How to Study a Dead Sea Scrolls Text: The Context of the Scrolls

Apocrypha (Tobias)There seems to be a general understanding of the context in which we study the Scrolls but it seems to remain unarticulated.  This should be readily apparent since we have been witness to an absurd debate regarding the archaeological evidence that has in fact obscured the real questions that need to be discussed about the significance of the archaeological context.  But I will leave this area as it is not my area of expertise.

Rather, I want to talk about what I would call the interpretive context.  By this I refer to the problem that we all face with the various types of parallel materials we cite, namely Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Texts, New Testament and Rabbinic literature, to name the significant ones.  I do not mean here to suggest that we are following wrong approaches, but rather that we are often not sufficiently self-aware or, alternatively, we are afraid to use these sources despite their being almost always the key to understanding our texts.

That most Qumran texts, whether sectarian or not, are highly dependent on what we call biblical texts is unquestionable.  From my point of view, this dependence is one of the indicators of canonicity, not in our sense but in that of the authors of most of our texts. But irrespective of that issue, often the “biblical” texts in front of the authors, their Vorlage, may be different on the micro or macro level from ours.  Our studies of non-biblical texts from Qumran need to be constantly aware that the Bible is essentially a moving target.  The very source material we are investigating is itself in the process of crystallization as it is being drawn upon.  This factor can only be given proper attention when the actual manuscript material from Qumran and elsewhere, and the ancient versions are constantly consulted, but also only when the overall models for biblical textual variance and development observed in the Scrolls are taken into account.  We might call this textual context.  This is all the more important for biblical texts that essentially overlap chronologically with Qumran texts, Daniel being the obvious case.

But the biblical example already points to a chronological issue that is the case with the Hebrew Bible, New Testament and Rabbinic literature.  I refer to the often apologetic manner in which we use texts from other periods to interpret our literature.  Somehow this is less sensitive when we use the Hebrew Bible since it represents an earlier presumed source, and is therefore analogous to the long-accepted (and of course correct) use of ancient Near Eastern texts and languages for Hebrew Bible and Hebrew Bible for New Testament research.  Of course in the case of the New Testament, as in the Scrolls, the Hebrew Bible is quoted explicitly.  But New Testament scholars also work to understand the textual character of the Hebrew Bible quotations and allusions in the New Testament, much as we do in the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Another class of parallel material that we use is other Second Temple literature, approximately contemporaneous with the Qumran sectarian corpus or with the pre-Qumran texts that we  correctly see as providing background or as being source material for Dead Sea Scrolls.  Here, however, our issue of context manifests itself in a very different manner.  Here we need to be mindful that the context of these texts, and the way we group and analyze them, cannot be in terms of how we got them, that is, in the collections we call Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and Dead Sea Scrolls.  Increasingly, we need to see all of our Second Temple period texts as a complex and interconnected body of literature, yet only partly representative of the Jewish people and tradition at the time.  After all, we must always be mindful when dealing with our period that what we know is a small part of a larger canvas the full character of which is simply not known.

Our greatest hesitation, however, is with the use of materials from later on, New Testament and rabbinic literature. I want to address directly the legitimacy of using later texts, an approach I term “triangulation”.  Of course, our problem is that often material for fruitful comparisons or contrasts, or keys to successful exegesis, are found in these later texts.  Further,  we know that any connections are indirect androgens of transmission are usually untraceable.  So how do we  operate?  In my view, we may never assert that a religious practice or belief in a later text should be assumed to represent earlier practice.  But when we find allusion to a practice or opposition to it in a Scrolls text, we have the right to assume that the practice documented from later on can help us to understand the earlier material and vice versa. In my view, the constellation of terms, ideas and practices of early Judaism can be greatly enriched by this kind of method and we should cease being apologetic about this approach while carefully distinguishing it from anachronism.

This discussion could easily be lengthened to discuss more aspects of the manner in which we do our work.  My point here today is to call for a reevaluation by us of how we fit intellectually into the overall disciplinary scheme of the modern university. I submit   that such consideration could yield progress in a fair number of issues relating to the Dead Sea Scrolls. We have come to a turning point because we have made available text editions, commentaries, translations, and numerous search tools. We have produced large numbers of excellent articles.  I hope that by taking into greater consideration the disciplinary canons with which our colleagues operate, we can enrich our work and help to create for the Scrolls a more central role in the wider fields of the study of ancient Judaism and Christianity.

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