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What the Dead Sea Scrolls Do Not Tell

What is responsible for the enduring interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls? Ever since news of their discovery began to circulate a half-century ago, an eager public has snapped up any new bit of information about this cache of ancient manuscripts uncovered at Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea. Today, the flow of popular books and articles continues unabated: accounts of the Scrolls’ discovery and of the ensuing scholarly controversies about them, overall guides to the manuscripts, translations of the texts themselves, speculations about the ancient Jewish community that owned them, reconstructions of Christian and Jewish history based on them, and, let it be added, a fair amount of nonsense about “suppressed” scrolls (there are none) and the secrets they are alleged to contain.

Certainly, part of this ongoing interest has to do with the fascination that attaches to any significant object from the past. It is one thing to know that a text printed in a book has been handed down and recopied from generation to generation, all the way back to ancient times. It is quite another to hold in one’s hand, or even see a photograph of, a Hebrew or Aramaic manuscript actually written by a scribe at the end of the biblical period. Moreover, the very survival of these rolled-up writings has an element of the miraculous about it; were it not for an accident of nature—the fact that they were hidden on the shores of the Dead Sea, the lowest and driest spot on earth—they would have no doubt met the same fate that awaited most other texts written on parchment or papyrus, crumbling into decaying little heaps centuries ago.

But it is the contents of the Scrolls that have most excited the imagination. Here is the library of a peculiar Jewish sect that apparently flourished from the first or second century B.C.E. until the destruction of its desert headquarters by the Roman army in the year 68 of the Common Era, in the final stages of the Jewish revolt against Rome. The Jews of this sect seem to have been at odds with the spiritual ancestors of the Judaism (“rabbinic” Judaism) that has come down to us today; in fact, they were at odds with any Jews other than the members of their own, quirky community. Like Pirate Jenny in Brecht’s Threepenny Operas, they went through life doing their chores while secretly dreaming of the time when “all of you”—other Jews outside their group—would be consumed in an outpouring of divine wrath on the Great Day of Revenge.

The Scrolls open a window onto the daily life of this sect, affording a look at the rules by which its members governed their existence, the prayers they prayed and the hymns they sang, the books they studied into the night, the punishments they meted out for various offenses (including interrupting someone in mid-sentence!), their petty disputes and their dreams for the end-time. All this is indeed fascinating. But the Qumran library contains far more than texts bearing directly on the life of the sect. It also contains manuscripts representing almost every book in the Jewish biblical canon, plus a great many nonbiblical writings originating outside the sect itself—biblical commentaries, visions and apocalypses, psalms, law codes, and still more.

The discovery of almost any one of the major Qumran documents would thus have been an important event—indeed, a scientific breakthrough. Considered together, the texts in this ancient library have to be what they are often called, the greatest archeological find in history.

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A new book by Hershel Shanks, The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls1 provides an up-to-date introduction to the story of the Scrolls, retelling the basic facts of their initial discovery (Bedouin shepherd-boy, rock tossed into cave) and the early history of their publication. Shanks also tells about the unwarranted delays in publishing the remaining Scrolls and the international controversy that followed, ending after an interval of four full decades in what he calls their “freeing” from the small editorial cartel that held them in its possession. As the editor and publisher of Biblical Archaeology Review, Shanks himself played a role in that controversy, editorializing from the pages of his magazine and in various forums on behalf of a movement to take the Scrolls out of the hands of the scholars and make them available to the general public. Toward the end, Shanks actually published some of the Scrolls on his own, an act for which he was sued in a highly-publicized trial in Israel. (He lost, though the judgment is currently under appeal.)

His insider status notwithstanding, Shanks’s account of all this contains no startling revelations. Indeed, what he writes about his role in the unauthorized publication of parts of the Scrolls in his own magazine—“I still don’t know the source of those photographs”—may strike readers as disingenuous. What I find personally more troubling is his monochromatic portrait of John Strugnell, another figure in the controversy and a man of altogether contradictory impulses. A friend and adviser to a great number of Jewish students and scholars at Harvard, where he taught for many years at the Divinity School, Strugnell was also known to give voice at times to an oddly 4th-century-sounding critique of Judaism. (Christianity has supplanted it, therefore all Jews ought to convert.) On one occasion, he made the mistake of sharing these views with an Israeli reporter come to interview him, and publication of his remarks led to Strugnell’s removal as head of the Scrolls team. In Shanks’s book, Strugnell comes off as a drunken anti-Semite, which is certainly less than the whole truth.

Shanks is at his best in sorting through the evidence concerning the nature of Qumran as an archeological site. What do we know about the purpose of the structures unearthed there? In seeking to answer that question, Shanks surveys the scholarly literature in measured tones, pointing out some of the unjustified assumptions of early researchers. While not a scholar himself, he has the journalist’s knack of asking hard questions of those who are, and of not being satisfied with fuzzy answers.

One theory, championed by Norman Golb of the University of Chicago (and others), holds that the structures excavated at Qumran had nothing to do with the Scrolls found in the nearby caves. Those Scrolls, Golb argues, were a library brought from Jerusalem and hidden in the caves as a temporary expediency. Whoever their owners were, there was no relationship between them and the inhabitants of the nearby buildings, who may not have been a religious community at all.

Most scholars reject this view, but at least part of Golb’s point is more broadly conceded. Since, after all, the library found at Qumran was quite large and diverse, there is no reason to insist that each and every manuscript had always been in the community’s possession. It is certainly possible that, in the difficult days preceding the all-out Jewish revolt against Rome, adherents of the same Jewish sect as the one living at Qumran may have arrived from elsewhere with additional books to be deposited for safe-keeping. In any case, precisely because it is a library, the Qumran collection includes many items originally written elsewhere and composed by authors who had nothing to do with the sect. Only a handful are what one researcher terms “sectually explicit,” that is, referring to practices characteristic of the sect itself or in some other way identifying themselves as products of the sectarian community.

Shanks ultimately comes down on the side of those who hold that the Qumran settlement was indeed that of a religious community, probably part of the same group known to us from contemporaneous sources as the Essenes. But he also argues that the library, because of its great size, must have come from elsewhere. This last assertion will strike many as extreme. What were all those inkwells doing among the ruins of Qumran? Would a group of religious Jews living there have been entirely without a library? It seems almost indisputable that at least part of the collection found adjacent to the religious settlement had been used by its members; and some of the manuscripts were certainly copied there.

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A few questionable assertions aside, Shanks’s book provides a good overview, though I think readers would have been better served if he had given them more of the Scrolls themselves, to capture their flavor. Although Shanks quotes here and there from the texts, readers will not come away with a feeling either for the individual documents or for the spiritual world of the Qumran community. True, there are other books that present only that—including two excellent recent collections of the texts in translation2—and there will certainly be more on the way. But without such a feeling, a reader may have difficulty understanding what all the fuss has been about.

Although a half-century has passed since the Scrolls were discovered, their real contribution to our knowledge of history—and the history of Judaism in particular—is only now starting to come into focus. Shanks’s book has little to say about some of the ironies that have characterized the Scrolls’ career, but ironies there are, particularly when one considers the whole of these 50 years of research.

When the Scrolls were first discovered, they seemed destined to fill in the blanks of history—to tell us what we did not know about their overall period and cultural context. After all, they were written just before the time of the emergence of rabbinic Judaism, and they also straddled the no less crucial period of the very beginnings of Christianity. Surely the road to a proper understanding of these developments—in other words, to a proper understanding of where today’s Judaism and Christianity really come from—would have to pass through Qumran.

From this standpoint, the Scrolls, although they have helped fill in some blanks, have also turned out to be a disappointment. In the case of rabbinic Judaism, texts like the so-called “Halakhic Letter” have indeed provided useful and concrete evidence that revises long-held assumptions. Many historians, picking up on a remark by the 1st-century Jewish writer Josephus, believed that in those ancient times, what divided Jews into different groups—Pharisees, Sadducees, and so forth—was principally disagreement over matters of belief like predestination, the immortality of the soul, and similar items. The Halakhic Letter and other texts suggest that, to the contrary, the main items in dispute were the nitty-gritty details involved in the observance of Jewish law. In supplying some of the details of these disputed practices, the Qumran texts also confirm the accounts of legal controversies preserved in the centuries-later Babylonian Talmud and other rabbinic sources.

Yet balancing such gains are many very significant questions about Second Temple Judaism that the Scrolls themselves raise but fail to answer. We still do not have, and probably never will have, a clear picture of how the competing groups within Judaism actually developed—an issue now complicated by uncertainty about the Dead Sea Scrolls community itself. Was it indeed, as many scholars have long maintained, part of the Essenes? Or was it, as other scholars have recently urged, affiliated with the Sadducees? Or the Boethusians? Were its members celibate monks, or married householders—or were there some of each? If the very identity of the Scrolls’ proprietors and the nature of their group are unclear in such fundamental details, it will not be easy to use them as a basis on which to write an overall history of the Judaism of that era.

When it comes to casting light on Christian origins, the promise of the Scrolls seemed at first even greater than in the case of rabbinic Judaism. The oldest of these writings antedate the beginnings of Christianity as a movement, while the latest date from the organizational inception of the Church. For a modern-day scholar, here were writings composed by Jesus’ own contemporaries—perhaps, in some cases, by people who knew him personally and followed with excitement the very events recounted in the Gospels.

But as great as the promise seemed, the disappointment has been still greater. Despite some early and altogether unjustified optimism, none of the Scrolls has turned up any direct connection with early Christianity. To be sure, there are passages suggesting that some of the early followers of Jesus may have had some familiarity with the legal practices and other characteristics of the Qumran community. Moreover, the thought and demeanor of the New Testament figure of John the Baptist bear a striking resemblance to what we read in the Scrolls about the Qumran group, and it is conceivable that he may actually have been a dropout from that community. But all this is speculative, and in any case offers no information bearing directly on Christianity’s founder or on any of the specific events recounted in the Gospels or other early Christian documents.

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Balancing these large disappointments, however, is another irony surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls, this one of a more positive nature. Fifty years after their discovery, one of their principal contributions turns out to have been their capacity to make scholars aware of the value of materials other than the Scrolls: texts that lay within plain sight for decades—nay, centuries—but which for one reason or another had been neglected or ignored.

This is true even for the Bible itself. Prior to the discovery of the Qumran trove, the oldest surviving Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible dated from medieval times. This made it difficult to speculate about what earlier stages of the biblical text might have looked like. One piece of evidence that did exist was the old Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint, parts of which date back to the 3rd century B.C.E. This translation differs from the traditional Hebrew text in many details—ranging from a missing or added letter here and there to whole chapters that have been added, deleted, or rearranged. But to most readers over the ages, these differences were of little account; their Bible was based, either directly or via translation, on the traditional Hebrew text as it had been preserved and transmitted. For centuries, the few people aware of the discrepancies had chalked them up to sloppiness on the part of the Septuagint translators.

Interest in the Septuagint and the early history of the biblical text did begin to pick up even before the Scrolls’ discovery—but slowly. Once scholars found themselves in possession of actual manuscripts in Hebrew going back to antiquity, however, the whole attitude toward the Septuagint had to change. The Dead Sea Scrolls offer up a striking picture of the Bible. While some of the manuscripts are amazingly similar to the traditional Jewish text, others more closely resemble the Septuagint or other ancient versions. The point was thus driven home that the Septuagint is not a sloppy translation of the same Hebrew text that had been faithfully preserved by Jews; it is an accurate translation of a different form of the Hebrew text, a form preserved here and there in the Qumran library. In light of the Scrolls, both the Septuagint and other ancient textual witnesses—most of which had been hanging around for centuries—have come to be more fully appreciated for what they are: a valuable snapshot of the Hebrew Bible from a period when there apparently was no single authorized text and when different “editions” of biblical books still circulated freely.

Still another area illuminated by the Scrolls is ancient Jewish writings outside the Bible. The latest parts of the Hebrew Bible probably date from the 2nd century B.C.E. After that, the traditional Jewish library jumps forward four centuries to the earliest documents of the rabbinic period—the Mishnah, Tosefta, and other texts, all thought to have been put in final form around 200 C.E. or shortly thereafter. But Jews certainly did not stop writing during those “missing” 400 years. Indeed, scholars have long been aware of a small library of texts that survived from this period, written for the most part in Hebrew and Aramaic but preserved in other languages after those two fell into disuse amongjews.

Early Christians, who considered these books sacred, kept them alive in translation; many survived in Greek, others in Latin, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, or Slavonic. Some, like the books of Tobit and Judith, were incorporated into the Christian canon and transmitted with other biblical books from generation to generation; they may be found in ordinary Christian Bibles today (under the headings of “Old Testament Apocrypha” or “Deuterocanonical Works”). But others, with names like Jubilees, The Apocalypse of Abraham, and The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, largely fell into obscurity, preserved here and there in a dusty monastery or saved on a single palimpsest in the Vatican library.

In the decades before the Scrolls’ discovery, some scholars had busied themselves with this body of Jewish writings—called, from a Christian perspective, “intertestamental” literature. But it was the discovery of the Scrolls themselves, which included fragments of the long-lost original versions of Enoch, Jubilees, and The Testaments, that truly awakened interest in these fascinating treasures long within easy reach.

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What the Scrolls provide—dramatically—is a context for this literature. “It is for Jews like us,” the Scrolls’ copyists seem to be saying, “that these books were originally written.” Indeed, the Scrolls make it clear that for members of the Qumran community, some such books were part of sacred Scripture. Among other things, the community apparently lived according to the basic calendar prescribed by the book of Jubilees—a calendar based not on lunar months, as the present-day Jewish calendar is, but on a fixed number of days (364) per year divided into twelve units, months whose beginnings and ends had no connection with the phases of the moon.

Jubilees itself provides a fascinating glimpse into Judaism at the start of the 2nd century B.C.E. The author of this book was something of a genius at commenting on and interpreting earlier passages in the Bible; his brilliant insights and innovative solutions to biblical quandaries would not find their equal until the more systematic commentaries of medieval Jewish scholars. But he was also a man of strong opinions on the issues of his day, and he did not shrink from using Scripture to argue his side.

In common with many Jews of his time, the author of Jubilees was doggedly chauvinistic and felt that any contact with foreigners was corrupting. He in fact believed that Jews were a species apart from the rest of humanity, an angelic race—and he could prove it from the Torah! Therefore, intermarriage between Jew and Gentile was not only forbidden but monstrous and punishable by death—and he could prove that from the Torah, too. Seeing his own contemporaries as the victims of a long moral slide, he took it as his personal mission to return them to the right path. Above all, he never tired of repeating his list of their three great sins: fornication, impurity, . . . and the use of the wrong calendar.

The existence of Jubilees had been known from antiquity, though in the West the text itself largely dropped out of sight until the 19th century, when the Ethiopic translation made its way to Europe and, shortly thereafter, a substantial chunk was discovered in Latin in the Vatican. But only since the discovery of the Scrolls have scholars begun to devote to Jubilees, and other texts of that period, the attention they deserve. For in such books, truly, may lie the answers to fundamental questions the Scrolls themselves fail to answer concerning the evolution of Judaism from the end of the biblical period until the Mishnah.

Before the Dead Sea Scrolls, it was the pleasure of some modern scholars to argue that traditional Jewish texts like the Mishnah, whatever they might be able to tell us about Jewish ideas at the time of their codification, were otherwise of limited historical value. In particular, little of what they had to say about Jewish life before the time of their own final composition or editing could be trusted. According to this view, for example, the Mishnah’s picture of ritual practices in the Temple, which had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., was largely a nostalgic reverie, just as rabbinic traditions alleged to stretch back to before the Common Era were probably pure invention.

Such a wholesale characterization is now untenable, for the Scrolls have afforded historians a set of specifics that jibe with things reported in rabbinic literature. This in turn has given scholars a new respect for the reliability of rabbinic texts in other connections as well, including as attestations to the antiquity of various exegetical traditions.

For example, the Mishnah asserts, without detailing them, that the patriarch Abraham underwent ten divinely instituted tests in his life. But there is no such assertion in the Bible, and one might well conclude that the notion of ten tests is no older than the Mishnah itself, that is, the 2nd century C.E.—a time when the idea of God’s testing His chosen servants might be particularly attractive to Jewish homilists. But it turns out that the Mishnah was hardly inventing something for its own age; the same tradition of Abraham’s ten tests is found 400 years earlier, in the book of Jubilees.

In short, even if the more sweeping expectations of an earlier day have proved to be misplaced, the Dead Sea Scrolls have indeed inaugurated a reshaping of our ideas about ancient Judaism and Christianity. But that reshaping uses the Scrolls’ material in often subtle and indirect ways, relying not so much on revelations found in the Scrolls themselves as on the new context they have provided—plus more than a few tantalizing hints here and there that have sent scholars scurrying back to texts that have been around for some time. Now that the last unpublished Scrolls are making their way into print, this reshaping is likely only to accelerate, to the benefit of our knowledge of subjects previously neglected or long misunderstood.

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Footnotes

1 Random House, 384 pp., $25.00.

2 F. Garcia Martinez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English (Brill, 1994); G. Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Penguin, 1997).

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