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Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity

Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity

by James VanderKam, Peter Flint

The Dead Sea Scrolls, found in caves near the Dead Sea fifteen miles east of Jerusalem from 1947 to 1956, include the oldest existing biblical manuscripts and the remarkable texts of the purist Jewish community at Qumran. The discovery of the scrolls has added dramatically to our understanding of the varieties of Judaism at the time of Jesus and the rise of


The Dead Sea Scrolls, found in caves near the Dead Sea fifteen miles east of Jerusalem from 1947 to 1956, include the oldest existing biblical manuscripts and the remarkable texts of the purist Jewish community at Qumran. The discovery of the scrolls has added dramatically to our understanding of the varieties of Judaism at the time of Jesus and the rise of Christianity, but has also prompted heated debate about the nature of these religions. As the monumental task of transcribing and translating the Dead Sea Scrolls is finally completed, people around the world are taking stock of the significance of these ancient documents. In this book, two of the world's leading experts on the scrolls reveal the complete and fascinating story in all its detail: the amazing discovery, the intense controversies, and the significant revelations.

Drawing together all the evidence, this timely book explores:

  • The discovery and dating of the scrolls
  • Their relationship to the Hebrew Bible, Apocrypha, and New Testament
  • Their messianic and apocalyptic messages
  • The identity, nature, and theology of the Qumran community
  • The nonbiblical scrolls
  • Controversies surrounding the scrolls

This comprehensive, up-to-date guide is the definitive introduction to all aspects of the scrolls, including their teachings, the community that created them, the world of Judaism, the origins of Christianity, our understanding of Jesus and the New Testament. Featuring photos of the original texts, the sites, and the scholars who deciphered them, and including illustrative passages from the scrolls, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls presents the most complete and accurate scholarship on the Dead Sea Scrolls available today.

Editorial Reviews

Herschel Shanks
“A comprehensive, detailed but readable account of what the scrolls really say.”
David Noel Freedman
“This work provides a cap and climax to more than fifty years of research and publication of the Scrolls.”
John J. Collins
“Eminently readable and reliable...a mine of information and a very useful reference work.”
“Comprehensive and up-to-date...an important addition to any collection on the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
Two top experts examine the now completely transcribed and translated mysterious ancient scrolls and present interpretations that are sure to add to the swirl of controversy.
Publishers Weekly
This sweeping and up-to-the-minute introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls includes many recent developments in Scrolls research, bringing readers current information on new DNA dating techniques, discoveries in linguistics, and archaeological findings. VanderKam (The Dead Sea Scrolls Today) and Flint (The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible) are clearly experts in their field, familiar with all the major (and minor) issues at stake. At times, they become submerged in questions that only other specialists will care about, or render unnecessarily detailed information on particular points (for example, providing a paragraph on each of the major photographers who have worked with the Scrolls, or debating the intricacies of Paleo-Hebrew). Despite these forays into arcana, the authors usually manage to keep their prose free of scholarly jargon. Moreover, the accessible design is first-rate, with helpful sidebars and information boxes to aid the reader. VanderKam and Flint pay special attention to the Scrolls' relationship with biblical and apocryphal literature, offering nuanced discussions of the formation of the biblical canon and the development of various lines of scribal transmission. One section deals with the non-biblical Scrolls and attempts to reveal more about the Qumran community, with VanderKam and Flint coming down heavily in favor of Essene authorship of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Overall, this is a superb introduction to all of the major points, though novice readers may wish to skim the more concentrated academic debates. (Dec.) Forecast: This well-illustrated guide can serve as either a textbook for classroom use or an introduction for general readers, and as such will find a core audience of Scrolls enthusiasts. A foreword by Emanuel Tov, the Director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Publication Project, should help sales in the academic community. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
VanderKam (Univ. of Notre Dame; The Dead Sea Scrolls Today) and Flint (codirector, Dead Sea Scrolls Inst., Trinity Western Univ., B.C.) have produced a richly informative and insightful book. The content is not all that unusual among recent books on the Scrolls, but the sober, thorough, and balanced presentation sets it apart. The book begins with an examination of the discovery and dating of the Scrolls, which includes the results of new technology. The authors discuss the text and canon of the Hebrew Bible in addition to the Apocrypha and New Testament in relation to the Scrolls. This is followed by a review of the nonbiblical Scrolls and their message. They also evaluate some earlier books on the Scrolls that make outlandish, unfounded claims concerning what they purportedly reveal about Jesus and early Christianity, then present some well-documented ways the Scrolls do offer important background material for understanding Jesus' teachings. The final chapter closes with a review of the controversies surrounding the Scrolls. Each chapter contains helpful sidebars and ends with a useful "Select Bibliography" for further research. Highly recommended as a clear, scholarly, and balanced presentation that helps the reader grasp both the significance of the Scrolls and their value as background material for our understanding of the Bible.-David Bourquin, California State Univ., San Bernardino Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
7.37(w) x 9.12(h) x 1.45(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The story of the discovery of the first Dead Sea Scrolls has become a part of Western lore. Who has not heard about the Bedouin shepherd who threw a rock into a cave, heard a crash, went in to explore, and found the scrolls? The story in that form may be accurate, but it turns out to be something of a simplification. As a matter of fact, much remains unknown about the exact circumstances under which those scrolls were discovered. The story of the discovery at first deals with just one cave; the other ten were located at later times.

The First Cave

What are our sources of information about the episode? The Bedouin shepherds (more than one) who are the heroes have told their story, and that story has been retold and examined by the scholars who first had access to and worked on the scrolls. But different stories are attributed to the discoverers, who did not give a very precise indication of when the incident occurred. Also, a significant amount of time elapsed between the discovery and the first reports about it, and the cave in which the texts were found was not located by scholars until perhaps two years after the first scrolls were removed from it.

The best, most complete source of information about the initial discovery is chapter 12 (supplemented by other parts) in John C. Trever's The Untold Story of Qumran. Trever was the first American scholar to come into contact with the scrolls, and he took it upon himself to investigate as carefully as possible the circumstances under which they were found. His conclusions are based on interviews with the Bedouin and evidence from others. The following summarizes the account given by the Bedouin as related by Trever; it is supplemented in places with other early evidence.

The Bedouin Tell Their Story

The discovery of the first scrolls and the long process of bringing them to scholarly and public attention took place at a time of great turmoil and violence in the Middle East. Tensions between Arabs and Jews were high during the British Mandate, and they grew higher and the mayhem increased as the United Nations debated the partition of Palestine. In 1946 or 1947, toward the end of the British Mandate in Palestine, which ended with the partition of the land in May 1948, three men from the Ta amireh tribe of Bedouin -- Khalil Musa, a younger cousin, Jum a Muhammad Khalil, and a still younger cousin (fifteen years of age), Muhammad Ahmed el-Hamed, nicknamed edh-Dhib (the Wolf) -- were tending their flocks of sheep and goats in the region of Ain Feshkha on the northwestern side of the Dead Sea. The tribe customarily moved about in that region between the Jordan River and Bethlehem and had done so for centuries. They had even proved to be a source of archeological discoveries from time to time. Jum a, we are told, liked to explore caves in the hope of finding gold, and so, when the opportunity presented itself, he would check the nearby cliffs for caves. The key events happened at some point in the winter of 1946-47; Trever reports that "the Bedouin think it was November or December 1946." He describes what happened in this way:

Jum a, it was, who happened upon two holes in the side of a rock projection above the plateau where the flocks were grazing. The lower of the two holes was barely large enough "for a cat to enter," as Jum?a described it in several interviews; the one which was somewhat above eye level was large enough for a slender man to enter. Jum a threw a rock through the smaller opening and was startled by the strange sound he heard; apparently the rock shattered an earthenware jar within. Thinking there might be a cache of gold within, he summoned the two other herdsmen to show them the curious holes. In the gathering darkness of evening it was too late to attempt an entrance; the next day had to be devoted to watering their flocks at 'Ain Feshkha, so they agreed to explore the cave two days later.

The youngest of the three, Muhammad Ahmed el-Hamed, returned to the cave openings a few days later while his relatives slept in the early morning; there he climbed into the cave through the larger opening. Returning to Trever's narrative:

As his eyes became accustomed to the dim light, he saw about ten tall jars lining the walls of the cave, according to his own description. Several of them had covers. Some of the jars had small handles which apparently were used in tying down the covers to seal the contents. In addition, the Bedouins claim that there was a pile of rocks which had fallen from the ceiling, and much broken pottery on the floor of the cave. All but two of the jars proved to be empty. One was filled with reddish earth; from the other one, a jar with a cover, Muhammed pulled two bundles wrapped in cloth which he described as "greenish" in appearance. A third, the largest, was a roll of leather without any wrapping. From his description and hand motions during our interview, as well as from other evidence, it seems quite probable that the larger scroll was the now-famed Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) and the two smaller ones, the Habakkuk Commentary (1QpHab) and the Manual of Discipline (1QS). Only these three manuscripts were taken by edh-Dhib from the cave that morning.

According to Trever, the fact that the older cousins were angry with edh-Dhib for entering the cave without them and perhaps hiding treasure he may have found (he did show them the three bundles) accounts for his absence from later events. At any rate, a few days later Jum a brought the scrolls to a Ta amireh site southeast of Bethlehem, where the scrolls were reportedly left for weeks in a bag hanging on a tent pole. During this time, as they were shown to others, at least some of them suffered some damage: the cover broke off the Isaiah scroll, and the Manual of Discipline was split in two.

Meet the Author

James VanderKam, John A. O'Brien Professor of Hebrew Scriptures in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of The Dead Sea Scrolls Today.

Peter Flint is co-director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at Trinity Western University in British Columbia. He is the author of The Dead Sea Psalms Scrolls and the Book of Psalms and co-editor of The Dead Sea Scrolls After Fifty Years.

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