Coming from someone who makes his living from the study of ancient Jewish texts, it might surprise some readers when I declare my conviction that the Dead Sea Scrolls are not all that important, and that their impact has been inflated out of all proportion by the media and various interested parties.
The intense public fascination with the Qumran scrolls was fueled by the expectation that documents contemporary with the beginnings of Christianity would provide valuable--or even revolutionary--new insights into the origin of that religion. The Christian scholars who controlled much of the research into the scrolls made every effort to uncover allusions to Christian concerns, and tiny fragments were fancifully pieced together so as to produce theological statements about divine or suffering messiahs. The archeological site at Qumran was even described as if it had housed a medieval European monastery.
These dubious conclusions have been utilized both as confirmation of Christian tradition and as refutations of its uniqueness or originality. Either way, they succeeded in transforming the esoteric world of Dead Sea Scroll scholarship into a lucrative industry whose potential market included much of the Christian world.
Not surprisingly, almost none of these alleged Christian links find factual support in the evidence of the scrolls. The simple truth is that the scrolls contain a representative sample of the diverse literature that Jews were producing during the latter part of the Second Temple Era, a time marked by factionalism and ferment in the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael. As such, they reflect typical Jewish concerns, most notably in the area of halakhah, Jewish religious law, which, then as today, ignited the most virulent controversies between competing sects. These simple and obvious facts rarely get mentioned in the popular representations of the scrolls.
The scrolls do enrich our knowledge of a very complex time in Jewish history, though much of this knowledge is of value only to scholarly specialists, and even their more substantial contributions (in such areas as the development of the Hebrew language and Jewish legal exegesis) are unlikely to sell a lot of newspaper tabloids or TV sponsorships.
The hoopla surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls appears even more irksome when we contrast it with a far more important manuscript find that has remained largely unknown even among Jews, precisely because it could not attract the interest of large Christian audiences.
I am referring to the Cairo Genizah, a vast repository containing hundreds of thousands of discarded Jewish texts and documents that was maintained since the 13th century but which contains much earlier material as well--including at least one work that would later be unearthed among the Dead Sea Scrolls!
Individual items from this collection began to circulate during the latter half of the 19th century, but their historic value and point of origin were first noted in 1896 by Solomon Schechter, (then teaching at Cambridge University), who promptly had the remnants of the Genizah transported from Egypt to Cambridge where they remain today.
The Genizah has revolutionized every area of classical Jewish studies. Not only does it preserve the most accurate versions of ancient Jewish works like the Talmud, Midrash and liturgical poetry--including several that had become lost over the generations--and a rich selection of medieval scienctific and theological works, but even its more mundane documents (letters, bills and private correspondence) have allowed us to piece together a vivid and intimate portrait of Jewish life in the Mediterranean basin (including the Land of Israel) in all its social, economic and spiritual diversity. What was considered a century ago to be a "dark age" in our history has now become one of the most familiar.
Compared to this wealth of cultural and historical information, the conjectural and fragmentary evidence of the Qumran library presents a pathetic picture.
This situation should alert us to the fact that in our sensation-obsessed society, what passes for scholarship is coming more and more to be defined by marketablity rather than by intrinsic value. We must be careful not to be taken in by this trend, especially when it involves our own history and tradition.
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