The Mystical Quest That Animated the Dead Sea Scrolls

November 20, 2023 | Sarit Kattan Gribetz
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The collection of ancient manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls includes copies of various books of the Hebrew Bible as well as of several postbiblical apocryphal works. Besides these, they include a number of sacred texts that appear to be unique to a Jewish sect located at Qumran, from whose library all the scrolls come. In his book The Secret of Time, Arjen Bakker attempts to make sense of what these latter works have in common. Sarit Kattan Gribetz in her review explains that the Qumran community “aimed to transcend human boundaries in order to attain divine knowledge.”

The book examines the pursuit of divine wisdom in the Dead Sea Scrolls by focusing on the centrality of the raz nihyeh, which Bakker translates as “the secret of time,” an important unifying concept in the Dead Sea Scrolls: who sought to discover it, by what means, when, and how, and finally the insights that define “the secret of time” itself.

The secret of time revolves around understanding the alternation between light and dark (literal and metaphorical); attaining such secrets entails mimicking the angels, who are associated with the nighttime, stars, and nocturnal study. They are beings that resemble humans without being bound by earthly limitations. The sage and the student thus study continually, including at night, and join the angels in prayer, coordinating heavenly and earthly time in order to uncover the very secrets of time that underpin the logic of the cosmos and divine wisdom itself.

These texts were powerful—and remain powerful—in part because they promised their communities of students access to hidden wisdom, heavenly knowledge, and secrets of time.

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