Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

"Age of Wickedness" or "End of Days"?: Qumran Scholarship in Prospect

Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

"Age of Wickedness" or "End of Days"?: Qumran Scholarship in Prospect

Article excerpt

Interpretation of the newly available texts will inevitably reflect existing theories, controversies, and issues. The chief focus in this report is on the evidence for the communities that we already know from other Qumran texts (1QS, CD, 1QSa), in the hope of discovering more of their ideology, structure, and relationship. But two other factors come into prominence: what do the large number of texts reflecting no community at all tell us about the nature and origin of the Qumran archive? And what does the appearance of more than one text on one manuscript and, indeed, the evidence of varied material juxtaposed in the same text tell us about the immediate source of the literature? The rival theories of origin in Jewish sects and of origin in Jerusalem libraries may need to be reconciled in some way in future research.


According to some versions of what has been happening in Dead Sea Scrolls publication over the last few years, the "Age of Wickedness" is now over, and the "End of Days" is in sight. Other versions of the future foresee the onset of a time of terrible confusion, with incompetent transcription, translation and interpretation replacing the hitherto steady trickle of high quality work from a solid and reliable editorial team. Whatever the actual outcome, it is likely that both views will persist. Somehow, the study of ancient sects has generated modern sects. In the recent disputes about scrolls publication there have been "Wicked Priests," "Liars," and "Teachers of Righteousness," not to mention "Furious Young (or middle aged) Lions."

But amid the current clamour of disputation, some may like to consider dispassionately what the newly available scrolls might reveal to us, despite the very high risk of making fools of themselves in predicting the future. Such dispassionate divination is nevertheless hard to accomplish. For what we shall learn from the new material will depend very much on how we learn, and even more on where we start from.

After the early years in which various theories about the origin and identity of the Scrolls were advanced, a very solid consensus developed, the Hasmonean-Essene theory, which for some time will continue to be represented in non-specialist literature (but not in popular literature, it seems!) as the standard interpretation. That view remains respectably held by a considerable number of specialists too. But even before the recent spate of new publications, authorized and unauthorized, this consensus had been toppled by a combination of factors. The publication of the Temple Scroll, I think, can be seen in retrospect as the watershed, but alternative interpretations of the history of the "Qumran community" and worries about the reliability of the archaeological interpretations also played a major role in the erosion of an agreed basis on which the interpretation of any new material could be founded. Today, we cannot agree on the answers to several basic questions. What is the connection between the scrolls and Khirbet Qumran? How did they get into the caves? Who wrote them? Copied them? How far are their contents coherent? At the same time, the erstwhile relatively small group of highly privileged and influential scholars, with close to a monopoly of access and of control of publication has been replaced by a larger and much less homogeneous group of Qumran scholars, embracing some of the old aristocracy, some nouveaux riches (riche in manuscript fragments to edit, I mean) and some once dark horses who have now found the limelight.

We are, after all, confronting the newly published material neither furnished with a largely agreed framework of interpretation, nor staring at a tabula rasa. Individual scholars, or groups of scholars, are going to read these texts with varying presuppositions and hypotheses in mind. Whether the new materials will help to establish a new consensus will depend on factors beyond anyone's control, not all of them, I predict, related to what the texts seem to say. …

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