Accessible Published by De Gruyter 2021

Dead Sea Scrolls

George J. Brooke
EintragsspracheEntry Language

The term Dead Sea Scrolls refers to the manuscripts recovered from multiple sites in the Judaean desert region since 1945, notably Masada, Naḥal Ḥever, Wadi Daliyeh, Wadi Murabba‘at, Wadi Seiyal, and the caves at and near Qumran. However, it is the last of those that is often associated most closely with the term. From the Qumran Caves have come the fragmentary remains of approximately one thousand Jewish Scrolls, all dating to the three centuries before the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the period of pre-rabbinic Judaism which, from the time of Jesus, also included those groups which would be labelled Christian in the last third of the 1st cent. CE.

Before those discoveries all that scholars had in Hebrew and Aramaic from the region for the period were some coin inscriptions and a few other items such as inscriptions on ossuaries (boxes for secondary burials of bones); now, the primary data of the Scrolls have radically changed the understanding of pre-rabbinic Judaism. The Scrolls from the Qumran caves are written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek; they are written on animal skin and papyrus (and one is on copper); they come in various sizes; a few of the Scrolls were probably copied at Qumran, but most come from elsewhere, particularly, most probably, Jerusalem.

The collection of Scrolls from the Qumran caves remarkably consists almost entirely of Jewish literary works. The collection contains three kinds of composition: those that are or have to do with those books that were subsequently included in Jewish and Christian Bibles; those, including rule books, commentaries on scripture, and religious poetry, that have to do with the organisation and practices of the community that collected them; and those that reflect other Jewish literature of the period. In the last category can be found wisdom writings, liturgical texts, legal compositions, mystical writings, narratives, calendars, and apocalypses. The standard way of referring to individual scrolls is by cave number, Q (=Qumran), and either an inventory number or a title (usually invented by scholars): e.g., 1QIsaiaha = the first copy of Isaiah from Qumran Cave 1.

There are reports from Christians of manuscript discoveries in the region in late antiquity. According to Eusebius, Origen (c. 184–c. 253 CE) may have used some manuscripts from Jericho in the compilation of the Psalms in his extended Hexapla which was probably produced as a tool for use by Christians in debates with Jews. The Nestorian Patriarch of Seleucia, Timothy I (726–819 CE), describes in a letter of c. 800 CE how some Jewish converts to Christianity had reported finds of Hebrew manuscripts near Jericho.

The Qumran site was known in the 19th cent. As with the Scrolls, the history of scholarship on the Qumran site is partly a matter of geo-political accident. From 1948 until 1967 Qumran was ruled by Jordan and the excavations there were undertaken under the auspices of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities by French Dominican priest Père Roland de Vaux (1901–1971) of the École biblique et archéologique française in East Jerusalem. In the initial descriptions of the Qumran site de Vaux used the terminology of early Christian monasticism, such as “scriptorium” and “refectory,” to describe various loci. The site is indeed highly distinctive for its time and place, but subsequent archaeologists have tended to use more neutral designations in order to distance those who resided at Qumran from Christian practices of a few centuries later.

Most of the discoveries of Scrolls in modern times were made by the Bedouin. The initial finds of seven Scrolls from Cave 1 were perhaps from the outset handled by the Bedouin in two groups. This resulted in one group (1QIsaiahb; 1QHodayota; 1QMilḥama) eventually being purchased by the Jewish scholar Eliezer Sukenik (1889–1953) of the Hebrew University, and the other group (1QIsaiaha; 1QSerek Ha-Yaḥad; 1QPesher Habakkuk; 1QApocryphon of Genesis) by the Christian Metropolitan Athanasius Yeshue Samuel (1909–1995) of the Syriac Orthodox Church. So, the two sets of Scrolls were one on each side of the political dividing line in Jerusalem which was partially confirmed after the declaration of the independence of Israel in May 1948 and the subsequent war. While Sukenik and his son, Yigael Yadin (1917–1984), set to work on those scrolls that he had acquired, the Archbishop eventually involved the American School of Oriental Research (now the Albright Institute). Archbishop Samuel moved to the USA in 1949. In 1954 he offered his four major Scrolls for sale in the Wall Street Journal. Arrangements were made for the State of Israel to purchase them. All seven Scrolls, together with others from elsewhere and eventually the Temple Scroll (11Q19), were brought together at the Shrine of the Book, a specially constructed conservation and exhibition unit within the site of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, opened in 1965. However, between 1947 and 1967 the political situation certainly affected the scholarly handling of the Scrolls, with most new discoveries being managed by Christian scholars on the Jordanian side of the divide, a situation that persisted, sometimes with considerable acrimony, for unpublished fragments from Caves 4 and 11 until 1990.

Just as the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 made concrete many Jewish aspirations for a national homeland, so the contemporary discovery of the Scrolls and their presence in Jerusalem was an iconic link to the Jews in the region in antiquity. Yadin summed this up in a popular book (1957, 14): 

I cannot avoid the feeling that there is something symbolic in the discovery of the scrolls and their acquisition at the moment of the creation of the State of Israel. It is as if these manuscripts had been waiting in caves for two thousand years, ever since the destruction of Israel’s independence, until the people of Israel had returned to their home and regained their freedom.

The Scrolls show us that the extent and the purity of the land were issues in antiquity. Most contemporary Jews also take a stance on the land of Israel and its significance, but not all modern Christians are quite so concerned. For Christians, with thoughts set on the heavenly Jerusalem, the land does not feature as part of doctrine or liturgy, though from the time of Constantine onwards it has remained of interest as the setting of Jesus’s life, as a pilgrimage destination, as something to be protected by crusade, as the site of imperial concerns as the Ottoman empire declined, or as the location of fundamentalist apocalyptic aspirations.

After 1967 Israel became the curator of the whole collection of Scrolls, other than the few in other countries at the time. Editorial responsibility for the unpublished Scrolls remained largely in non-Jewish hands until 1990. Ownership of many of the Scrolls remains contested. Apart from those Scrolls already housed at the Shrine of the Book, the Israel Antiquities Authority has promoted the exhibiting, conservation and digital imaging of the Scrolls. In 2010 Emanuel Tov (b. 1941), as editor-in-chief, brought to conclusion the publication of the 40-volume Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, a series of editions begun in 1956. Since 1991 the fragmentary manuscripts have been edited and re-edited by both Jewish and non-Jewish scholars, selected by senior editors on the merit of their academic skills, not by their religious affiliation.

The history of scholarship, as is not uncommon, has regularly reflected the interests of the scholars involved. However, several key matters can be noted in relation to Jewish–Christian relations. Most of the initial study of the Scrolls was undertaken by non-Jewish scholars, most of whom were Christians. Their dominant interests were in the transmission of scriptural texts in the Second Temple period and the emerging biblical canon (notably the Protestant Old Testament), in the eschatological outlook of the sect that lay behind the principal community compositions, especially its messianism, and in the wide range of so-called Jewish Pseudepigrapha, some of which happened to be preserved by early Christian rather than Jewish groups (such as the writings of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees). In Germany the study of the Scrolls was focussed initially in a group of young Christian researchers at Heidelberg, under the leadership of Karl-Georg Kuhn who had been through the process of de-nazification. The tradition in German Christian scholarship has been to view the Scrolls chiefly as a highly significant part of the background to the New Testament and to the emergent forms of Judaism of which nascent Christianity was a part. A leading proponent of this approach since the general release of the unpublished Cave 4 and Cave 11 manuscripts has been Jörg Frey (2019). In other countries, before 1991, the Scrolls have more regularly been studied by Christian scholars of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War Yigael Yadin was able to acquire the longest surviving scroll from Qumran Cave 11, the principal copy of the Temple Scroll (11Q19). Its publication in 1977 in Hebrew but especially in 1983 in English had a very significant impact on the study of early Jewish Law, a field of interest which was bolstered in the late 1980s by the publication of the manuscripts of Miqṣat Ma‘aśeh ha-Torah (4Q394–4Q399). This new material, together with the publication of other legal texts has influenced scholarship on the understanding of the emergence and transmission of Jewish legal traditions in the period before the Mishnah; no longer is it possible to trace a single line of legal development from Moses to Maimonides through Ezra, Hillel, and the Mishnah (R. Judah ha-Naśi), though for some at least the sectarian views remain a cul-de-sac in Jewish antiquity.

This new complexity has stimulated fresh reconsiderations of both Jesus and Paul in relation to the Law in which neither figure is portrayed as standing simplistically over against Torah and halakhah but rather both are seen as making nuanced comments from within its traditions. Of particular note has been the use of the Scrolls in the portrayal of Judaism by E. P. Sanders (1977, 239–328) as a religion in which salvation was by gracious election requiring a response in obedience. In tandem with the changes in perception about Jewish legal traditions, Sanders stimulated new discourses on Jesus and the Law and the so-called “new perspective” on Paul. Those discourses have been undertaken by both Jewish and Christian scholars, often in dialogue with one another’s ideas.

The delays to the publication of some Cave 4 and Cave 11 manuscripts led to ideas in the 1980s that there was a Vatican conspiracy to conceal them. The conspiracy theories, none of which can be sustained, were partly fuelled by the views of some popularising authors that Jesus might have spent some time at Qumran. That is highly unlikely, since the Gospels associate Jesus with Galilee, with non-priestly circles, and with expressions of open table fellowship that would have been anathema to the Qumran group and the wider movement of which it was a part. Two scholars of the first generation stand out in the way that they combined biblical scholarship, fully informed by the new evidence emerging from the Qumran caves, with Jewish–Christian dialogue. Shemaryahu Talmon (1920–2010) of the Hebrew University was one of the first Israeli scholars to reach out to his post-war German counterparts; Talmon also worked with the World Council of Churches and was a regular member of Israeli delegations to the Vatican in the 1980s, meeting several times with the Pope. The Lutheran scholar Krister Stendahl (1921–2008) of Harvard Divinity School based some of his influential views on dialogue on his knowledge of the Scrolls (1998, 134).

The majority of scholars studying the Scrolls until the general release of the unpublished items from Caves 4 and 11 in the early 1990s were non-Jews. The situation had been changing through the 1980s as the team of scholars set up in the 1950s began to appreciate the need for the involvement of Jewish scholars. So, for example, Devorah Dimant (b. 1939) and Elisha Qimron (b. 1943) began their careers as scholars of the Scrolls, collaborating with Christian scholars, notably John Strugnell (1930–2007). Such Jewish–Christian or Jewish–non-Jewish collaborations have flourished since the general release of the unpublished Cave 4 and Cave 11 manuscripts in the early 1990s. The joint editorial work of Lawrence H. Schiffman and James C. VanderKam in the production of the Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2000) is a significant example of such collaboration.

In 1994 Lawrence Schiffman (b. 1948) published a landmark semi-popular work entitled Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls. The book directly addressed the problem of the Christianization of the Scrolls by some members of the first generation of scholars, and more especially in the public imagination. The main purpose of the book was to show that the kinds of Judaism reflected in the Scrolls were part of an intellectually rich Jewish context. In fact, many non-Jewish scholars persistently engaged in the study of the Scrolls as Jewish objects and have attempted to contribute from their perspective to a deeper understanding of the emergence of Judaism in the late Second Temple period. Overall, much scholarly discussion of the Scrolls has contributed to Jesus and the earliest layers of Christianity being re-Judaized, rather than that the Scrolls are constantly read through anachronistic Christian lenses. Thus, the Scrolls have helped the scholarly discussion of the so-called “parting of the ways” to become much more nuanced.

The Scrolls have certainly contributed to a deeper scholarly appreciation of the diversity of Judaism in the three centuries before the fall of the Temple in 70 CE, a diversity of which Jesus and Paul were a part. Because of this diversity before 70 CE, some scholars have even been inclined to speak of “Judaisms” in the plural, as they distinguish various types of Judaism from one another. For many modern Jews the breadth of that ancient diversity has yet to impinge on how they view the history and character of their religion and on how they consider Jews of other kinds, let alone on how they might engage in Jewish–Christian dialogue. The identities of most Jews rest more in the tenets and practices of Rabbinic Judaism as that emerged in the later period of the Mishnah and the Talmudim. Likewise, for many Christians the imperative has generally been and continues to be a stress on the uniqueness of Jesus and the distinctiveness of Paul, even though the evidence increasingly points to multiple aspects of their ongoing Jewishness, a fact that could play a much wider role in Jewish–Christian dialogue than has often been the case.

Nevertheless, developments in Biblical Studies have been recognized as a feature of the 1st-cent. CE landscape that has stimulated contemporary Jewish–Christian dialogues. In the Roman Catholic Church since Nostrae Aetate (1965) there has been recognition that such dialogs depend on fostering and recommending “the mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies.” In addition, the Roman Catholic Eileen Schuller (2011, 51–53; 2020, 227–29) has pointed to numerous instances in official statements by the churches, especially Roman Catholic ones, where such an approach is commended in the study and use of shared Jewish–Christian histories. Sometimes in those statements there are explicit though very brief references to the Dead Sea Scrolls or Qumran as items that have stimulated new conversations in certain aspects of Biblical Studies.

In its 2000 publication Christen und Juden III the Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland discussed the theology of covenant and referred to the way in which the Qumran community was grounded in a covenant theology in which Jeremiah 31:31 had played a part, though not so as to annul the Sinai covenant. That EKD publication has been referred to frequently in subsequent Lutheran declarations. In addition, the Church of England 2019 document God’s Unfailing Word has stated: 

Scholarly research, particularly since the Second World War, has done much to confirm and clarify the historical rootedness of Christianity in the diversity of first-century Judaism and the extent of the interaction between Jews and Christians in the following centuries. The study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Pseudepigrapha (particularly the Apocalyptic writings), and the archaeology of Palestine in the Second Temple period has thrown a flood of light on Judaism in the time of Jesus (pp. 3–4).

As of the writing of this article the website of the International Council of Christians and Jews has no reference to the Dead Sea Scrolls. What part might the Scrolls play in future Jewish–Christian dialogue? They should at least signal that the richness and diversity of pre-Rabbinic Judaism included much that was to be developed by both Jews and Christians in overlapping as well as distinctive ways.


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