The Oxford Handbook of the Dead Sea Scrolls

A new handbook presents both the history and the latest theories regarding the Qumran scrolls

Oxford Handbook of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Edited by Timothy Lim and John Collins

Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010, 785 pp.
$150 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Charlotte Hempel

This sizable volume weighs in at just under 800 pages and includes an extremely impressive and stimulating collection of studies.

BAR has asked me to deal with this volume in 500 words (one word for each 1.6 pages) so I will have to be very selective.

In addition to pointing readers to what we know about the scrolls, the Handbook very successfully gets across the crucial message that some of the most groundbreaking achievements in current scroll scholarship have to do with challenging what we thought we knew. For example, two of the most stimulating and controversial entries challenge such fundamental hypotheses as the significance of the solar calendar for the formation and identity of the Dead Sea Scroll sect (by Sacha Stern) and the notion that this group had abandoned the Jerusalem Temple (by Martin Goodman). Given that Stern is one of the world’s leading experts on calendars and Goodman one of the world’s leading experts on Roman period Jewish history, it is not surprising that their case is formidable.

Dead Sea Scroll studies are, on the whole, robustly recovering from a prolonged infection: box-itis. Initially scholars tried to adjust the evidence of the scrolls to the size and shape of various prefabricated boxes. Now, however, we are beginning to realize what seems obvious: Toss out the boxes and start over with these exhilarating primary texts that have miraculously survived for 2,000 years!

Perhaps the two most important trends that emerge from such an approach and clearly come into view in these pages can be summed up as follows: The ancient controversies that are reflected in the scrolls are chiefly in the realm of legal interpretations. Here I might cite Michael Knibb’s assessment of messianism; he sees it as a response to the failure of the scroll community’s halakhic (legal) viewpoints to prevail. The second trend that jumps out at us is the pluralism that can be found in so much of the Qumran library. This apparently rather strict bunch of people preserved side-by-side a plurality of witnesses of the emerging Bible text, as well as a variety of Community Rules, perhaps reflecting a plurality of communities (entries by John Collins and Jutta Jokiranta). I have already adverted to Stern’s analysis of a plurality of calendar texts that ultimately favor a (not necessarily practiced) solar calendar and Goodman’s analysis of the scrolls’ debates about the Temple without necessarily indicating that the scroll community withdrew from it. As James VanderKam put it, “A variety of literary traditions” were held dear by the scroll community.

These glimpses of pluralistic features in the scrolls are radical only if we work with the now outmoded concept of a norm. If there was no ancient Jewish mainstream, what we have is pretty much what you’d expect to find.

Charlotte Hempel is a senior lecturer in Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism in the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham, UK. She cochairs the Qumran section of the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting and is a member of the editorial board of Dead Sea Discoveries.

Originally appeared as “Curing Scroll Box-itis,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2011.

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