Dead Sea Scrolls open our eyes to first-century Judaism

  • July 9, 2009

{mosimage}The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was the 20th century’s biggest archeological story.

It had the romance of the desert: Bedouin lads, poking into dry caves near the ancient Dead Sea settlement of Qumran in early 1947, find traces of a mysterious Jewish sect from the time of Jesus.

Coming when it did, on the eve of the post-war surge of new Bible translations, the unearthing of the scrolls caused astonishment by bringing to light the oldest texts of the Old Testament Scriptures in existence.

And the story has long possessed everything else any journalist and the news-hungry public could ask for: intrigue, politics  — the Israeli war of independence was brewing when the first documents were found  — and rumours of a cover-up of revelations that could undercut long-standing,  “authorized” accounts of the birth of Christianity.

The hype continues to this day, in the title of Dead Sea Scrolls: Words that Changed the World, an exhibition on view at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) through Jan. 3, 2010.

While the thousands of inscribed parchment and copper fragments uncovered at Qumran in the 1940s and 1950s have enriched modern knowledge of Palestinian Judaism in the time of Christ, they have not changed anything very much. The biblical texts recovered from the caves, for example, are not radically different from the second-oldest copies of Scripture, from the middle ages. And as for undermining the usual story of Christian origins  — nothing in the Dead Sea Scrolls has done that, even a little bit.

But the ROM show does bring to Toronto a few of the fragile parchment fragments at the heart of the controversies and often heated discussions that have continued, almost non-stop, for the last 60 years.

Organized by the ROM in partnership with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the display features fragments from 16 Dead Sea Scrolls, eight in the first three months, another eight in the second three-month period. Included in the line-up are portions of the biblical Book of Genesis and the Book of Psalms, and an apocalyptic prayer for the end of time created by the Jewish sect that possibly put the scrolls in the caves near Qumran in the first place. The Israeli co-organizers have also loaned some 200 artifacts, including lamps and jugs and funerary caskets, and architectural remnants from the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.

The identity and nature of the religious community that probably wrote and hid the scrolls has been much debated by scholars, and this show does not attempt to close the arguments. As far as I can tell, however, most students of these issues believe that this community was identical with, or similar to, the Judean sect known to ancient authors as the Essenes. The Jewish true believers revealed in the non-biblical scrolls found in the caves were, like the Essenes, ascetic and steeped in a culture of virtue and restraint, and they lived and prayed in fervent anticipation of the Messiah’s coming in power and glory.

If these traits suggest similarity with the early Christian movement — especially during its brief career as an exclusively Jewish phenomenon — other characteristics put distance between the Qumran community and the Jewish Christian church. At Qumran, for example, initiation came at the end of a long probation period and involved strict obedience to the Law. Christian baptism, in contrast, was administered freely to all, after the minimal acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord.

The most interesting thing about the Dead Sea Scrolls, to my mind, is the expanded picture they give us of Judaism in the first century of our era. We know much about the Pharisees and Sadducees — opposed parties, but both exponents of main-line urban Judaism — from the New Testament. In the light shed by the Dead Sea Scrolls, we can see the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day as a richly various pattern of sects and tendencies — some assimilated to the prevailing Hellenistic culture of the eastern Mediterranean (the Sadducees), others, like the Essenes and the people of the scrolls, practising strict separation from contemporary society.

Perhaps this tension between assimilationists or  “modernists,”  and separatists or  “traditionalists” is an aspect of every mature religious culture. Be that as it may, the ROM exhibition offers a succinct introduction to an historical period that seems curiously contemporary with us, even though it ran its course 2,000 years ago.

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