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If you have ever wondered what is so significant about the Dead Sea Scrolls, arguably the most significant archeological discovery of the 20th century, and would like a handbook to explain it all, this book by Dr. John J Collins, Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale University, is for you.

The author has studied the more than 900 scrolls (some of them little more than fragments) for more than three decades. He tells the fascinating story of the discovery of the scrolls in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd looking for his lost goat, reviews all the theories about the small community at Qumran near the Dead Sea whose nearby caves kept the scrolls preserved for 2000 years, and describes the bitter battles swirling among Christian and western scholars since the scrolls were first discovered.

These scrolls are among the most famous archeological finds ever, and Dr. Collins explains why:

“The reason why the Scrolls…caught the imagination of the public is due to the fact that they come from a time and place of exceptional importance in the history of the Western world. As primary documents from Judea in the time of Jesus, they offer a window on the context in which Christianity was born, if not directly on the movement itself. More directly, they give us an unprecedented view of what Judaism was like before the destruction of Jerusalem and the rise of the rabbinic movement…before the church and synagogue constructed their official genealogies. The stakes, then, for both Judaism and Christianity are considerable, since the new discoveries potentially place official accounts in question and undercut the authority of religious authorities.” (p. 236-7)

A central figure that appears in many of the scrolls who was called “The Teacher of Righteousness” has inspired many Christians to believe that this was another name for Jesus, but there were a number of people at the time who were regarded as Messiah figures and there is no credible evidence that clearly identifies this figure as the Christian Savior. The question is, was this community Jewish or proto-Christian? Dr. Collins, a practicing Catholic, is categorical:

“As scholars have increasingly recognized in the last quarter century, the Scrolls are documents of ancient Judaism. Despite sensationalist claims, they are not Christian, and do not witness directly to Jesus of Nazareth and his followers. Nonetheless, they illuminate the context in which Jesus lived, and in which earliest Christianity took shape.” (p. 240)

The scrolls include portions of every Biblical book, except the book of Esther, along with many other manuscripts that have been found nowhere else. They are primarily sectarian documents (though some are apocalyptic) and delineate rules governing the behavior of those who lived in the Qumran community. Dr. Collins notes that the Essene sect, as they are known, came into being because of disagreements with other Jews on the exact interpretation of the Torah, the proper cult calendar and the state of the Temple cult in Jerusalem. It did not come into being because it believed in the coming of the messiah or the final battle between the sons of Light and the sons of Darkness.

Though not mentioned explicitly in Hebrew or Aramaic sources (nor, for that matter in the New Testament), the Essenes are known in Greek and Latin sources including Philo, Josephus and Pliny. Collectively, these ancient authors described virtuous cult members who refrained from animal sacrifices and spurned city life, who spent their time praying and copying texts, who shared common meals, eschewed ownership of property, held no weapons of war, rejected slavery, and were concerned about ethics. It is debatable about the degree of monasticism in the community, as suggested by the female skeletal remains in the Qumran cemetery, though some may have been married with children while others were celibate and misogynist.

As is the case today, there was great diversity in the Judaism of the era:

“Rival sects and parties hated each other with a perfect hatred. Nonetheless, there were also unifying factors— the belief in a single God, shared scriptures, widespread concerns about purity and correct observance,…shared ethnic identity. The people were arguably extremists who disagreed with the ruling priests in Jerusalem in particular around the setting of the Jewish calendar.“ (p. 179)

The Essenes vanished from history after 200 years and had little discernible influence on later Jewish tradition. The movement separated itself from the priestly traditions in Jerusalem and from the emerging Pharisaic rabbinic tradition that focused on interpreting the fine points of the Oral and Written Laws. In the end, the Essene cult was a small sectarian movement outside mainline Judaism and too extreme to have enduring appeal.

This very readable volume explains it all, and I recommend it both to students of the Temple period, early rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity, and anyone else who wants to understand what the Dead Sea Scrolls are really all about.