Posts Tagged “dead sea scrolls”

The Dead Sea Scrolls - Psalms ScrollA lot of ink has been spilt over the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of texts initially found in caves near the Dead Sea in 1947 (with more being found in subsequent years as nearby caves were scoured). While some of the texts were published soon after scholars got their hands on them, not all were; in fact, there was some outright stalling, and even scholarly turf-wars being played out over access to some of them. It took decades for them all to finally be published … and really, there was no good reason for it to have taken that long.

But how things have changed! The Scrolls’ guardians, the Israel Antiquities Authority, will partner with Google to create high-resolution scans of them, and to host their content on the World Wide Web, as the CBC reports (WebCite cached article):

Biblical scholars, students and anyone with an internet connection will be soon able to peruse any of the Dead Sea Scrolls online for free.

The Israel Antiquities Authority, which has been engaged in a project to scan the ancient, fragile artifacts, announced this week that is teaming up with internet giant Google to put the digitized images online.

The high-resolution images will be accessible for free in a searchable database. They will also be translated into English.

“The images will be equal in quality to the actual physical viewing of the scrolls, thus eliminating the need for re-exposure of the scrolls and allowing their preservation for future generations,” the IAA said in a statement.

The scanning techniques may actually make visible some writings which are currently not legible, which will be to everyone’s benefit. The Dead Sea Scrolls are significant for the study of religion, particularly Second Temple Judaism:

The 2,000-year-old scrolls are a collection of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts that shed light on Jewish history as well as the origins of Christianity. They include early texts from the Bible.

From the Old Testament portion of it, to be exact. At the time of their discovery and shortly after, it was widely believed that the Scrolls would have something to say about early Christianity, but that turned out not to be the case: All the texts date to the middle of the last century BCE, so they contain no Christian content.

The turf-wars over the Dead Sea Scrolls were not only fought among scholars; as one might expect in the Middle East, the wrangling has become political. The CBC reports (back in January) separately on this aspect of the Scrolls (cached):

The Canadian government says it will not act upon a request by the Jordanian government that it seize the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea scrolls, now on their last day of display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

Discovered in 1947 by Bedouin tribesmen in caves bordering Israel and Jordan, the 100,000 fragments of ancient religious parchment and papyrus manuscripts have been a source of conflict between Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians — who all claim ownership. …

Jordan contends Israel acted illegally in 1967 when it took the scrolls from a museum in East Jerusalem, which Israel seized from Jordan during the Six-Day War.

Ottawa, however, begged out of the conflict and decided to do nothing:

According to The Globe and Mail, the Canadian government issued a statement at the end of the year in reaction to Jordan’s request saying that “differences regarding ownership of the Dead Sea scrolls should be addressed by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. It would not be appropriate for Canada to intervene as a third party.”

Can’t say I blame them for not wanting to stumble into even just a marginal aspect of the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict.

Photo credit: onBeing.

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Yet another scholar has weighed in with a new theory about the Dead Sea Scrolls. The first mass-media article on this “revelation” that I’ve seen — in Time magazine — offers this new information without explaining that a lot which has been said about the Dead Sea Scrolls is either wrong, or exaggerated. For instance, it’s often said that they reveal a good deal about early Christianity; but the truth is they do not, since they were not written by early Christians, but by traditional practicing Jews. The Time article has a smashing lede, as one might expect:

Biblical scholars have long argued that the Dead Sea Scrolls were the work of an ascetic and celibate Jewish community known as the Essenes, which flourished in the 1st century A.D. in the scorching desert canyons near the Dead Sea. Now a prominent Israeli scholar, Rachel Elior, disputes that the Essenes ever existed at all — a claim that has shaken the bedrock of biblical scholarship.

Wow. Sounds earthshaking, doesn’t it? An entire field of scholarship, completely destroyed by a lone scholar! Unfortunately it doesn’t take long before one begins to see there’s less to it than the Time lede admits, and there are gaping holes in Elior’s assessment. For example:

Elior, who teaches Jewish mysticism at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, claims that the Essenes were a fabrication by the 1st century A.D. Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus and that his faulty reporting was passed on as fact throughout the centuries.

Later in the article, however, we have this:

Elior claims says these ancient historians, namely Philo and Pliny the Elder, either borrowed from each other or retailed second-hand stories as fact.

This is chronologically inconsistent, however, with the claim that Josephus has “invented” the Essenes. The Elder Pliny died in 79 CE, whereas Josephus wrote his account of Jewish history in the 90s CE, over 10 years later. Thus, Pliny could not have been parroting Josephus! Similarly, Philo of Alexandria, who died c. 50 CE, also could not have been copying Josephus.

What’s more, Ms Elior also makes a claim contrary to known history:

Elior contends that Josephus, a former Jewish priest who wrote his history while being held captive in Rome …

Josephus was no “captive” of the Romans. He was, instead, a turncoat, who went over to the Roman side during the Jewish Revolt and became a functionary of Emperor Vespasian. Josephus in fact became so enamored of Romans — and Vespasian in particular — that he Romanized his own name to reflect his regard for the Emperor (whose full name was Titus Flavius Vespasianus). “Captive”? No way!

While a lot remains to be learned about the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the last thing we need is fact-deprived speculations plastered in the pages of major media outlets like Time.

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