perfect reproductions of Chinese characters; they all have
some telling differences from genuine characters, even though some of them
are very close in appearance." 

Then, an exciting conjecture from the scholar who is engaged in the study
of Caucasoid mummies found in China dating from the 2nd millennium BCE to
about 300 CE, and who has argued that the Persian technical term "magi"
(along with similar evidence of east-west contacts) had made its way into
Chinese at a similarly early date (Mair, in <tp>Early China</> 15 [1990]
27-47): "If some of these mysterious symbols are derived from Chinese
characters, the only plausible explanation I can think of is that Aramean
scribes in the service of the Persian empire may have come in contact with
Chinese script. We know that Aramaic was the source of many South Asian
and Central Asian scripts.... We also know that Syriac Christians were
active in China and that Jews were present in the Tang capital and
elsewhere. But that would be too late for the conventional dating of the
DSS." So far Victor Mair, who merits our profound thanks! 

What does it mean for the study of the DSS and the people who produced
them? If one is fascinated by the idea of a Chinese connection, that does
not in itself seem to rule out the currently "conventional" dating of the
scrolls, but it could add another dimension to our understanding of the
linguistic and cultural milieux from which these materials may have come
(e.g. contacts with China via Persia at an early date). For challengers of
the "conventional" dating, the Chinese hypothesis could likewise be used
as support, by appealing to the later contacts between China and Judaism
and/or Christianity about which we know relatively more (if also very
little). Alternate explanations of the symbols are also possible, of
course, and deserve to be heard. Emanuel Tov has published some comments,
and Jay Treat has some ideas that he plans to document on the
aforementioned web page. But these details will have to wait for a later

copyright Robert Kraft and Victor Mair, 21 September 1997
Robert A. Kraft, Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania