The Dead Sea Scrolls

A Very Short Introduction, 2nd Ed.

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Timothy H. Lim
Very Short Introductions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     144 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Very Short Introduction, Timothy H. Lim provides an updated edition of his earlier 2005 introductory work on the Dead Sea Scrolls. This book is part of the Very Short Introduction series by Oxford University Press, which seeks to provide a wide audience with accessible and comprehensive introductions to important subjects within a variety of disciplines. In this volume, Lim provides the reader with an engaging and clear discussion of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the community associated with this body of literature, and the cultural and historical relevance of the texts. At 143 pages, this is a brief overview of a complex subject. Despite its brevity, Lim’s work helpfully guides the reader through a vast array of scholarly issues without overly simplifying many debates.

Lim includes twelve chapters on various subjects relating to the scrolls. The bulk of the chapters are organized around two central topics: (1) the texts of the scrolls, and (2) the community that produced this body of literature. Lim begins with an introductory chapter on the cultural significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for contemporary readers. The chapter effectively sets the reader up for the following discussion of the scrolls and the community that produced them. In eighteen pages, Lim introduces the reader to the political environment surrounding the discovery of the scrolls, conspiracy theories involving the scrolls, and major figures in the battle for the accessibility of the scrolls.

Next, Lim spends several chapters exploring the scrolls and their significance for other bodies of literature from the ancient world (chapters 2 through 5). He begins with a helpful chapter detailing the archaeology and historical reconstruction of the site at Qumran, then provides a helpful overview of the issues involved in working with the scrolls themselves, many of which exist in fragments that are hard to read and date. Lim highlights the multiple ways that copies of biblical texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls complicate the textual history of the Hebrew Bible. For example, Lim appeals to the Nahash story (1 Sam 10-11), which includes extra material not found in the Masoretic Text, likely due to a copyist skipping from one line to a later one (49-52). In addition, Lim highlights the way the scrolls complement the conversation concerning canonization and authoritative bodies of literature. As Lim demonstrates, the non-biblical texts found at Qumran appeal to the authority of established texts, both texts found in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., the Torah) and other texts groups consider authoritative (e.g., Jubilees). He further argues that the community at Qumran had a graded sense of textual authority (61-63). For example, the pesherim (Lim discusses 1QpHab in depth) interpret biblical texts, though they maintain clear boundaries between their interpretation and the base text itself with introductory formulas before quotations and explanations. The text of Habakkuk is ultimately authoritative for those who produced the scrolls, though sectarian texts like the pesherim have a secondary level of authority for those who created them.

In chapters 6-11, Lim turns his attention to the community behind the Dead Sea Scrolls. He provides a helpful overview of the Qumran-Essene hypothesis, which, despite its problems, remains the scholarly consensus. Lim argues the Essenes at Qumran were a product of the larger Second Temple Jewish sectarian thought present between 585 BCE and 70 CE, which wrestled with the question of Jewish identity in the face of sometimes hostile foreign powers and a complex regional geopolitical environment (78-88). Lim also demonstrates that the “community” responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls actually consisted of two communities: the monastic brotherhood at Qumran and urban sectarians. The two communities held many beliefs and practices that diverged from other Jewish groups during this time. For example, the community at Qumran included an intense, multi-year initiation process for new members. In addition, the scrolls emphasized the theological doctrine of the two spirits, which teaches that God has divided humanity into two groups: those with the spirit of darkness and those with the spirit of light (108-11). Despite these divergent views, the two communities responsible for the scrolls held many of the same beliefs and practices as other Jewish groups. Lim extends his analysis of the Essenes’ beliefs by exploring the intersection of the material in the scrolls with early Christian texts. The community at Qumran overlaps with the earliest Christian communities, and the Dead Sea Scrolls include many literary parallels with material in the New Testament. Lim, however, shows that the literary parallels are due to shared biblical texts and terminology, though the communities behind the scrolls understand these terms differently from the early Christians.

Lim closes his work with a chapter on the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for modern readers. He argues that the discovery of the scrolls at Qumran is the most important manuscript discovery of the 20th century, based on their significance for understanding the Hebrew Bible—an important literary corpus for Jews, Christians, and Muslims—and for the light they shed on Second Temple Jewish sects like the Essenes. Following the concluding chapter, the work includes helpful lists of sources used in each chapter and suggested reading for those who wish to explore the Dead Sea Scrolls in more depth. Lim’s volume synthesizes a good deal of scholarly research on the scrolls in an accessible fashion, while still providing readers with the information necessary to understand the major scholarly players in the field and key scholarly debates on the texts. Most importantly, his work meets its stated goal to whet the reader’s appetite and pique the reader’s interest in the larger context surrounding this important body of literature (2). Students and interested laypersons in particular can profit from this volume, and scholars who teach may wish to use this book as a helpful way to introduce their students to the scrolls.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin Scott is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Timothy H. Lim is professor of Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Period at New College, The University of Edinburgh. He has written several books and numerous articles on the Dead Sea Scrolls, including The Formation of the Jewish Canon (Yale University Press, 2013), and he co-edited The Oxford Handbook of the Dead Sea Scrolls (OUP, 2010), with John J. Collins. He is the General Editor of The Oxford Commentary on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Professor Lim is a renowned authority on Biblical and Jewish Studies and recently delivered the Chuen King Memorial lectures at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in China.


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