Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Books: Unraveling the Qumran Texts Volume 51 Number 6, November/December 1998
by Eric M. Meyers

In this handy volume, Hershel Shanks, the self-proclaimed "liberator" of the scrolls from the scholarly cartel that he claims withheld vital information concerning the previously unpublished documents, demonstrates his familiarity and expertise in the rather complicated fields of late Second Temple (200 B.C.-A.D. 70) sectarian Judaism, archaeology, and Christian origins. He is effective in examining, summarizing, and often criticizing the work of others, and his account of the discovery of the scrolls, their disposition amid the turmoil of Israel's War of Independence, and the unsatisfactory manner in which they were assigned to scholars contains much new information. Shanks' interview with Avraham Biran, director of antiquities in Israel in the 1970s, for example, makes it clear that the expanded publication team--assigned to publish critical editions of all the texts after the Six Day War in 1967--was not pressured to finish quickly because Israel did not want to interfere with the scholars' work. Though Israel's largesse failed to speed things up, it is nice to know that people in high places took scholarly commitments seriously. Israel's mistake at the time was not to establish a firm deadline for completion of the work. Shanks is at his best in describing the debates over the identification of the sect with the Essenes and the archaeology of Qumran, and the current debates over the nature of the ruins, and the book provides a convenient summary of the state of the disagreements. His discussion of the biblical scrolls in the Qumran corpus is especially good, and he explains the purpose of textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible and the uniqueness of many of the scrolls in a lucid way.

The Mystery and Meaning
of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Hershel Shanks
246 pages. New York:
Random House, 1998.
$25.00. ISBN 0-6794-5757-7.

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Eric M. Meyers is Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Judaic Studies and Archaeology at Duke University.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America