The Importance of the Scrolls

            With respect to the study of Second Temple Judaism, the Dead Sea Scrolls are the single most important discovery of our time. These documents were produced by Jews in Judea between approximately 200 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. They help to fill in the picture of the diversity of Second Temple era Jewish religious life and thought. From these texts, we learn about ancient scribal practices, exegetical traditions, and techniques of biblical interpretation. It is possible to trace the paths of biblical books towards canonization as “the Hebrew Bible,” the development of the Hebrew and Aramaic languages, the effect of known historical events on religious life and thought.

            The milieu within which the Qumran sectarians copied and created their texts, ate their meals, disciplined their members, farmed their plantation, made their pottery, was the Jewish matrix out of which emerged rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity. Thus, the importance of the finds at Qumran and the Dead Sea scrolls crosses academic and religious boundaries. Although neither rabbinic nor Christian texts are among the Qumran discoveries, many of the traditions, ideas and even some practices revealed in the Scrolls re-emerge in later Christian and Jewish writings.

Amazing New Historical Source
            Until the discoveries in the Judean Desert, Judea during the Second Temple era was known to us through only a few nearly contemporary sources: the works of Josephus (and a bit through those of Philo of Alexandria); scattered references in non-Jewish Greek or Roman authors; and the New Testament Gospels. Rabbinic literature, edited many years after the events, contributed another, more distant view. Today, Josephus’s testimony has increased in value as certain archaeological finds are seen to correspond to his accounts. He remains, however, a single (if important) perspective, on the very complex world of Second Temple Judea. The discoveries in Qumran have initiated a revolution.

            For the first time we have access to direct evidence from the Second Temple period. Hundreds of documents and fragments have been pieced together and deciphered. The community center has been excavated, although some of the results of the excavations remain to be published. The new wellspring of information has led to an abundance of research and interest. The publication of the scrolls and concordances is now nearly complete and an additional volume of the excavation reports has been published. In the past sixty years research has revealed a world of Second Temple Judaism that was previously unimagined.

Understanding Second Temple Jewish Society
            It has long been understood that Jewish society during the 2nd and 1st centuries CE was made up of a number of different factions, or parties; however the scrolls have intensified our perceptions of the nature of the differences between these groups. The scrolls give an entry into intense disputes over the Temple and the priesthood, schisms over the religious calendar, ideological debates over Divine providence and the world to come—not to overlook more focused disputes regarding everyday law and observance—and thus paint a picture of a broad range of ideas and practice. These deep intercultural disputes took place against the backdrop of the ascendancy of Rome and her imperial ambitions. The political turmoil, both locally and internationally, provided fertile ground for the intensity of expectations concerning the (perhaps imminent) end times. The Dead Sea Scrolls provide a firsthand look at these phenomena, and at the way some Jews at the turn of the eras understood their world.