Signals to scrollers

Dead Sea Discoveries
October 18, 1996

Two years ago the Dutch publishing house E. J. Brill launched a new periodical devoted to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Does a journal with such a limited scope make sense in this day and age? To answer this question, a glance at the history of scrolls scholarship may be of use.

When in the late 1940s and the 1950s the Ecole Biblique run by French Dominicans in "Jordanian" Jerusalem constituted the headquarters of Dead Sea Scroll studies, the ecole's "house journal", the Revue Biblique, served as the chief source of first-hand information in Qumran matters. The first specialised periodical, the brainchild of a French abbe, Jean Carmignac (1914-86), was born at the close of those ten years. In 1958, Carmignac persuaded a Catholic publisher in Paris to start the Revue de Qumrn (RQ). The title and the majority of the contents continued to testify to French supremacy in early Dead Sea Scroll research, although RQ accepted papers also in English and German as long as no abbreviations were used. In one of my articles, Carmignac replaced the English (Latin) i.e. by a fully spelled-out id est, to the bewilderment of many an English reader!

RQ struggled on at irregular intervals: new issues appeared when the editor had enough material in hand and, according to unkind (and probably untrue) gossip, no submission was ever rejected. In its 38 years of existence only 16 volumes were completed. Today RQ, with a greatly changed linguistic character, is still flourishing: in its last issue 14 papers were printed, two in French, one in German and 11 in English.

After a sleepy period in Qumran studies in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s induced by an inactive but monopolistic small group of editors in charge of a mass of unpublished material, the "liberation" of the scrolls in 1991 started an era of feverish activity. Hungry scholars, who at last were given access to texts kept under lock and key for 35 years, were clamouring for new publishing outlets. By autumn, a "Qumran Corner" was inaugurated in the Journal of Jewish Studies, guaranteeing expeditious release of short papers dealing with unpublished documents.

Three years later, E. J. Brill launched Dead Sea Discoveries: A Journal of Current Research on the Scrolls and Related Literature (DSD). Like Brill products in general, it is elegantly produced, but it is rather expensive: institutional subscription amounts to over Pounds 60 a year and even individuals are charged close to Pounds 40 plus post and packing for each of the three yearly issues.

The energetic editorial team of two Americans and one Briton belong to the younger generation of scholars, born close to the time when the scrolls were first discovered. The journal is intended to discuss Qumran and related topics in depth. Its purpose is not to cater for preliminary publications, though patently some of the contributors do just that.

Though the use of French and German is tolerated, DSD prefers articles in English - a sign of the triumph of Anglo-Saxon linguistic imperialism, as the French call it. The contributions are expected to be couched in inclusive language - a sign of the American majority on the editorial board.

Most of the contributors are household names in the Qumran field and the quality of the papers has been high. Each issue includes a shortish book review section where a handful of well-chosen publications are subjected to fairly detailed, and generally bland, discussion. (Writers and reviewers belong to a tiny clan, so not surprisingly they mind their Ps and Qs.) Still, the occasional criticism is addressed not only to "outsiders", but on one occasion even to one of the editors. It is a pity that the table of contents never contains a list of the books reviewed. Readers like to know at a glance what is on offer for them.

One of the three annual issues is reserved for a theme. The first dealt with biblical interpretation in Qumran texts, a central topic in Scroll studies. The papers were not specially commissioned, but borrowed from the programme of an American learned society. As a result, instead of a planned presentation of Dead Sea scriptural exegesis, we have four valuable but unconnected contributions on four distinct interpretative fragments, sandwiched between two brief general papers.

The second special fascicle portrays messianism. This is a better thought-out project discussing some significant subjects, for example, the question of the unity or plurality of messianic expectation at Qumran, and the messianic interpretation of an Isaiah passage in the Dead Sea writings and its relevance to the preaching of John the Baptist in the New Testament. We are offered also an illuminating comparison between Qumran messianism and the messianic teaching in contemporaneous Jewish literature. Unfortunately the little volume includes no allusion to the scarcity of messianic material in the scrolls, nor does it attempt to determine the importance of messianism in Qumran religious thought in general.

This outline is aimed at signalling the value of Dead Sea Discoveries to Qumran specialists for whom DSD is a must, and also to the wider ranks of students interested in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and early postbiblical Judaism. Let us hope that the editors will be able to keep up the level of scholarship attested so far. The crunch will come in a few years time when all the Dead Sea Scrolls will have passed into the public domain. Will Qumran continue to generate as much interest, if not heat, at the beginning of the third millennium as it did in the past 50 years of the second? Will this interest be sufficient to keep a narrowly specialised periodical going?

Geza Vermes is emeritus professor of Jewish studies, University of Oxford.

Dead Sea Discoveries: A Journal of Current Research on the Scrolls and Related Literature

Editor - George Brooke, Lawrence Schiffman and James Vanderkam
ISBN - ISSN 0929 0761
Publisher - E. J. Brill
Price - £60.00 institutions £40.00 individuals

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