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The Scrolls as a Start, Not an End

November 1st, 2011

The Bible’s first five books, for example, possessed a special status: a fragment of Leviticus shown here is written using an ancient paleo-Hebrew script, affirming the text’s antiquity. Other scrolls on display (which will be rotated to minimize light damage) include minor prophets in Greek translation, apocalyptic prophecies and the regulations of an unidentified religious community. Excavations of a site near the caves — Qumran — have suggested that such a community lived there during the period when the scrolls were written, perhaps in the first century B.C.

One hypothesis about Qumran was that its inhabitants were Essenes or proto-Christians, and that the scrolls describe the first stirrings of that new religion, evident in their messianism and references to the “Son of God.” This view became orthodoxy as a small group of scholars retained almost ruthless control over many scrolls for almost 40 years.

During the last two decades, though, the debate has become more diverse, as the scrolls have been made available. (This discussion may now become more widespread, since, as the exhibition notes, Google is digitizing the scrolls and putting them on the Internet at dss.collections.imj.org.il/.) Meanwhile, hypotheses proliferate. What was Qumran? A fortress? Pottery factory? Repository for the Jerusalem temple’s library? Were the scrolls written by Qumran scribes?

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