Most educated men and women are by now aware of the discovery of the Dead Sea writings in the Qumran caves during the course of the last fifteen years; the story has been Vividly told by J.M. Allegro, among others, in his work entitled The Dead Sea Scrolls (Pelican Books, 1956). Altogether they amount to a substantial body of literature consisting of the Old Testament, other religious compositions, and works proper to a particular Jewish sect. The books and articles written on the subject would fill a large library, but in the main they have been highly technical and therefore inaccessible to the general reader. In addition, some of those expressly addressed to him have failed to convey a sufficiently clear and balanced idea of their significance.

On the one hand there have been sensational and exaggerated statements to the effect that these two-thousand-year-old manuscripts have revolutionized our knowledge of the Old Testament and that they have revealed the existence of a Christ prior to Jesus, thus depriving his person and teaching of all originality. On the other, a reactionary tendency to minimize their importance has over-emphasized the identity of the biblical texts with the traditional version of Scripture, and underrated the impact of the sectarian writings on our understanding of the New Testament. The present work gives the actual text of these writings, so to a large extent the reader will now be able to judge them for himself. It may nevertheless be useful if I first do what I can to dispel confusion by defining the nature of their contribution to scholarship and to a fuller appreciation of Judaism and Christianity.

The Qumran biblical documents cover the whole Hebrew Bible, with the exception of the book of Esther, and are about a thousand years older than the ancient codices previously extant. With this newly discovered material at their disposal, experts concerned with the study of the text and transmission of the Scriptures are now able to achieve far greater accuracy in their deductions and can trace the process by which the text of the Bible attained its final shape. Moreover, they are in a position to prove that it has remained Virtually unchanged for the last two thousand years.

The Qumran fragments of the Pseudepigrapha (nonbiblical religious compositions) and Apocrypha (considered non-biblical by Jews and some Christian bodies, but accepted as secondarily or fully canonical by other Churches) have also been of vast benefit to learning. Preserved by the early Church, these books had been handed down in translation - in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Ethiopian, etc. but had inevitably suffered some degree of interference at the hands of interpreters and copyists. Now that several of them are available in their original language, it is for the first time possible to assess the fidelity of the translated texts.

It goes without saying, however, that beside the profit to specialists in textual criticism, paleography, linguistics, and so on, the major gain has fallen to the student of the history and religion of Palestinian Judaism in the inter-Testamental period (150 B.C. to A.D. 70). For him, the sectarian writings, which form the bulk of the Dead Sea literature and were formerly quite unknown, have opened new avenues of exploration into the shadowy era of the preparation and institution of Christianity and of the establishment of Judaism.

Previously, very little of it was known. First- and second-century Rabbinic teachers had not permitted religious writings of that epoch to go down to Jewish posterity unless they fully conformed to orthodoxy, and although, as I have said, some of them were preserved by the Church, the fact that they had been used as a vehicle for Christian apologetics caused their textual reliability to be suspect. But the Scrolls are unaffected by either Christian or Rabbinic censorship, and once their evidence is complete a great deal remains to be published the historian will be thoroughly acquainted, not with just another aspect of Jewish beliefs or customs, but with the whole organization, teaching, and aspirations of an inter-Testamental religious community.

In the following pages I have nowhere applied the title 'Essene' to this community and have made little reference to the independent accounts of Essenism appearing in ancient literature; it has been my intention to allow the Scrolls to speak for themselves. But as A. Dupont-Sommer was the first to insist, and as most scholars including myself have come to agree, the Essenes and the sect responsible for the Scrolls were in all probability identical.

The first century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the historian Flavius Josephus, and the geographer and naturalist Pliny the Elder have all discoursed on this sect of ascetics whose common life and severe discipline they seem greatly to have admired, and any profound study of the Community as a religious group demands careful scrutiny, not only of its own compositions, but also of these classical reports.

The foregoing remarks will, I hope, give some idea of the reason why the Scrolls have awakened such intense interest in the academic world. But why have they appealed so strongly to the imagination of the non-specialist? After all, other manuscripts of biblical significance have been discovered in recent years, such as the Coptic documents from Chenoboskion, including the Gospel according to Thomas; yet these have raised comparatively little stir.

The outstanding characteristic of our age appears to be a desire to reach back to the greatest attainable purity, to the basic truth. Affecting the whole of our outlook, it has necessarily included the domain of religious thought and behaviour, and with it the whole subject of Judeo-Christian culture and spirituality. A search is being made for the original meaning of issues with which we have become almost too familiar and which with the passing of the centuries have tended to become choked with inessentials, and it has led not only to a renewed preoccupation with the primitive but fully developed expression of these issues in the Scriptures, but also to a desire for knowledge and understanding of their prehistory.

The Rules, Hymns, biblical Commentaries, and other liturgical works of the Qumran Community respond to this need in that they add substance and depth to the historical period in which Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism originated. They reveal one facet of the spiritual ferment at work among the various parties of Palestinian Judaism at that time, a ferment which culminated in a thorough examination and reinterpretation of the fundamentals of the Jewish faith.

By dwelling in such detail on the intimate organization of their society, on their interpretation of Scripture and history, on the role attributed to their Teacher, and on their ultimate hopes and expectations, the sect of the Scrolls has exposed its own resulting doctrinal synthesis. This in its turn has thrown into relief and added a new dimension to its dissenting contemporaries. Thus; compared with the ultra-conservatism and rigidity of the Essene Rule, orthodox Judaism appears progressive and flexible, and beside Essenism and Rabbinic orthodoxy the Christian revolution stands out invested with inspired actuality.

Yet at the same time, the common ground from which they all sprang, and their affinities and borrowings, emerge more clearly than ever before. The faith of each of these three religious movements was, in fact, a separate and distinct commentary on the one body of traditional Jewish teaching and - this is a point which is slowly being realized - neither of them can properly be understood independently of the others.

Essenism is dead. The brittle structure of its stiff and exclusive organization was unable to withstand the national catastrophe which struck Palestinian Judaism in A.D. 70.

Animated by the loftiest ideals and devoted to the observance of `perfect holiness', it yet lacked the pliant strength which enabled orthodox Judaism to survive. And although its Teacher of Righteousness clearly sensed the deeper obligations implicit in the Mosaic Law, he was without the genius of Christ who laid bare the inner core of spiritual truth and exposed the essence of religion as an existential relationship between man and man, and between man and God.


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