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In an earlier post for VL, I enthused wildly about The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (see my exhortation here). And now I can wholeheartedly recommend a companion volume, at least for that first exploratory read: the Very Short Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls, by Timothy Lim, professor in Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism at the University of Edinburgh.
I’ve always found the VSI series a slightly mixed bag, especially when it comes to religious topics, but this volume is one of the best. In just under 150 pages, Lim gives a lucid, matter-of-fact overview of the broad scholarly consensus (and some insight into the debates) around the history of the Scrolls, the Khirbet Qumran archaeological site, and the import of these discoveries for the study of Judaism and of Christian origins. It isn’t a comprehensive introduction, and doesn’t aim to be, but it’s an impressively broad-ranging and useful beginning—or refresher, if like me you’re revising for a Second Temple exam in the near future—in terms of getting a grip on the issues, and especially the challenges, ambiguities and outright impossibilities facing anyone who wishes to undertake serious research in the field.
Something I found especially interesting is the impact of the Scrolls on our understanding of how the biblical canon formed. Before they were discovered, the earliest manuscript of the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible—the received form of what Western Christians call the Old Testament—was the Leningrad Codex, which is approximately a thousand years old. The documents found at Qumran are a thousand years older than that, representing various “text-types” or versions of the Hebrew Bible, and they contain some significant textual variants. Take Isaiah 40.31, the beloved passage that—as Lim points out—was made even more beloved by Chariots of Fire. In the KJV, it reads:
But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
Very uplifting. But in stark contrast, the Great Isaiah Scroll found in Cave 1 renders that famous ending as “…they shall walk, but not fly.” Which wouldn’t have fit the script nearly as well.
This is just one of the handful of examples Lim uses by way of illustration, and perhaps not even the most striking. But all of them serve as a vivid reminder that the canonical Bible as we now know it is a multi-layered document with a complicated history; and the evidence of the Scrolls shows that the Jewish sectarian community or communities who inhabited Qumran, and for whom the interpretation of Scripture was a supremely important discipline, knew and used a number of different versions. Believing as they did that the end of this world was imminent, they invested their readings with a very specific historical literalism that now—as then—would locate them on the very margin of religious life. But their literalism was not the literalism of the modern evangelical fundamentalist, for whom the canonical Bible is not just infallible in power, but inerrant in shape and in sense. That thoroughly recent phenomenon has little if anything to do with the world from which those same scriptures arose, and one of the many benefits of getting to know the Dead Sea Scrolls in all their incomplete and complicated glory is, or ought to be, learning as far as possible to set it aside (whether one endorses or opposes it) and inhabit quite a different text-world.
Oxford University Press, 2017 (2nd ed.), 148 pp., ISBN: 9780198779520