Monday, July 14, 2008

The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Fusion of Disciplines

When we think of the Dead Sea Scrolls (hereafter DSS), we tend to focus on the literary texts unearthed from the desert area of the Dead Sea. This is not a complete picture, however, for not only do we have literary texts but there are also forays into other disciplines. While this is probably not a definitive list, I include some of the noteworthy points of departure for study in the DSS.

First, there is the aspect of history (both modern and ancient) connected to the study. The story of the discovery of the DSS, from the Bedouin shepherds in 1947 in a cave to the subsequent discoveries in other caves, is colored by mystery and intrigue. I might be exaggerating there a bit, but the story of the first discovery to the publications of the DSS makes quite interesting historical reading. Coupled with the modern story of how they were brought to light is the vexing question of the history of the texts themselves. What was the timeframe of which these people lived, who lived in the Qumran community, what were they reacting against, why did they take such care to assimilate and keep so many writings (both biblical writings and parabiblical ones)? These and many other questions continue to draw scholars into the sometimes mysterious world of this academic study. So, historically, there are reasons to study the finds and the texts of the DSS.

Second, the matter of intertextuality and I will briefly define what I mean here with some questions. How do the DSS enlighten our knowledge of both the First and Second Testaments and what do they say about the forming Judaism of the time and the origins of early Christianity? Did the Christians know of these texts and assimilate them in some way? Did the Qumran community react against a religious system they felt no longer was tenable and thus constructed an alternative? How did formative Judaism react and respond to the charges brought by the Qumran community?

Third, the contribution of archaeology cannot be highlighted enough in reference to the DSS. Archaeological discoveries in the Dead Sea area have helped us understand the world of the first centuries of the Common Era in amazing ways. One little tidbit that continually makes me laugh was the discovery of a toilet in the Qumran community and the publications spawned from that discovery. I wonder what our toilets will say to archaeologists two thousand years from now!! Seriously, archaeology, as it finds buildings, pottery, space, cemetaries, and even toilets has opened up worlds of knowledge in first century history.

Fourth, carbon dating has contributed to the field of the DSS. How can this be - well carbon dating has been used with good results in the actual dating of the documents that were written or assimilated by the DSS community. It helps place the timeframe for the texts and even though it is not able to isolate the exact year as the findings are disputed, there have been great strides in placing the writings in the first centuries of the Common Era.

Finally, of course, are the texts themselves and this rich literary treasure will be explored more later. The texts reflect diversity of genre and show a community in the grip of keeping an identity it felt important and a religious tradition it felt was slipping away.

There are probably many other trajectories for study, but I include this that I feel are important. Feel free to add more if you would like in the comments or dispute mine, that is part of the process of discovery isn't it?

1 comment:

  1. Although Tom laughs at the matter, some scholars have argued that the discovery of a (supposedly ancient) latrine in Qumran supports the Essene hypothesis. For an apt criticism of this view see


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