Puzzles of Antiquity
By Kelly O'Brien
Dead Sea Scrolls, both mysterious and revealing, continue to fascinate Professor Alex Jassen. In an exhibition at the Science Museum of Minnesota, the public can learn more about these ancient documents that connected the dots between the Old Testament and early rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.
This March the Science Museum of Minnesota will open the traveling exhibition "The Dead Sea Scrolls: Words that Changed the World." Organized by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the exhibition will give visitors the rare opportunity to view a small selection of the more than 900 scrolls. Professor Alex P. Jassen of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies has published widely on the Dead Sea Scrolls, including the 2007 book Mediating the Divine: Prophecy and Revelation in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Second Temple Judaism. He is serving as an academic adviser to the Science Museum. Here he shares some of his thoughts on the significance of the scrolls.
What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?
The Dead Sea Scrolls comprise a collection of about 930 texts discovered in 11 caves in the Judean Desert of Israel beginning in 1947. These Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek scrolls represent the library of a schismatic Jewish community that inhabited the nearby ancient settlement of Qumran from the end of the second century B.C.E. until 68 C.E.
The community's own writings are represented by sectarian rule books, works of biblical interpretation, and poetical and liturgical texts. In addition, nearly 200 manuscripts of books that comprise the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) are preserved, representing the oldest copies of the Hebrew Bible. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain an additional several hundred texts composed by other Jews of that era; many of these texts were previously unknown or only available in later translations. These documents have rightly been regarded as revolutionizing scholarly understanding of the composition and transmission of the Hebrew Bible, Jewish history and belief in the late Second Temple period (third century B.C.E.-first century C.E.), and the background of later rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.
How did you become so interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls?
While I was in graduate school at NYU, I was very interested in both the study of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and rabbinic Judaism. For a long time researchers didn't have substantial amounts of data to chart the development of Judaism out of the Hebrew Bible and through rabbinic Judaism (as also for Christianity). In other words, we had two points on a chart and we had very few dots to connect them. In many ways, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide those dots. They provide a window to the transformation of Judaism from the world of the Bible and ancient Israel to the principle forms in which later Judaism develops, particularly rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. As such, the scrolls are such a fertile area for charting the changes and adaptations of the biblical world and understanding how these changes shape the developing forms of Judaism in the third century B.C.E. and onward. In many cases, I had never really even heard of these phases of Jewish history and I found it to be very eye-opening to see that there was a lot going on between the Bible and rabbinic Judaism. Not only was there this very vibrant world of Judaism, but it proved to be the key to understanding the bigger picture.
What else excites you about the scrolls?
The Dead Sea Scrolls are really a puzzle, both physically and conceptually. In reality, there are very few fully intact scrolls. Most of them are fragments, some as small as a fingernail. There were about 15,000 fragment pieces pulled out of the caves. These were not organized in any way. In many cases, these fragments were part of books from antiquity that modern scholars had never seen before. So, they essentially were trying to put together a bunch of jigsaw puzzles, for which they often did not have the cover picture and almost always were missing most of the pieces. In the end these 15,000 pieces were put together into about 930 distinct manuscripts (i.e., copies of books that were once fully intact in antiquity). Once you have pieced these things together, then you have to figure out what they even say--both reading the sometimes difficult script on poorly preserved leather or papyrus and understanding the ancient Hebrew or Aramaic (a few Greek texts also). Then comes thinking about when they may have been written and why they were written. After all that, we can start thinking big picture and how they function as the connecting dots. My own research on the scrolls has been involved with all these different stages.
After all that, I have to admit as well that there is a certain mystique to the scrolls that also attracted me. There is so much intrigue associated with the discovery, publication history, and more that it is hard not to want to learn more.