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

 

How to Prevent Saudi Arabia from Getting Nuclear Weapons

Skeptics of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran warned that it could prompt a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. As they predicted, Saudi Arabia has been seeking assistance from the U.S. in obtaining civilian nuclear capabilities, while also speaking—in imitation of the Islamic Republic—of a “right” to enrich uranium, something it pledged not to do in a 2008 agreement with Washington. Were Riyadh to begin such enrichment, it could also produce the fuel necessary for nuclear weapons. Emily Landau and Shimon Stein warn of the dangers inherent in Saudi proliferation, and discuss how the U.S. and Israel should respond:

So long as the motivation to go nuclear remains strong, states are likely to find a way to develop [nuclear] capabilities, even if they have to pay a price for doing so. In Iran’s case, the major motivation for going nuclear is to enhance its hegemonic power in the Middle East. . . . But in the case of Saudi Arabia, if strong international powers . . . were to take a harsher stance toward Iran’s regional aggressions and missile developments and were to cooperate in order to improve the provisions of the [2015 nuclear deal], this would most likely have a direct and favorable impact on Saudi Arabia’s calculations about whether to develop nuclear capabilities.

A decision by the U.S. administration (or for that matter any other supplier) to allow Saudi Arabia to have enrichment capabilities will confront Israel with a dilemma.

On the one hand, it has been Israeli policy to do its utmost to deny any neighboring country with whom it does not have a peace treaty the means to acquire and develop a nuclear program. If Israel remains loyal to this approach, it should seek to deny Saudi Arabia enrichment capabilities. In practical terms this would imply making its opposition known in Washington.

On the other hand, given the “tactical alliance” with Saudi Arabia which has been primarily developed in response to the common Iranian threat, Israel could consider sacrificing its long-term interest in denying nuclear capabilities for the sake of its current interest in cultivating relations with the Saudis. Israel, [however], should support the traditional U.S. nonproliferation policies that allow states to have access to nuclear fuel for civilian purposes, while denying them the option to produce it themselves.

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More about: Iran nuclear program, Israeli Security, Nuclear proliferation, Politics & Current Affairs, Saudi Arabia