Story of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English

by Geza Vermes

(Allen Lane-The Penguin Press, 1997, 648 pp., $39.95)

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd, Mohammed edh-Dhib, entered a cave into which he threw a rock and broke a pottery jar containing an ancient scroll. Though he made only a few dollars by selling the manuscripts, he was instrumental in initiating a new period of biblical studies. Now, after 50 years, Geza Vermes has published a translation for a general audience of the complete set of scrolls and legible fragments.

Vermes's first translation, in 1962, primarily contained the available texts from Cave One. His new and greatly enlarged volume includes information about the earliest discoveries in addition to the texts released in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, where most of the scroll material had been kept from public and scholarly view.

The introduction tells the story of the discovery of the scrolls between 1947 and 1956, plus some of the more recently found pottery shards (ostraca) with writing on them. Though told in many other books, few accounts are as complete as Vermes's. Equally important is the history of “the academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century,” where he describes the history of the scrolls' scholarship.

However, Vermes, who was personally involved in many of the events and personalities behind this story, tells a straightforward and sometimes sad tale of scholarly delay in the publication of the scrolls, their translation, and critical analysis. Unlike some of the ridiculous popular stories about Vatican or Israeli intrigue, he recounts the more prosaic situation of human foibles. Young scholars assigned to the task by the kindly Dominican Father Roland de Vaux, were not driven firmly enough to produce translations and critical editions. The Six Day War of June 1967 saw the transfer of many scrolls from the Jordanians (and a Bethlehem dealer who hid one scroll in a shoe box) to the Israelis. Other scholars from Europe and America joined the enterprise, but held texts for their graduate students to publish in dissertations that rarely were published.

Hershel Shanks, the editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, began an international campaign to publish the scrolls, which eventually motivated the Huntington Library to publish photographs of all the scrolls' materials, now available to the public in book form. Vermes's contribution to this story is worthwhile, given the rumors and turmoil these events sparked.

The author's introduction includes well-informed treatments of common Dead Sea Scrolls controversies: Did the Essenes live at the ruins on the small Qumran plateau? Did they write the scrolls and hide them in the nearby caves? He masterfully integrates particularly sectarian scrolls, such as the Community Rule, the Temple Scroll, and the War Scroll to answer these questions. Multiple texts and fragments are newly available to readers, though specialists may find them more useful.

In addition, he offers a balanced presentation of the relationship between the scrolls and Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. While carefully pointing out the differences between the Qumran writings and the New Testament, he shows many points of contact, e.g., terms describing the leadership (overseers at Qumran translate into episkopoi or bishops in the New Testament). The structure of the community's leadership may relate to some Christian structures (the role of the three disciples closest to Jesus Christ and the role of the twelve). Ideas about hating the enemies (“the sons of darkness”) may relate to Christ's teaching against hating one's enemies. These are not new insights, but they are useful to have in this volume of complete translations.

Similarly, these texts provide important insights into the differences and similarities between the Essenes and Rabbinic Judaism. Of course, familiarity with the Mishnah, Talmud, and other Rabbinic literature is useful for appreciating this aspect of the Qumran materials.

Another important element in Dead Sea Scroll research is the discovery of Scripture texts at Qumran. Prior to 1947, the oldest Hebrew copy of the Bible had been a 10th-century A.D. manuscript. At Qumran, part of every Hebrew book of the Old Testament, except the Book of Esther, has been found, providing textual critics with manuscripts one thousand years older than the previously known manuscripts.

In addition, two Hebrew fragments of Sirach (one at Qumran and another at Massada), plus an Aramaic section of Tobit, have helped scholars understand the texts of those two Deuterocanonical books and suggest some possibilities for their place in first-century Judaism in Palestine.

Vermes points out that variations within the Qumran sectarian and biblical scrolls indicate a certain fluid state to the texts. Though appreciation for these technical points of textual criticism is impossible in a translation, having the Qumran Bible texts and Bible commentaries may still be useful to the general reader.

As valuable as Vermes's ample introduction may be, nothing is as useful as reading the texts themselves. Familiarity with the vocabulary, ideas and forms of speech at Qumran offers some tremendous insights into the world from which Christianity came. Readers of these ancient documents may ask, “Why did Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism continue to grow while the Qumran sect died out? What distinctive elements in each movement contributed to the demise of one and the attraction to the others in the ancient and modern worlds?”

Although the translation of the texts and introduction will not end all disputes and questions regarding the Qumran scrolls and their writers, Vermes's collection and translation at least allow many more people to enter a discussion from which they have been excluded for much of the past 50 years.

Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa is a professor at the Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies, University of Dallas.