Thursday, November 22, 2007
The Qumran Exhibit at the SBL in San Diego
The week before Thanksgiving every year, the Society of Biblical Literature holds its annual meeting. This year the meeting was in beautiful San Diego (normal daily temps raise from 53 to 68 or so F.)
One of the special features of this meeting was that we were able to go to the Natural History Museum and see the exhibit of several of the manuscript fragments from Qumran, including the oldest copy we have the Ten Commandments in Hebrew (the text from Deuteronomy), the oldest copy we have of any of the psalms, and piece d' resistance the Copper Scroll from Jordan. The Copper Scroll is in fact a treasure list, referring to various sites in and around Jerusalem where gold or something else was supposedly buried.
The Copper Scroll (known as 3Q15 because it was found in cave 3 at the Dead Sea in 1952) is without question one of the most debated of all the scrolls. Does it refer to a real or imaginary treasure list? Whose list was this? In 1960 dollars, it was estimated that this list refers to over 1 million dollars worth of treasure. Who could have had that much loot, and were there really any Essenes or Qumranites who had that kind of resources? Probably not. The Copper Scroll is a rarity because it is actually provenanced, by which I mean it was actually found in situ by an archaeologist, so we know exactly where it came from. What we do not know is what it's purpose or significance was. Perhaps the most plausible suggestion is that it refers to treasure actually in the Temple, and where it was to be hidden should there be an attack on the Temple, or less probably, where it actually was hidden when the seige of Jerusalem took place in the late 60s A.D.
I have posted here a picture of the Copper Scroll (upper right hand corner of this blog post) along side a nice aerial shot of the Dead Sea region which there was a picture of at the San Diego museum. The two satellite shots included here to give some perspective were also displayed at the exhibit.
One of the questions I get asked more than any other as a scholar of the NT period is-- What do the Qumran scrolls have to do with the NT, or how do they help us understand the NT? A few main points can be made.
Firstly, there are no NT documents of any kind found at Qumran, nor any evidence whatsoever that Jesus or his followers had any direct connection with this community. While this is a negative result of the consensus of careful scholarship, it is an important one.
Secondly, this community seems to have been a base camp for a group of Jewish sectarians known as the Essenes, an eschatological and sometimes ascetical group of early Jews. The community seems to have been founded by the Teacher of Righteousness in the second century B.C. as a split off from overly-Hellenized Judaism during the Hasmonean period. The Essenes seem to have felt that the priesthood during the Hasmonean (and Maccabean) eras was hopelessly corrupt, that the priesthoood and Temple under construction by Herod and his successors was also corrupt, and that God was going to intervene to cleanse the land and set things right, perhaps soon. In other words, this group was eschatological in character, and in this respect they were like the Jesus movement, and also like John the Baptist's movement.
Thirdly, it has often been speculated, and I am inclined to think it is right, that John the Baptizer may have at one time been a part of the Essene community at Qumran. Why do many NT scholars think so? For one thing, John is all about a water ritual, which we call baptism, and one thing we know both from the texts at Qumran, from the archaeology, and from Josephus is that these folks had all sorts of water purification rituals. At the exhibit in San Diego there was a virtual tour of Qumran and a lengthy presentation of the water channels, mikvehs or ritual baths, and other related matters. Clearly, water was a precious, much preserved, channeled, and much used commodity at Qumran. For another thing, look at the initial location of John the Baptizer. He was a 'voice crying: in the wilderness make straight a highway for our God'. Now what is interesting about John's being introduced in our earliest Gospel using this verse from Isaiah (see Mk. 1) is that this was one of the theme verses for the Qumran community at the Dead Sea, indeed it may have been the verse they used to describe why they were there and what there role was-- to be a prophetic voice calling lost Israel away from its corruption, both in the Temple and elsewhere. Thirdly, there is of course the asceticism of John, which is much like what we know of the regimen at Qumran. Fourthly, there was John's critique of the Herods, which eventually cost him his head.
Thus, while the Qumran materials do not tell us anything directly about Jesus and his followers in all likelihood, they may well help us understand John the Baptizer better. Of course textually speaking the real value of the Qumran scrolls is that they give us the earliest copies of many Biblical manuscripts, and have helped us with getting much closer to the Biblical originals of many OT documents. For example, the Isaiah scroll from Qumran, one of the largest and most complete scrolls from there, provides us with a text of that prophetic book which is literally hundreds of years earlier than the Hebrew text of the Masoretes from the early Middle Ages. It is interesting, and some would say inexplicable, why Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, has not done a more thorough revision of its text of Isaiah on the basis of this much earlier manuscript. But that is a story for another day.
In the end, I tell my students that the fascinating materials at Qumran remind us that eschatology was in the air in Jesus' day, and there were great expectations on the part of many that something big was going to happen-- maybe even a cosmic apocalyptic battle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. In such an ethos, Jesus' coming and saying the Kingdom of God was at hand was like throwing a stick of dynamite into an already burning building. It is no wonder there were such intension and passionate responses, both positive and negative to the ministry of Jesus with that sort of message.