James Carman

Edited by Geza Vermes. Viking Press. 688 pp.$34.95

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3m 25sec


Edited by Geza Vermes. Viking Press. 688 pp. $34.95

Only a humorous God could beget such a tale: in 1947 a Bedouin shepherd, Muhammad edh-Dhib, discovers an ancient scroll while exploring a remote cave in the Judean desert south of Jericho. The find is reported, experts are summoned, and the news travels around the globe. During the next several years, 10 other caves are found, yielding some 4,000 fragments of ancient Aramaic and Hebraic texts. A team of scholars

sets about deciphering the bits and pieces. An anxious world waits for news of what the scrolls might contain. And waits. Only now, 50 years later, is the full text of the Qumran scrolls (as they are more properly called) appearing in English. The scholarly squabbling and other maddening interruptions in the work— including the occasional Mideast war—are now the stuff of legend, ably retold by Vermes, who, as professor emeritus of Jewish studies at Oxford’s Wolfson College, has long been recognized as one of the world’s foremost Dead Sea Scroll scholars. With skill worthy of a spy-thriller writer, Vermes recounts the "revolutionary" action taken in 1988, when the Biblical Archaeology Review published a computer-aided reconstruction of various smuggled fragments circulating among privileged scholars. With the scrolls thus effectively "liberated" from the clutches of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the official scroll editors, the pace of translation increased exponentially, leading to this present volume.

Are the scrolls worth the wait? Biblical scholars will no doubt be disappointed. With no sure way to establish the scrolls’ provenance, questions regarding the biblical canon remain unresolved, even though the Cave I version of the Book of Isaiah predates the oldest previously known version by a thousand years. The Qumran scrolls quote freely from a variety of Scriptural sources and thus shed little light on what constitutes the "true" or original Scripture. The value of the scrolls lies more in the tantalizing glimpses they yield of the Qumran community that created them.

Included among the documents is an elaborate codex of laws known as the Community Rule, describing the hierarchy of the society from the Master or Teacher of Righteousness (at one time mistakenly thought to be Jesus of Nazareth), to the lesser Guardians or Teachers (who interpreted liturgical matters and maintained discipline and order), and finally to the Disciples, who strove to follow the holy way of the community. Other scrolls deal with the scheduling of daily events in the community temple, liturgical calendars and lists of prayers, and a wealth of scriptural writings and attendant commentary. There are many fragments of Scriptural text not found in present-day bibles (Vermes calls them "Biblically Based Apocryphal Works"), as well as a badly deteriorated document known as the War Scroll. The War Scroll either describes a battle that has already taken place (perhaps the final battle of the Israelites against the Kittim from the Book of Daniel) or prophesies a battle yet to come; in either case, it includes intriguing descriptions of contemporary war tactics similar to those used by the Romans.

The massive work of translating this material clearly signals only the beginning of scholarly engagement with the contents.

Vermes sides with those who think the scrolls community was an Essene sect, described in the First Book of the Maccabees as having been led into the Judean wilderness by the Teacher of Righteousness after a clash with the "Wicked Priest or Priests." The Essenes, says Vermes, were "devoted to the observance of ‘perfect holiness’ " but "lacked the pliant strength and the elasticity of thought and depth of spiritual vision which enabled rabbinic Judaism to survive and flourish." Sometime during the first century c.e., the Maccabean Essene community was reported to have been wiped out by the Romans. Of the creators of the scrolls, says Vermes, only one thing can now be said with certainty: "No one of the original occupants of Qumran returned to the caves to reclaim their valuable manuscripts."

—James Carman


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