The scrolls unravelled

The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English
August 22, 1997

Ever since the first edition of The Dead Sea Scrolls in English appeared in 1962, Geza Vermes has set the standard for translations of the scrolls, by his elegant English and sober scholarship. The book has grown constantly through successive editions, and is now more than double its original length. The fourth edition appeared as recently as 1995. The volume under review is billed as "The Complete Edition", but Vermes is quick to state that he does not claim to cover every fragment retrieved from the caves, only "all the texts sufficiently well preserved to be understandable in English". The criterion of sufficient preservation is not always clear: several very fragmentary texts are included, while others are omitted. It is not inconceivable that "The More Complete Edition" may appear a few years hence. But the present edition includes the great majority of the intelligible nonbiblical texts from Qumran.

How does this volume differ from the now obsolete fourth edition? It is longer by half, and includes almost twice as many items (counting different manuscripts of the same text as separate items). Major additions include the long Wisdom text known as 4QSapiential Work A; fragments of the books of Enoch, Jubilees and Tobit; several calendric texts, biblical paraphrases and apocrypha based on biblical texts (the Prayer of Enosh, the so-called Proto-Esther, apocrypha of Moses, Jeremiah, Zedekiah etc) and even two recently published ostraka (inscribed potsherds). Some texts that were represented in previous editions are now more fully translated. The most important text in this category is 4QMMT, the so-called halachic letter that sets out the reasons why the sect split off from the rest of Judaism, of which only a brief extract was included in the fourth edition. The beginning of the Damascus Document, from a Cave 4 manuscript, is also included.

This is not the first complete version of the Dead Sea scrolls. Translations of similar scope have already been published by Florentino Garcia Martinez (The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated) and by Michael Wise, Martin Abegg and Edward Cook (The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation). Garc!a Mart!nez is more thorough in distinguishing the different manuscripts of texts, such as the Community Rule and Damascus Document. (Vermes often combines different manuscripts to provide a reconstructed text). He also includes many fragmentary passages that Vermes omits (for example, 4Q416, an important manuscript of 4QSapiential Work A, and most of the pseudo-Daniel fragments). Those who wish to check the Hebrew or Aramaic of a particular passage will therefore find it easier to work from Garc!a Mart!nez in many cases. But the English of that translation, which was itself translated from the Spanish, is often problematic. The general reader will find Vermes more satisfactory. Wise, Abegg and Cook are often innovative and tend to favour unconventional interpretations of the texts. (The Community Rule, probably the best know of all the Dead Sea scrolls, is called a "Charter of a Jewish Sectarian Association" as if this association had no special connection with Qumran.) They also insert interpretative headings into their translations, which prejudice the understanding of the text. Vermes also gives his interpretation of the various texts, but he does so in brief introductory paragraphs, which are less intrusive than the headings of Wise, Abegg and Cook.

The quality of Vermes's translations has long been recognised, and it has even been improved in a few instances in this edition. (The eccentric use of "Satan" for the Hebrew "Belial" has been removed.) The reader should be warned, however, that many readings in the scrolls are uncertain, and that a smooth translation, such as Vermes provides, often involves the interpretation of ambiguous data. A few examples may illustrate the point. In the Messianic Rule (1QSa), there is a notoriously difficult passage about the coming of the messiah. Vermes now reads "When God engenders (the Priest-) Messiah . . ." and provides a note stating that the reading "engenders" (yold), which he had questioned in the past, now appears to be confirmed by computer enhancement. A demonstration of computer enhancement of this text at the recent Dead Sea Scrolls Jubilee Congress in Jerusalem, however, showed that the reading is far from clear, and produced no consensus. The aura of scientific factuality is unwarranted, as is the insertion of "(the Priest-") which has no equivalent in the Hebrew. In the so-called "Son of God" text (4Q246), Vermes uses a plural suffix where the Aramaic has the singular: "Their (the people of God's) kingdom will be an eternal kingdom . . ." Again, the phrase in parentheses is an interpretation. It is also possible to translate "His kingdom," taking the "Son of God" as antecedent, but this would not fit Vermes's interpretation of the text. As a final example, we may cite a passage from 4QSapiential Work A (4Q416), which says that God gave a vision to Enosh. The Hebrew word has been taken as the proper name of a patriarch (Gen 5:6), another name for Adam, or a general word for humankind. Vermes opts for the last of these, although the passage clearly distinguishes between "a spiritual people" and "the spirit of flesh," and so a general reference to humankind is problematic. In each of these cases Vermes's decision can be defended, and alternative translations are no less open to question. But the reader should be aware that ambiguities and uncertainties often lie behind the English text.

The translation of individual texts inevitably depends on the understanding of the corpus as a whole. Vermes unabashedly espouses the view that Qumran was an Essene settlement, and rehearses what has long been the consensus view of its history (although many scholars disagree on one point or another). He accepts the editors' interpretation of a recently published ostrakon, which is taken as the record of a man's donation of his goods to the community (, although the reading is extremely difficult and was vigorously disputed at the Jubilee Congress in Jerusalem. Interpretation also influences the organisation of the material, which begins with the Rule books that regulated the life of the community. (Garc!a Mart!nez organises the material in a similar way; in contrast, Wise, Abegg and Cook present the material in random order with the implication that the collection is not coherent.) Vermes categorises the material more fully than he had in previous editions, but not as carefully as he might. The category "apocalyptic texts" contains only four titles, and one of these (4Q248) seems to be a historical text. Several apocalyptic compositions are listed as "biblically based apocrypha". This latter category is misleading, as it includes writings that may have been sources for biblical books (the Prayer of Nabonidus, Proto-Esther), but which are certainly not based on biblical texts.

There can be little doubt that this volume will enjoy the same kind of success as the previous editions, and deservedly so. Scholars and students will continue to be frustrated by the lack of line and verse numbers, and the consequent difficulty of checking specific passages against the original. (Vermes marks only every fifth line.) They will also want to use more than one translation, since no one rendering can do justice to the ambiguities of the scrolls. The general public, however, may be assured that no translation of the Scrolls is either more readable or more authoritative than that of Vermes.

John J. Collins is professor of Hebrew Bible and postbiblical Judaism, University of Chicago.

The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English

Author - Geza Vermes
ISBN - 0 713 991313
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £25.00
Pages - 648

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