J.C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

VanderKam, James C., The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012). Pp. 188 + xiv. Paperback. US$25.00. ISBN 978-0-8028-6679-0.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible, with the exception of chapter four, is a compilation of James VanderKam's lectures given at Oxford University in 2009, and consists of essays intended to provide an up-to-date assessment of how the Dead Sea Scrolls can inform one's understanding of the Jewish and Christian Bible.

Chapter one focuses solely on the biblical scrolls. There were over 900 manuscripts discovered at Qumran and just over 200 of the manuscripts are copies of biblical books. Except for Esther, every book of the Hebrew Bible is accounted for, the most represented being the five books of the Torah, Isaiah, and Psalms. While many of these manuscripts are fragmentary, the amount of biblical quotations in the non-biblical manuscripts provides a great deal of additional material for reconstructing the Hebrew text(s) used in the Qumran community. VanderKam closes the chapter with a discussion of how the manuscripts at Qumran differ from one another and from the MT, SP, and LXX—orthographical differences, omissions, minor insertions, and/or expanded editions of biblical books—and gives a few examples as to how the new textual information ascertained by the Scrolls reopens old text-critical questions, as well as illumines the fluidity used in scribal practice before the first century C.E.

Chapter two turns to rewritten Scripture and assesses the various ways in which the Hebrew Bible was interpreted by the Qumran community. VanderKam demonstrates that those at Qumran did not think and interpret in a vacuum, but that their exegesis was influenced by their predecessors as well as by contemporary culture. He provides an assessment of the way in which new biblical texts of the Hebrew Bible appropriate and reinterpret the older (cf., e.g., Dan 9; Jer 25; Lev 25–26), and how such a hermeneutics also occurs outside of the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Enoch, Aramaic Levi, Jubilees). This explains the interpretive techniques used at Qumran, where biblical texts are applied directly to the people of that day, often in an eschatological way, since they (like the emerging Christian communities) thought they were living in the last days. Mention is also made of how kindred biblical texts were often associated with one another, and at times collated together, in the interpretive process.

Chapter three addresses the question of the relation between the Qumran scrolls and the Jewish canon, namely, whether the scrolls indicate a clear scriptural status for certain works. After a generous delineation of the canon debate, it is shown that the scrolls attest to a two-category collection of “the Law” and “the Prophets”—the dubious reference to a tri-partite collection in 4QMMT is refuted—although it is not entirely clear which books the Prophets contained. Works that are said to contain the words of God, are introduced with the phrase “as it is written,” and/or exist in pesher form, give some indication as to the specific books that were considered authoritative (see pp. 67–70 for specifics). Some surprises emerge, notably a Psalter consisting of more than 150 psalms (p. 68).

Chapter four presents textual data and significant insights for the copies of texts found at Qumran not included in the Hebrew Bible as we now know it: Jubilees; Aramaic Levi; The Book of Giants; Sirach; Tobit; Enoch; Epistle of Jeremiah; Psalms 151, 154, 155. Each work discussed in this chapter was previously known before the discovery of the scrolls, but discovery of the scrolls yielded a significantly older copy of each work, often in its original language (e.g., Sirach was written in Hebrew, but the Hebrew text was considered lost until it was discovered at Qumran).

Chapter five delves into the information the scrolls reveal about major groups in ancient Judaism and their relationship to one another during the last centuries of the Second Temple period, namely, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. Those who lived at Qumran were likely the Essenes, or at least a branch/part of a broader Essene group. It is unknown whether the Sadducees were referred to in the scrolls, but VanderKam shows how the author(s) of the scrolls at least share commonality with the Sadducees in their legal approach (though it is clear the authors of the scrolls are not Sadducees). The greatest opponent to the Qumran community is likely the Pharisees, who should be understood as “those seeking interpretations” (דורשי החלקות). Though much was known about these groups prior to the discovery of the scrolls, the scrolls now allow for a more robust analysis.

Chapters six and seven discuss the relevance of the scrolls for New Testament studies. Chapter six selects certain topics which, when analyzed vis-à-vis the scrolls, illuminate the Gospels in various ways. The scrolls anticipated the arrival of two Messiahs, a Davidite and a priest, not unlike the New Testament, where Jesus the Messiah is found as a Davidite and priest. In Luke 7, it is odd that the Messiah raises the dead when compared with what the Messiah does in the Hebrew Bible, yet this is precisely what the Messiah does in 4Q521. Scriptural interpretation too is similar (cf. Matt 3:3//Mark 1:3//Luke 3:4//John 1:23 and 1QS8 with Isa 40:3), as is the obsession with debating over cultic legal matters (cf. Matt 12:9–14//Mark 3:1–6; Luke 6:6–11 with 4Q265 6:6–8 where the Qumran community is more in agreement with the Pharisees than Jesus), and the act of rebuking (cf. Matt 18:15–17 with 1QS 5:24–6:1).

Chapter seven reveals how the scrolls can inform exegesis of Acts and of the letters of Paul. Qumran, like the community in Acts 1–4, is a sharing community. Acts also understands the Festival of Weeks in a similar manner to the scrolls at Qumran (and Jubilees). As for Paul, Scriptural interpretation and theology figure prominently into the relationship with the scrolls: “faith in” a person, dualism, people as the temple of God, and a strong opinion about works of the law (even though opinions differ).

This is an excellent, clear, well-written, and practical updated introduction to the scrolls by one of the foremost authorities in the field. It is not exhaustive by any means, but it will greatly serve students beginning study in the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially those wanting to know what relevance the scrolls have for study of the Bible. Knowledge of Hebrew is presupposed throughout the book, and discussion can be tedious in places, especially with discussion of text-critical matters (e.g., pp. 17–24), so I only (highly) recommend the book for graduate and upper-level college courses where students are likely to have facility with the ancient languages and a basic understanding of the discipline of textual criticism. Those already acquainted with the scrolls will also benefit from citations of more recent works on the scrolls in the footnotes, and an occasional update on the state of a question.

Robert C. Kashow, Yale University