Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Two Books on the Dead Sea Scrolls

In the past week, as I prepare to teach a session on the Dead Sea Scrolls, I've read two recent books about them.

The first was John Collins' The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013, or is it 2012? my copy says 2013).  I see that this book won the 2013 Cover/Jacket Merit Award in the Professional, Scholarly  Series category, New York Book Show. Well, what other endorsement do you need? Most of us will just buy the book and set it on the table anyway, so the cover is the most important part. But, I actually did read the inside of the book, too, and I found it to be an excellent introduction to the topic. I think I'll start recommending this as the entryway to the Scrolls for those without previous acquaintance with them.

I really liked the coverage Collins gives to the different topics and the way he presented the history (or, biography) of that particular topic over the past 60 years or so. And, as always, Collins presents very sane discussions. His surveys of scholarship are excellent, and the conclusion he ends up favoring are always the least flashy and most reasonable. One example: it was so refreshing to read Collins' take on the reception of Enoch and Jubilees at Qumran: "It is difficult to know how these texts were regarded by the people who read them" (p. 200). He follows this up by another unassailable comment: "If we judge by the number of copies preserved, such books as I Enoch and Jubilees were more important to the sectarians than Proverbs or Qoheleth." Of course, I would want to then ask: more important how? But I cannot fault Collins' measured statements.

The second book I've read recently on the Scrolls was Jason Kalman's Hebrew Union College and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Cincinnati: HUC-JIR, 2012). I knew very minimally about the involvement of HUC in the controversies surrounding the scrolls, mostly just the story about Ben Zion Wachholder, Martin Abegg, and the concordance. This story certainly receives its share of attention (for readers unfamiliar with it, the basic story is told here), but Kalman spends the first half of the book covering the doubts expressed by several prominent HUC faculty members (e.g. Samuel Sandmel, Ellis Rivkin) as to the usefulness of the scrolls in the study of ancient Judaism, even while the president of the college, Nelson Glueck, championed their value. We also read about the interesting and frustrating experience the college had with obtaining negatives of the scrolls in the early 1970s, which the college could use for no purpose whatsoever. They paid $10,000 for the negatives and never received a complete set.

[I'm not sure what to do with this curious bit: Kalman writes that "the Huntington Library never actually released their negatives, and they were turned over to the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center in Claremont after [William] Moffett's death in 1995," and Kalman cites an email from James Sanders as his source for this (p. 112 n. 577). Of course, it was the announcement by the Huntington on 22 September 1991 that it would allow access to its negatives of the scrolls that played a major part in the "liberation of the DSS," so I was surprised to read that they never actually followed through with their plan. But the Huntington says that they have "provided microfilm copies of the Scrolls on indefinite loan to over 80 libraries in the United States and around the world." Is that something different from what they announced they would do on 22 Sept. 1991? The way the Huntington represents it on the page linked to above, they fulfilled what they announced.]

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