Wednesday, November 03, 2021



Introduction to the Collection

During the middle years of the twentieth century two important but very different collections of ancient religious texts were unearthed in Palestine and Egypt: the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library.  Visitors to the Gnostic Society Library often do not understand the distinction between these two discoveries.  Since our Library collection contains a vast amount of material related specifically to the Nag Hammadi texts (including complete translations), a brief description of the two discoveries might be useful.

What are popularly called The Dead Sea Scrolls consist of a very large number of scrolls – most poorly preserved and many surviving only as tiny scraps – discovered in a series of eleven caves near Qumran and the Dead Sea beginning around 1947.  Over 800 separate texts of several divergent types are now recognized among this find. The scrolls date from the "intertestamental period" – a period ranging from about 250 BCE to 100 CE, the epoch after textual formation of the "Old Testament" but still before the formation of Christianity and rabbinical Judaism. 

In contrast, The Nag Hammadi Library was discovered in upper Egypt in 1945 and is comprised of 13 ancient leather- bound books (or codices) containing in total 55 texts. The codices were all hidden together, probably around 390 CE, within a large, sealed jar.  After 1,500 years buried in the Egyptian desert, they were unearthed in remarkably good condition. The texts in the Nag Hammadi Library date from the first two or three centuries of the Christian era and primarily represent previously lost or unknown Christian sacred writings – writings often described as "Gnostic" in character. Notably included among the texts was an edition of the Gospel of Thomas, a text perhaps older than the four known canonical gospels. While the Dead Sea Scrolls received wide publicity in the first decades after their discovery, the Nag Hammadi Library has only more recently attracted public notice. (For further information about the Nag Hammadi texts, see the Nag Hammadi Library section in the Gnostic Society Library.)

There is now an abundance of information available both in print and on the internet about the Dead Sea Scrolls. This site offers a brief introduction and guide to these resources. We start, below, with a short essay on the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery and associated controversies, intended to help orient readers new to the subject. This is augmented by a descriptive catalog of the best currently available Dead Sea Scrolls Internet Resources. Comprehensive collections of the Dead Sea Scrolls texts in translation are only available in print editions (listed in the bookstore), but a large introductory sample of selected texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls is available here online (several new selection have recently been placed in this collection, available here since 1994).  The Gnostic Society Library Bookstore also has a special Dead Sea Scrolls Section with reviews and suggestions on different print editions of the Dead Sea Scrolls in translation, as well as a collection of other important books on the subject.

The Story of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The story of the Dead Sea Scrolls begins in 1947, when – so the tale goes – a Bedouin shepherd found a collection of apparently ancient scrolls in a cave above Khirbet Qumran, near the north end of the Dead Sea. Over the course of the next year, seven scrolls from the cave reached scholarly hands. When examined by experts, the importance and antiquity of the find was quickly understood. For starters, included among these first seven scrolls was a fairly well-preserved copy of the biblical book of Isaiah, soon determined to be the oldest complete manuscript of a Hebrew scripture yet discovered and dating to before 100 BCE.

Another of the seven scrolls was of a more curious nature. Now named by researchers the “Community Rule” (it was first translated and published under the title "Manual of Discipline"), this large and fairly compete manuscript represented a type of Jewish religious writing previously unknown. It appeared to be a document related to the conduct and beliefs held within a sectarian Jewish community sometime between 150 BCE. and 70 CE. – a community seemingly very much like the Essenes described in antiquity by the Jewish historian Josephus.

In 1949 a team lead by Roland de Vaux (an academic and Dominican priest who would dominate Dead Sea Scroll studies for the next two decades) surveyed the cave at Qumran where the scrolls had been found, discovering pottery shards and several more manuscript fragments.  Two years later de Vaux directed archeological excavation of the Khirbet Qumran ruins located just below the cave. Between 1952 and 1956 ten additional caves containing scroll fragments were discovered near Qumran, almost all located by Bedouins who made a business of scouring through the area. The most impressive cache – discovered again by Bedouins working on at Qumran after de Vaux's 1952 expedition – was located in a man-made cave less than 200 yards from Khirbet Qumran.  Named "Cave 4" (in order of its discovery), it contained about 15,000 scroll fragments, identified eventually as the remains of 574 separate manuscripts.

Early in this period of discovery an hypothesis about the source and authors of the scrolls had formed in the minds of de Vaux and his associates. In retrospect, it was only a working hypothesis. But it became a story fixed in history. Faced with several pieces of a puzzle – ancient Hebrew scrolls stored in a cave, a manuscript among those scrolls tentatively identified as the rule of an Essene community, and the ruins of an ancient community's dwelling directly below the cave – de Vaux fit the puzzle’s pieces into a temptingly obvious picture: The Dead Sea Scrolls were the library of an Essene community that once occupied the ruins at Khirbet Qumran. Details disclosed from early excavations at Khirbet Qumran all worked neatly into the story: the ruins contained a large room that would have been a scriptorium (a term previously used to describe rooms in medieval monasteries); remnants of long tables were found that could have served for copying lengthy scrolls; and three ink wells were found.

The "Qumran Hypothesis" – attributing the origins and authorship of the scrolls to an Essene community at Khirbet Qumran, a theory perhaps more accurately called the "Qumran-Essene dogma" – became a party line in Dead Sea Scrolls studies for the next 40 years. The integrity of this thesis was buttressed by highly restricted access to the scrolls.  Manuscripts were parceled out for study and translation to a small clique of academics, directed by de Vaux.  

In 1955, literary critic Edmund Wilson published an influential series of articles in The New Yorker magazine (later release in book form) which help cement in popular imagination this accepted story of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their creators, the Essenes who dwelt at Khirbet Qumran. Indeed, Wilson took the tale a tantalizing step further, fleshing out the possibility (broached in 1950 by the French academic André Dupont-Sommer) that the first Christians may have borrowed ideas from the people of the Scrolls.  Similar to the first Christians, Wilson explained, the Essenes at Qumran had honored an anointed Teacher of Righteousness, performed ritual washings or "baptisms", and shared a sacred meal.  Popular interest in the Scrolls has continued ever since to be stimulated by conjectured links between the Qumran scrolls and early Christianity.

Reconsidering the Essene-Qumran Hypothesis

In the last two decades of the twentieth century, several objections to the Qumran-Essene thesis of the Scrolls' origins were voiced within the academic community.  Even louder objections arose over continued refusal of the Dead Sea Scrolls "team" to allow all qualified scholars open access to unpublished materials in the collection.  After forty years, Scrolls research remained the exclusive domain of a small, self-selected team of scholars. Worse still, over several decades the group had made woefully little progress publishing material from the collection, particularly the large cache of scroll fragments discovered in Cave 4.   The whole project was becoming an academic scandal, intermittently punctuated by conspiracy theories suggesting occult purposes motivating sequestration of the yet unpublished materials.

Whatever its various motives, the monopoly on access to the Dead Sea Scrolls collection came to an end in 1991 when the Huntington Library announced it would make available without restriction a complete microfilm copy of the Scrolls in its archives. Soon after, Emanuel Tov, director of the Scrolls project, announced open access and right of publication would be granted to all material in the official collection.

During the last decade, the pace of DSS publication has picked up considerably. So, too, has  disagreement about the Scrolls' origins and authorship.   Dr. Norman Golb (Professor of Jewish History and Civilization, University of Chicago) has been among the most vociferous opponents to the classic story of the Scrolls' origins.  Many of his objections, summarized in his 1995 book, Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?, seem to be receiving some wider accord. 

The "Q umran-Essene dogma" was originally developed to explain a relatively small number of newly discovered documents, including texts in a previously unknown literary style that apparently represented a divergent, "sectarian" voice within Judaism.  Early studies of the DSS identified this voice as Essene, and viewed the Scrolls as a remnant of the sect's library. As the numbers and kinds of scrolls discovered multiplied however, critics argued that the probability all these manuscripts had been collected, copied, and archived by a single Essene community living at Qumran dwindled.  Over 800 distinct documents have been identified among the scroll fragments found in the caves of the Judean desert. A large number of these are previously unknown works written in several styles. Hundreds of different scribal hands are found in the manuscripts, including fragments in Greek script.   In addition, as Dr. Golb argues, the collection is almost devoid of the type of "historical autographs" – works in an author's own hand, such as personal and official letters, lists of names, inventories, deeds of ownership – that might link a cache of documents with a specific source community.  Objective archeological scrutiny of the Qumran site also suggests it may have functioned in ancient times as a military fortress, and not principally or exclusively as a religious and scribal commune.  Persuaded by such arguments, several scholars have completely rejected the traditional "story of the Dead Sea Scrolls".

Which brings us back to the questions asked by DSS researchers fifty years ago:  Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, and who stored them in the caves?   At present, there is no generally accepted answer to either question.  Some scholars now argue that the scrolls possibly came from one or more ancient Jewish collections, including the Temple library in Jerusalem.  They were copied by many different hands and represent several types of Jewish literature produced in the intertestamental period, including some apocalyptic and sectarian writings authored by communities that might be called "Essenes".  During the Jewish uprising and before destruction of Temple in 70 CE. – so goes this tentative argument – they were transported to the caves around Qumran for safety.  Despite such arguments (and they remain arguments, not proofs), many highly reputable scholars continue to affirm that an Essene community existed at Qumran and produced or collected many of the documents we call the Dead Sea Scrolls.

What do the Dead Sea Scrolls Say? Why are They Important?

The question often asked by casual readers is simply, "What do the Dead Sea Scrolls say?"  Again, there is no one answer to that question.   The texts are diverse, they apparently do not speak with a single voice, or from a single viewpoint.  Most of the manuscripts found are heavily damaged fragments of scrolls, some very tentatively pieced together. Often the preserved scraps give only glimpses of what existed in the original text.

Readers approach the Dead Sea scrolls from a variety of perspectives and with differing interests. The texts "say" different things to different people. For students of Hebrew literature, the biblical texts and commentaries preserved in the DSS collection offer the opportunity for textual research using early and previously unknown source documents.  Experts in paleography find in the Scrolls material for analysis of developing and changing Hebrew writing styles.  Specialists in the history of Judaism find documents in the collection that shed new light on the diverse and heterodox trends present in Judaism during the intertestamental period.  Students of Christian origins see in the texts evidences of the apocalyptic, messianic foment from which Christianity arose. While the DSS certainly do offer insights into the Jewish cultural milieu that gave formation to Christianity, there is probably nothing in the Scrolls collection directly reflecting events or personages known to early Christian history.

After fifty years, it is still difficult to say how future scholarship will judge the importance of  the DSS discovery. Several individuals now suggest the Scrolls are globally less important than implied by decades of relentless publicity. Consider the balancing and sobering appraisal given by Dr. Eliezer Segal (Professor of Religious Studies, University of Calgary) in his 1994 article titled "The Dead Sea Scrolls Dud":

Coming from someone who makes his living from the study of ancient Jewish texts, it might surprise some readers when I declare my conviction that the Dead Sea Scrolls are not all that important, and that their impact has been inflated out of all proportion by the media and various interested parties.

The intense public fascination with the Qumran scrolls was fueled by the expectation that documents contemporary with the beginnings of Christianity would provide valuable–or even revolutionary–new insights into the origin of that religion. The Christian scholars who controlled much of the research into the scrolls made every effort to uncover allusions to Christian concerns, and tiny fragments were fancifully pieced together so as to produce theological statements about divine or suffering messiahs. The archeological site at Qumran was even described as if it had housed a medieval European monastery.

These dubious conclusions have been utilized both as confirmation of Christian tradition and as refutations of its uniqueness or originality. Either way, they succeeded in transforming the esoteric world of Dead Sea Scroll scholarship into a lucrative industry whose potential market included much of the Christian world.

Not surprisingly, almost none of these alleged Christian links find factual support in the evidence of the scrolls. The simple truth is that the scrolls contain a representative sample of the diverse literature that Jews were producing during the latter part of the Second Temple Era, a time marked by factionalism and ferment in the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael. As such, they reflect typical Jewish concerns, most notably in the area of halakhah, Jewish religious law, which, then as today, ignited the most virulent controversies between competing sects. These simple and obvious facts rarely get mentioned in the popular representations of the scrolls.

The scrolls do enrich our knowledge of a very complex time in Jewish history, though much of this knowledge is of value only to scholarly specialists, and even their more substantial contributions (in such areas as the development of the Hebrew language and Jewish legal exegesis) are unlikely to sell a lot of newspaper tabloids or TV sponsorships. (JFP, Aug. 25 1994, p.9 – text available online)

Popular interest in the Scrolls has been manipulated by suggestions – encouraged by at least some of those who once controlled DSS research – that the discovery would shed a startling new light on the origins of Christianity.   Of course, the original hypothesis about the Scrolls and the Qumran community appeared replete with just such promising possibilities for Christian-focused scholarship. Dr. Theodore H. Gaster (Columbia University) expressed the tenor of such scholarship in his 1957 publication Dead Sea Scriptures, explaining to readers that the Dead Sea Scrolls "furnish a picture of the religious and cultural climate in which John the Baptist conducted his mission and in which Jesus was initially reared...and whose religious ideas served largely as the seedbed of the New Testament." Many Jewish scholars have rightfully resented this focus and bias.

Having spent many years studying early Christian history in light of the Nag Hammadi texts (the "other" collection of ancient religious manuscripts discovered contemporaneously with the Dead Sea Scrolls), it has always seemed ironic to me that the Scrolls attracted so much of this kind of publicity, while so little attention was given to the Nag Hammadi materials. Fifty years after their discovery, however, a more balanced perspective is developing towards both sets of documents:  The Nag Hammadi library is attracting increased interest, while once inflated expectations about the Dead Sea Scrolls are being properly moderated.

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