Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Scrolls in "Mysteries of the Bible"

I couldn't resist getting the latest "Collector's Edition" of the magazine U.S. News & World Report titled "Mysteries of the Bible"--mainly because I wanted to see what they had to say about the Dead Sea Scrolls and if they got it right. But it's also fun to see on the newsstand what amounts to an anthology of articles on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament -- because that is the Bible of the title. Nothing here on the Gospels. Don't they know it's almost Christmas? (Yes, I know that Hanukkah is coming next week, but it's intertestamental.)

The chapters on the DSS are written by Jeffrey Sheler, who also wrote several of the other sections, and are evidently taken from his book Is the Bible True? (Harper San Francisco, 1999), which I'm not familiar with. So be forewarned: Sheler's is not the latest word on the Scrolls. Comments:

He says, "The texts ... were composed or copied between about 250 B.C. and A.D. 65." (Evidently the American public is not ready for BCE or CE.) What's with the weaselly "composed or copied"? There's a big difference. I doubt whether many -- perhaps any -- were copied before 100 BCE or after 5 BCE. But quite a few were composed before 100 BCE or maybe even before 250 BCE. Sheler is just being vague.

The question of date is not captious. Within a few pages Sheler characterizes the scroll writers as "Palestinian Jews who were contemporaries of Hillel, Gamaliel, and Jesus of Nazareth" (p. 62). Now just a minute. Hillel the Elder lived in the late 1st century BCE; Gamaliel and Jesus in the first half of the first century CE. This gives a false impression of what was going on in Judea when the scrolls were likely composed; their background is more likely to be the Hasmonean period of Judean independence (and internecine strife) rather than the Herodian period of Roman hegemony.

However, it doesn't really matter much, because Sheler rapidly leaves these issues behind. There's not much in here on the actual content of the DSS, or theories about their origin. His two Scroll chapters focus chiefly on "The Liberation of the Scrolls" and "The Scrolls and Scripture."

The "Liberation" chapter reviews the story behind the Qumran discovery, the early publication of some texts, the slowdown caused by the "monopoly" of scholars between 1967 and 1991 and the scrolls' subsequent liberation through the work of Ben Wacholder, Marty Abegg, and Hershel Shanks. He gets this story right in brief compass; but aside from a glancing reference to the Teacher of Righteousness and the Essenes, and a vague reference to "sectarian commentaries ... hymns and prayers, vivid apocalyptic prophecies, and intricate rules," there is not much else to give the casual or uninformed reader a clue as to what the Scrolls contain or how they might help us understand either Christianity or Judaism. I hope that the original book from which this section was taken gives more attention to the content of the texts.

By the way, there is a nice color picture of the Serekh ha-Edah (1QSa) on pp. 62-63, courtesy of Bruce Zuckerman and the West Semitic Research Project.

Sheler's second section, "The Scrolls and Scripture," is actually pretty good. He manages to cover the Isaiah Scroll, the short versions of Jeremiah, the "different" Qumran Psalter with its additional psalms, the "Nazir" prophecy of 4QSam-a, the missing "Nahash paragraph" of 4QSam-a after I Samuel 10:27, Joshua's altar in 4QJosh-a, the retelling of Isaac's sacrifice in 4Q225, and Gene Ulrich's theories on textual pluriformity -- all in six pages with illustrations by Caravaggio and Chagall. There are some things I could find fault with (e.g., he says there are only 13 "relatively small variations" between the Great Isaiah Scroll and the Masoretic Text. Huh?), but still this is arguably the best treatment of Biblical textual criticism you are going to find in your local drugstore.

I'll have more to say about other parts of the magazine later.

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