The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English
By Geza Vermes
Penguin Classics; Revised edition (2004), 648 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - May 7, 2010
Ancient scrolls were found near the Dead Sea in Israel during the years 1947 through 1956 that were written or collected by an ancient Essene community. The scrolls were hidden by the group to protect them from the Romans who were invading Israel and who were destroying the land and its possessions. The people and their land were butchered and destroyed in the year 67. Their documents throw new light upon Judaism and Christianity during the first century.
The noted scholar Geza Vermes offers his readers a 97 page introduction into the Essene community and their scrolls, followed by over 500 pages in which he presents a new translation of the documents. He adds a short informative specific introduction before each translation in which he describes its significance.
Who were these Essenes?
Some two thousand years ago, about two centuries before the destruction of the Second Temple, a group of religious zealots separated from Jewish society and congregated in several isolated communities, mostly near Israel's Dead Sea, at a place called Qumran.
They were probably called Essenes, most likely a form or corruption of the word Chassidim, meaning "holy ones," because the people felt that they were elevating themselves and made holy. Scholars differ as to the origin of the sect, but many accept the following history, a history based on dissatisfaction with society and a desire to seclude themselves and abstain from the joys of life.
In 168 B.C.E., the Greek king of Syria prohibited Jews from observing certain religious practices. A family of Hasmoneans, called Maccabees after their first great leader, Judah Maccabee, fought against these Syrian Greeks. Chassidim, pious Jews, in no way related to Chassidim of the early eighteenth century that still exists today, and others joined the family in the battle.
These defenders of Judaism achieved some success in 165 B.C.E. Judah Maccabee assumed control of the state of Judea, as the small remaining segment of the land of Israel was called at that time, and created the first independent Jewish state in more than four hundred years. Judea had no self-rule since the Babylonians destroyed the nation in 586 B.C.E. Not long after his death, a member of Judah's family assumed the role of high priest. The Hasmoneans were priests but they were not of the Zadok family that had traditionally filled the office of high priest since the time of King David, almost a thousand years earlier. Soon, one of the other Hasmonean descendants – either John Hyrcanus or Alexander Yannai – began to call himself king, though the position had traditionally been reserved for King David's descendants. Thus the Hasmoneans assumed the two supreme leadership roles that traditionally belonged to other families.
Although they were undoubtedly the heroes of the rebellion against the Syrian Greeks, the victors that saved Judaism and prompted the holiday of Chanukah, some Jews objected when the family assumed the offices of high priest and king. The Qumran community was apparently the most vociferous in their complaints. They felt that the Temple was polluted by the ministration of these non-Zadokite priests. They called them "wicked" and "impious." These Essenes separated from the rest of the Jews and started their own community in which they emphasized a somewhat mystical life. Their documents describe this life, reflect their attitude toward other Jews, and inform modern people about life around the beginning of the Common Era.