Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English

imageAs for me,
if I stumble, the mercies of God
shall be my eternal salvation.
If I stagger because of the sin of flesh,
my justification shall be
by the righteousness of God which endures for ever.
When my distress is unleashed
He will deliver my soul from the Pit
and will direct my steps to the way.
He will draw me near by His grace,
and by His mercy will He bring my justification.
He will judge me in the righteousness of His truth
and in the greatness of His goodness
He will pardon all my sins.
Through His righteousness he will cleanse me
of the uncleanness of man
and of the sins of the children of men,
that I may confess to God His righteousness
and His majesty to the Most High.
(from the Master’s Hymn, concluding the Community Rule)

The first thing to notice about The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English is that it is not actually complete. The documents discovered at Khirbet Qumran between 1947 and 1956—mostly from the first century CE and in varying states of preservation, some fragmentary—include among other things sectarian rules, hymnody, poetry, halakha (interpretation of the law), pesharim (commentaries on Scripture), calendars, apocrypha, Wisdom literature and a few things that are impossible to categorise, such as the famous Copper Scroll, which appears to be something like a treasure map. All these are included, in Geza Vermes’ rigorous and fluent translation. The Scriptural texts also found at Qumran are not included here, presumably for reasons of space and because they would not be of interest to the general reader, although they have an extraordinary significance for Old Testament scholars: they are some thousand years older than the Aleppo and Leningrad Codices, which were previously the oldest known manuscripts in Hebrew.

Hang on, you say. You mean that sectarian rules, hymnody, halakha etc. are of interest to the general reader? My admittedly biased answer is: yes, and I can give you three reasons off the top of my head why you absolutely must run out and get your copy of The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls now, right now, stop what you’re doing, do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred pounds, put your shoes on, hurry, hurry.

Ahem. Sorry.

First of all, there is the story of how the Scrolls were discovered, and why it took such an extraordinarily long and complicated process to get them all published; so long that entire conspiracy theories grew up around the delays. Vermes, who spent his life at the bleeding edge of Scrolls studies, gives a swift run-down of the problems in his introduction, and it’s far more complicated and rather weirder than anything Dan Brown could come up with. I won’t spoil it for you. But if you want the detailed version, with extra names, you could also acquire his Story of the Scrolls.

Secondly, if you’re interested in the historical origins of Christianity, there’s the light the Qumran documents shed on various things that are often claimed as uniquely Christian. That’s not to say that the people who wrote these texts were Christian: theories have been put forward to that effect, but Vermes is pretty scathing about them, and I agree. Rather, these documents tell us a great deal about the kind of ideas and tendencies floating around in the rich and diverse environment of first-century Judaism, in which the earliest Christian communities grew. If you believe, as very many people believe, that Judaism in that period was all about the letter of the law and that Christianity, and only Christianity, stopped to consider the spirit—well, a reading of Philo of Alexandria ought to be enough to disabuse you of that. But Philo isn’t in the Penguin Classics Library, and the Scrolls are; and the Scrolls bear witness to a community or communities within Second Temple Judaism who were deeply preoccupied with purity of spirit.* The language of light and darkness, so reminiscent of the Gospel of John, is another striking feature.

Thirdly, and above all, that language. Whether the Scrolls were compiled and/or written by a single community or whether their diversity also reflects diverse origins, these documents give us unprecedented access to the preoccupations of faithful Jews who lived in a time in which many people—and, again, not just the early Christians—believed that the end of this world was coming. The turmoil and upheaval, the suffering and precarity of their experience are reflected in the extraordinary vividness of their apocalyptic visions and their hope for a renewed Covenant and the triumph of the forces of good over those of evil. There’s so much of academic interest in these documents but, above and beyond any of that, the reader who engages with them with heart and soul will profit immeasurably. I hope you will.

The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English is available from the Penguin Classics Library in all the usual formats.

* Vermes is an eloquent and convinced proponent of the Essene hypothesis, which holds that the Scrolls belong to a particular sect which inhabited Khirbet Qumran and which can be identified with the Essenes as described by Philo, Josephus and Pliny the Elder. This hypothesis can and should be questioned.

One comment on “The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English

  1. Hilary
    October 14, 2016

    Brilliant, compelling piece, Comrade K. It had never occurred to me even to look for this, or to be persuaded to read it if I had. You had me, though, at the words ‘Geza Vermes’, if not before. His works are so refreshing and illuminating (even if he does need to be questioned rigorously over the Essenes). Thank you!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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