Seventy Years On, What Scholars Have Learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls

July 24 2018

Over 70 years have gone by since the discovery of ancient scrolls in the Judean Desert by Bedouin shepherds, a discovery that led in turn to locating even more documents from the Qumran caves. Lawrence Schiffman, a leading expert on the scrolls, reflects on how their study has changed scholars’ understanding of ancient Judaism:

Many new details have emerged about the phenomenon of sectarianism—the various approaches to Judaism that competed for the allegiance of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel during late-Second Temple times. Eventually, after the destruction of the Temple, a consensus developed around Pharisaic-rabbinic Judaism that became the basis for the subsequent history of Judaism. Through the entire corpus of the scrolls, one can trace so many details of agreement and disagreement between groups . . . that there is simply no comparison between what we know now and what was known before the scrolls were made available to us.

Indeed, the notion of a common Judaism, [i.e., an understanding shared by the various sects], has become increasingly significant and can be seen by studying Dead Sea Scrolls Sabbath codes and other legal tracts that often have numerous parallels to those found in the later rabbinic corpus. Even while this allows us to observe continuities in Jewish practice, such as in the mikva’ot (ritual baths) found at the sectarian site at Qumran, we must not forget that disagreements about Jewish law were the main factor that separated Jewish groups and movements in Second Temple times. Yes, many theological differences existed. However, these were manifested most clearly in the differing opinions about Jewish practice and ritual.

One cannot overstate the impact of the scrolls on our understanding of the early history of halakhah, Jewish law. With the help of the scrolls we have been able to reconstruct the Sadducee system of Jewish law that competed in Second Temple times with the Pharisaic-rabbinic system that is the basis for later Judaism.

[Moreover], the scrolls tell us [much] about the inner ferment and debate that took place in the Jewish community in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE and the early-1st century CE. After all, the apocalyptic messianism that we see in the scrolls would propel the Jewish community towards two revolts against Rome, both of which had at least some messianic overtones. Further, the expectation of a soon-to-come redeemer and numerous other motifs found in Dead Sea Scrolls apocalyptic tradition have left their mark on the rise of Christianity and its eventual separation from the Jewish community.

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More about: ancient Judaism, Christianity, Dead Sea Scrolls, Halakhah, History & Ideas, Messianism, Pharisees, Sadducees

Hizballah Is in Venezuela to Stay

Feb. 21 2019

In a recent interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned the presence of Hizballah cells in Venezuela as further evidence of the growing unrest in that country. The Iran-backed group has operated in Venezuela for years, engaging in narcotics trafficking and money laundering to fund its activities in the Middle East, and likely using the country as a base for planning terrorist attacks. If Juan Guaido, now Venezuela’s internationally recognized leader, is able to gain control of the government, he will probably seek to alter this situation. But, writes Colin Clarke, his options may be limited.

A government led by Guaido would almost certainly be more active in opposing Hizballah’s presence on Venezuelan soil, not just nominally but in more aggressively seeking to curtail the group’s criminal network and, by extension, the influence of Iran. As part of a quid pro quo for its support, Washington would likely seek to lean on Guaido to crack down on Iran-linked activities throughout the region.

But there is a major difference between will and capability. . . . Hizballah is backed by a regime in Tehran that provides it with upward of $700 million annually, according to some estimates. Venezuela serves as Iran’s entry point into Latin America, a foothold the Iranians are unlikely to cede without putting up a fight. Moreover, Russia retains a vested interest in propping up [the incumbent] Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and keeping him in power, given the longstanding relationship between the two countries. . . . Further, after cooperating closely in Syria, Hizballah is now a known quantity to the Kremlin and an organization that President Vladimir Putin could view as an asset that, at the very least, will not interfere with Russia’s designs to extend its influence in the Western hemisphere.

If the Maduro regime is ultimately ousted from power, that will likely have a negative impact on Hizballah in Venezuela. . . . Yet, on balance, Hizballah has deep roots in Venezuela, and completely expelling the group—no matter how high a priority for the Trump administration—remains unlikely. The best-case scenario for Washington could be an ascendant Guaido administration that agrees to combat Hizballah’s influence—if the new government is willing to accept a U.S. presence in the country to begin training Venezuelan forces in the skills necessary to counter terrorism and transnational criminal networks with strong ties to Venezuelan society. But that scenario, of course, is dependent on the United States offering such assistance in the first place.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Mike Pompeo, Politics & Current Affairs, U.S. Foreign policy, Venezuela