The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Language of Binary Opposition: A Structuralist/post-Structuralist Approach

By Hanson, Kenneth L. | The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Language of Binary Opposition: A Structuralist/post-Structuralist Approach


Hanson, Kenneth L., The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies


The Qumran corpus has been rigorously explored in relation to the Hebrew language and its evolution, but little attention has been devoted to elements of "binary opposition" (pairs of theoretical opposites, often organised in a hierarchy) inherent in Qumranic nuance and the implications of such expression on the subsequent development of religious thought and culture. Structuralist and poststructuralist critics examined these oppositions, ultimately viewing them as unstable, privileging one member of the pair and marginalising the other. The dualistic theology of Qumran can be looked upon as a superb example of Hebraic "binary opposition," underlying the Greek New Testament expression of dualism as well. The Dead Sea Scrolls arguably represent a quantum leap toward a theology of "divine election," which in turn became an expression of cultural superiority. A reevaluation of Qumranic dualism may help "de-center" such language, in the ancient sources and in modern usage as well.

The Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been thoroughly analysed with respect to its implications vis-a-vis the evolution of the language, but relatively little research has focused on Qumranic Hebrew as a conveyor of what structuralist critics have referred to as "binary oppositions"--the setting up, linguistically, of opposing pairs of terms. Such terms as benei or / benei khoshekh ("sons of light"/ "sons of darkness") and Yisrael / Ammim ("Israel"/"the nations") became in the Scrolls tools of an exclusionary theology which had profound consequences on the development of western religious traditions.

On a literary level critics such as Claude Levi-Strauss, Roman Jakobson and others looked for binary oppositions in language as clues to the "deep structure" of a culture (Saussure's langue). As Kurzweil (1980:17) notes, Levi-Strauss was engrossed with the way languages and the mythology of various cultures reveal striking similarities and kindred structural patterns. He postulated that they are in fact constituted in the same fashion. By the same token, he needed to reconcile the fact that incidents from long ago are recounted in the present tense and consequently appear to slide back and forth in time. He likewise had to differentiate between la langue and la parole via each one's variant temporal dimension (synchronic and diachronic). Jakobson had theorised binary oppositions between contradictory relationships and between vowels and consonants, this becoming the foundation of his brand of structural linguistics. According to Saussure, binary opposition is the "means by which the units of language have value or meaning; each unit is defined against what it is not." Jacques Derrida saw such oppositions as unstable, resulting in the privileging of one member of the pair and marginalising of the other.

As Van Wolde (1994:19-35) observes, the study of twentieth century literature reveals a development reflected indirectly in biblical exegesis. The notion (common to tradition and redaction criticism) that a biblical text's meaning is that established by its author was supplanted by the idea that the principal source was the text itself (close reading, stylistics, structuralism). There was thereafter a tendency to bestow upon the reader some importance as well (readerresponse criticism, rhetorical analysis, studies considering the position of reader or narrator). It is currently held (in the context of poststructuralism, ideological criticism and deconstruction) that meaning is largely determined by the reader exclusively.

This study examines the way in which one group of ancient readers of the Bible--Judea's Dead Sea Sect--determined the meaning of the text. It traces the theology of exclusion back to the period in which the Qumran corpus took shape, wherein one religious group was seen as privileged and all others as doomed--a view subsequently "borrowed" by the writers of the New Testament. The Second Jewish Commonwealth thus appears to have been a pivotal point in western history where the language of exclusion took hold. …

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