Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple at an inter-religious gathering at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on Sunday, 16 July, 2000, to welcome the Dead Sea Scrolls to Sydney.
The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition in Olympic Sydney is an event of more than Olympian proportions. In themselves, the scrolls are literary relics from the ancient world. But they have captured the imagination of the human mind. They are not only intrinsically valuable, but they somehow extend and even alter the essential understanding of humanity’s place in the universe.
They are, of course, profoundly important to the Jewish people, containing as they do Biblical texts dating from almost 1,000 years earlier than the previously oldest known manuscript containing the books of the Hebrew Bible, together with thousands and thousands of fragments – as Hershel Shanks puts it: “previously unknown psalms, Bible commentaries, calendrical texts, mystical texts, apocalyptic texts, liturgical texts, purity laws, Rabbinic-like expansions of biblical stories, and on and on… “.
How they survived, where they survived, why they survived, how they were found, when they were found, why they caused such squabbles and controversies, how much more material remains trapped or hidden – a hundred works of fiction could not tell the tale, and of course, this is truth stranger than fiction.
The scrolls, the people who may have collected and/or written them and the area in which they were found are of continuing and expanding fascination to scholars because of the insights they can throw on archaeology, palaeography, the history of religious thought, and the history of one of the most volatile periods in the history of the Middle East.
The scrolls are also of abiding interest to Christians. While there is no reputable scholarly evidence linking the writing of the non-Biblical scroll material to the early Christians, there is no doubt that some of the thought embodied in these texts can be seen to pre-figure some early Christian teaching.
But the scrolls are not merely, though mostly, for scholars. They fascinate us all. There is something about these goatskin, sheepskin and papyrus scrolls, and also the material engraved on copper sheeting, which transports us mentally to an era so seminal in the development of western culture.
Western civilisation is built on many foundations, including the glorious legacy of Greek and Roman thinking. But one of its strongest and most enduring pillars is what is usually called Judeo-Christian thought; the scrolls, emanating as they do from a period near the beginning of the Jewish-Christian intersection, are somehow a time capsule into a world so unlike, and yet somehow so like, our own. The century or so up to and just past the turn of the Common Era, in which the scrolls were written, were a time of ferment in geopolitics, in thought, in personal identification and status (including the role of women), in lifestyle, in religious belief – and it is no wonder that some people have noted the surprising similarities between the first century CE and life twenty centuries later.
Constant research is being done on the entire corpus of the scrolls, particularly since wider access has been provided under the current guardianship. This research is not only on the scrolls themselves – identifying, translating, annotating each fragment – but also on the site near which they were found, Khirbet Qumran in the Judean desert.
Much of this research, and the wide divergences of opinion which have arisen, will unfold in the many study sessions and seminars associated with this exhibition.
For example – the implications of the documents relating to a sectarian group, the identity of which is hotly disputed. Who were the “Dead Sea Scroll sect”? Were they the Essenes, a group known through the writings of Josephus in particular? Is there evidence at Qumran that bears out the descriptions in Josephus of the Essene lifestyle? Or are there too many problems with that identification? What do we do with Josephus’ report of the Essenes living in towns and not in the deep countryside?
Is there some significance in the resemblance between the structures of Qumran and manor houses of the same period excavated elsewhere – including the multiple ritual baths? As the grave site near Qumran appears similar to a military cemetery, is it possible that Qumran was a military fortress? Or was it a trading centre for commercial travellers or pilgrims, with no connection with the scrolls?
Another angle on the identity of the writers of the sectarian scrolls comes from the view that there were various Essenic sects in the ancient Jewish world and not one monolithic group of Essenes – in other words, a range of groups with a fervent commitment to Jewish practice with unique features of their own, like Philo’s Therapeutae or “healers”.
The debate over the writers of the sectarian scrolls is complicated by another controversy as to what the scrolls were doing at Qumran. Was it that they were brought there and hidden for safety as the war with the Romans began? There is intriguing evidence, in particular from the Copper Scroll, that precious objects and gold from Jerusalem were hidden for safety in the Qumran area. This leads some scholars to conclude that the scrolls themselves were also from Jerusalem and were likewise hidden as the war threat increased.
The debate continues, and the events associated with this exhibition will help it forward. So much is still open-ended, and Dead Sea Scroll scholarship will be a challenge for probably generations to come. But what we can say for certain is that the Dead Sea scrolls expand in a most colourful and fascinating fashion our recognition of the countless currents in Jewish thought and experience in those crucial first centuries at the turning point of the Common Era.
All this makes them uniquely valuable in our endeavours at understanding the development of Jewish, and western, thought.
And ultimately that is what all discoveries from the ancient world do; they stretch our minds, extend our horizons and expand our understanding of the human condition. As the Yiddish writer IL Peretz said: “A people’s memory is history; and as a man without a memory, so a people without a history cannot grow wiser, better.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to this inter-religious gathering to mark the opening of this historic exhibition. Thank you to the Art Gallery of NSW and its dedicated director and staff, to those who will be participating today and throughout the various symposia and study sessions which will take place over the weeks ahead, to the scholars everywhere and the curators in Israel who have charge of the materials which have been loaned to Australia for our delight and edification, and most of all, to the believers, writers, compilers, scribes and collectors of the ancient Jewish world, whoever and wherever they may have been, whose work has transcended the centuries and travelled the globe to unfold before us today.