Reading About the Dead Sea Scrolls and Reading the Scrolls
by James Tabor
Everyone seems to “love” the Dead Sea Scrolls though I fear, much like the Bible, few seem to have actually read them. One way to whet your appetite is to read more about the Scrolls, with one of the English translations at hand. In terms of academic rigor I would recommend the translation of my friend Florintino Garcia Martinez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English. If you know a bit of Hebrew and Aramaic you can also get the special two volume edition of this work, with facing pages in English and lots of good critical notes, but even the English translation alone is a great start.
I would further recommend the resource page at the Biblical Archaeology web site here, with its many links and good basic information.
For the more serious student of the scrolls I would then suggest the following books be read in this order:
Vanderkam and Flint, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance For Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity. This will put one in the picture in terms of the basic facts related to the scrolls and offer one a good overview of what might be called the “standard” interpretation.
Lawrence Shiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls: The History of Judaism, the Background of Christianity, the Lost Library of Qumran (The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library).
Michael Wise, The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Jesus.
Robert Eisenman, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the First Christians: Essays and Translations.
It is regrettable that many of my colleagues have ignored or marginalized Eisenman’s work on the Scrolls, and particularly his fresh translations that show so clearly the parallels with the thought worlds of the Scrolls and the early Jesus/James movement. The standard charge that he thinks that “Jesus” or “James” are in the scrolls is a mis-characterization of his important work which I fear too few have actually read. What Eisenman has done well is to sketch out the major parameters of the apocalyptic, messianic “ways of thinking” common to the scrolls and earliest Christianity, as well as other similar sectarian movements in the period from the Maccabees to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, with any arguments for or against a parallel chronology notwithstanding. Given the linguistic and conceptual parallels a text like the Habakkuk Pesher, found in Cave 1 in 1947, is one of the most important documents for an understanding of early Christianity one could study.
- For example, Bart Ehrman, in his latest book, Did Jesus Exist, charges that Robert Price is “building upon the wildly speculative and widely discredited views of Robert Eisenmann (sic), in his book” on James. He then commends as “sober” alternatives, the interpretations of the Scrolls by Fitzmyer, Vermes, Vanderkam, all of whom I would recommend reading as well. The problem is that things are not as “settled” as Ehrman and others imply with such recommendations and I would urge readers to include alternatives such as Shiffman and Wise, and especially Eisenman. I surely don’t agree with Price on his “mythicist” position but neither does Eisenman, who finds in James the brother of Jesus a real historical character, and thus one of the most solid historical “pegs” for trying to get at the Jesus movement in its early stages. [↩]