For those whose heads are still in the ground since Mel Gibson's Big, Fat, Christian Snuff-Flick set the standard for 'Jewish-themed popular entertainment' in Seattle, I have two things to say. First, shame on you for missing last winter's delightful Ushpizin! Second: you have the entire soggy Seattle autumn, until January 7, to redeem yourself!
The Dead Sea Scrolls are currently on display at Seattle's Pacific Science Center in a multimedia exhibit designed by international experts in the history of the Jews during the Second Temple period (ca. 520 BCE-70 CE).
The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in a series of finds between 1947-1956, are one of the great gifts of modern archeological science to the recovery of the reality of Judaism 'on the ground' during these crucial centuries. The Talmudic tradition about the Second Temple period does not recall too many concrete details from this period ' mostly incidents of conflict between Hasmoneans and the sages, reports of blatant corruption in the transmission of the high priesthood, and, especially, the rise of various unsavory sectarian communities (minim, tzadukim).
The Talmud passes moral judgment upon the era as one of 'causeless hatred' among Jews. Inner-Jewish quarreling yielded the Hurban's harvest of poisoned fruit.
How did the discovery of the scrolls in 11 caves surrounding the ruin of a large settlement near Wadi Qumran revolutionize the study of Second Temple Judaism? Until then, anyone wishing to supplement the Talmud's few historical kernels had to make do with evidence that had been scoured since the Renaissance scholar, Azariah de-Rossi, began to search beyond the Talmud for insight into Jewish history.
Here are 'the usual suspects:'
1. The Greek writings of Philo of Alexandria (a first-century CE Jewish intellectual ignorant of Hebrew).
2. The historical reminiscences of the priest, Yosef b. Mattityahu (aka Flavius Josephus). Originally a leader of the Jewish Resistance against Rome, he deserted when things went south. After the war, supported by a stipend from the Flavian imperial family, he became the Emperor's favorite Jewish historian, telling Rome what it wanted to hear about the Jewish War ' namely, it was the Jews' own damn fault!
3. The occasional portraits of Jews gleaned from Greek or Roman ethnographers, anthropologists, and travelogue writers who regarded the Jews with a mixture of condescending admiration (barbarians with a law code and a philosophy!) and horror (the Jews sexually mutilate their male infants!).
4. And finally, the New Testament (which needs no parenthetical wise-cracks to indicate exactly why it is a problematic source for studying Jewish history).
How do the scrolls enrich conceptions of Second Temple Judaism derived from these well-known sources? Let's start by simply listing the kinds of writings included on the 800 actual manuscripts found in the caves:
1. The earliest handwritten copies of the Bible. The many large and small differences between these ancient Biblical texts and our own masoretic texts received from rabbinic tradition show us a world in which the texts of the Bible were literally 'in process.' Thus, one of the causes of 'causeless hatred' seems to have been controversy over which Jewish community possessed the 'real' versions of the Scriptures upon which Jewish life was based. Now we know 'right from the horse's mouth' exactly what sorts of Bibles were read by Jews who opposed rabbinic teachings.
2. The original Aramaic and Hebrew versions of Second Temple Jewish writings previously preserved only in Christian translations into Amharic, Slavonic, Armenian, Greek and Latin copies. Christians call these the 'Apocrypha' and 'Pseudepigrapha' of the 'Old Testament.' Many of these, like 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra, describe great cataclysmic ends to history 'just around the corner,' in which God's judgment will rain down upon those who violate His Torah (as this or that author believes God wants it followed).
3. Dozens of previously unknown works of Jewish Biblical interpretation. These reveal the kinds of interpretive controversies that circulated 'in the air' of the Land of Israel while rabbinic oral tradition was taking concrete shape.
4. Let's not forget the 'sectarian writings' themselves. These include rules for communal living, prayer hymns, legal codes, a solar calendar for determining the dates of festivals, and historical reminiscences. They give a rich picture of daily life, worship, and thought among a group of Second Temple Jewish dissidents (the Essenes? perhaps) led by a charismatic 'Teacher of Righteousness' ' a prophet, not a rabbi ' who founded a community called the Yahad ('the Commune').
Fleeing a 'Wicked Priest' in Jerusalem, the 'Spouter of Lies' (probably Yonatan, Judah Maccabee's brother), they 'went into exile' and formed a Jewish counter-culture in the desert, awaiting the cataclysmic battle of the 'Sons of Light ('Us') and the 'Sons of Darkness' ('Them') in which God's Righteous would surely triumph (Not!).
This is just the tip of the iceberg of what the scrolls contain. But it is enough to raise one last observation that you might want to think about while touring the exhibit. In view of the loyalty to principle and deep devotion to living in light of the Torah's truth revealed in these texts, why did the sages ascribe the Second Temple's destruction to 'causeless hatred' among the Jews? Do we not find before us something much more like the 'dispute for the sake of Heaven' for which Mishna Avot praises the disciples of Hillel and Shammai?
Here, perhaps, is the lesson of the DSS for contemporary Jewry: 'Causeless hatred' is a 'dispute for the sake of Heaven' gone awry. A community riven by causeless hatred has forgotten that the point of seeking truth is to be instructed by it! When a dispute for the sake of Heaven goes astray it becomes a dispute for the sake of self; and the self, like a business or a nation, will do what it must to survive ' including, it seems, drowning out principled disagreement for the sake of its own will to power.
Martin Jaffee teaches in both the Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Washington. When not masquerading as a journalist, he writes on the history of Talmudic literature as well as theoretical problems in the study of religion.