Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Scholar traces history of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Were there a real Indiana Jones, one of the places he would undoubtedly explore first would be the ancient area of Qumran, now located in Israel.

The famous Dead Sea Scrolls, written by the Qumran sect of the second and first century B.C.E., reveal important details about the habits and beliefs of the Jews who lived at that time, according to Professor Lawrence H. Schiffman, an archaeologist and renowned researcher of the scrolls.

Thanks to the translation and 1991 publication of the scrolls under Israeli authority, “we now have open before us a picture of Judaism that was practiced at that time that we simply didn’t have before,” said Schiffman, a professor at New York University’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies. One of 60 scholars on the editorial board who helped translate the scrolls, he spoke to a crowd at the Solon Chabad Jewish Center on May 7.

“We’re talking about people who were all Sabbath observers and who followed the commandments,” said Schiffman of the Qumran sect. “They had very strict purity laws and acted as if they were living as priests in the (Jerusalem) Temple.”

In his book Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls: The History of Judaism, the Background of Christianity, the Lost Library of Qumran, Schiffman is reluctant to identify the inhabitants of Qumran as the Essenes, as most scholars do. He suggests that they could very well be the Essenes, but that the evidence is not conclusive enough.

What he can affirm is that these scrolls were written and stored by a group of devout Jews, not early Christians, as some of the mostly-Christian scholars who first examined the scrolls had suggested.

He points to the fact that the Qumran dead were all buried with their feet pointed toward Jerusalem and that the many mikvaot (ritual baths) found among the ruins could only be explained as being connected to a highly spiritual Jewish community.

Schiffman explained that following the Maccabean revolt, the primary Jewish leadership was split between the Pharisees, the forerunners of the Talmudic rabbis, and the Sadducees, a group which believed in free will and openly challenged the concept of divine intervention.

The group that lived in Qumran near the north shore of the Dead Sea, where the scrolls were discovered, were aligned more closely with the Sadducees when it came to interpreting Jewish law, with some major exceptions. For example, the Qumran sect believed in an afterlife.

As an archaeologist, Schiffman studied the structure of the walled city of Qumran to gain a better understanding of its inhabitants. The discovery of over 1200 dishes and stone vessels for drinking indicate that several hundred people lived in Qumran.

Schiffman was also fascinated by the elaborate system of water delivery and cisterns used for ritual bathing at Qumran. It was the sect’s practice to cleanse the floor of the dining area with an aquifer system similar to one employed at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Many of the Qumran men practiced celibacy, “but I don’t believe they all were celibate,” he said. Schiffman suggested that they may have adopted celibacy once they had already sired their families.

Qumran men wore white robes, Schiffman noted. They also wore tefillin all day long, albeit much smaller tefillin that those that are worn today.

“The story of the Dead Sea Scrolls did not begin with the famous discovery by the Bedouin boy,” said Schiffman, referencing the accidental finding in 1947 of the first of the more than 900 manuscripts uncovered in seven caves near Qumran. Rather, he cited the purchase of the Zadokite Fragments from a Cairo storehouse of ancient Jewish works by the famous Solomon Schechter in 1896 as the first discovery of what the world has come to know as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The scrolls are sorted into three different groups of text, Schiffman explained. “Group one is the Bible. You have every part of every book represented,” except the Book of Esther. The second group is known as the Apochrypha, which Schiffman described as ancient texts and commentaries that are not accepted as part of the recognized canon.

The last group are secular writings, poetry and laws that were recorded by the people of Qumran.

Schiffman’s research suggests that almost 80% of the scrolls were written in Hebrew, 20% were written in Aramaic, and a very small number, in Greek.

Because of the fragile condition in which many of these scrolls were found, there were suggestions that those that found the scrolls had deliberately torn them into smaller pieces in order to extract more payments. “I don’t believe that they did,” said Schiffman. “We know that the physical deterioration was a natural outcome over the ages. It was basically a form of rotting.”

Yigael Yadin, a famous Israeli archaeologist and statesman, secured what is known today as the Temple Scroll in 1967 for $108,000, “which is a pittance by today’s standards,” declared Schiffman.

A small portion of the Temple Scroll has been taken out of Israel and is currently on display at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage as part of “The Cradle of Christianity” exhibit.

“It’s amazing that just a 15 minute drive away you can actually view a very small portion of the Temple Scroll,” Schiffman raved.

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