How to Study a Dead Sea Scrolls Text: A New Approach

Dead Sea Scrolls before unraveledOne of the problems that many of us felt who entered the field of Scrolls research after the work of the greats of the first generation is that the work of these earlier and pioneering scholars had essentially ground to a halt, having essentially hit a methodological brick wall.  That, by the way, is why research really stopped.  We are accustomed to look at the crisis that occurred in Scrolls research as a cessation of the publication process and an attendant closing of the material to outsiders.  But the real crisis from which the publication issue ensued was an intellectual one, the brick wall I mentioned. Each scholar had come with his (and I mean his) own academic background, usually a “classical” training in OT, NT or archaeology, and each simply derived the conclusions from the study of the Scrolls that flowed from their divided intellectual  backgrounds.  It was in this context that I criticized what I termed the Christianization of the Scrolls, since the scholars of that generation had no way to correct for the natural intellectual prejudices of their own religious traditions, for the most part Catholic and Protestant.  When I think about this problem with further hindsight, I realize that the efforts of colleagues to learn the fields of the other by the cohort of Scrolls scholars my age was implicitly a silent criticism of this kind of research. So Jewish scholars learned New Testament studies, Christians learned Rabbinics, and we all began to bring much wider sets of information, data and training, to bear on the materials that we were studying.

The fact that this more balanced and open approach is how we train our students today and how we relate as a field is one of the great accomplishments of late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries Scrolls scholarship. It is one of the most important accomplishments of our field, maybe the most significant in methodological terms, and we should be very proud of it. We teach and correct each other, and despite the at-one-time contentious nature of our field, outsiders who join us really sense the love we have (and I mean that word) for one another. The most gratifying part of this is to see how newly progressing graduate students are welcomed into the group and how they are encouraged and nourished collectively as they finish their degrees, share this research, and start their professional lives. We have a lot to be very proud of. But despite this openness and progress, we still do not train our students, do our research, publish our books, or run our conferences (until now) with academy’s normal disciplinary canons in mind.

Do not  get me wrong.  I am by no means suggesting that we abandon this model.  But I think we have much to gain by thinking through the manner in which we employ and could employ more usefully the standard categories, on how they could inspire us in our work.  Let me take one egregious example to illustrate this approach.  How often do we use the term “Qumran literature?” I will not bother to deconstruct or critique the use of the term “Qumran” here–one of our code words.  We all know that it is shorthand for what was found there and we all understand that the findspot of the manuscripts does not sanctify a literary canon in historical terms.  I want to address the use of the term literature.  You would think that as we use this word it would occur to someone that there exists an entire field of the literary study of ancient religious texts in general and especially of Jewish texts.  We would think that the great accomplishments of the study of biblical and Rabbinic literature from the literary point of view would have affected us.  One would think that the poetry found in the Scrolls would be looked at as part of the continuum of Hebrew poetry from the Bible, to the Qumran manuscripts, and to piyyut in Byzantine Palestine and would lead to literary studies of Qumran poetry, but it has not. This is the disadvantage of having made ourselves a self-standing field.

Let me offer one example from the area of Religious Studies, applying to something really major in our field.  Much excellent research has been done about the purity texts found at Qumran.  Most of this has had to do with the halakhic and exegetical aspects of these texts.  The accomplishments have been prodigious here.  Further, the archaeological study of the mikvaot from Qumran and their Sitz im Leben at the site has provided valuable background information.  But interestingly, the fundamental Religious Studies type questions about the experience of purification have not been discussed. This, despite the presence in the corpus of prayer texts of numerous passages that illumine the nature of the purification experience as a spiritual act.  In rabbinic Judaism, there have been studies of this aspect of purity and impurity as part of the trend toward study of issues relating to the body. But these studies have not dealt with the inner religious experience of the process of purification–emotional, spiritual and halakhic all rolled into one. I say this not to castigate us but rather to point to the value of the application of some of the issues raised by the disciplinary approaches that somehow get bypassed when we allow the material itself exclusively to determine the canons of its research.

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