A reflection on the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls

We have arrived at a point when we truly have a right to celebrate seventy years of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

July 13, 2018 08:49
A restorer works on a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls in a laboratory at the Israel Museum in Jerus

A restorer works on a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls in a laboratory at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)


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What better time to reflect on the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls than now, soon after celebrating their 70th anniversary? This corpus of ancient manuscripts has awakened immense interest, spawned an entire new field of scholarship, and reshaped our understanding of biblical studies, the history of Judaism and the background of Christianity. The scrolls have been at the center of their share of intrigue, legal action and even humor. Exhibits such as that taking place right now in Denver, under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), are more than ample evidence of the tremendous interest in the scrolls. But how many people can actually explain what the scrolls are and what they should mean to us?

The discovery of the first Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, and the continuing discoveries in the 50’s in territory held by Jordan after the 1948 War of Independence, created a tremendous amount of excitement. Yet after the initial publication of some important texts, most of the material was left to languish in what was then the Palestine Archaeological Museum (now the Rockefeller Museum) in East Jerusalem.  The seeds of change took place during the 1967 Six Day War when Israel gained control of Qumran, the area of the Judean Desert where the archaeological find sites were located, and of the Palestine Archaeological Museum where the still unpublished scroll fragments were housed. Further, during the war Israeli military and intelligence forces acquired the Temple Scroll that was in the possession of a Bethlehem antiquities dealer. Because this text concerned almost entirely issues pertaining to the Temple and Jewish law, it reenergized discussion of the significance of the scrolls for the history of ancient Judaism. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the war, the Israel Department of Antiquities, predecessor to the Israel antiquities Authority (IAA), left the Jordanian-appointed, judenrein international team in place and did not interfere in their work. Progress was virtually nil and the team continued to refuse outside scholars access to the sequestered texts. Nonetheless, international pressure began to build for the full release of the material. By 1991 the ensuing controversy led to a reshuffling by the newly organized IAA and the appointment of Emanuel Tov of the Hebrew University as editor-in-chief. An expanded international and truly interconfessional team that was led by him completed the publication of the scrolls in their entirety. (I was honored to be a member of that expanded team.)


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