How Important Are the Dead Sea Scrolls?
The real mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a consequence of the perishability of parchment and papyrus. Since the 19th century, the Middle East has yielded up wave after rich wave of literary, legal, annalistic, and cultic materials, many of them in hitherto unknown languages. Through them it became possible to reconstruct, sometimes in vivid and surprising detail, the variegated ancient world before, behind, and around the Bible. The texts from this world were generally written on clay tablets or incised in steles. When unearthed by the archeologist’s spade, they might often be chipped or cracked or broken, but the solid material of inscription sufficed to carry into the present these precious messages from a past three or four millennia removed. From ancient Israel proper, we have innumerable names on seals, fragments of writing or writing exercises on shards of pottery, and one continuous version of the Priestly Blessing in a silver filigree ornament, but the consecutive literature of the culture was committed to scrolls made of locally manufactured parchment or often (as the Israeli scholar Menahem Haran has persuasively argued) of papyrus imported from Egypt. These materials, alas, like the acid-impregnated paper of many of the books on our own library shelves, were destined to be turned into dust by time’s inexorable chemistry. Thus, the oldest integral manuscript of the Hebrew Bible goes back only to around 1000 C.E., nearly twelve centuries after the writing of the latest biblical book, Daniel, and nearly two millennia after the composition of the earliest biblical texts.
It is against this background that the accidental discovery in 1947 by a Bedouin boy of ancient Hebrew scrolls in a cave overlooking the northwestern edge of the Dead Sea set off a firestorm of scholarly and then popular interest that has still not abated. Over the past year, the Dead Sea Scrolls have again been in the news week after week, for reasons I will summarize, in front-page articles, editorials, op-ed pieces, and passionate letters to the editor. In the heated atmosphere of journalistic coverage, the scrolls have been described as “the greatest archeological find of the 20th century,” which is a perhaps defensible but certainly debatable proposition. More accurately, they have been called “the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times,” for it is chiefly manuscripts, as I have indicated, that have not come down to us from the written records of the ancient world. The bone-dry climate of the Dead Sea region and the protection of many of the scrolls in sealed earthenware jars had proved to have the most fortunate, perhaps unique, preservative effect. Who wrote these manuscripts, what they might have to say, and, above all, what is their intrinsic value as spiritual or literary productions are matters that very much remain to be resolved.
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