Dr. Lawrence Schiffman on the Growing Popularity of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Why are literally hundreds of thousands of people streaming to exhibits of the Dead Sea Scrolls all over the United States and the rest of the world? Why should anyone even care about these remnants of close to 900 scrolls from the second and first centuries BCE and the first century CE? What possesses some of us in academia to devote our professional careers to teaching and research about the Scrolls?


Yeshiva University presents its first annual Dead Sea Scrolls conference on May 19.

The discovery of the first scrolls by Bedouin in 1947 in Cave 1 at Qumran, on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, set off a wave of excitement. But this initial interest was misused by scholars who were intent on understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Second Temple period Jewish sect that gathered them as a precursor of Christianity. To make matters even worse, the long delays in publication that ensued understandably fostered conspiracy theories worthy of Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code, and served as a great distraction from the Scrolls’ real significance and message. After all, they are Second Temple period texts authored, copied and left for us by Jews who lived and breathed devotion to God’s Torah and its commandments, even if they represented an approach that, from the point of view of the sweep of Jewish history, was sectarian.

To be sure, the Scrolls preserve the earliest known manuscripts of the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, termed the Old Testament by Christians. They also include an entire library of non-biblical texts, most previously unknown. They are a valuable source for understanding the varied approaches to Judaism in the Second Temple period and for reconstructing the development of Rabbinic Judaism and the background of the rise of Christianity. This is why the Dead Sea Scrolls are considered the greatest archaeological discovery in history.

After the 1948 War of Independence that followed the establishment of the State of Israel, Qumran was under Jordanian Rule. Although the nascent State of Israel was able to acquire the seven original scrolls discovered by the famous Bedouin shepherd boy Muhammed ed-Dib in 1947, the conquest of the West Bank by Jordan meant that all the rest of the scrolls ended up in Jordanian East Jerusalem, where a judenrein (“Jew free”) Christian publication team failed to publish the vast majority of the material entrusted to them. Only with the conquest of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967 did the rest of the scrolls fall into Israel’s hands. But the world had to wait over 20 years for the effects of this transfer.

The 1967 Six Day War brought about a new interest in the unpublished scrolls. Two factors led to this. First, Israel now controlled them. But the Israeli authorities allowed the all-Christian publication team to continue their failed operation because the Israelis believed the false assurances that the scrolls would soon be published. Second, and more importantly, Israeli archeologist Yigael Yadin, with the help of military intelligence, recovered the Temple Scroll during the war from a Bethlehem antiquities dealer. This scroll dealt almost entirely with Jewish ritual and law. Yadin’s pre-publication lectures, and his edition of the text (1977), re-Judaized the scrolls and reawakened Jewish interest in this important material. This attention, along with the public campaign for the release of the scrolls undertaken by Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, led to opening the scrolls to all scholars by 1990, as well as to the reorganization of the publication team under the leadership of Emanuel Tov of the Hebrew University. The completion of the publication process now made possible the development of a burgeoning academic field in which so many of us, including six faculty and many students here at Yeshiva University, participate today. The scrolls were in a sense rediscovered as they became fully available and as the focus of their study shifted to their proper context in the history of ancient Judaism.

Here is the great irony: You would have thought that the Christianization of the scrolls would sell. After all, there are more Christians than Jews! But we live a very different world than that of the immediate post-Holocaust era when the scrolls were first discovered. The Holocaust triggered, initially in the Catholic Church and then in other Christian churches, a self-searching and a reconceptualization of Christianity’s Jewish origins. While this was going on, Jews were readjusting to being a people in its own land, for whom the historical remnants of ancient times became a source of pride and commitment. So for both Jews and Christians, the rediscovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1980s and ’90s and their full publication has unleashed massive interest in the scrolls at the start of the third millennium.

Perhaps the biggest miracle here is that the renewed interest is in the real scrolls—the intensely Jewish scrolls—which are now understood as what they truly are: evidence for the history of Judaism and a major part of the collective western religious heritage.

Lawrence H. Schiffman serves as vice provost for undergraduate education and professor of Judaic studies at Yeshiva University, which presents its First Annual Dead Sea Scrolls Conference on Sunday, May 19. The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to Yeshiva University.