Commentary Magazine

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.

In order to understand the great hullabaloo over the Dead Sea Scrolls in the fall of 1991, it will be necessary to retrace briefly the often told story of the initial acquisition of the scrolls and their subsequent history of jurisdictional entanglements. The first Bedouin finders brought seven complete scrolls to Bethlehem and sold them for a pittance to a Christian-Arab dealer in antiquities. He in turn conveyed four of these to the Metropolitan of the Syrian Jacobite Church in Jerusalem, and sold the other three clandestinely to Eleazar Sukenik, an archeologist at the Hebrew University, in the very heat of battle between Israelis and Arabs in 1948. In 1954, Metropolitan Samuel took his four scrolls with him to the United States and placed a discreet advertisement for their sale in the Wall Street Journal. Yigael Yadin, Sukenik’s son, and himself on the way to becoming a distinguished archeologist, acquired the Metropolitan’s scrolls for $250,000 through the cover of an intermediary (Samuel would hardly have sold them knowingly to an Israeli). Thus the seven original scrolls, all subsequently published, came under Israeli jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, in the most literal sense, no stone was left unturned in the Qumran region where the first find was made. By the early 1950’s, extensive archeological digs were initiated under the direction of Pére Roland de Vaux of the Dominican Ecole Biblique in Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem. (Until 1967, it must be remembered, the Qumran region was in Jordanian hands.) In one cave alone, Cave 4, 800 scrolls and fragments were discovered. At the same time, the Bedouins, now realizing there were objects in these honeycombed cliffs with a high market value, searched the caves surreptitiously, removing scrolls and scraps of writing, much of which made its circuitous way to the scholars, but some of which may conceivably still be sitting in the safes of antiquity dealers anywhere in the Middle East, waiting for the moment when the price is right.

Most of the scrolls, then, were deposited in the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, essentially under de Vaux’s authority. Beginning in 1953, an international team of just seven scholars was assembled to decipher, edit, and publish the scrolls. Most of them were Catholic and there were no Jews. Given the political divisions of the time, it would have been unthinkable to invite Israeli participation, and in any case, Père de Vaux, a member of the fascist Action Française during his youth in France, was both anti-Zionist and frankly anti-Semitic. As a result of the conquest of East Jerusalem in June 1967, the Rockefeller Museum came under the jurisdiction of the Israel Antiquities Department. But its director, Avraham Biram, was loath to interfere with the arrangements made by the existing team of researchers, perhaps fearing a public uproar or diplomatic incident. He insisted only on a necessary modification of nomenclature—that the words “of Jordan” be stricken from the title of the publication series, Discoveries in the Judean Desert of Jordan. Meanwhile, the pace of publication was slowing from respectable to scandalous: the fifth volume of the scrolls appeared in 1968; a sixth volume did not see the light of day until 1977. I shall return to the issue of delay, which has been at the center of the current controversy.



In 1985, John Strugnell of Harvard, a British-born convert to Catholicism and a member of the team since the 1950’s, was appointed head of the international editorial committee, succeeding Père Benoit of the Ecole Biblique who had taken over after Pére de Vaux. This appointment set the fuse for the recent explosion. Strugnell, according to the testimony of those who have worked with him, is a brilliant and engaging, or at least amusing, person. He brought onto the team its first Jewish member, Emanuel Tov of the Hebrew University, who had been his student at Harvard, and he also has consulted closely with the talmudist Ezra Sussman on technical issues of Jewish law raised by one of the scrolls. But Strugnell is also an anti-Zionist and a doctrinal if not emotional anti-Semite, and in recent years he has had serious problems with alcoholism and emotional instability. All this surfaced spectacularly in the fall of 1990 in an interview Strugnell gave in one of his weaker moments to the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz, in which he openly declared his contempt for Judaism as a religion and his belief that the Jews should put an end to their collective existence by converting to the true faith.

In the ensuing scandal, Strugnell, who needed hospitalization for psychiatric care, was forced to resign his post by Amir Drori, the man who had taken over the Israel Antiquities Department in 1988 and transformed it into the Antiquities Authority, an entity with more far-reaching powers. Emanuel Tov was appointed as the new editor-in-chief of the scrolls project. Some deference was still given to the international committee, which designated Père Emile Puech of the Ecole Biblique and Eugene Ulrich of Notre Dame as co-editors, but it was clear that the Israelis were now calling the shots. Drori, moreover, an archeologist, a retired general, and a decided activist as an administrator, had taken another step toward assumption of responsibility two years earlier by appointing a three-man Israeli scrolls advisory committee consisting of Magen Broshi, curator of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum where the seven original scrolls are housed, and Jonas Greenfield and Shemaryahu Talmon, both eminent Hebrew University authorities on the scrolls and on Hebrew and Aramaic philology. Broshi held some 40 half-day meetings with his advisory committee during its first two years of operation. He also insisted that each scholar assigned to editing a scroll be given an unambiguous deadline, with 1997 set as the date for submission of all materials and 2000 as the date for the completion of publication. These energetic steps have by and large been ignored in the recent outcry over the withholding of the scrolls.

The leather-lunged cheerleader of the outcry is Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, a stylish mass-circulation bimonthly that publishes excellent short articles by leading scholars accompanied by sumptuous photographs. Shanks had begun in the mid-80’s to issue a series of clarion calls for the rapid publication of the rest of the scrolls and the immediate granting to all scholars of access to the texts. Understandably, when the Strugnell scandal broke a year ago, Shanks was quick to turn a spotlight in his magazine on the latest shame of the scrolls committee. Anti-Semitism apart, the image of a disheveled Strugnell in his cubicle in the Ecole Biblique filing vital documents for the scrolls project in empty beer cartons did not inspire confidence in the custodial scruples of the team he directed, and he himself over the years had published precious little of the material with which he had been entrusted. The Israeli authorities meanwhile insisted that the project was now proceeding with all deliberate haste. This contention by no means satisfied Shanks, who sponsored a maneuver that decisively pushed the long-guarded scrolls into the public domain.

In early September 1991, Shanks announced that the Biblical Archaeology Society, which he chairs and which is the publisher of his magazine, was about to issue the first of a series of volumes called A Preliminary Edition of the Unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls. The text had been prepared by Ben-Zion Wacholder, a professor of Talmud at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, working together with Martin G. Abegg, Jr., a graduate student and computer specialist, and it is a peculiar artifact of the age of high technology. In 1960, a privately circulated concordance had been prepared of the unpublished Qumran texts; a few years ago it was printed in a very small edition. Using the concordance, which cites not merely single words but the complete clauses in which they appear, Wacholder and Abegg were able with the aid of a computer to generate whole texts. “Whole texts,” however, is something of an exaggeration, since the one volume (Hebrew only) that has appeared is made up entirely of fragments, most of them fewer than ten lines, and often defective lines at that. The exclusive subject of the fragments is a system of rotation of priestly celebrants, hardly a topic that will revolutionize our understanding of Jewish visions of reality around the time of Jesus.

In any case, the Shanks-Wacholder-Abegg publication elicited cries of piracy and theft from a number of established scrolls scholars. One undeniable criticism was that this was a shaky if not shady way to establish a text, and that even if the computer extrapolations were dependable, the 1960 concordance in many respects was not. But the barn door had been kicked open, and everything that had been locked inside rapidly galloped out.

Within a few weeks, the Huntington Library of San Marino, California announced that it would make available for the use of all scholars the complete set of photographs of the scrolls which it had in its possession. (The photographs had been made in 1980 as a safeguard against destruction of the texts in war or other disaster.) The Israeli authorities at first grumbled and issued vague threats of taking legal action; but, accepting the inevitable, Emanuel Tov announced on October 27, 1991 that duplicate sets of the photographs—at the Rockefeller Museum, Oxford University, the Hebrew Union College, and the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center at Claremont College—would be available for the free use of scholars, with permission to quote limited portions of the scrolls but “for personal research only and not for the production of a text edition.” Hershel Shanks called this “a subterfuge for controlling access.” Three weeks later, on November 20, his moment of triumph came. Two scholars, Robert H. Eisenman of California State University at Long Beach (more about him presently) and James M. Robinson of Claremont College, announced that a lawyer representing an anonymous benefactor had presented them with a set of 1,787 photographs of all the scrolls. These had been taken some years earlier by an Arab photographer, Najib Albina—how, it is not clear, but evidently not through the good offices of the international scrolls committee. The attorney of the anonymous benefactor, however, assured everyone that no legal prerogatives had been violated. Shanks’s Biblical Archaelogy Society announced it was preparing to issue a two-volume facsimile edition of all the scrolls for $195, well within the research allowance of even the most modest scholar. The Dead Sea Scrolls were now fully public.



This twisted chain of events spanning 44 years, with its clandestine transfers of texts and photos, its shadowy benefactors and anonymous advertisements, its mixture of painstaking scholarship and flamboyant alcoholism, looks like a cross between the Marx Brothers and John Le Carré. Observers overly fond of spy stories and inattentive to the elements of inadvertent farce in the Qumran capers have been receptive to conspiracy theories to explain the withholding of the scrolls. (It is, by the way, not even clear how much has been “withheld”: Israeli authorities claim as much as 80 percent of the materials has already been published; some critics put the figure at only 25 percent. Percentages are likely to be misleading because much of what remains consists of tiny fragments, not in any sense “books,” and some of these duplicate one another.) Edmund Wilson, in his still beautifully readable and on the whole balanced popular account of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1957, revised edition 1969), was one of many who set the stage for conspiracy theories by suggesting that the Qumran material might be threatening to Judaism by undermining the authority of the Masoretic text of the Bible—in fact, hardly a major vested interest of non-fundamentalist Jewish scholarship—and to Christianity by compromising the uniqueness of Jesus and his messianic role. By now, however, most scholars have concluded that the doctrines of the Qumran sectarians have only an indirect and by no means causal connection with the rise of Christianity, though Robert Eisenman is a notable exception in this regard.

Two young journalists, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, unfortunately have swallowed Eisenman’s theories whole, virtually becoming his publicists, in their new book, The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception.1 Their account reflects that vision of the sinister machinations of Rome which has repeatedly flourished in English-speaking countries ever since the Reformation. Although they are right that the scrolls have been for the most part in Catholic hands and that several of the editors have also been outspoken anti-Semites, they make the highly implausible claim that Vatican authorities have secretly controlled the whole project, suppressing essential scroll material because it would have an “explosive” effect on Christian faith. Even so vehement a critic of the scrolls committee as Hershel Shanks has aptly noted in a review of Baigent and Leigh (Biblical Archaeology Review, November-December 1991) that the many Catholic scholars involved in Qumran work, including one at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, betray no evidence of this alleged bias, and that several of them have actually been vocal in demanding the prompt release of the unpublished texts.

The sheer withholding of documents unfortunately encourages fantasies that they contain portentous information. At the far end of this continuum of response shared by Baigent and Leigh, sensational weekly tabloids like the Sun and the Canadian Weekly World News have been announcing that the unpublished scrolls will reveal: proof of life after death, a miracle cure for AIDS and cancer, the date of the end of the world, the invasion of earth by extraterrestrials in the biblical era, and, what is sure to throw the Vatican iconographers for a loop, the physical appearance of God. (“Though the description is sketchy, the scrolls say He has fiery green eyes, flowing brown hair, and stands 9 feet tall,” we are told by Kathryn LaRocque of the Weekly World News, who appears to have devoted too many television hours to watching the Incredible Hulk.) Even the sober editorialist of the New York Times, in applauding the publication of the Wacholder-Abegg volume, piously intones that we as a civilization must have all the scrolls for “what they say about the common roots of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.” In fact, what the scrolls tell us about either Christianity or rabbinic Judaism is more marginal than many have imagined, and it is unlikely that world-shaking revelations will emerge from the texts yet to be published.



The snail’s pace of publication after the early 1960’s has certainly been disgraceful, even granting the immense difficulties of piecing together thousands of tiny fragments and reconstructing defective texts. But this slowness is almost entirely attributable to the institutional vices of academic life, of which laymen may have no adequate notion, and not to a secret plot. The original seven scholars were given assignments to prepare critical editions of specific texts. As is the common academic practice with manuscript materials, they regarded these materials as their private scholarly property until the actual publication. Working with that academic inner calendar which measures time not in months or years but in sabbaticals and jubilees, many of them lingered for decades over their texts. Scrolls were parceled out to their graduate students as dissertation topics—academic work is, after all, a form of intellectual entrepreneurialism—while established scholars not associated with the team were often refused access. An original editor with one of the largest hoards of texts, the Paris-based J. T. Milik, does not even answer his mail.

The claim of members of the scrolls committee that time is needed in order to prepare “definitive” editions of the texts is unconvincing. Of course, no one wants to encourage harum-scarum scholarship, and one can anticipate that with total access even more foolish things will be written about the scrolls than have been written in the past. But everywhere in humanistic scholarship, even for far more recent and intelligible texts, the idea of the definitive edition has proved a will-o’-the-wisp: one generation’s reconstruction generally requires redoing a couple of generations later. The Israeli authorities were surely remiss in failing to intervene during their first 21 years of jurisdiction over the scrolls. In the last three years they have begun at last to force oil into the frozen gears of the project, and the new chain of sensational developments, whatever the exaggerations it has encouraged, has had the salutary effect of jolting the project into the forward motion it should have achieved decades ago.



But what, after all, is the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Above all, they provide ancient testimony to the life of a crucial period in Western cultural history about which our knowledge is full of yawning gaps bridged by shaky conjecture. In the early years after the discovery, there were a few dissenting scholars who argued that the texts were late, or forged; but there is now virtual unanimity about their antiquity, based on paleographic and linguistic analysis, carbon-14 dating, and minute attention to the veiled historical references of the documents. The oldest manuscripts may go back as far as the late 3rd century B.CE (and this, of course, does not preclude the possibility that a few of the texts are copies of still older compositions). The religious commune—yahad—at Qumran was probably established around the middle of the 2nd century B.CE. and continued until 68 C.E., the time of the arrival of the armies of Vespasian and Titus in the Dead Sea region. Though some texts may have originated close to this later date, the compositions that most directly reflect the life of the sect (The Manual of Discipline, The Damascus Covenant, The War Scroll, The Thanksgiving Hymns) were in all likelihood written between the beginning and the middle of the last pre-Christian century. The probability of this early dating argues strongly against the sundry sensationalistic proposals that the literature of the sect refers to Jesus, to his brother James the Just, or to Paul.

Three categories of materials have been unearthed at Qumran, all of keen interest to specialists in the period, but only one of which is likely to engage the attention of the layman. At least portions of all the books of the Hebrew Bible have been found, except for Esther, with a complete Isaiah among the first seven scrolls. Several books of the Apocrypha were also discovered in the Qumran library. Finally, there is a variety of hitherto unknown compositions, many, but perhaps not all, reflecting the ritual and communal life and doctrines of the sectarians.

The biblical manuscripts are obviously of first importance in understanding the history of the biblical text. In many instances they represent manuscript traditions that diverge from that of the Masoretic text, though one cannot assume that the versions of the sectarian scribes are automatically and invariably more authoritative than those that were later consolidated in the Masoretic text. The books of the Apocrypha are precious finds because they provide Hebrew and Aramaic originals of works previously known only through Greek, Latin, and other translations. They also offer some indication of what were the extra-canonical texts in circulation at the time, at least among Jewish readers of this particular religious bent.

It is, however, to the third category of material, original compositions, that the general public looks for revelations. Their nature and provenance are still a scholarly battleground, though there is a consensus view, which I will try to summarize, not presuming to rush in with an independent judgment where specialists fear to tread.



From the contemporaneous account of the historian Josephus, it is conventional to divide Palestinian Jewry around the turn of the Christian era into three important religious trends: the Pharisees, essentially the founders of the revolutionary movement in law and theology that became rabbinic Judaism; the Sadducees, the priestly and aristocratic party who were strict constructionists on biblical doctrine; and the Essenes, a group that, according to Josephus (who claims to have been briefly a member of the sect), was ascetic, pietistic, and separatist. Given the Essenes’ sectarian practices and the indications in several ancient sources that they had a commune in the Dead Sea area, most scholars from the beginning have been prepared to identify the Qumran group with the Essenes. This view still seems the most plausible one, though of late, as I shall explain, it has been refined and complicated.

Challenges to the consensus are vehement but unconvincing. Robert Eisenman imagines that several of these texts are the polemical work of the first generation of Jewish Christians, followers of Jesus who still insisted on the punctilious observance of Jewish law. In Eisenman’s reading of the Habbakuk Pesher and other scrolls, a figure called the Righteous Teacher of the Qumranites is James the Just, while one called the Preacher of Lies is Paul, who abrogated Jewish law. Apart from the improbably late dating of the texts required by this piece of cryptography, it is based on some dubious philological claims. To cite one crucial instance, the designation Preacher of Lies, matif hakazav, is translated “Pourer Out of Lying” and is said to evince “baptismal imagery.” It is true that the etymological root of matif is a verb meaning “to drip” (not “to pour”), but the term is already firmly lexicalized in the Bible in the sense of preacher, making Eisenman’s contention extremely far-fetched.

In a less fanciful vein, the University of Chicago scholar, Norman Golb, has recently argued (American Scholar, Spring 1989) that the Dead Sea Scrolls were not written at the Dead Sea and are not sectarian productions. He points to various pieces of evidence that contradict the consensus view. The ruins at Qumran show the presence of a military garrison, though the Essenes were supposed to have been pacifists. Women were buried there, though the commune was supposed to have been celibate. His contention is that refugees from the Roman onslaught against Jerusalem brought with them a collection of texts that covered the whole spectrum of literary productivity of lst century Jewry. While Golb is surely right in saying there is no reason to assume that every Qumran text was actually composed at Qumran, there are two lines of special pleading in his argument. He must insist on striking ideological disparities among texts where the continuities of outlook and sensibility, whatever the incidental discrepancies, are impressive. Second, from the absence of any Pharisean or early Christian documents in this supposedly eclectic collection of Jewish texts he is compelled to conclude that rabbinic Judaism and Christianity “did not yet exist as movements,” which is surely allowing an initial premise to dictate a conclusion in the face of evidence that argues against it.

There will no doubt be still other theories, for the archeological evidence, like that of the manuscripts, is ambiguous. Roland de Vaux was sure he had uncovered the remains of a “monastery” with a scriptorium, a conclusion questioned by Golb and also by a pair of Belgian archeologists who have reexamined de Vaux’s work and think that the structure at Qumran may have been a luxurious “winter villa” to which members of the Sadducean aristocracy repaired. Whatever the actual nature of the building above the caves, and whether or not the character of its use may have been changed radically in 68 C.E., there appears to be a more complicated if less dramatic link betwen the Dead Sea denizens and the Sadducees. This is a view persuasively argued by Yakov Sussman in an important new article in the Hebrew quarterly Tarbits (no. 59, 1990).

Sussman finds that where principles of halakhah, Jewish law, emerge in the scrolls, they stand consistently in opposition to the halakhah of the Pharisees and in consonance with the rulings represented as “Sadducean” by the heirs of the Pharisees in the Talmud. Sussman proposes that the Essenes were a breakaway group originating among the Sadducees. They vehemently objected, he suggests, to the aristocratic worldliness of the Sadducean priesthood while they clung to the strict constructionism of the Sadducees’ approach to biblical law and thus fiercely opposed the relative flexibility and the popular character of the Pharisees’ new legal system. Later talmudic tradition amalgamated the Sadducees and the separatist Essenes into a single Sadducean halakhah, which it roundly rejected.



This image of the Qumran sectarians Intransigently fighting their fellow Jews on two different fronts at once certainly accords with the quality of spiritual ferocity that marks most of the scrolls that have been published. However valuable these documents may be as evidence of the nature of Jewish sectarianism toward the end of the Second Temple period, the sectarians themselves are hardly the sort of ancestors whom either Jews or Christians would want to rush to claim, and in terms of the evolution of religion, they actually represent a dead end, not a nourishing source of either Judaism or Christianity. There were not very many of them—the number of graves suggests a limit of 200 at one time, as against a probable several thousand urban Essenes—and in their retreat to the Judean wilderness they were akin to those American sectarians who periodically follow some spiritual leader to an isolated spot in the mountains of Montana or Oregon to await the imminent end of the world.

Perched on the rim of history, looking out toward the End, the Qumran sectarians were scarcely equipped to engage moral life or the political realm with any nuance or complexity. Apocalyptic thunder drums through many of their texts. The world is divided uncompromisingly into the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. The former are few, indeed are limited to the sectarians themselves, and they alone will be spared the terrible divine wrath that is about to descend. Truth itself is conceived as an esoteric matter to be concealed from all but the elect: the master of the commune “shall conceal the teaching of the Law from men of falsehood, but shall impart true knowledge and righteous judgment to those who have chosen the way.” The preapocalyptic moment in which the sectarians constantly live dictates a draconian code of morality and spiritual surveillance and a strictly hierarchical order that make rabbinic Judaism look almost libertarian and democratic by contrast. The Qumran texts are imbued with a brooding sense of sinfulness, a revulsion from the very carnality of human existence. Here, for example (in my translation), are three lines that appear with variations several times in The Thanksgiving Hymns:

I am a creature of clay, compact of water,
The secret of nakedness, the source of pollution,
The crucible of iniquity and the fabric of sin.

Especially because the term for nakedness, ‘ervah, is the one that refers to forbidden sexual parts, and the word for pollution, nidah, alludes to menstruation, the lines project an almost Augustinian sense of disgust at coming into the world from the shameful hidden parts of a woman’s body.

Much has been made of the literary character of the scrolls, without sufficient warrant. Yigael Yadin once claimed of The Thanksgiving Hymns that no one who did not read them in the Hebrew could conceive the poetic magnificence of these psalmotic compositions. As a student of biblical poetry, I would concur that it is exciting to have at our disposal several dozen new Hebrew poems in the biblical mode, but I must also say that in most respects this is derivative, epigonic verse. Here and there one encounters an arresting image or line, but for the most part the poems are pastiches of biblical poetry, repeatedly taking the urgency of the supplication psalms—Lord save me, my enemies encompass me—and coloring it with the crude emotional hues of apocalyptic ressentiment.

In general, there is a disquieting note in the relation of the sectarian writers to Hebrew textuality and the Bible. They were not, after all, building a new edifice on the foundation of the Bible like their adversaries the Pharisees, but rather sustaining through literary pastiche and apocalyptic fulmination the illusion that they were still living at the heart of the biblical destiny in all its Davidic and Aaronite glory, that they were continuing to write the Bible. Shemaryahu Talmon has drawn a trenchant distinction between the sectarians and the rabbis precisely in these terms in his recent The World of Qumran from Within:

(Proto) rabbinic Jewry viewed the biblical era as a closed chapter and their own times as being profoundly different from that preceding age. In contradistinction, the Covenanters [at Qumran] perceived themselves as standing within the orbit of the biblical era and their community as the rejuvenated embodiment of biblical Israel: they were the “righteous remnant” whom God had spared when He delivered Judah and Jerusalem to the sword of the Babylonians. . . .

Such an orientation toward history through the reliving and extension of sacred texts encourages megalomaniacal self-importance and contempt for others as well as a kind of hallucinatory relation to present events. A particularly scary and symptomatic document of this mentality is The War Scroll. Although scraps and tatters of images drawn from Roman military practice float through the text, its choreography of confrontation between the forces of light and darkness is not really anchored in historical time. As Talmon has said of the sectarians in general, this is a piece of writing “suspended in limbo between the real and the visionary stage of history.” The scroll’s long list of “orders of battle,” with its catalogues of trumpets and banners and weapons ornamented in silver and gold, is really a continuous act of incantatory word-magic. It is not through political action or social institution or legal initiative that this writer copes with the quandaries and terrors of life under the Roman empire but rather through the sheer exalting sonority of Hebrew words steeped in biblical memories. It is hardly surprising that nothing that would live on in history ever grew in this rocky ground overlooking—spiritually as well as literally—a slate-gray sea of salt.



A Wisdom poem discovered in Cave 4 offers a particularly instructive illustration of the relation of the Qumran literature to its biblical antecedents because it derives so explicitly from one biblical poem, Proverbs 7, with additional borrowings from a related poem in Proverbs 5. The text from Cave 4 has been dated paleographically to the 1st century B.C.E., though some scholars think the original composition may be older. It is quite possible that only a couple of centuries separate it from Proverbs 7, but a world of imaginative difference stands between the two poems. The biblical text is a warning cast in narrative form about the dangers of the seductress. The speaker is a worldly Mentor who addresses a vulnerable “lad.” After an initial exhortation, he represents the seductress in the tricky twilight shadows waiting in the streets to pounce on her sexual prey:

She seizes him and kisses him,
          impudently she speaks:
“I had to make peace-sacrifices,
          today I fulfilled my vows.
So I came out to meet you,
          to seek your presence, and I found you.
With coverlets I’ve spread my couch
          dyed cloths of Egyptian linen.
I’ve sprinkled my bed
          with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon.
Let’s drink our fill of love till dawn,
          let’s revel in love’s delights.
For the man is not at home,
          he’s gone on a far-off way.
The purse of silver he took in his hand,
          at the full moon he’ll come back home.”
She draws him aside with all her talk,
          with her smooth speech she lures him. . . .

The result, of course, is disastrous. “An arrow splits his liver”—evidently a reference to venereal disease—and the Mentor concludes in a formal exordium by warning all young men not to “stray on her paths.//For many are the victims she has felled/numberless all she’s killed.//Through her house are the ways to Sheol,/going down to the chambers of death” (my translation). This is, of course, not a very cheerful view of the pleasures of a one-night stand, but the poet has a keen eye for the alluring sensuous textures of seduction—all those imported luxury items, the bedclothes from Egypt and the fragrant spices from the East—and the seductress herself is a vivid figure, assuring the presumably hesitant young man that her husband is off on a business trip and won’t be back for a couple of weeks, since the action, as an earlier line implies, takes place in the dark of the moon.

What does the poem found at Qumran make of this material? Just like the seductress of Proverbs 7 (in the sequence of lines leading up to the section I have quoted), the wicked woman of this text lingers about the city squares, her eyes glancing lasciviously. Here is how she is represented in the body of the poem:

She is ever prompt to oil her words,
          and she flatters with irony,
          deriding with iniquitous l[ips]. . . .
Her clothes are shades of twilight,
          and her ornaments plagues of corruption.
Her couches are beds of corruption
          and her [. . .] depths of the pit.
Her inns are couches of darkness,
          and her dominions in the midst of the
            night. . . .
For her ways are ways of death,
          and her paths are roads of sin,
          and her tracks are pathways to iniquity,
          and her byways are rebellious
Her gates are gates of death. . . .
None of those who enter will ever return. . . .

[Translation by Geza Vermes]

My excerpting spares the reader some of the flood of sheer synonymity that gives the poem whatever momentum it has. Beginning on the purely verbal level, there is virtually no independent invention in this biblicizing poem: it is all strung together out of overlapping phrases taken from Proverbs, with an occasional locution from one of the Prophets. As literature, the poem is purely derivative. As an expression of the moral imagination, it reflects an even steeper decline from its model in Proverbs. For nothing can happen in the world of this poem. The witty narrative of Proverbs 7, like the enlivening persona of its Mentor, is entirely absent. The seductress is no longer a vivid human figure moving in a familiar medium of social institutions and material culture but an abstract emblem of hateful evil. She may even be, as Geza Vermes has suggested, an allegorical representation of false doctrine. In any case, she is evoked linguistically through that incantatory use of synonymity characteristic of many of the Qumran texts. If in Proverbs there is sometimes an intimation of imagistic association between “the pit” (Sheol) and the vaginal cavity of the seductress, in the Qumran text that link becomes an obsessive equation. Note in the lines quoted the repetitive insistence on corruption in whatever touches the body of the seductress—her ornaments and her bed—and in the following two lines, the sense of some radical awfulness lurking beneath the woman’s skirts: “Her legs go down to work wickedness,/and to walk in wrongdoings.//Her [. . .] are foundations of darkness,/and a multitude of sins in her skirts.” The seductress of Proverbs has been recast in the darkly brooding tones of “the secret of nakedness, the source of pollution” that we encounter in The Thanksgiving Hymns.



There is no question that a good deal more is now known about a pivotal moment in Jewish history through the Dead Sea Scrolls. We have even learned instructive things about the evolution of the Hebrew language, its orthography, and the way it may have been pronounced around the turn of the Christian era. But the popular fascination with the scrolls that has been sustained for over four decades and the inordinate hopes for a grand revelation from these scraps of parchment betoken one of the great modern illusions—that if only we could take within our grasp the material substance of the past, if only we could empty out all the contents of its buried time capsules, we might touch an ultimate secret of origins, understand in a new and illuminating way how we came to be what we are. Whatever the wealth of historical testimony discovered in the Qumran texts, and perhaps still to be discovered, we will almost certainly not find in them any such truth of origins. By the time the sectarians fled their Dead Sea dwelling in 68 C.E., the early Christians (chiefly Paul) and the early rabbis had already taken decisive steps toward creating supple new systems of belief and religious practice out of the texts and ideas of the Hebrew Bible—on the one hand, a bold synthesis of monotheism with the mythic power of the mystery cults and a translation of theological universalism into a universalism of religious constituency; on the other hand, a refashioning of biblical doctrine as an intricate and developing system of law, based on learning, and, at least in principle, accessible to all Jews.

Against these achievements, whose power is still palpably projected from that turbulent era to ours, the writings of the Qumran sectarians seem narrow and rigid and shrill. They withdrew from the teeming city to a rock-strewn desert, hearkening to the voice of their master and awaiting the destruction of their enemies. The air they breathed was an atmosphere of hypnotic words that insulated them from the changing winds of history. The texts they left behind will continue to be intriguing objects of scrutiny but can offer scant sustenance for us who live in the unfolding movement of historical time.


1 Summit, 268 pp., $20.00.

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