The Dead Sea Scrolls by John J. Collins by John J. Collins - Read Online

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Since they were first discovered in the caves at Qumran in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls have aroused more fascination--and more controversy--than perhaps any other archaeological find. They appear to have been hidden in the Judean desert by the Essenes, a Jewish sect that existed around the time of Jesus, and they continue to inspire veneration and conspiracy theories to this day. John Collins tells the story of the bitter conflicts that have swirled around the scrolls since their startling discovery, and sheds light on their true significance for Jewish and Christian history.

Collins vividly recounts how a Bedouin shepherd went searching for a lost goat and found the scrolls instead. He offers insight into debates over whether the Essenes were an authentic Jewish sect and explains why such questions are critical to our understanding of ancient Judaism and to Jewish identity. Collins explores whether the scrolls were indeed the property of an isolated, quasi-monastic community living at Qumran, or whether they more broadly reflect the Judaism of their time. And he unravels the impassioned disputes surrounding the scrolls and Christianity. Do they anticipate the early church? Do they undermine the credibility of the Christian faith? Collins also looks at attempts to "reclaim" the scrolls for Judaism after the full corpus became available in the 1990s, and at how the decades-long delay in publishing the scrolls gave rise to sensational claims and conspiracy theories.

Publicado: Princeton University Press on
ISBN: 9781400844609
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The Dead Sea Scrolls may seem to be an unlikely candidate for inclusion in a series on biographies of books.

The Scrolls are not in fact one book, but a miscellaneous collection of writings retrieved from caves near Qumran, at the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, between the years 1947 and 1956. In all, fragments of some nine hundred manuscripts were found. They are written mostly in Hebrew, with some in Aramaic and a small number in Greek. They date from the last two centuries BCE and the first century CE.

The collection is not entirely random, and much, though not all, of it seems to reflect the thought of a Jewish sect, usually identified as the Essenes, around the turn of the era. But the degree of coherence is controversial. While the Scrolls are often presumed to be the remnants of the library of a community that lived at the site of Qumran, this view seems increasingly unlikely. It is more likely that they were brought from several sectarian communities and hidden in the caves in the wilderness at the time of the Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–70 CE), although some presumably belonged to the community at the site. Unlike the Bible, which is also a collection of writings of diverse origin, the Scrolls were never known to constitute a distinct corpus in antiquity. Only after their accidental discovery in the middle of the twentieth century CE did the Scrolls become a corpus, or an entity that might be considered an appropriate subject for a biography.

Moreover, the biography of these Scrolls is somewhat like that of Rip van Winkle. While other texts from antiquity influenced the Renaissance or the Reformation, the Scrolls just slept. What we have witnessed in the last sixty-five years or so is not so much a biography as a post-resurrection afterlife, separated from the original environment of the Scrolls by an interval of two millennia.

Nonetheless, the Scrolls now exist as a distinct corpus, with a life of its own. That life has several dimensions. The Scrolls are a scholarly resource, studied intensively by an expanding community of scholars, and of interest not only to historians of Judaism and Christianity but also to sociologists of religion and even philosophers. They are also a tourist attraction, in Jerusalem as well as in museum exhibitions throughout the Western world. Hundreds of thousands of people have waited patiently to catch a glimpse of selected illegible fragments in dimly lighted display cases and come away feeling that they have touched the past. In October 2011, when the Israel Museum launched a website featuring high-resolution photographs of five important Scrolls, the site got more than a million hits in the first week. Only a fraction of the people visiting the site are likely to have been scholars who could read the texts from the photographs. The Scrolls are fodder for the popular demand for mysteries—exotic, dimly understood lore that is paraded to stimulate curiosity in tabloid newspapers and television shows such as Mysteries of the Bible. They are also sometimes a political symbol—testimony to the antiquity of Jewish roots in the land west of the Jordan, or conversely of modern Israeli expropriation of artifacts that were discovered in territory that was then under Jordanian control and whose ownership remains in dispute.

The Scrolls have been described as the greatest archeological discovery of the twentieth century. They have certainly been the most controversial.

The Scrolls attract popular interest, and also spark controversy, because they are primary documents from ancient Judea, from around the time of Jesus. Prior to the discovery of the Scrolls there were scarcely any Hebrew or Aramaic texts extant from that time and place. Inevitably, there has been an expectation, sometimes fevered, that these texts would shed light on Jesus or the movement of his followers. Several claims in this regard, beginning a few years after the discovery of the Scrolls and continuing into the twenty-first century, have been quite sensational, and it is precisely these claims that have attracted the attention of the wider public.

Controversy has been fanned by the fact that many of the fragmentary Scrolls remained unpublished for half a century. This delay has provided fertile ground for conspiracy theories, which were further nourished by the fact that several members of the official editorial team were Catholic priests—hence the suggestion that the Scrolls had been withheld from the public by order of the Vatican, because of the fear that they might undermine the historical credibility of Christianity. No serious scholars take such claims seriously, but they continue to stimulate suspicion and curiosity among the amateurs who flock to museum exhibits of the Scrolls.

Almost immediately after their discovery, a consensus developed that the Scrolls belonged to the (Jewish) sect of the Essenes, who had long been regarded as forerunners of Christianity. This consensus has aroused the wrath of dissenters to an extraordinary degree. The passion of the debate can hardly be explained by the ambiguities of the evidence. The same is true of the interpretation of the site of Qumran as an Essene settlement. At stake is the relevance of the Scrolls for mainline Jewish tradition, or the degree to which they should be taken to reflect a marginal form of Judaism, closer to Christianity than to the religion of the rabbis.

For a long time, the Scrolls were thought to be of greater interest to Christian scholars than to their Jewish counterparts. This impression was due in some part to the fact that no Jewish scholars were included in the editorial team, at the insistence of the Jordanian government. After the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, and the Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem where most of the Scrolls were housed, that picture began to change. When all the Scrolls became freely available in the 1990s, scholars who had been trained in rabbinic literature realized that there was plenty of material to interest them in the Scrolls. Consequently, the pendulum has swung from issues that were primarily of interest to Christian scholars to matters bearing on the distinctively Jewish character of the Scrolls and the continuity of the Scrolls with the later rabbinic tradition. Debates on all these issues have been heated, and have led to court proceedings in at least two cases—one involving the rights of editors of ancient texts and one involving attempts to defame a prominent scholar, as a way of advancing the views of a maverick in the field. These proceedings reflect a level of personal acrimony that is rare in the world of academic scholarship.

The story of the discovery of the Scrolls has often been told, and their contents have been amply described. There are also accounts, some of them self-serving, of the battle for the scrolls, the controversies that led to the end of the monopoly of the editorial team and granting of access to any qualified scholar. The purpose of this volume is different.

Our purpose is to ask what difference the Scrolls have made to the study of ancient Judaism and early Christianity, and to probe what has been at stake in the debates that have often been so acrimonious. Are the Scrolls really worthy of all the attention they have received and continue to receive? Or are they only of curiosity value, as relics of an obscure and idiosyncratic sect that happened to live in the same time and place as Jesus of Nazareth? What is their enduring value likely to be?

For most of us who work in the field of biblical studies or ancient Judaism, these questions often seem unnecessary. Of course the Scrolls are of great historical value. In fields where new data rarely come to light, the Scrolls have seemed to be manna from heaven. They shed light on the two main religions of the Western world at a crucial time of transition for the one (Judaism) and the time of origin of the other (Christianity). In the case of Judaism, the Scrolls provide primary evidence for a period where it had been lacking. In the case of Christianity, the light is indirect, by illuminating the context in which Jesus and his earliest followers lived. This light is seldom of the sensational, headline-grabbing kind that popular writers on the Scrolls have repeatedly sought. But it is of fundamental importance for understanding the nature of Judaism and Christianity, and their tumultuous relationship over the centuries.

But are the Scrolls just something that God has provided for scholars to be busy with, as the book of Ecclesiastes might have suggested? It is unlikely that anyone’s views about religion or life have been changed because of the discovery of the Scrolls. While the significance of the Scrolls lies mainly in the light they shed on ancient Judaism and early Christianity, the biography of the Scrolls is also an interesting study in the ethos of the scholarly community and modern media. The scholarly community is generally collegial and mutually supportive, but the Scrolls have brought to light some glaring exceptions that remind us that this community is no more free of original sin than any other segment of the human race. The story of the Scrolls also provides for an interesting study in the use, and manipulation, of scholarly data in the popular media. No doubt, the free press is one of the glories of democracy, but it can sometimes behave as indiscriminately as a hungry beast that only seeks whom it may devour.

The biography of the Scrolls, in short, touches on a range of interests that go beyond the historical value of the ancient texts. A major discovery like this shakes up the conventional world of scholarship in various ways, both on the level of ideas and on the level of human behavior. We will consider some of these ways in the following chapters.


The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Discovery of the Scrolls


On April 10, 1948, the Yale University News Bureau released an announcement, which appeared in the major newspapers of the English-speaking world in the following days:

The earliest known manuscript of the entire biblical book of Isaiah from the Old Testament has been discovered in Palestine, it was announced today by Professor Millar Burrows of Yale University, the director of the American Schools of Oriental Research at Jerusalem.

In addition, three other unpublished ancient Hebrew manuscripts have been brought to light by scholars in the Holy Land. Two of them have been identified and translated while the third still challenges recognition.

The book of the prophet Isaiah was found in a well-preserved scroll of parchment. Dr. John C. Trever, a Fellow of the School, examined it and recognized the similarity of the script to that of the Nash Papyrus – believed by many scholars to be the oldest known copy of any part of the Hebrew Bible.

The discovery is particularly significant since its origin is dated about the first century BC. Other complete texts of Isaiah are known to exist only as recently as the ninth century AD.

All these ancient scrolls, two in leather and the other in parchment, have been preserved for many centuries in the library of the Syrian Orthodox Monastery of St. Mark in Jerusalem. They were submitted to the American Schools of Oriental Research for study and identification by the Metropolitan Athanasius Yeshue Samuel and Father Butros Sowmy of the monastery.

Aside from the Book of Isaiah, a second scroll is part of a commentary on the Book of Habakkuk (Habakkuk is a Minor Prophet and this is one of the books of prophecy of the Old Testament), and a third appears to be the manual of discipline of a comparatively unknown little sect or monastic order, possibly the Essenes. The fourth manuscript is still unidentified.

The announcement went on to credit Dr. William H. Brownlee, a fellow at the American Schools, with the identification of the Habakkuk commentary, and to note that the Scrolls had been photographed, and were being studied further.

This was, in effect, the birth announcement of the Dead Sea Scrolls, although a small number of scholars were already aware of the discovery, and William F. Albright, the reigning authority on Hebrew paleography (and on many other matters relating to the ancient Near East) had already pronounced it the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times. The announcement was inaccurate in one respect and incomplete in another.

First, these scrolls had not been preserved for many centuries in St. Mark’s Monastery. They had been found in a cave near the Dead Sea, south of Jericho, by members of the Ta’amireh Bedouin tribe, some time in late 1946 or early 1947. Burrows claimed that the news release had been edited after it left his hands: what he had written was that the scrolls were acquired by the Syrian Orthodox Monastery of St. Mark. It is unclear whether someone deliberately changed the wording to conceal the true provenance of the fragments. The scrolls had indeed been brought to the American Schools by the Syrian Metropolitan, and it is conceivable that the editor assumed that they had been found in the monastery. In view of the intrigue surrounding the discovery, it is also quite conceivable that someone changed the wording deliberately. In fact, the Syrian archbishop on more than one occasion alleged that the scrolls were found in a monastery.

Second, the press release was misleading as to the number of scrolls that had been discovered, since not all of them had been brought to the attention of the American Schools. The initial discovery had been made by a Bedouin known as Mohammed ed-Dib (the wolf) with at least one companion. This discovery involved three scrolls:

•   a copy of the biblical book of Isaiah,

•   a rule book for a community that was initially dubbed the Manual of Discipline, and would later be called the Community Rule or referred to by its Hebrew name as Serek ha-Ya ad, or as 1QS (i.e., the Serek from Qumran Cave 1), and

•   a commentary, or pesher, on the biblical book of the prophet Habakkuk, relating the words of the prophet to events in the author’s time, which was believed to be the end of days.

Mohammed had brought them to Bethlehem in March 1947, and had shown them to antiquities dealers. Eventually, they were shown to Khalil Eskander Shahin, better known as Kando, a Syrian Orthodox merchant and cobbler from Bethlehem, apparently because the scrolls were written on leather. In April 1947, they were brought to the attention of Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan, or Archbishop, at St. Mark’s Monastery in the Old City in Jerusalem. The Metropolitan was aware of ancient reports that manuscripts had been found in a cave near Jericho, in a jar. One such report was attributed to Origen of Alexandria, who knew of a scroll that had been found at Jericho in a jar in the time of Antoninus, son of Severus, about 200 CE (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.16.4). Another, about 800 CE, was reported by Timotheus I, the Nestorian patriarch of Seleucia. In that case an Arab huntsman followed his dog into a cave and discovered books of the Old Testament, as well as others. The archbishop, then, had grounds to suspect that the scrolls were ancient and might be valuable.

In the meantime, in early summer 1947, four more scrolls were discovered by Bedouin, who brought them to the Syrian monastery but were turned away because of a misunderstanding. Three of these scrolls (a second Isaiah scroll, and previously unknown texts that became known as the War Scroll [1QM] and the Hodayot, or Thanksgiving Hymns [1QH]) were then sold to another antiquities dealer, Faidi Salahi. (The War Scroll was a manual for an apocalyptic battle between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. The Hodayot was a collection of hymns in a distinctive style, giving thanks to God for deliverance and exaltation.) The fourth scroll, later identified as the Genesis Apocryphon (a paraphrastic retelling of Genesis, in Aramaic), was acquired by Kando. In July 1947, Kando sold the original batch of scrolls to the Syrian Metropolitan. The three scrolls in Salahi’s possession were brought to the attention of Eliezer Sukenik, a professor of archeology at the Hebrew University, in November of that year, just before the United Nations passed its resolution authorizing the creation of the state of Israel. Initially Sukenik had to peer at a fragment through a barbed wire fence. He asked his contact, an Armenian antiquities dealer, to bring some more samples. In the meantime, Sukenik got a pass to cross over to the zone where the dealer had his shop. After a brief examination, Sukenik was convinced that the fragments were genuine and decided to buy them for the Hebrew University. The initial purchase consisted of the Hodayot, or Thanksgiving Hymns, and the War Scroll. He thus became the first scholar to authenticate the scrolls. A little later he was able to purchase the second Isaiah scroll (1QIsaiahb; 1Q designates scrolls found in Cave 1 near Qumran).

Mar Samuel, the Metropolitan, had also contacted Hebrew University a