What Are the Dead Sea Scrolls and Why Do They Matter?

by David Noel Freedman and Pam Fox Kuhlken

Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2007, 141 pp.
$10 (paperback)

Reviewed by James D. VanderKam

This short book is meant to be a popular introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls and associated subjects. It is set up as an interview with David Noel Freedman, a well-known scholar of the Hebrew Bible who has also worked with the scrolls. (He was one of the two editors of the paleo-Hebrew Leviticus scroll from Qumran cave 11.) The questions of the interview are asked by Pam Fox Kuhlken who teaches at Arizona Western College and Perelandra College. Thirteen brief chapters with snappy titles like “Show Me the Money: Buried Treasure and Other Mysteries” organize the material. Freedman calls upon his long experience in scriptural and Scroll studies as he answers questions such as: What do scholars consider the major contribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls to Biblical scholarship? (Answer: demonstrating the value of the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). At the end of the volume is a glossary of terms and Freedman’s suggestions for further reading.

The format of the book and the ways in which Freedman, with his lively style, words his answers make for enjoyable and easy reading. By going through the folksy text, the reader will receive an overview of many important topics in the field and Freedman’s views about them. There are also detours into areas such as Pentateuchal criticism and Freedman’s theory about a “primary history” incorporated into the Hebrew Bible. It is always a pleasure to read what Freedman thinks on these and other subjects.

I should, however, express a caution. Readers ought to know that the answers to the questions largely operate within a pre-1991 context. That is, they reflect the state of the field when only the original seven scrolls formed the center of discussion, supplemented with a few other fragmentary texts and the Temple Scroll. For example, in the chapter “Ancient Book Club,” we learn that ten copies of the Book of Psalms were found among the scrolls; a more accurate number is 37.

Some inconsistencies also suggest that the book was not edited as carefully as it might have been. For example, on pages 40 and 49 one is led to believe that the Essenes settled at Qumran in the 120s B.C.E. On page 91, however, the date for the occupation of the site is 150 B.C.E., and on pages 102 and 103 we learn that the Teacher of Righteousness led the group to Qumran in 176 B.C.E.

Harold Brodsky is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Hebrew Scriptures in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

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