Dead Sea Scrolls and Early Judaism by Philip R. Davies


The significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls is to… early Judaism is huge.  It’s on two levels.  First of all, the immediate impact is that it shows us a group of texts written in Hebrew, original manuscripts at the turn of the era.  We’ve got nothing else apart from the odd inscription.  Most of the other stuff is in Greek or is in secondary sources or Aramaic and so on.  So they are direct evidence of what some people thought and did in that period. 

And what they were thinking and doing is not what a lot of people thought, either Jews or Christians.  They are not Pharisees, they are not Sadducees, they are living in a sect, they believe in Messiahs—well that’s not so odd—but they are clearly a sect, and for that reason, I suppose, you could, and some people did want to, kind of rule them out and say, “These don’t tell us anything very much.” 

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However, their copies of the biblical books—those twenty-five percent of their manuscripts—show that there’s no fixed biblical text or even canon. We’ve got various copies of the biblical text; of course, some books are missing, like Esther.  And we’ve got lots of rewritings of biblical books.  We’ve got copies of books in Hebrew and Aramaic that we previously didn’t have in those languages but we knew from other languages and translations. The argument is still going on as to how far these guys are mainstream in terms of being able to define, to some extent, what’s going on in Judaism at the time. 

The importance to early Judaism is probably secondary in the sense that it provoked a discussion.  It caused people to rethink again, well, what about all the other kinds of curious Judaisms?  There are books of Enoch, apocryphal literature, and so on.  What has happened is that we now are not comfortable talking about early Judaism in the singular, as if we knew what it was.  Early Judaism begins to come together with the rabbinic literature or even then, it’s not fully representative.  We can’t talk about a Judaism till after 70 C.E., and so these guys are maybe not mainstream, but then maybe nobody was mainstream.  Judaism was still working out what it was, and Christianity was one of the things that it worked out.


Philip R. Davies

Philip R. Davies
Professor Emeritus , University of Sheffield

Philip R. Davies has written extensively on the Hebrew Bible, Judaism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among his books are In Search of “Ancient Israel” (T&T Clark, 1992), Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures (Westminster John Knox, 1998), The Origins of Biblical Israel (T&T Clark, 2007), and Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History (Westminster John Knox, 2008). Since 2002 he has been professor emeritus at the Universty of Sheffield, United Kingdom.

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

The historical era of Judaism spanning the periods of Persian and Roman rule, from the 6th century BCE to the 3rd century CE.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

An authoritative collection of texts generally accepted as scripture.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Textual documents, usually handwritten.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

A religious subgroup.

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