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The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls Hardcover – March 24, 1998
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Since 1947, scholars from all over the world have hotly debated the meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The 200 biblical manuscripts found hidden in the caves of Qumran contain esoteric biblical commentaries, calendrical texts, and apocalyptic manuscripts similar to what can be found in the last pages of the bible. Translation of the scrolls was not an easy task. Much of the language was in ancient Hebrew or Aramaic, written by a sect of Judaism that had broken off from the Hellenistic ways of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The remarkable findings reveal a community of Jews who rejected the archaic teachings of the Temple, set up their own calendar, pondered the meaning of time, and wrote down their views of life after death.
Author Hershel Shanks reviews a great number of translations and histories of the period, ranging from ancient historians such as Josephus to contemporary scholars such as Emanuel Tov. He does this to get a better feel for the period of Judaism from the rulership of Herod the Great to the destruction of the First Temple by the Roman Empire, and in order to understand the philosophy that influenced the movement of the Essenes--who are generally recognized as the authors of the scrolls from Qumran. Shanks argues that the key to understanding the scrolls lies within the pages of the period of Judaism that was "remarkably variegated," because it will explain the cultural fragmentation that led to the evolution of thought that manifested itself into the scrolls. This accessible account is highly readable and a great introduction to an area of study that is contentious to this day. Even Shanks recognizes his limitations by humbly concluding, "Gradually, step by step there will be enough for a more convincing synthesis than can be presented today. In the meantime, much work remains to be done." --Jeremy Storey
From Publishers Weekly
Fifty years ago, a shepherd rummaging through caves surrounding the Dead Sea discovered a number of scrolls and scroll fragments that provided a glimpse into Judaism in the years between the takeover of Jerusalem by Pompeii in 64 B.C. and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Rome in A.D. 70. In his engaging new book, Shanks, founder and editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, examines the history and significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Part detective story and part historical narrative, his book reveals the behind-the-scenes race to discover more scrolls that preoccupied both biblical archeologists and Bedouin, as well as the political intrigues between Israeli and American scholars that kept the scrolls from being translated and available to a larger public for more than 40 years. Most important, however, is Shanks's overview of the question of the authorship of the scrolls. The popular scholarly view on this topic is that the Essenes, a Jewish ascetic community, wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. Using archeological evidence as well as literary and historical criticism, Shanks conducts a survey of the major opinions on the matter to conclude that "if it weren't for the proximity of the scrolls to Qumran we would never think of Qumran as the site of an isolated religious community." Finally, Shanks contends that the scrolls are far less important for our understanding of Christianity and than for the glimpse they offer into Judaism between 250 B.C. and A.D. 70. Lively prose and lucid critical insights into one of the most fascinating chapters of modern history make Shanks's book a must read for armchair biblical historians and archeologists.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Part of the controversey surrounding the Scrolls is the time period they were written: early in the first century CE, contemporaneously with the historical Jesus. As Shanks writes, "For those who want to understand the history of Christianity, the scrolls are exciting and enriching. For those who see Christianity and Christian doctrine as something entirely new and unrelated to its Jewish milieu, the scrolls are threatening." This is exacerbated by the fact that many of those who did the earliest work on the Scrolls (and the archaeological site at Qumran) were priests by avocation.
In fact, much of the initial scholarship around the Scrolls was downright shady - parts of the Scrolls became the exclusive academic domain of a single scholar who held access to it and lay claim to first publication rights. These "rights" were in turn bequeathed to students upon their retirement or death. Such behaviour is contrary to the spirit of scholarship not to mention ethically questionable. Fortunately the monopoly on the Scrolls was broken in the late 1970's and early 1980's with the publication of photographs of the Scrolls from when they were first discovered.
The question of who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls is given considerable attention by Shanks who, to his credit, presents a variety of historical interpretations in answering this. Similarly the historical meaning of the Scrolls is detailed. The similarities between Christian stories of Jesus and the dogma of the writers is striking, although maddeningly elusive in providing a definitive answer of whether one is directly related to the other. Shanks argues convincingly that in the time of Jesus, there were many versions of Judiasm; only two survived the Roman destruction of the Temple: what would become Christianity and what would become Rabbinic Judaism.
I found Shanks easy to read and authoritaritive on the time period as well as on the scholarship. For those interested in the history of the early Church in general, or the Dead Sea Scrolls specifically, this would be the place to begin.
Shanks was one of the first to dare to break the stranglehold by publishing previously unpublished scroll fragments; by pulling his finger out of the dike, others also began to publish and reconstruct texts, so that eventually there was no point to maintaining a rigid control on access, both for research and for publication.
This story is one of great interest of itself, and shortly I shall be reviewing books which talk in greater detail of the intrigue behind the Scrolls. The current volume under review, however, takes us in a different direction.
This volume, `The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls', concentrates primarily on context (both religious and historical), meaning and implications of the Scrolls.
Among the Scrolls were biblical texts (some of which differ slightly, others radically from the biblical texts which have come down to us today), accounting scrolls, commentaries, calendars, and, perhaps the most mysterious and 'juicy', apocalyptic texts, with characters flamboyant even by current celebrity standards, the Teacher of Righteousness and the Wicked Priest.
The first few chapters do talk about the Scroll history, including some of the intrigues. However, the bulk of the book examines theories about the proto-Christian and Essene teachings found in the scrolls (and whether or not these labels are even appropriate to apply to the scrolls), illumination on Judaism, especially the complexity of Judaism to be found in the generation around the destruction of the Temple, and looks forward to future research and meaning from the scrolls.
`The scrolls emphasise a hitherto unappreciated variety in Judaism of the late Second Temple period, so much sa that scholars often speak not simply of Judaism, but of Judaisms.'
Among the various controversies surrounding the scrolls is the determination of the nature of the location where the scrolls were found. Scroll fans know that the first scrolls were found near Qumran, a desert and deserted building complex near the north shore of the Dead Sea. Was this place a villa, a religious outpost, a trading centre, an ancient travel-lodge, a scriptorium? The latter idea was popularised by Roland de Vaux, one of the original enclave of scholars, and an archaeologist who, being a Roman Catholic priest, was more inclined toward the medieval monastic model with which he was more familiar, than with other interpretations (which have been advanced by others, particularly see Norman Golb), but the popular conception and possibly the plurality if not majority of scholars continue to believe that the Essenes were the inhabitants of Qumran, and that the scrolls (or at least most of them) comprise part of their library. However, Shanks cautions against jumping to premature conclusions.
`We must be careful not to read into the ancient sources or the scrolls something that isn't there. For example, neither Josephus nor the scrolls say that Essenes lived in the wilderness. Though they separated themselves from other Jews, they did not necessarily leave Jerusalem or other towns where they lived.'
Coupled with the lack of self-identification in the scrolls, the original authorship of them remains in doubt.
This is a book accessible to even the most novice of persons interested in the scrolls, and yet provides new detail and insight that will please the veteran scroll follower.