Scrolls, Site, Sect and Scholars

By Fishman-Duker, Rivkan | Jewish Political Studies Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Scrolls, Site, Sect and Scholars


Fishman-Duker, Rivkan, Jewish Political Studies Review


SCROLLS, SITE, SECT AND SCHOLARS IheDead Sea Scrolls: A Biography, by John J. Collins, Princeton University Press, 2013,271pp.

The discovery of manuscripts hidden in jugs inside caves near Qumran close to the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea remains one of the major archeological finds of all times. Mostly written in Hebrew, with some in Aramaic, the Dead Sea Scrolls are dated mainly from the second century BCE to the mid-first century CE. Found by accident by a Bedouin shepherd looking for his goat late in 1947, the scrolls have been the subject of enduring fascination, disputed interpretations, academic scandals, and bitter litigation over the decades. The interest in them lies in the fact that these first-hand documents, preserved because of the dry climate of the Judean Desert, date from the period of the renewal of Jewish sovereignty under the Hasmonean dynasty (142-38 BCE); the rise of Roman domination; and the emergence of what would become Christianity and normative Rabbinic Judaism, respectively. Therefore, they constitute an unprecedented breakthrough in the study of the Jewish past at a particularly creative and tumultuous period of Jewish history.

The decipherment and publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls-an ongoing process for the sixty-five years since their discovery-and the archeological excavations at the site of Qumran have led most scholars to come to certain conclusions. To begin with, the scrolls essentially were a library which belonged to a group or sect which resided at Qumran during the mid-second century BCE to the first century CE. The manuscripts include the earliest version of the text of the Hebrew Bible, interpretations of books of the Bible, prayers, apocalyptic literature, rules, and calendars. According to these scholars, a careful reading of the scrolls shows that this group lived by strict monastic rules and spent their time copying texts, praying, taking ritual ablutions, and eating at the common table. They were extremely strict observers of the Sabbath. The members were largely celibate, shared property in common, followed a solar calendar which differed from that of other Jews (copies of which were found among the manuscripts), and were obsessive about ritual purity. They did not participate in Temple rituals, disagreed with the prevalent Pharisaic interpretations of Torah, and viewed the high priest and ruling establishment as illegitimate, to be overthrown at end-time with the coming of two Messiahs: a priest and a nonpriestly redeemer who would rid the world of the wicked "sons of darkness," namely, all of humanity except for the members of the sect, the righteous "sons of light." The founder of the sect, called "the Teacher of Righteousness," led his followers to the desert in order to live according to their interpretation of the Torah. He apparently was killed by the "Wicked Priest." Scholarly consensus has held and even maintains today that the sect at Qumran, known as the Dead Sea Sect, were identical to or resembled the Essenes, a monastic Jewish group described by ancient writers such as Josephus, Philo, and Pliny the Elder. There are important scholars, however, who disagree with the majority view of the scrolls, the site, and the sect.

THE BIOGRAPHICAL APPROACH

John J. Collins, professor of Old Testament criticism and interpretation at Yale University, has written a relatively brief, highly readable book about the Dead Sea Scrolls as part of the series of "Lives of Great Religious Books," which includes works such as Augustine's Confessions and the Book of Genesis, and a long list of forthcoming publications of religious classics. The approach of this series treats the content of the work under discussion and its importance as religious expression and pays much attention to its author and to the conclusions of scholarship and research regarding the book. The particular work essentially acquires a life of its own much like a person whose background, accomplishments, and faults are placed under the meticulous scrutiny of the biographer. …

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