Biblical lives and secrets revealed

The Complete World of the Dead Sea Scrolls
February 14, 2003

The Dead Sea Scrolls are still in the limelight 55 years after their discovery. In contrast to the snail's pace of their publication between 1950 and 1990, the past 12 years have witnessed speedy progress, leading to the near-completion of the 39 volumes of Discoveries in the Judaean Desert , the editio princeps printed by Oxford University Press. But interest in the scrolls exceeds the bounds of academia, and the Complete World of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a godsend for a general readership.

Written by three scroll specialists, the book formulates and answers all the main questions relating to the manuscripts. It acquaints the readers with 800 original documents written in Hebrew and Aramaic and occasionally in Greek. The Qumran manuscripts comprise tens of thousands of fragments in addition to a dozen of more or less complete rolls. Some 205 documents represent the Hebrew Bible. The most popular scriptural texts are the Law of Moses (86 manuscripts), the Psalms (36) and Isaiah (21). Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles appear in a single copy each, and Esther is not represented at all.

The book furnishes all the significant texts with helpful and reliable short introductions accompanied by translated excerpts. I have observed only one significant omission. Readers are not told that the extant opening columns of the Genesis Apocryphon, starting with the birth of Noah, are nowhere near the beginning of the manuscript. The missing story of the creation of the world and of Adam and Eve seems to have covered some 70 to 100 columns of writing. Numbering of the sheets of the manuscript has recently been noticed. It can be deduced that the first surviving section of the Genesis Apocryphon is written on sheet 16. Each sheet that makes up a scroll contains five to seven columns of text, so the first 15 sheets now lost must have been about 9m long.

The Complete World offers a rich canvas of background information on the Graeco-Roman world contemporaneous with the scrolls and on political and religious life and divisions of Jewish society. Fascinating technical details are provided concerning the manufacture of ancient manuscripts and present-day reconstruction of fragmentary scrolls.

The account of the early stages of Qumran scholarship is not fully satisfactory. The purview of the authors is restricted to the work of the original editorial team, and the names of influential Qumran scholars such as Andre Dupont-Sommer of Paris or H. H. Rowley of Manchester are nowhere in this volume, whereas John Allegro, called "the best known of all the original editors" and one of the most frequently quoted people in the index, is rather overestimated.

One may also question the agnosticism of the authors in regard to the nature of the Qumran establishment and the connection between the ruins and the manuscripts. The vast majority of scholars hold that Qumran was the seat of a community (huge rooms, large quantities of crockery) and a Jewish religious community (up to ten bathing pools for frequent ritual purification). The connection between the ruins and the manuscripts may be deduced from the fact that the man-made Cave Four where two-thirds of the documents were found lies within a stone's throw of the buildings.

The authors try to justify their doubts by the absence of consensus among archaeologists and historians, and by the undue influence exerted by the original director of the excavations, the late Father Roland de Vaux, on subsequent scholarship. Lack of unanimity is a fact of life in the field of humanities and especially in archaeology. Nevertheless, it has been shown that the arguments in favour of Qumran being a religious establishment far outweigh those supporting competing theories. Among the latter, one may mention the hypothesis of a fortress (with no fortified perimeter walls or secure water supply?), or a patrician estate (situated in a wilderness?), or a de luxe inn for travellers (a Qumran Hilton in the middle of nowhere?). The choice appears easy.

As for the alleged authoritarian impact of de Vaux and his "scroll-inspired" (mis)interpretation of the archaeological data, I think that the case is greatly overstated. The charge that de Vaux's identification of Qumran as an Essene "monastery", his designation of a large dining room as a "refectory" and the room with three inkwells as a "scriptorium" had anything to do with the fact that he was the member of a Catholic religious order is without substance.

These reservations notwithstanding, The Complete World of the Dead Sea Scrolls merits warm commendation. With 216 illustrations the book is a delight for the eyes and, at just under £25, it is a good buy too.

Geza Vermes is director, Oxford Forum for Qumran Research, and author of The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English .

The Complete World of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Author - Philip R. Davies, George J. Brooke and Phillip R. Callaway
ISBN - 0 500 05111 9
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £24.95
Pages - 216

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