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Journal of No. 118


April 11th, 2011

The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Very Short Introduction by Timothy Lim @ 12:54 pm


Spurred by the recent discovery of the almost certainly fake-o-matic lead codices, I suddenly thought to myself, 'Surely by now, someone must know something about the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I'm positive that person is not me.' The dinguses were discovered more than 60 years ago, and fragmentary though they are, great things seemed to be expected of them. They were going to overturn our ideas of the Holy Land and early Christianity. And then mostly silence. And then scholarly squabbling over the right to publish, and secrecy, and the Inquisition, and the Illuminati, and so on.

Anyway, to address my own deficiency of knowledge, I kindled The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Very Short Introduction. This was also my very short introduction to the Very Short Introduction series by the Oxford University Press.

I do like the format - a relevant scholar provides a relatively brief survey of a topic, written at an accessible level, but with many resources provided for an interested party to follow up with.

Lim offers interesting background on the discovery, the associated excavations at Qumran, and how the contents of the scrolls relate to community that lived there. Perhaps the most interesting section is really about the internal debates and conspiracy theories that have floated around not only in Dan Brown circles, but among the experts themselves. Lim takes the boring but probably all-too-true view that most of this can be laid to professional jealousies rather than malice.

Similarly, it appears that, although the Scrolls provide inestimable wealth in understanding the variety of religious and textual traditions that existed in Judaism at the time, they don't really have anything earthshattering to say specifically about Christianity, or even modern Judaism. One specific variant seems to show a missing passage from 1 Samuel. But though it makes the story flow better, it's hardly earthshattering (unless you're the sort of cretin who thinks God personally wrote the KJV).

I would've liked more detail about these variants and idiosyncracies in the content of the scrolls, such as the appearance of Lilith (not mentioned in the book) but I guess there's only so much that fits into a very short introduction. I was hoping for a bit more Dan Brown type material, but Lim has effectively pooh-poohed all that, and I find my interest in the Scrolls has now been more than adequately satisfied, making me unlikely to dig deeper into the topic. Just as he planned.
 
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From:ono_sendai
Date:April 11th, 2011 08:10 pm (UTC)
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I actually focused on the Dead Sea Scrolls in school, I'm a fan! The reason of course why there is little earthshattering about the scrolls is that they are from an obviously extremely unique sect- a lot of their stuff is pretty different from the Temple Judaism of the time, or even some of the better known groups of the period. For example, their solar calendar, which has several distinct errors that would have been discovered had it been in use for any extended time, including the time they claim in their texts to have existed as a distinct group. Their texts have a great deal of variation without a huge amount of care of standardization and error checking (not typical from a Jewish perspective), and from an inspection of the Qumran site, they produced an enormous number of works, far outstripping their population. It's pretty much impossible to make a judgement call regarding any historical changes in the Masoretic text from the scrolls, which of course has never stopped any of the more enterprising pseudo-scholars. I wrote a pretty solid research paper on their tefillin (phylacteries), which were very interesting, but again impossible to draw conclusions from.

The real question about Qumran is just who the hell these people were. Some of their unique (and seriously weird) texts have been found at the Cairo Genizah, but that just suggests more questions than answers. They are, of course, popularly labelled as Essenes, but that is mostly unsubstantiated other than a few interesting similarities in Josephus's scanty descriptions of them. Basically, it's a mystery. If you want, I can always go on, or forward you papers.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:April 12th, 2011 12:06 pm (UTC)
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Their texts have a great deal of variation without a huge amount of care of standardization and error checking (not typical from a Jewish perspective),

From a Jewish perspective today, but the DSS are really the only large corpus of material from that era. The extant Masoretic texts are from roughly 1000 years later. The feeling I got from the book was that the DSS indicate that there was much more textual variety than was previously thought, not just among the Qumran people, but generally in Judaism at that time.

If you want, I can always go on, or forward you papers.

Well, I think the book more than satisfied my appetite!
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From:ono_sendai
Date:April 12th, 2011 12:17 pm (UTC)
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The feeling I got from the book was that the DSS indicate that there was much more textual variety than was previously thought, not just among the Qumran people, but generally in Judaism at that time.
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Actually, the general conclusion amongst the academic community is that there seems to have been far less variation from the Masoretic text- considering the 1000 timespan, level of variation in the extant copies of material found at Qumran, and general weirdness of the community, the textual drift is surprisingly small. In fact, previous to its discovery, many scholars claimed that the level of similarity found at Qumran would have been impossible in terms of textual transmission. Seriously, it's a pretty neat topic.

Journal of No. 118