Martin Abegg, Peter Flint and Andrew Perrin reflect on the Dead Sea Scrolls’ history
With one of its long-term codirectors continuing on at the helm (Dr. Peter Flint) and the other (Dr. Martin Abegg) passing the baton to a new faculty member (Dr. Andrew Perrin), the leadership of the Trinity Western University Dead Sea Scrolls Institute—North America’s only research center dedicated to Qumran studies—provides a snapshot of both the perspectives of different generations of Dead Sea Scroll scholars and a view of the discipline’s past, present and future. In this exclusive Bible History Daily interview, these three colleagues reflect on some major moments in recent Qumran scholarship and pressing issues that lie ahead.
Megan Sauter (BAR): Along with Martin Abegg and Ben Zion Wacholder, BAR was part of the dramatic and controversial story of releasing the Dead Sea Scrolls texts to the world in the early ’90s. Looking back, how did that moment compromise or benefit the field?
Martin Abegg: Of course, I am a bit biased, but I think the results of the publication of the preliminary editions were nearly all on the benefit side of the ledger. There is an undeniable visibility factor that resulted in immense press coverage and public interest that continues even to today. Equally important was the effect on official publication in the Discoveries in the Judaean Desert (DJD) series, which saw almost three-quarters of its total volumes published between 1991 and 2009. Secondary research has also increased substantially. It is almost impossible to keep up with the number of dissertations, monographs and journal articles that are churned out year after year in Dead Sea Scrolls studies and related disciplines. In one way or another, all of this activity represents the ripple effect of the unexpected but much needed publication.
Peter Flint: Marty and I came to direct the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at a time when the events leading up to the publication of the Qumran texts were still highly controversial. More than 20 years on, I can say with some confidence that almost everyone today would be pleased with the “Scroll busters” of the early ’90s. Geza Vermes once lamented that the slow and irregular pace of official publication of these invaluable manuscript discoveries was the “academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century.” He was correct. What we needed was a catalyst to make these materials available for researchers.
Andrew Perrin: Like many scholars in the early stages of their careers today, I started serious research on the Qumran finds just prior to when the finishing touches were put on the DJD series. So in many ways I am part of a first generation of scholars who are familiar with the tale of the controversies in the early ’90s yet only know the luxury of a fully published and openly accessible corpus. This situation is hugely advantageous for research: While the Qumran evidence itself is fragmentary, at least we have a full view of what is extant. This greatly reduces the unknown variables of any research project. Without the pre-emptive strike by Abegg, Wacholder and BAR, it is entirely possible that parts of the Qumran discoveries would remain unavailable to scholars even today.
MS: The completion of DJD signalled the full, critical publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Are there still new frontiers for publication that lie ahead?
Flint: While some hoped DJD would “canonize” the texts of the scrolls for the academic guild, there are in fact a number of other editions on offer or in preparation, such as the “Princeton” editions jointly published by Mohr Siebeck and Westminster John Knox or the new Brill Dead Sea Scrolls Editions. What the editors of such series have had to reflect on is what is new, innovative or proprietary about their projects. More editions are always better, so long as they make a valid contribution to our understanding of the texts on their pages and invite the reader to think about the primary sources in a different way.
Perrin: New methods used to study texts and craft editions should also impact future publication endeavors. Already we’re seeing new technologies enhance both the quality of critical texts or re-editions as well as the way we interact with the materials. While the magnifying glass and microfiche images were standard issue tools for studying these texts mere years ago, now digital imaging software is allowing us to see more of the texts than ever before, to undertake virtual reconstructions of damaged materials, and to toy with new arrangements of scroll fragments that may require us to reassess what we thought we knew about the shape and details of some texts. Added to this, since many of our bookshelves are now housed on a hard drive, tablet technology opens up an entirely new frontier of what digital editions can achieve through dynamic and updatable interfaces.
Abegg: It’s also not just about new tools or technology, but those old texts that are absent in the “official” publications. While DJD is formally complete, technically it is an incomplete representation of the Qumran library. Several central texts, like the War Scroll, Genesis Apocryphon and Pesher Habakkuk, were not part of that series. In addition, DJD itself is simply the beginning of the conversation. Virtually every document requires more study, and there is the need for commentary to allow scholars in related disciplines to access the scrolls and integrate the finds of our field into their own. Editors of new series should also give serious thought to settling on a consistent referencing system. This would avoid the confusion of working with some texts, like the Cave 1 Hodayot manuscript, which has differing arrangements and references in early and more recent editions.
MS: There has been a lot of press, excitement and controversy in recent years over “new” Dead Sea Scrolls discoveries or acquisitions. What is the significance of these finds, and how do they impact scholarship?
Abegg: I would suggest that these new discoveries are more valuable for keeping the conversation alive with the public than they are as a source of significant new information. The text of all the fragments currently in preparation for publication will likely amount to less than a single column of the Community Rule. As controversy drives interest, the suspicion that a good number of the new fragments may be forgeries (using actual uninscribed scroll fragments) is something that is sure to pique the interest of scholars and the public alike.
Flint: While the amount of text is not substantial, if we’ve learned anything from the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is that the details of texts matter. Sometimes a new or different word in the smallest of fragments can make a huge difference. For example, one interesting new fragment of Leviticus acquired by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary includes a remarkable arrangement of text that brings together material from Leviticus 18 and 20, both of which relate abominations of the nations in the land, in a way that is similar to the paleo-Leviticus scroll of Cave 11. Here we have yet another representative of those early Pentateuchal texts that have a penchant for rearranging and harmonizing the scriptural text.
Perrin: These ongoing discoveries build into the heritage of intrigue around the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, I think a fringe benefit of these finds is that they remind us that we don’t need to wait for the next press release showcasing a new postage-stamp sized fragment that has come to light to make new discoveries. In fact, there are literally thousands of fragments at our fingertips listed as “miscellaneous” or “unidentified” in almost any volume of DJD. These are ripe for (re)discovery. For example, I have been working on a tiny Aramaic fragment from Cave 3 that is buried in the back matter of an early volume of DJD. In view of the Cave 4 materials of Tobit published in 1995, it is relatively certain that we have yet another manuscript of this apocryphal work. That is a newsworthy discovery, and it comes at a bargain price compared to what collectors are paying for yet unknown fragments!
The Dead Sea Scrolls have been called the greatest manuscript find of all time. Visit the BAS Dead Sea Scrolls Page for dozens of articles on the scrolls’ significance, discovery and scholarship.
MS: What future archaeological discoveries—textual or otherwise—would dramatically change or enrich your field?
Perrin: Many now agree that the Qumranites were an Essene or Essene-like group but were part of a broader movement in ancient Judaism. That is probably why we see some variation in descriptions of their thought and practice in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Classical sources. The discovery of another archaeological site in the Judean Desert associated with this movement (perhaps if we were lucky enough it would include a modest library of texts) would be a game changer. Then we could compare both texts and community contexts of two satellite settlements of the Essene movement in Second Temple period Judea.
Flint: That sort of archaeological discovery would be beneficial in and of itself, but would also challenge us to rethink how we map out the movement of ideas and texts in the communities we already know about. For example, we have similar copies of the Damascus Document present at Qumran and in the Cairo Genizah. This text didn’t travel hundreds of miles on its own. Perhaps additional copies of other texts known in the Qumran library, like the Hodayot or Temple Scroll, in other geographical locations or community archives would give us a host of fresh questions about the relationship between groups and the mobility of their literature.
Abegg: Since we’re dreaming big, imagine how the discovery of another trove of early Jewish texts—rivalling Caves 1, 4 and 11—would add to our discussions. I am also reminded of Frank Moore Cross’s answer to a similar question: “What I would like is a late seventh-century B.C.E. manuscript of Jeremiah.” So the earlier the better!
MS: In view of the completion of the Dead Sea Scrolls publication project and essential resources like the Concordance, what is next for the Qumran guild? What questions, texts or approaches do you expect to see more of in the years ahead?
Perrin: If a primary task of the first few generations of scroll scholars was establishing what these manuscripts say, the job from this point forward is explaining what they mean in their ancient contexts. The scrolls are just part of the literary heritage of ancient Judaism, but they do provide us with a lens into the broader cultural matrix of this world. For example, the suite of Aramaic texts among the Qumran collection is just now coming to the fore of research. Since Aramaic writings like 1 Enoch, Genesis Apocryphon and Aramaic Levi Document originated beyond Qumran, these materials provide an ideal space to explore how a given composition functioned in different ancient Jewish settings, presumably with varying social, political and religious commitments. Manuscripts are more than words on parchment or papyrus; they are artifacts produced by humans in and for communities. In general, I hope we’ll see more serious reflection on the significance these texts had for the ancient communities that either produced or received them.
What do the Dead Sea Scrolls say about Jesus? What do they say about the world in which Jesus lived? Read more in Bible History Daily >>
Flint: We will of course see a larger focus on some of those understudied texts. As we transition from a book to a digital culture, we’re also seeing students and scholars use new tools to illumine the details of individual works. We’re formulating higher-level questions because of the available data behind the texts. For example, rather than simply parse a word to understand its meaning in a given phrase or sentence, databases of the entire Qumran collection enable us to track linguistic trends across the library. Likewise, our study of textual variations in the Biblical scrolls can adopt a panoramic view. We can start with a single difference, say, between the Great Isaiah scroll and Masoretic text, and consider if it matches any other scribal approaches to copying and interpreting Scripture evident in the now-thousands of collated textual variants identified in the Qumran Biblical corpus. In short, more complete and advanced data at once makes our questions more sophisticated and more complicated.
Abegg: As we envisage the future of our field, the list of potential projects is endless. Tools and resources will be created and recreated. Commentaries, re-editions, linguistic studies, theological studies—these are just a few of the things I expect we’ll see much more of as the field of Dead Sea Scrolls studies matures alongside other well-established disciplines like Hebrew Bible, New Testament and Rabbinic studies. One implication of this is that studies and resources that straddle multiple corpora will need to be revised. As I have prepared the second volume of the Dead Sea Scrolls Concordance, I am struck by the fact that the Greek documents from the Refuge Caves and other sites in the Judean Desert are not found in the most recent edition of the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek Lexicon, which is a go-to reference for Biblical and Classical studies. The same could be said of some widely used Hebrew lexica, which need a more thorough and intentional integration of linguistic data from the Qumran texts.
MS: We’re approaching the 75th anniversary of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. At this point, can young scholars still make a career out of Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship, or should students wishing to study the scrolls be encouraged in other directions?
Abegg: Yes, scrolls scholarship remains an ideal launching point for an academic career. The broader field of Biblical studies thrives on the collective basis of vibrant focused disciplines—just look at a program book of the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting. Yet it is hard to imagine that any of us—even the likes of Emanuel Tov or Eugene Ulrich— would be able to find a job teaching only the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls, however, are ideally suited to serve any university’s Biblical, Jewish, theological and religious studies programs. Qumran scholarship requires Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, the study of the foundational texts of Judaism and Christianity, knowledge of the early church and rabbinic Judaism, as well as familiarity with Israelite religion. Other such “niche studies” in the past (e.g., Ugaritic) cannot make the same claim. In fact—I might be so bold to say—it’s hard to imagine another research focus that would equip the early career Biblical studies scholar with such a broad preparation.
Freeing the Dead Sea Scrolls by BAR editor Hershel Shanks is fascinating account of an archaeology outsider and his scrapes with governments, nomads and scoundrels.
Perrin: In view of my own experience in this field, the answer is absolutely yes. The strongest position from which to embark on a career in Biblical studies is with a profile of truly original research, not a thesis or dissertation that makes a minor tweak to a centuries-old academic debate over a single Biblical passage. While the Qumran materials come from a world two millennia ago, they have been fully available for scholarly research for around 25 years and the complete corpus of critical editions for less than a decade. Few fields, if any, in ancient studies boast this much potential for fresh research at a very early stage in one’s educational journey. There is so much uncharted territory: Almost every text needs deeper study, and endless topics await exploration. Additionally, as that nearly cliché buzzword “interdisciplinary” crops up in more job descriptions, I think upcoming scholars would be well-served to think about how their topics and interests dovetail with other fields of study. Fortunately, for those working on the Dead Sea Scrolls, there are natural points of contact with countless cognate disciplines and corpora that fall under the umbrellas of research on Christianity and Judaism in antiquity.
Flint: Of course I agree with my colleagues on this point. The value of the scrolls, however, extends beyond academia. My work in this field rests on the unshakable conviction that the Dead Sea Scrolls are foundational to understanding the origins of Judaism and Christianity and are, therefore, part of the underlying fabric of contemporary Western Culture. The Qumran finds provide exhilarating views of the past—an essential quality for academic posts in any sub-discipline of Biblical studies—as well as plug us into larger questions of relevance to theological and religious studies. Questions about wealth, poverty, ethics, identity formation, community dynamics and gender, to name a few, are only recently being asked of the Dead Sea Scrolls. We started by talking over the significance of a fully published Qumran library. To be honest, I think we have yet to realize the full significance of these finds. It will be up to our current colleagues and the next generation of scholars to continue to read, research and write about what the eminent scholar William Foxwell Albright famously called “the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century.”
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