It was 1948—I was studying theology and the Bible in Louvain (Belgium) at a college run by French-speaking Jesuits—when I first read in the press about a sensational Hebrew manuscript discovery dating to the end of the pre-Christian era. In those days one had to take everything about the scrolls with a pinch of salt. I remember, for example, that a leading Brussels daily once referred to the discovery of an 11th-century B.C.E. Biblical manuscript on the shore of the Black Sea! Having been indoctrinated by my professors in the light of a century of archaeological research in Palestine that no ancient text written on leather or papyrus could survive in the climate of the Holy Land, the Dead Sea Scrolls story seemed unbelievable and for some time many experts remained skeptical about it. The forged Deuteronomy manuscript with which the Jerusalem antiquities dealer William Shapira nearly fooled the specialists of the British Museum in 1883 was vividly recalled.a
Established scholars had a reputation to protect, but for a budding student, bursting with enthusiasm, the news was unbelievably exciting. I felt in my bones 055that the discovery was genuine and spent much more time than was advisable reading everything I could find on the subject of the scrolls worldwide. Then one day, my professor of Hebrew, Father Gustave Lambert, entered the classroom waving a letter he had received that morning from Jerusalem. It contained the transcription of several lines of the Book of Isaiah from a manuscript found close to the Dead Sea, reputedly a thousand years older than any existing Hebrew text of Isaiah. Lambert also had a photograph which I was allowed to examine. It was at that moment that I came to the instantaneous decision that I would become a Scroll scholar and would devote my life to sorting out the significance of what was called “the greatest Hebrew discovery of all time.” Today, almost 60 years later, I am still proud of this decision. Although in subsequent years I successively dealt with ancient Jewish Bible interpretation, Jewish history in the Greco-Roman world, and with the problem of the historical Jesus, I never reneged on my first academic love affair.
I was foolhardy enough to do what all my elders and betters advised me against: I stuck to my guns and chose for the topic of my doctoral dissertation the historical framework of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The topic, which had no literature to rely on, was thought unsuitable for an apprentice scholar to sink his teeth into. Nevertheless, having in my bag an article on Qumran published in 1949, I started the thesis in 1950 and completed it in 1952. In those days everything was still new about the scrolls, yet without the help of solid reference works or textbooks, I was lucky to produce a thesis of which I am not ashamed today. But before issuing the dissertation in book form, I felt I had to acquire first-hand acquaintance with the manuscripts and the place where they came from. The task promised to be difficult, but nothing would stop me.
In September 1952 I sailed from Marseilles on an old steamship to Haifa, hoping to gain access to the manuscripts held at The Hebrew University. Professor Eleazar Lipa Sukenik (1889–1953), their prospective editor, was already ailing and was soon to die. He did not grant me permission to look at his scrolls, which were published posthumously in 1953. Only one other alternative remained: I had to get over to what was then Jordanian Jerusalem, where the Qumran fragments were located and, if lucky, make my pilgrimage to Qumran itself. With the help of the Belgian consul, I achieved what theoretically was impossible: I crossed from Israel to Jordan at the Mandelbaum Gate and later returned to Israel. In those days, apart from diplomats and U.N. observers, ordinary tourists could travel only one way: from Jordan to Israel (provided they had two passports, one for the Arab countries and the other for Israel). Given a ride in a diplomatic car, I reached the École Biblique et Archéologique Française near the Damascus Gate of the Old City, and was received by Father Roland de Vaux (1903–1970), the Scroll supremo on the Jordanian side, and struck up a lasting friendship with the two young scholars working on the fragments from Qumran Cave 1: the French Father Dominique Barthélemy (1921–2002) and that brilliant Polish priest [later ex-priest] Józef Milik (1922–2006). They kindly allowed me to study the fragments they were editing; 056de Vaux had not yet set up his closed shop where only people authorized by him could see the unpublished texts.
I was also able to visit Qumran, the holy of holies of Scroll research, and thus fulfilled the twofold aim of my visit to Israel and Jordan. Meanwhile I even witnessed the arrival of one Bedouin after another, bringing matchboxes filled with fragments looted from Cave 4, and in noisy oriental bargaining style offering them for sale to de Vaux. My task was accomplished: Veni, vidi, vici. Four weeks after crossing the Mandelbaum Gate, I managed to retrace my steps to Israel without getting into trouble and a few weeks later re-embarked for Marseilles. Between Crete and the toe of Italy, we ran into a storm reminiscent of the one experienced by St. Paul but without ending in shipwreck.
In 1953, aged 28, I settled in Paris and by December my Les manuscrits du désert de Juda [The Manuscripts of the Judean Desert] was published. Being at that time the most comprehensive study of the scrolls in French, it had an unexpectedly wide and favorable press. It was warmly reviewed even by Paris Match! When, at an international congress of Orientalists in Cambridge in 1954, I first met the British, American and Israeli Qumran pundits, H.H. Rowley (1890–1969), G.R. [later Sir Godfrey] Driver (1892–1975), Paul Kahle (1875–1964), W.F. Albright (1891–1971), Yigael Yadin (1917–1984), et al., who knew me only from my publications, their standard reaction was, “I never imagined you were so young.”
The main contribution of my book and essays consisted in setting out the argument in favor of the Essene identity of the Qumran community, a view that I shared with my senior predecessors, E.L. Sukenik and André Dupont-Sommer (1900–1983). But equally important was my proposed identification of the Maccabee brothers Jonathan and Simon as the chief enemies of the Qumran leader, the Teacher of Righteousness, a theory that was soon adopted by no less authorities than Roland de Vaux, Józef Milik and Frank M. Cross and was to become the mainstream historical hypothesis over the years.
I continued my Qumran studies following a turbulent period of my life in the late 1950s, when after a quarter of a century in the Catholic church (I was baptized at the age of seven in 1931 and exited in 1957), I reverted to my Jewish roots.b I left France and set down permanent roots in England. Here my book on the scrolls, already translated into English (Discovery in the Judean Desert, New York, 1956), came to my rescue and helped me obtain a lectureship at the University of Newcastle (1957–1965). Good fortune or divine Providence allowed me to persuade the leading publishing house, Penguin Books, to issue in 1962 The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, a slim volume of 250 pages, which soon became the principal medium through which the scrolls reached a wide readership in the English-speaking world. It was instrumental in my appointment to Oxford in 1965. During the past 45 years, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English has appeared in five successive editions. In 1997, the golden jubilee of the Qumran discoveries, its title was changed to The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. Since 2004 it is available in a 720-page Penguin Classic.
In addition to my continued activity as a student of the scrolls, in the 1970s I also became engaged in Qumran politics. The increasingly slow progress of the publication of the fragments by Father de Vaux’s small club, the “international and interconfessional” group of half a dozen capable but procrastinating experts, created an unbearable hindrance for all the “outsiders” whose research work was held up by the unavailability of the unpublished fragments from Cave 4. I first intervened in 1972, when the recently deceased Father de Vaux was replaced as chief editor by Father Pierre Benoit, another French Dominican priest (1906–1987). By then firmly nested in Oxford, I attempted to mobilize the strong arm of Oxford University Press, publishers of Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, the official series in which the Qumran Cave 4 fragments were to be published. At that time some ten volumes were planned, of which only one, authored half-competently by John Allegro (1923–1988), had appeared (in 1968). The head of press, the world-renowned Greek papyrologist C.R. Roberts (1909–1990), agreed to my proposal to press on Benoit the need to accelerate the publication process. But the only thing that the well-meaning but rather weak editor-in-chief managed to obtain from his collaborators was promises to submit their typescripts at the latest by 1976. None of these promises was fulfilled.
Exasperated by the uncooperative attitude of the official editors, I declared in a public lecture in 1977 that unless drastic measures were introduced, the greatest Hebrew manuscript discovery of all time would become “the academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century.”
In 1987, on the 40th anniversary of the Qumran discovery, I organized and presided over an international gathering of Qumran experts, including all but one of the official editors. During a public meeting in the British Museum, radio broadcast by the BBC, I proposed 057that the unpublished manuscripts be made accessible to all experts forthwith. My proposal was given a two-letter answer by the then-editor-in-chief John Strugnell: NO.
The “academic scandal of the century” continued for another four years until the so-called “Scrolls revolution” broke out in September 1991. First, two scholars from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ben Zion Wacholder and Martin Abegg,c aided and abetted by the Biblical Archaeology Society of Washington, broke the embargo by reconstructing with the help of a computer program and printing several unpublished Qumran Cave 4 documents. Later in the same month, the Huntington Library of Pasadena announced that they would make available their microfilm collection of all the Qumran texts to all readers of their library. The Huntington had obtained the microfilms from a benefactor and felt no obligation to abide by the rulings of the Israeli archaeological establishment, which, after 1967, controlled the situation. As a result of these developments, the Israel Antiquities Authority was forced to grant universal access to all the unpublished Qumran scrolls, and freedom of research for which I was fighting for 20 years finally triumphed.
Thereafter, thanks to the common sense and diplomatic skill of the fourth and last Scroll editor-in-chief, Emanuel Tov of The Hebrew University,d peace and cooperation was re-established among the warring factions. The editorial team was enlarged more than tenfold, and the publication process began to advance fast and is now practically complete. The start of the new era was marked in 1993 by an exhibition of the scrolls and an international symposium organized by the Library of Congress in Washington, at which I had the honor of delivering the keynote speech. It was crowned in 1997 by a gigantic congress in Jerusalem, which was concluded most appropriately with a solemn floodlit dinner at Qumran itself, in a temperature still exceeding 100 degrees in the middle of the night. The music specially composed for the occasion was so loud that an Israeli lady scholar was heard groaning: “If they continue at this level, they are going to wake up the dead in the nearby Qumran cemetery.” That would not be such a bad idea, I thought. It would show us at last who was buried there.
Two substantive questions should follow these reminiscences. First, why was I attracted to the Dead Sea Scrolls? Second, what significant new knowledge have I acquired from studying them?
The answer to the first question is simple. More than half a century ago, I wanted to delve into the scrolls because I thought that they constituted a highly important, most mysterious and infinitely attractive novelty.
The second reply requires deeper reflection. The scrolls revealed to me something fresh and vitally significant in three areas.
I have always been fascinated by manuscripts, and the Qumran scrolls turned out to be by far the most ancient Hebrew manuscripts in existence. The complete Isaiah Scroll from Cave 1 is over a thousand years earlier than the oldest Hebrew text of the prophet previously known. Moreover, the 900 Jewish texts preserved wholly or fragmentarily in 11 Qumran caves have, for the first time, given me and my contemporaries direct grasp of the working of Jewish scribes more than two millennia ago. The Dead Sea Scrolls show us how the writing material—mostly animal skin—was ruled horizontally for lines and vertically for marking the width of columns; what kind of alphabets were used; how mistakes were corrected; how the leather sheets were stitched together, the correct order being indicated by “page numbers” written at the top of the sheets; and how a “title page” was attached to the outside of the rolled-up scroll for easy identification by future readers. We even have the residue of solidified ink at the bottom of three inkpots found in the Qumran ruins.
Moving from the outside appearance to the study of the contents of the Qumran manuscripts, I noticed that as a rule no two copies of the same document were strictly identical. There were always some verbal differences. The order of the paragraphs varied. One text was longer than another. The documents were frequently revised by later editors. I concluded from this that plurality of the textual tradition preceded the unity to which we are accustomed in the transmission of texts. This applies to Biblical, non-scriptural and specifically sectarian (Essene) texts alike. This means that the ultimate unification of a textual tradition was due to the intervention of later representatives of doctrinal authority (rabbis, Church) that could not tolerate variants in a text that was declared binding. In my view, this priority of the multiple as against the unified tradition relates to the text of the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic law, as well as to the New Testament. To illustrate 058this principle from a well-known passage from the Gospel of Matthew, the final Church version of chapter 1, verse 16, “and Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” should be set against the wording attested in some Greek manuscripts and in the old Latin and Syriac translations, which read: “and Joseph, to whom the virgin Mary was betrothed, begot Jesus.”
This allusion to the New Testament brings me to what in my view is altogether the most important contribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls to our understanding of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. The religious community revealed by the sectarian writings from the caves and by Qumran archaeology proves to be the near-contemporaneous twin of the early Christian Church. In saying this, I do not mean that they are directly connected, let alone that they are identical. The basic insistence in the scrolls on the strictest observance of the law of Moses, albeit tainted with a conviction that the end of time was at hand, neatly distinguishes the Qumran sect from the less legally oriented enthusiasm of the original Jesus movement focusing on the imminent advent of the kingdom of God and the return (parousia) of Christ. However, structurally considered, the two display striking similarities that go far beyond verbal correspondences, such as the use of the phrase “sons of light” to describe the members of the community.
Both groups considered themselves to be the true Israel and judged outsiders as men of iniquity or sons of darkness. Both the Qumran sectarians and early Christians believed that in their respective movements the Biblical prophecies had reached their fulfillment, and they regularly used Bible exegesis to demonstrate the truth of their doctrinal claims. The two founders, the Teacher of Righteousness and Jesus of Nazareth, were held to be the ultimate mediators of divine revelation and the sole reliable communicators of the will of God. An intense expectation of the impending arrival of the kingdom of God permeated the spirituality of both communities, although concern about the delay of the Day of the Lord or of the second coming of Christ is voiced in the scrolls as well as in the New Testament. Owing to these parallels, Qumran and early Christianity shed previously undreamt-of light on one another. Hence, I remain persuaded that my almost-60-year-old “love affair” with the Dead Sea Scrolls served a good cause and, together with my work on Jesus the Jew,1 contributed toward placing the origins of the Judeo-Christian civilization into a better perspective. a
Re-Judaizing the Scrolls
When I was a student at Brandeis University in the 1960s majoring in Bible and Judaic studies, I also took courses on some published Dead Sea Scrolls and wrote my senior honors thesis on the Thanksgiving Scroll. I continued in Brandeis’s graduate program for my M.A. and Ph.D., but when it came to Dead Sea Scrolls studies, the scholars and students at Brandeis were outsiders. For some reason, we never bothered to try to work with those insiders at nearby Harvard who actually held the keys to the still-sequestered material. Rather, we studied from the published editions, believing that we had available most of the material and assuming that the rest would be published soon.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, Yigael Yadin, the most famous Israeli archaeologist, recovered the Temple Scroll (see “Dead Sea Scrolls Spotlight” sidebar) from beneath the floor tiles of the home of Kando, the infamous 059antiquities dealer and middleman for the Bedouin who had found most of the scrolls. Yadin came to Brandeis to lecture, and another student and I were asked to drive him back to Providence, where he was teaching. The lecture of course stimulated my interest in the scrolls. But even more important, Yadin could not find the house where he was staying. The trip took twice as long as it should have, and I established a relationship with him that would last until his death.
It was the Temple Scroll that convinced me that I could make a unique contribution to Scroll studies. The Temple Scroll is essentially a rewritten Torah designed to express the author’s views on a plethora of matters dealing with Jewish law, the field in which I had been concentrating. In the Temple Scroll my interest in Bible and Talmud came together. I originally thought I would write my doctoral dissertation on the Temple Scroll, but the delay in publication, caused by Yadin’s ambitious approach to this text, led me to work instead on other aspects of halakhah (Jewish law) in the scrolls.
When I got my Ph.D. in 1974, I don’t think there was such a thing as a Dead Sea Scroll scholar. Our identity as a group was really forged, at least for my generation, only later when we started to work together and become friends—after the publication controversy and the bulk of the scrolls had been made available. Before that, I was variously identified as a Bible or Talmud scholar, and my assignment at New York University was to teach the literature, history and thought of the rabbinic period, what is now called Judaism in Late Antiquity.
When we first became “Dead Sea Scroll scholars,” none of us got the public attention we get today. No one came up to you in a store to tell you that he or she had seen you on television. Today, we are low-level celebrities. In the early days, even at the annual meeting of the Society for Biblical Literature, which attracts thousands of scholars, only eight or ten people would show up for the Dead Sea Scroll sessions.
In the end, I believe it was public interest in understanding Christianity in its Jewish context that made the scrolls so popular and, in its way, the darling of the popular media.
In 1985 we held a scholarly conference on the scrolls at NYU. Together with like-minded colleagues, we better organized the field, especially in the United States. Our sessions at meetings of the Society for Biblical Literature became an important place for scholarly exchange. We trained students at a number of universities. As a group, I think Dead Sea Scroll scholars can be justly proud of our journals and publications. We operate also on an international level, sharing similar aspirations and activities with colleagues throughout the world.
Dead Sea Scroll scholars also get to travel a lot. You would be amazed at where people want to hear about the Dead Sea Scrolls and how many people come out to our conferences and lectures. Even if people sometimes think we are a traveling road show, the opportunity to share our insights is enormously satisfying. And at our conferences the interchange fosters collegiality: We enjoy ourselves together.
Looking back, the real change in my life occurred because of the publication controversy. The irony is that I personally benefited from the delay in the publication of the scrolls. I would not have become so widely known, and my work would have had much less impact 061had those originally charged with editing and publishing the scrolls completed their task in a more timely manner. Instead, I ended up playing a role in the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that led to the full publication of the scrolls and to the decision of the Israel Antiquities Authority to make them fully available to the academic community.
Eventually, I had the opportunity to be part of the team that published the scrolls in the official Discoveries in the Judaean Desert series.
My role in attempting to open up the field to more scholars coincided with my commitment to the notion that the scrolls had to be re-Judaized. Much Scroll scholarship had Christianized them, that is, treated a corpus of ancient Jewish texts as if they were proto-Christian documents. It was clear that only the full publication of the corpus, especially the materials relating to Jewish law, would make possible the recognition of the centrality of the scrolls as sources for the history of Judaism. The public fascination with the scrolls is often linked to unrealistic and incorrect assumptions regarding their relationship to Christianity. Even worse, public interest is often accompanied by foolish claims about the relationship of Jesus or John the Baptist to the scrolls. These popular assumptions fed public fascination, encouraged as it was by the secrecy that for so long surrounded the scrolls.
With the publication of the long-withheld scrolls, the real significance of the scrolls has emerged. They enlighten us about the history of Judaism and the background of Christianity. Through this discovery, we now have information about the Jewish religious ferment that took place between the Bible and the Talmud, a period about which previously very little was known from written sources. We now can trace the antiquity of some Jewish customs and verify some historical facts recorded in later Talmudic sources. Regarding Christianity, our new understanding of the Judaism of the pre-Christian period has enabled us to trace the Jewish roots of many early Christian teachings.
One of the most interesting things I have learned from my experience as a semi-public personality is that interest in the scrolls is not limited to any one ethnic or religious group, nor to any social or economic profile. A taxi driver asked me about the scrolls and the Book of Daniel. My dentist tells me he watches every program on the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls he can find. I am often recognized on the street from the many documentaries that have been produced, starting in 1991, on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Sitting and studying Talmud once in the Houston airport, I fell asleep. When I awakened, the book was lying squarely and neatly on my lap. A very nice Texas couple sitting next to me said, “We know who you are and we made sure that your Bible did not fall on the floor.” All kinds of wonderful people in our multi-religious society have been brought together by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Actually, this is somewhat ironic considering the highly un-irenic and contentious nature of the Dead Sea Scroll sect itself.
Closely related to my own career has been the role that the scrolls have played in fostering better Jewish-Christian relations. Recently, I taught Dead Sea Scrolls for two months at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and had an office in the Pontifical Biblical Institute. The wonderful way in which I was treated, as if I were just a member of another priestly order, is a small example of the changes that have occurred in society.
Now it is with satisfaction and optimism that I look toward the future of a new generation of scholars among whom are some of my Ph.D. students who have decided to write their dissertations on the scrolls. However, I also hope that the next generation will turn increasingly to the integration of the scrolls and what they teach us into the larger fields of Biblical studies and the study of Judaism and Christianity in antiquity.
The Quote Heard ’Round the World It was 1948—I was studying theology and the Bible in Louvain (Belgium) at a college run by French-speaking Jesuits—when I first read in the press about a sensational Hebrew manuscript discovery dating to the end of the pre-Christian era. In those days one had to take everything about the scrolls with a pinch of salt. I remember, for example, that a leading Brussels daily once referred to the discovery of an 11th-century B.C.E. Biblical manuscript on the shore of the Black Sea! Having been indoctrinated by my professors in the light of a […]
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