That theory was based in part on the contents of a scroll that University of Arizona researchers said was made before Christ was born.
The scrolls consist of some 800 manuscripts in Hebrew and Aramaic that were discovered in caves east of Jerusalem, near the ruins of Qumran on the Dead Sea, between 1947 and 1956.
They include the oldest known manuscripts of books from the Old Testament, and their discovery is considered one of the great archaeological finds of the century.
Traditionally, the scrolls are viewed as the work of an ascetic Jewish sect, the Essenes, who lived in a monastery near the caves between about 200 B.C. and 100 A.D.
``But there is a school of thought that says that some of these scrolls - the Habakkuk in particular - refer to some Christian leader, maybe Christ or John the Baptist,'' said UA researcher A.J. Timothy Jull.
A commentary on the first two chapters of the biblical Book of Habakkuk was one of the 18 texts dated at the UA lab. The results, announced yesterday in Tucson and Jerusalem, have been submitted for publication in the journal Atiqot and elsewhere.
``The fact that this particular scroll (the Habakkuk commentary) dates to before the Christian era tends to eliminate the possibility that a follower of Christ could have written it,'' Jull said yesterday.
There is a 95 percent probability that the parchment from the Habakkuk commentary dates to between 150 B.C. and 5 B.C., Jull said.
The UA results lend weight to the conventional chronology of the scrolls, obtained by analyzing the script style, a technique called paleography.
``Some of the papyrus samples bear exact written dates within the text itself. These dates match those determined by the carbon-14 measurements,'' the Israel Antiquities Authority stated in a news release. ``The reliability of paleography as a dating method is thus confirmed.''
Critics like Robert H. Eisen-man of California State University at Long Beach have questioned the reliability of dates obtained by paleography.
Eisenman has backed the idea that some of the scrolls may have been the work of early Christians. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The UA results also agree with dates for other Dead Sea Scrolls obtained by a Swiss carbon-dating lab in 1990, said UA physics professor Douglas Donahue, who runs the Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometer Laboratory.
As a control measure, the UA lab dated a piece of scroll that had previously been dated by the Zurich lab. Without knowing the date achieved by the Zurich lab, the Tucson lab arrived at an ``identical result,'' Jull said.
Donahue and Jull measured the amount of radioactive carbon in fingernail-sized pieces of parchment, papyrus and linen.
The text samples were cut from the ragged edges of top or bottom margins at two Jerusalem museums in March 1994, as Jull and Donahue looked on. Linen was used to wrap the scrolls.
The samples were dated in the UA's tandem accelerator mass spectrometer, the same machine that proved in the late 1980s that the Shroud of Turin dates to the Middle Ages.
The Arizona accelerator is the first of its kind dedicated exclusively to radiocarbon dating, and more than 12,000 samples have been dated since the early 1980s. It is much faster than conventional radiocarbon-dating machines and can deliver accurate dates with much smaller samples.
Many of the Dead Sea Scrolls were published shortly after the discoveries began in 1947. But others were unavailable, except to an official editing team, until the Huntington Library of San Marino, Calif., broke the embargo by making photographs of the scrolls available to all scholars in September 1991.
In 1992, Eisenman and Michael Wise published ``The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered,'' in which they printed the original text and English translations of 50 scrolls. It was the first time the manuscripts were available to non-specialist readers interested in the age in which Christianity was born and Judaism took definitive shape.
Eisenman has said the scrolls describe a messianic movement that, in its later stages, was virtually indistinguishable from the rise of Christianity. His alleged ``Christianization'' of the scroll material outraged other scholars.
``Wholesale theft from the Jewish people,'' is how Lawrence H. Schiffman of New York University described it to the Associated Press in December 1992.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, believed to be the remains of a library, come from 11 caves in the cliffs of Qumran, 10 miles east of Jerusalem. The initial discovery was made when an Arab herdsman searching for a strayed goat found scrolls wrapped in linen and deposited in jars.
In addition to the oldest known versions of some Old Testament books, the scrolls include long-lost originals of several books of the Apocrypha and non-biblical Jewish religious works such as the books of Enoch, Jubilees, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.
Besides the religious texts there are secular documents - including military dispatches and legal writs.
All living things contain the radioactive form of carbon, carbon 14. As long as an organism is alive, the amount of radioactive carbon in its tissues remains at a fixed level.
At death, an organism ceases to take carbon 14 from the environment. The radioactive carbon in the tissue decays at a constant, known rate, which provides a natural clock that can be used to date organic matter.