Lawrence Schiffman brings
For Lawrence Schiffman, the excitement of research has
actually been a tactile experience.
This semester at Johns Hopkins he will share some of that excitement.
Schiffman, who has devoted much of his career to a subject that has inspired awe and wonder for half a century, is teaching a graduate seminar: The Dead Sea Scrolls.
"Just the physical feeling that here in your hand is something 2,200 years old, to be able to hold it in your hands, and read it, is a tremendous thrill," says Schiffman. "You may be reading a text that nobody has read in 2,000 years."
Schiffman, the Edelman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, is Hopkins' first Charles Crane Visiting Professor of Judaic Studies, recently endowed through a $1 million donation from the Charles Crane Family Foundation of Baltimore.
The chair will rotate each semester from one department to another, bringing in scholars who specialize in the complex interrelationships of Jewish culture, religion and history.
It just so happened that the chair's first stop was in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, where there is interest in creating a full-time faculty position for an expert in late biblical and early post-biblical Judaism, the period from a few hundred years B.C.E. to roughly the sixth century.
"That's the field that we need most to round out our graduate and undergraduate programs," says Kyle McCarter, chairman of the Near Eastern Studies Department. "Dr. Schiffman is a perfect example of somebody who works in that area.
"In that field he is one of the most visible scholars in the world right now. Not only do we want somebody of that caliber teaching our students, but by bringing him here we are making a statement of our commitment to that field and our determination to expand in that area."
Schiffman is a member of the editorial team for the publication of the scrolls. So far, more than 90 percent of the texts have been published in scholarly works, which include a translation and commentary in English. A major recent contribution to the overall understanding of the texts is Schiffman's book, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, which was published in 1994.
By studying the scrolls, scholars have not only learned more about the forces at work shortly before Christianity emerged. They also have learned about the nature of serious debates and conflicts among Jews at that time.
"What you really learn most about is the various approaches to Judaism that existed in the second and first centuries B.C.E.: what people believed, what arguments people had with one another; how they worshiped, how they sacrificed, how they practiced as Jews," Schiffman says. "You get a much wider sense of what the situation was in Judaism."
The first scrolls were discovered in 1947 by a shepherd who was exploring a cave on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Soon scholars learned that they were ancient manuscripts that included books of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, and numerous non-biblical texts.
Some scholars have not thought of the scrolls as a primary resource for learning about Jewish history because the non-biblical writings do not reflect the ideas of mainstream Judaism. The scrolls are thought to have belonged to a Jewish sect whose ideas differed from those of their contemporaries.
But, as the title of Schiffman's book implies, he believes that scholars have underestimated the importance of the scrolls as a primary resource for the history of the Jews. The texts were written at a time of social and religious divisiveness that would later lead to the birth of Christianity.
"This is the period before the split of Judaism and Christianity," Schiffman says. "Therefore, this gives us much more information about what Judaism was like in that period."
Pieces of about 850 leather scrolls eventually were recovered. The first seven were virtually intact; the longest and most complete scroll probably was discovered in the late 1950s and measures 27 feet long.
About one-third of the writings in the scrolls are copies of the books of the Bible.
"You are not getting the original Bible in the scrolls," Schiffman says. "You are getting the earliest biblical texts that we have. But they may be hundreds and hundreds of years removed from the authors."
Therefore, the scrolls will not help scholars answer the age-old mystery of who wrote the Bible. But other documents in the scrolls include discussions about vital issues facing Jews at that time.
Some of the documents detailed the extreme viewpoints of the sect, whose followers lived communal lives on the shores of the Dead Sea.
"You are dealing here with a group of people that were extremely strict in their Judaism," Schiffman says. Apparently as a consequence, they were rejected by more mainstream Jews.
"They isolated themselves from everybody," Schiffman says. "Those sectarians came close to outlawing divorce. They actually had opposition to divorce similar to what became the Catholic position. You could get divorced, but you couldn't remarry."
That position apparently was derived from the Bible's portrayal of monogamy as the proper and natural relationship for people and animals alike. It was a lesson taught in stories ranging from Adam and Eve in Genesis to the plight of Noah, whose ark contained animals paired together.
"Everything for them stems from their interpretation of the Bible," he says.
The divorce viewpoint is an example of how the sect's strict doctrines clashed with more moderate attitudes; although most Jews did not regard divorce as a good thing, it was permitted.
The Dead Sea sectarians also believed in predestination_that God decides everything about a person's fate, which some other Jewish groups did not believe.
And they were vehemently anti-Roman and involved in the political life of their time, an issue that Jews were divided on. However, they were not fundamentally different from the Jews whose teachings have evolved into modern Judaism.
"Despite the fact that these people disagreed with those Jews whose tradition eventually became the Talmudic tradition, they still have a tremendous amount in common," Schiffman says. "It's the same Ten Commandments, the same Sabbath, the same holidays, the same kosher food."
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