Monday, July 29, 2013


John J. Collins, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography. Lives of great religious books. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 272. ISBN 9780691143675. $24.95.

Reviewed by Roger S. Bagnall, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University (

Version at BMCR home site


This book is part of a series called "Lives of Great Religious Books," with subjects ranging from Genesis to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison. Leaving aside the dubious conceit behind the series,1 there is much to like in this book. It is concise, clearly written, intelligible to those outside Scrolls scholarship, and fair-minded in dealing with the many controversies surrounding the Scrolls. Collins does not conceal his own opinions, but he is fair in representing even those he regards as clearly wrong or disingenuous; "maverick" (a favored word) scholars receive a hearing.

The preface sketches the outlines of the discovery, character, and history of the finds, all to be set out in more detail in the following chapters. But the key question that Collins wants to ask (xii) is "what difference the Scrolls have made to the study of ancient Judaism and early Christianity, and to probe what has been at stake in the debates that have often been so acrimonious. Are the Scrolls really worthy of all the attention they have received and continue to receive?" Not surprisingly, the answer is positive.

Chapter 1 covers the discoveries, acquisitions, editorial history, and major theories about the nature of the Scrolls. The cast of characters is large (there is a partial prosopography on 243-46). The Scrolls were found in Jordanian territory, initially by beduin (sold through Christian middlemen), then in excavations mainly by foreign scholars (the Ecole Biblique and ASOR), excavating under Jordanian auspices. Israelis bought some of the material that came on the market, but the Jordanian authorities excluded Israelis and Jews more generally from publishing the material under their control. Partly as a result of this exclusion, early scholarly work tended to focus more on the Scrolls' relevance for early Christianity than on their place in the Judaism of the period. But Israeli interest in acquisition suggests that the relevance for Judaism was clearly visible from the start, and it is the Israel Antiquities Authority that runs the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.

Chapter 2 presents the Essenes, a Jewish sect explicitly known only from classical authors (Philo, Josephus, and Pliny), the nature of which was debated long before the discovery of the Scrolls. Collins gives a balanced account, which acknowledges that there are discrepancies between the evidence of the Scrolls and the accounts of ancient authors, and that there is a problem of circularity in first identifying the Scrolls as Essene on the basis of similarities to those accounts and then using the Scrolls to correct the classical sources. But errors or misplaced emphases in classical sources were suspected long before the Scrolls were known, and Collins thinks that on balance the evidence favors the identification, giving weight to Frank Moore Cross's point that it is uneconomical to suppose the existence of another group just like the Essenes except in a few points, who are never mentioned in any ancient sources (classical or Jewish). Collins notes how strident the polemics have been, as the stakes have been seen to include the nature of ancient Judaism and judgments about rabbinic Judaism, on the one hand, and the originality or Jewishness of Christianity, on the other.

Chapter 3 discusses the site of Qumran, excavated by Roland de Vaux, unfortunately not using stratigraphic methods. Collins is to my mind too willing to excuse him for this failure. There was a pre-exilic fort on the site. There are two Hellenistic-Roman phases, the first poorly dated for both beginning and end; the second phase evidently ends in a Roman destruction in 68 CE. Interpretation of the finds has been heavily driven by presuppositions about the occupants and in de Vaux's case by his tendency to borrow monastic terminology. But most scholars see Qumran as a religious community, partly because other interpretations are unconvincing, partly because most assume some relationship to the textual finds in nearby caves. Collins notes other theories and sets out cogent objections to each. The extensive presence of mikvaoth (as well as cisterns, the two being distinguishable) strongly supports the hypothesis of a group with purity concerns.

The nearby cemetery, in several sections, is large, over 1000 graves, and apparently not consistent with a very small settlement. It is unclear where everyone actually slept; the excavated buildings are communal facilities, and "upstairs" does not seem like an adequate answer. Some graves were closer to the settlement than is permitted by rabbinic law. Mostly the graves were not excavated (and probably will not be) because of religious objections from the Orthodox. A significant but minority presence of females and children among the burials has given rise to controversy, but Collins points out that this is also common in Christian monastic contexts. There was also a toilet inside the settlement, something prohibited by the Temple Scroll, which gives a 3000-cubit minimum distance (ca. 1.6 km), more than is permitted for walking on the Sabbath. Altogether, the remains offer some embarrassments for the Essene hypothesis; but they are no less problematic for supposing the site to be a villa, trading station, or fort.

Chapter 4 covers the Scrolls and Christianity, a particular focus in the first years of editorial work but still present today. Some scholars saw the analogies with Christianity as very strong, others not. The community's rootedness in Hebrew tradition could be taken as a vindication of Christianity's authentic nature or as undermining its originality, according to one's taste. Collins deals firmly (though not unsympathetically) with the extremes, like A. Dupont-Sommer's attempt to claim a high correlation between Jesus and the Teacher of Righteousness in the commentary on Habakkuk, one of the earliest scrolls to be known; John Allegro's remarkable theories in his career-wrecking book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross; and Robert Eisenman's claims that the Scrolls represent actual Christianity. After reviewing the supposed similarities between the Scrolls and early Christianity, Collins retains only a modest number. Christianity, in his view, came out of the same milieu and produced similar types of texts; but "the differences are at least as striking as the similarities."

Perhaps closest to Collins' own interests is chapter 5, on the Scrolls and Judaism. The Scrolls include a number of texts with a strongly dualistic character, and quite a few that are apocalyptic; some unite these characteristics. Although apocalyptic is hardly unique to the Scrolls community (or communities; Collins emphasizes that the finds may represent multiple libraries), the dualism is alien to the canonical scriptures or rabbinic Judaism. Similarity to Zoroastrianism has been noted, but there is no consensus about how far it reaches or where it comes from.

Publication of the Temple Scroll and other texts (esp. 4QMMT, the "Halakic Letter"), as Israeli scholars became more involved, has swung discussion since the 1960s and 1970s toward a focus on the Scrolls' central concern with religious law and their authors' opposition to what can be identified as the views of the Pharisees and, later, the rabbis, with the Scrolls always being more rigorist. The community clearly rejected the views dominating the Jerusalem temple, from which the sect had withdrawn. Collins favors a date for this break in the second quarter of the first century BCE. There are elements in the Scrolls that reflect commonalities between the community and the rest of Judaism, among them the single God, shared scriptures, concerns about purity and observance, and ethnic identity. But there are many differences as well, and diversity in Judaism was not a "contented pluralism" but hostile. In this light, he sees the apocalyptic side as a way in which the community dealt with being the "outs" of the present day. The legal and apocalyptic sides are thus not antithetical but complementary.

Chapter 6, on the Scrolls and the Bible, assesses how this enormous infusion of material has transformed textual scholarship on the Hebrew Bible. Clearly, multiple traditions of individual books were in circulation, with some closer to the Masoretic Text tradition, which is clearly not a later invention, and others to that translated in the Septuagint. After a period in which the tradition is highly diverse, the MT strain becomes dominant in the first century CE. This was not, apparently, a question of sectarian preference.

There was no Biblical canon in this period; although it is true that every canonical book except Esther has been found at Qumran, some canonical books are rare (e.g., Chronicles), and many non-canonical are common. Interpretation of scripture is also well represented, especially in commentaries. These differ in character from later midrash by their emphasis on interpreting texts in the light of a present seen as the end time. Although these commentaries are clearly sectarian, they have some traits in common with both Christian interpretation in the New Testament and with midrash.

The final chapter covers "the Battle for the Scrolls." Collins recounts the editorial history and controversies over control of the Scrolls. He concludes that the more outlandish and publicized personal battles have been exceptions rather than the rule, arguing that the field is in general relatively collegial. In conclusion, he remarks that the Scrolls do not have any material consequences for religions per se, as they do not affect the revealed basis of Judaism and Christianity. They do, however, tell us a lot about the complexity of the Jewish world in these centuries and the matrix of ideas within which Christianity arose. "As scholars have increasingly recognized in the last quarter century, the Scrolls are documents of ancient Judaism."

In a discussion of particular significance for fields like papyrology and epigraphy, Collins argues (236) that

"the release of the Scrolls was unequivocally a good thing. Despite the dire warnings of the official editors, chaos did not result. There has been wild speculation on occasion, to be sure, but the marketplace of ideas has a way of eventually separating the wheat from the chaff. The whole episode can serve as a lesson for the way future discoveries should be handled. The privileges of editors to whom material is assigned cannot be extended indefinitely. Scholarship is best served by making the material available promptly in provisional form rather than waiting for supposedly definitive editions that might take a lifetime to produce."

There is much here with which I sympathize, and certainly papyrological opinion has gradually been shifting in this direction. But this view perhaps gives inadequate weight to the intellectual investments made by editors and the risks of complete openness to the careers of graduate students and younger faculty, for example that a mediocre edition of a text might make it impossible for them to publish a better edition to which they have devoted years of effort. Of course the Scrolls represented an extreme case (although not unique; one thinks of the inscriptions of Cos, the Derveni papyrus or the Nag Hammadi Library). Firm limitations on time allowed for the editio princeps are probably the best means of balancing these interests.2

The Scrolls are of course also a famous example of a find of manuscripts of which much reached its present homes through the murky processes of the antiquities market. Collins describes this history without a lot of comment. Perhaps more salient here is the almost equally inglorious record of national authorities: the exclusion of Jewish scholars from work on the scrolls under Jordanian control in the earlier stages, but also the litigious approach taken by the Israel Antiquities Authority until, after scathing criticism in the press (Collins mentions William Safire's blistering column), it stopped trying to control access to the Scrolls. Narrowly nationalistic considerations have by no means vanished from the broader world of the management of ancient texts and artifacts today. "Insular jerks" (in Safire's phrase) are not the monopoly of any country.

Following chapter 4 is a section with a map (not topographical), plans of the Qumran area and original fort as well as the settlement, and photos of Qumran and the caves. The volume concludes with a prosopography, endnotes, glossary, and indices (ancient texts, names, places, and subjects).

In sum, this is an excellent introduction to a complex subject, lucid and remarkably irenic. I am sorry to report, however, that the review copy was shoddily bound, and pages are falling out of it.


1.   "Great" is a matter of opinion, and "religious" is a dubious category for Josephus and even Dante. Collins' preface anticipates criticism of the "book" character of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but says "Nonetheless, the Scrolls now exist as a distinct corpus, with a life of its own." But a corpus is not a book, and indeed Collins proceeds to undermine any thought that unity and uniformity are to be found in the corpus from the Qumran caves.
2.   That said, I hope that before long the Papyrological Editor will make it possible to open up the editorial process from the start if the editor wishes to—and some will.

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