The Dead Sea Scrolls—A Biography

The Dead Sea Scrolls—A Biography

By John J. Collins
(Princeton/Oxford: Princeton Univ. Press, 2012), 288 pp., $24.95 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Charlotte Hempel

John Collins has been studying the Dead Sea Scrolls over a long and distinguished career and here offers a very impressive introduction to all the key issues in light of our maturing appreciation of their significance. He then proceeds to lay out the remaining questions. Like several leading lights of the second generation of scroll scholars, Collins is a prolific author and tireless editor. He nevertheless succeeds in presenting a fresh and accessible account that skillfully combines a grand narrative interspersed with intriguing and significant details.

Of particular interest to BAR readers will be the final chapter on the “Battle for the Scrolls.” Many of you enjoyed front row seats for that battle, which is outlined in this volume with fairness and from the vantage point of an eyewitness and close friend and/or colleague of key figures. The account of the tragic personal circumstances that led to the inglorious termination of the late John Strugnell’s role as editor-inchief of the scrolls publication project is particularly impressive. Without papering over any cracks, Collins is able to paint a picture of a sick man who—despite blatantly anti-Semitic remarks in the course of an alcohol-fueled interview while suffering serious illness—deserves credit for having been the first member of the publication team to invite Jewish colleagues to join their efforts. To the end of his life, Strugnell continued to enjoy a warm relationship with Jewish colleagues spanning several generations.

The volume begins with an account of the discoveries of the scrolls and scroll fragments and proceeds to offer an accessible, nuanced and fair chapter-length assessment of the identification of the movement behind the texts with the Essenes, the relationship of the scrolls to the site of Khirbet Qumran, the scrolls and Christianity, the scrolls and Judaism, the scrolls and the Bible, and finally, as noted above, the battle for the scrolls. On the Essene identification as the movement behind the scrolls, he concludes sympathetically that while it remains likely, “reasonable people can disagree.”

Regarding the significance of the scrolls for our understanding of emerging Christianity, Collins introduces key pieces of primary evidence and offers an even-handed analysis, concluding that the scrolls attest a shared cultural and religious context from which incipient Christianity emerged.

On the scrolls and Judaism, while the movement behind them was at odds with fellow Jews on the correct interpretation and application of the law, we must be careful not to sideline the apocalyptic and mystical milieu that is also evident in the scrolls.

Collins also argues that the scrolls do not form a single collection but represent the contents of several sectarian libraries that were taken to the vicinity of Qumran in the course of the Jewish conflict with Rome that culminated in 70 C.E. with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

Collins closes his biography of the scrolls by noting that his subject is in its adolescence with much more still to be learned.

I highly recommend this beautiful book to anyone interested in the complex and tumultuous story of the scrolls.



Charlotte Hempel is senior lecturer in Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism at the University of Birmingham (United Kingdom) and executive editor of Dead Sea Discoveries.

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