John J. Collins once explained why the Dead Sea Scrolls have aroused such bitter controversies. “What makes the scrolls different is that they are the only primary texts we have from Judea that date to about the time of the birth of Christianity and just before the rise of rabbinical Judaism,” he wrote. “Consequently, they are precious evidence of the nature of Judaism at a time of enormous consequence for Western history.”
Collins, Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale University, has examined this evidence in four books on the scrolls, including his most recent one, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography (Princeton University Press).
He will speak about the scrolls — discovered in caves at Qumran in 1947 — on Sunday, March 23, at 4 p.m. at the Jewish Center in Princeton.
He shared with NJJN a little about himself and his current book.
NJJN: What got you interested in studying the Dead Sea Scrolls?
John Collins: It was roundabout. I am an Irish-Catholic and did classics in high school. I joined a religious order in my youth, and they wanted me to study Bible. The place where biblical tradition and classical tradition meet is Hellenistic Judaism [which combined Judaism with elements of Greek culture]. When I got into studying that, I studied the rest of Judaism and that period. Back when I was a student, I had some interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls; they were part of the literature of that time. I didn’t really start working on them intensively until the ’90s, when all the fragmentary stuff became available [when the texts were finally made available to a wide range of scholars through publication of the Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls], and there was a surge of new energy.
NJJN: Can you talk about the questions you explore in your latest book about the scrolls ?
Collins: My question is: What difference have they made? First, they have given us manuscripts on most of the books of the Bible a thousand years older than any Hebrew manuscript we had before. Also these are practically the only Hebrew manuscripts we have between the Maccabees and the Mishna. Everything else we know about Judaism at the time is translated.
NJJN: Was the Bible then the same as the Bible now?
Collins: The answer is both yes and no. The Bible as we know it was there, but there were also other editions of many of the books that were circulating as well, so there was a lot more variety. There is a whole kind of literature that is rewriting biblical stories; in many cases it is hard to tell if [the rewriters] thought what they rewrote was the Bible — whether they made a distinction between what they wrote and what they were adapting. The text was really fluid down to the first century before the turn of the [common] era. We don’t get the [biblical] canon as we know it until after 70 CE.
Before the scrolls were discovered, there was a debate 100 years ago about the main texts we have about ancient Judaism, the Mishna, Talmud, and Midrash, which everyone knows come from 200 to 600 CE. A lot of people would have assumed they were preserving the oral tradition already there at the turn of the era. In the 1900s, a lot of manuscripts came to light, like the Book of Enoch, suggesting that Judaism around the turn of the era was not so focused on law but was more apocalyptic, and there was a debate about which gives a more accurate view of Judaism.
What you get in the Dead Sea Scrolls is both: On the one hand, they show lots of Jews around the turn of the era greatly concerned with how law should be interpreted, and also lots of speculation about messiahs, angels, and what I’d call apocalyptic ideas. What you get in Judaism around the turn of the era was quite diverse: Christians picked up one aspect, the rabbis another, and there were many other aspects besides.
NJJN: How has your research on the scrolls affected your own life and religious life?
Collins: My research on the scrolls is part of my research on the Bible. Over the years this certainly has modified my views on a lot of things, because when you study all of the details in their historical context, you see any religion’s development as a very human process, influenced by events and by arguments and disputes. The history of any religion, I’d say, is a running argument and is never quite settled.