What are they and why do they matter?
Their discovery in the late 1940s and early 1950s was a sensation, putting Biblical scholarship on the front pages of newspapers around the globe. Found in Qumran caves in a remote area of Judean Desert at the northwestern rim of the Dead Sea, these ancient manuscripts have come to be called the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Ensuing publications and ongoing research have only confirmed that the Dead Sea Scrolls are second only to the Bible as the most valuable literary source for elucidating the literary, societal, political, and religious contexts of ancient Judaism and early Christianity. It is no overstatement that they have forever revolutionized our understanding of the history and religion of Second Temple Israel.
Since Hebrew was the language of Israelite tradition, scripture, and culture, some may be surprised to hear that many of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Aramaic, the common language of Jesus’s time. In his article “The Lost World of the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls” in the September/October 2018 issue of BAR, Andrew B. Perrin of Trinity Western University in Langley, Canada, takes a close look at these Qumran Aramaic texts.
“Aramaic took hold in much of the ancient Near East as both the official and common tongue, starting in the eighth century B.C.E., to eventually supplant Akkadian as the lingua franca of the region,” explains Perrin, and adds that “despite its diffusion, much of ancient Judaism’s Aramaic scribal heritage was presumably lost or forgotten.”
Until the discovery of the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls, that is! The tally of the Qumran Aramaic texts includes more than 30 literary works, which represent about 12 percent of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Understanding that the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls reveal how Jewish scribes of mid-Second Temple Judea reimagined their sacred and authoritative traditions (as codified in the Hebrew Bible), Andrew B. Perrin asks, “Why would faithful Jewish scribes reflecting on their ancestral past and expecting the dramatic arrival of divine rule pen their works in Aramaic, their adoptive language, rather than Hebrew, the traditional language of their sacred scriptures?”
While Perrin provides three possible answers to the above question, he more importantly observes that there seem to be “a degree of cohesion to these texts—to the extent that they seem to form a corpus of sorts within the Qumran library.”
To explore the specific nature of the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls and what these difficult documents from Qumran caves reveal about the ancient Jewish culture and religion—including the Jewish sectarian context of Christian origins—read “The Lost World of the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls” by Andrew B. Perrin in the September/October 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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