The “Dead Sea Scrolls”: A Biography

Robert Alter writes:

The Dead Sea Scrolls, the first three of which came to light in 1947, were the most momentous manuscript discovery of the past hundred years. Almost from the beginning, controversy has swirled around them: who wrote the Scrolls; who carefully preserved them in jars in a series of caves at the northwestern corner of the Dead Sea; what can they tell us about the origins of Christianity and the formation of post-biblical Judaism; and, beyond these substantive matters, which scholars have the right to study and publish them. Over the years, the Scrolls have triggered two bizarre court cases, one in Jerusalem and the other in New York, involving contentious scholars; a sensationalist book claiming that publication of the texts was long blocked by the Vatican because it would reveal material that challenged the legitimacy of the Church; clandestine exchanges between shady dealers in antiquities and well-financed Scrolls-seekers; a series of proposals, of varying implausibility, about the nature of the Dead Sea community at Qumran; scandal-mongering news reports about two different scholars, one a mentally unstable alcoholic, the other pushing the fantastic notion that the Scrolls were associated with the purported beginnings of Christianity in the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms.

(LRB 12 September 2013)