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Review: John J. Collins' 'The Dead Sea Scrolls - A Biography'


The Dead Sea Scrolls - A Biography, by John J. Collins, Holmes Professor of Old Testament criticism and Interpretation at Yale, is part of a series of biographies of religious books from Princeton University Press. It introduces readers to the history and significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls or updates those who already know a moderate amount about the scrolls to the recent scholarship and theories.

After the initial discovery of the first batch of scrolls, around the time of the creation of the state of Israel, the first phases of further exploration and research were mired in politics. Since no Jews were allowed in this phase of the research on order of the Jordanian authorities, the Dead Sea Scrolls were initially considered an important set of documents on early Christianity. Later, following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the scrolls became the particular domain of Jewish scholars.

Although texts of some scrolls were published in the 50s and 60s, publication was slow; it was only in the 1990s that the scrolls became freely available. It wasn't as easy job. Scrolls were found in more than a dozen locations. There are fragments of what have been identified as 900 separate manuscripts that were found in the caves around Qumran.

Collins explains various theories about many topics of scroll controversy, for instance, the reason the scrolls were hidden in caves at Qumran, interjecting his own critical evaluation of others' theories or explaining his own theory, where appropriate, rather than remaining strictly objective and impartial. This is very helpful for us non-experts.

Chapter titles explain the content: discovery, the Essenes, the site of Qumran, the scrolls and Christianity, the scrolls and Judaism, the scrolls and the Bible, and personalities in the discovery and subsequent controversies. There is also a compact glossary and further reading suggestions for each chapter, plus black and white maps and a couple of other illustrations.

I found the most aggravating aspect of the book was that I couldn't keep the modern names of people and organizations straight, let alone the underlying currents of twentieth century Middle Eastern politics. What I liked best was either Collins' clarification of the puzzles about the Essenes, or his occasional, gossipy insights.

If about all you know about the Dead Sea Scrolls is that they were found by Bedouin shepherds in caves near the Dead Sea in 1947, then this book will be enlightening, especially if you give yourself permission to skim.

The Dead Sea Scrolls A Biography
John J. Collins
Princeton University Press: November 14, 2012

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