Christianization of the Scrolls, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1994.


War Scroll

War Scroll

From its beginnings, the publication process was profoundly affected by the physical location of the scrolls and the politics of the scholars involved. Perhaps the most serious cost was the exclusion of Jews, and certainly of Israelis, from the editorial team from the 1950s through the late 1980s.

The silencing of Jewish scholars had a number of negative ramifications for the interpretation and publication history of the scrolls. Until Jewish scholars entered the conversations about the scrolls’ contents, an entire genre of Christianizing studies was being published, interpreting the material as if it were a collection of proto-Christian rather than Jewish texts. Furthermore, because many Jewish scholars best trained in the reading of Hebrew manuscripts and in their analysis were not included in this work, the pace of publication was seriously retarded. When the controversy finally erupted in 1991, some 50 percent of the titles—but actually only 25 percent of the material—still remained unpublished.

Perhaps most important, the texts considered most Jewish in nature—legal texts and other such documents—were the last to be edited, because the scholars charged with editing and publishing the scrolls were most at home with the Bible, but least comfortable with these Jewish legal texts.

In light of some of the accusations that have appeared in the popular media, it is important to maintain a proper perspective on the matter. I am not claiming that the scholars who eventually composed the International Team deliberately hid the scrolls because of any fears about the scrolls’ possibly explosive effects on Christianity. Nor am I arguing that those scholars sought to unduly distance the material, either chronologically or theologically, from Christianity. On the contrary, it is my contention that they attempted all too much to describe the material in Christian terms, never really confronting the Jewish character of the corpus.

So why were the scrolls kept secret for so long?

The answers are, in reality, rather prosaic. Those who were supposed to publish them failed for a variety of reasons- Their efforts were insufficiently funded. Some lost interest. Some succumbed to alcoholism. Some died. Some lacked sufficient linguistic skills to do the job in a reasonable amount of time. Selfishly, they continued to believe both that only they could do the job correctly and that they and the students they chose had rights to the material in perpetuity.

Another consequence of the Christianizing approach has been the tenacity of the Essene theory. Soon after the Qumran scrolls were unearthed, it became the prevailing view that the sect described in the scrolls was none other than the elusive sectarian group termed the Essenes—a theory previously championed based on evidence from the genizah manuscripts of the Zadokite Fragments. First suggested by Sukenik, that theory was fully developed in a series of works, the most important of which was that written by Cross. The theory took its cue from descriptions of the Essenes by the ancient authors Philo Judaeus, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder. Numerous parallels to the Dead Sea Scrolls could be cited in their descriptions pointing to this identification. However, important differences were ignored. Scholars used the material from Philo, Josephus, and Pliny as a means of interpreting the scrolls and vice versa, thus giving rise to a circular process. This amalgam of material was then used in searching for Christian origins that, the theory held, might be found in the library of the Essenes.

It is hard to believe that this approach prevailed for so long. Even the most casual reader of the scrolls can see that they are clearly Jewish texts. Yet that self-evident fact has not stopped some scholars from producing an entire genre of materials describing and analyzing the texts as though they were precursors of Christianity. These studies also largely ignore the legal materials, placing emphasis instead on such notions as eschatology—the doctrine of the End of Days. Although it is true that the scrolls illuminate much about the background of Christianity, it is not true that they are proto-Christian documents. Despite this fact, however, confessionalists often picture the sect in terms derived from the New Testament, interpreting the New Testament in light of the scrolls. By importing the terminology of the early church into Qumran, many scholars have created the false impression that the sect and early Christianity were much closer than they in fact were.

To show how important terminology can be, let me present a composite portrait of the sect as drawn from these Christianizing analyses-

The monks of Qumran were ascetics who practiced a baptismal rite and were led by a Teacher of Righteousness. They ate together in a refectory after taking ablutions, and they shared a Eucharist of bread and wine. After the teacher died, they were led by an episkopos (bishop). They practiced community of goods and dedicated themselves to the healing of the sick and the clothing of the poor. They composed hymns in which they praised God, and they eagerly awaited a savior who combined priestly and Davidic aspects. The monks copied manuscripts in the scriptorium, leaving us the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Correspondingly, the same community could be reconfigured in Jewish terms-

The inhabitants of Qumran were observant Jews who practiced ritual purity and were led by their Rabbi, a Teacher of Righteousness. They ate communal meals in their dining room after immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath). They recited ha-motzi over the bread before the meal and made a special berakhah (blessing) over wine. After the teacher died, they were led by another Rabbi. They were always willing to lend their possessions to others and dedicated themselves to the mitzvah (commandment) of healing the sick and giving charitable donations to clothe the poor. They composed prayers in which they praised God, and they eagerly awaited a messiah who combined priestly and Davidic aspects. The scribes among the sect copied their most important texts for their library, leaving us the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Both of these descriptions, made up by me, demonstrate how easy it is for language and terminology to influence our perception of the scrolls.

Christianizing the scrolls is not, as previously mentioned, the only way Christian readers have interpreted the scrolls. In fact, there has been something of an internal Christian debate over the scrolls’ meaning. Conservative Christians, wanting to accent the uniqueness of Jesus and his contribution to the rise of Christian church, emphasize the Jewish character of Qumran, even its halakhic nature.

More liberal Christians, on the other hand, tend to see Christianity as closer in origin to Judaism, experiencing its birth pangs even before Jesus. To them, Jesus emerged out of the circumstances that gave rise to the messianic movement he represented, although they probably would not state it so strongly. To these scholars, Qumran can best be understood as closer in spirit and practice to early Christianity. Therefore they neglect the specifically Jewish elements, like law, purity, and other practices.

For the first twenty years of scrolls studies, the internal Christian debates were carried on almost as if the Jewish elements in the scrolls were meaningless. The only issue that mattered was how Christian the scrolls were. It was that issue that largely determined the public agenda. Jewish scholars who contributed to scrolls research, such as the talmudist Saul Lieberman, were relegated to the sidelines, skirting around the edges of scrolls scholarship. Even the seminal work of Sukenik became insignificant as new editions appeared. Jacob Licht’s masterful Hebrew commentaries on the Thanksgiving Hymns and the Rule Scroll were not read, and Yadin’s War Scroll, a definitive work, was honored but not really fathomed. Although Chaim Rabin’s edition of the Zadokite Fragments became standard, the impact of his commentary and accompanying studies was minimal. Every other element was emphasized save the uniquely Jewish one, the aspect that could illumine the later development of Judaism.

Much of the interpretive confusion would not have come about had the texts been published in a different order. But because the most characteristically Jewish material was kept for last, it is the Christian interpretation of the scrolls that has dominated until now. When the whole is out, scholars will no doubt recognize the untenability of that approach, but by then that view may have irreversibly penetrated and permeated popular literature. So are myths created and preserved.

The Six-Day War of 1967 marked the turning point in scrolls studies. The return of the scrolls to the Jewish people was not a merely administrative matter; it profoundly affected the texts’ interpretation and the matter of access to them. It is to this story that we now turn.

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