Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review

Eileen M. Schuller, The Dead Sea Scrolls: What Have We Learned? (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006). Pp. xvii + 126. Paper, US$17.95. ISBN 0-664-23112-8.

This book is based on four lectures delivered by Prof. Eileen Schuller at the University of Victoria in 2002. In chap. 1, Schuller recalls the discovery made 50 years ago and summarizes “the keys events and accomplishments of scrolls scholarship” (p. xiii); she then concentrates on three specific areas “in which the scrolls have made a distinctive contribution” (p. xiii), namely Scripture (chap. 2), Prayer and Worship (chap. 3), and Women (chap. 4).

In her overview of the five decades of scroll research, Schuller characterizes the first (1947-57) as one of “astonishing progress and accomplishments,” marked especially by the discovery of hundreds of manuscripts in 11 caves of Qumran, the exploration of the ruins nearby, the publication of the seven scrolls from Cave 1, the launching of an official series (“Discoveries in the Judaean Desert” or DJD), and hundreds of scholarly books and articles. The second (1957-67) was “a time of consolidation and the working out” of earlier basic insights which ended with the taking over of the Palestine Archaeological Museum by the Israeli authorities. The third (1967-77) was “a low point,” but with a few “fireworks” such as the unproven claim that fragments from Cave 7 were excerpts of the New Testament. During the fourth (1977-1987), “radically different theories about the origin of the scrolls” were proposed, important manuscripts from Cave 11 (the Temple Scroll) and Cave 4 (e.g., liturgical material) were released, and members were added to the editorial team. Finally (1987-1997), a complete microfiche version of the negative of the scrolls was made available, several new volumes of the official publication appeared, reinterpretations of the archaeological evidences were suggested. Now the DJD series is almost complete, and the publication of the archaeological material has resumed.

As observed by D. Dimant (quoted on p. 34), the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has led to “an entirely new understanding of the process by which the text of the Hebrew Bible took shape.” The 200 or so biblical manuscripts found at Qumran witness to a period of fluidity: there is no “biblical canon” yet, and several versions of the same biblical scroll were in circulation. This has been explained either as the result of the development of “local texts” in Babylon, Egypt, and Palestine, or as the reflection of different literary editions, socio-religious distinctions, or multiple variants” (p. 46).

Psalms and prayers found at Qumran reveal “an ongoing tradition of psalmic composition, as well as the development of shorter, prose prayers that followed certain formulaic patterns” (pp. 75-76). Among these texts are non-sectarian Psalms probably written during the Persian or Hellenistic period. Several sectarian compositions reveal something of the “rich devotional piety” of the group (p. 57), conceived as an alternative to the sacrifices of the Temple until its eschatological restoration. Schuller calls for more research on the theology of these texts and their contribution to the study of the background of Jewish and Christian liturgy.

In spite of a few allusions to women in scrolls from Cave 1, the topic of “Women in the Scrolls” has emerged only in the 1980'swith the release of manuscripts from Cave 4. Schuller'sclose reading of the few available pieces of evidence leads to several observations. Marriage and divorce were disputed on the basis of scriptural interpretation within Second Temple Judaism. Biblical regulations about “purity/impurity in connection with menstruation and childbirth” (p. 93) received a stringent application at Qumran. The careful selection of an adequate marriage partner for a daughter was the responsibility of the father, perhaps with the advice of the overseeer of the community. There are also “some hints that women had a certain status, and even a positions of leadership” in the community (p. 95-96). Celibacy is not explicitly discussed, but one text (CD 6.11 – 7.9) may suggests that it was an option for men and, eventually, for women (p. 98). The relevant archaeological data are not very helpful: a handful of small objects distinctively associated with women might have been found at Qumran, but they still remain to be published and studied; similarly, there were a few graves of women in the nearby cemeteries (only four percent of which have been excavated), but their dating and interpretation is still disputed.

Fifty years after their discovery, almost all the Dead Sea Scrolls have been published. But a lot of work remains to be done. Earlier texts need to be re-edited or revisited, “full-length commentaries” of the major documents are to be written, new methodologies and disciplines are to be brought into the discussion. Hence Schuller'sconclusion that “there is still much more to be learned” about the Scrolls.

This contribution by a leading Canadian scholar associated with the edition and study of the Scrolls for the last twenty-five years is a very reliable guide. The three topics discussed by Schuller reflects her own interest and expertise; they provide first-hand information, summarized in a clear and direct style, and assessed with a balanced judgment. This book is an excellent initiation to the Dead Sea Scrolls, one that will prompt the reader's curiosity: a selection of accessible publications, suggested both in the endnotes and in the final bibliography (p. 110-16), will provide him or her with the tools to go further.

Jean Duhaime, Faculté de théologie et de sciences des religions, Université de Montréal