Dead Sea Scrolls: What Have We Learned?

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - SEPTEMBER 26: A part of the Isaiah Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is seen inside the vault of the S
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - SEPTEMBER 26: A part of the Isaiah Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is seen inside the vault of the Shrine of the Book building at the Israel Museum on September, 26, 2011. in Jerusalem, Israel. For the first time some of the Dead Sea Scrolls are available online thanks to a partnership between Google and Israel’s national museum. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered near the site of Qumran, south of Jericho in the years 1947-1956 were dubbed "the academic scandal of the 20th century" because of the long delay in publication. Over the last 20 years or so, however, they have been fully published, except for occasional scraps that continue to come to light. Ever since their discovery, they have aroused passions on a scale that is extraordinary for an academic subject. Now that those passions have cooled, the time is ripe to ask what we have really learned from this remarkable discovery.

First, it may be well to recall some basic facts. Fragments of approximately 930 manuscripts, dating from the late third century B.C.E. to the first century C.E. have been discovered -- 750 in Hebrew, 150 in Aramaic and a small number in Greek. Before the discovery of the Scrolls we had no extant literature in Hebrew or Aramaic from Israel in this period. The Scrolls, then, shed unprecedented light on Judaism around the turn of the era, at the time when Christianity was born.

Since the initial batch of scrolls included a rule for a sectarian religious community, the immediate assumption was that the scrolls had been the property of that community. This assumption appeared to be confirmed by the excavation of the ruins at Qumran. Consequently, the corpus of texts became known as "the library of Qumran." But it is difficult to believe that a community at this remote location had a library equal to that of the largest Mesopotamian temples. The scrolls do seem to be a sectarian collection, but they were probably brought from diverse sectarian communities to be hidden in advance of the Roman army during the Jewish revolt of 66-70 C.E.

The Scrolls, then, were not the property of a small secluded community. They contain much that reflects Judaism of the time. They include copies of all the Hebrew Bible except Esther, but we cannot be sure that they regarded them all as "biblical" in our sense of the word. They included editions of some "biblical" books that differ from those that came down to us, and had multiple copies of several books that are not in our Bibles. They show that the process of the formation of the Hebrew Bible was not yet complete around the turn of the era.

Prior to the discovery of the Scrolls, our knowledge of Judaism in this period was heavily dependent on the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. While some of these texts were composed in Hebrew or Aramaic, they only survived in translations, transmitted in the Christian churches. Consequently there was always some question as to their validity as expressions of Judaism. The Dead Sea Scrolls went some way toward resolving this controversy. The discovery of fragments of 1 Enoch in Aramaic and of Jubilees in Hebrew showed beyond doubt that these were indeed Jewish, pre-Christian, works, and that suspicion of authenticity because of Christian transmission was unfounded. Moreover, they brought to light a host of related apocalyptic works (Pseudo-Daniel, Pseudo-Ezekiel, Pseudo-Jeremiah, etc.) that showed that apocalyptic literature was not as marginal a phenomenon as some had assumed. The Scrolls provide ample evidence that the kind of apocalyptic and eschatological speculations found in apocalyptic literature, and cherished by early Christians, were at home in Judaism around the turn of the era. At the same time, they provide ample evidence of the concern with details of religious law, or halakhah, that would characterize rabbinic Judaism some centuries later.

The area of scholarship that has suffered most from wild speculation is the relevance of the Scrolls for Christian origins. Within a few years of the discovery, claims were made that a figure called the Teacher of Righteousness in the Scrolls was crucified and believed to have risen from the dead. These claims were swiftly discredited, but revived in the 1990s by the British authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, in "The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception," who claimed that the truth had been suppressed by a Vatican conspiracy. These claims have no basis. The Dead Sea Scrolls are of great interest for early Christianity, because they describe a contemporary Jewish sect that shared similar hopes for the coming of a messiah (or messiahs) and life after death, and had some similar ritual practices. The values of the two movements, however, were poles apart. One was introverted, obsessed with issues of purity, while the other looked outward, even to the Gentile world. Nonetheless the Scrolls contain fascinating parallels to the Gospels, including one text that refers to the messiah as Son of God.

Important though the Scrolls are, their importance scarcely accounts for the fury of the debates that have surrounded them (which have generated at least two acrimonious lawsuits). In a field starved for new data, the mirage of scholarly reputations sometimes took precedence over rationality, not to say charity. But the fury of these debates has largely subsided. Scholars will continue to mine the Scrolls for generations to come.

Dead Sea Scrolls

John J. Collins is the author of 'The Dead Sea Scrolls. A Biography' (Princeton University Press).