The Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Its Consequence

April 16, 2015 | Lawrence Schiffman
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Lawrence Schiffman recounts the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls from their surprising discovery, through the attempts by a small group of scholars to maintain strict control over them, to the ways the study of the scrolls has changed scholars’ understanding of ancient Judaism. On the last subject, he writes:

The impact of the scrolls on our understanding of the history of halakhah (Jewish law) has been enormous. With the help of the scrolls we have been able to reconstruct the Sadducee/Zadokite system of Jewish law that competed in Second Temple times with the Pharisaic-rabbinic system that is the basis for later Judaism. But this is far less important than what the scrolls tell us about the inner ferment and debate that took place within the Jewish community in the second and first centuries BCE and the early first century CE. The apocalyptic messianism we see in the scrolls propelled the Jewish community toward two revolts against Rome (first revolt, 66–70 CE; second revolt, 132–135 CE), both of which had messianic overtones. Furthermore, the expectation of an assumed-to-come redeemer and numerous other motifs found in Qumran apocalyptic tradition have left their mark on the rise of Christianity and its eventual separation from Judaism.

A fascinating corollary to all this scroll research has been their effect on Jewish-Christian relations. The scrolls have been part of a wider, post-Holocaust phenomenon of understanding earliest Christianity as a Jewish sect. In turn, this historical understanding has furnished the intellectual basis for the continued evolution of contemporary Christianity away from anti-Judaic positions to a renewed understanding of the common background that Jews and Christians share. Jews, in turn, have come to understand the way in which Christianity developed out of Judaism in light of our current understanding of the variegated nature of Second Temple Judaism.

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