Title: The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Very Short Introduction, 2nd edition
Author: Timothy H. Lim
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: “Very Short Introduction” series
Year of Publication: 1st edition 2005, 2nd edition 2017
Number of Pages: 147 (references and other appendices begin on p. 127)
Reviewed by Julie J. Nichols for the Association for Mormon Letters
The Very Short Introduction series is a delight. Over 500 titles acquaint the dilettante with subjects from accounting and anti-Semitism to William Shakespeare, world music, and Zionism. Richard Bushman wrote the one on Mormonism. Copies are uniformly pocket-sized, colorful within a pleasing variety of similar designs, physically and syntactically compact, direct and dependable in tone and content. The series is a brilliant idea, admirably executed. Its continued growth and popularity confirms its appropriateness in a knowledge-hungry world.
Mormons have Hugh Nibley to thank for our obsession with ancient documents. He saw their value for Book of Mormon apologetics, and though some of his conclusions have been interrogated (is the Book of Abraham papyrus translated correctly or not?), if we’re any kind of scripture scholar we know that the Dead Sea Scrolls gave the Book of Mormon a certain validity it couldn’t otherwise claim outside of faith circles.
Margaret Barker came along later. Her ferocious attention to “deutero-canonical” documents like the Qumran finds led her to insist that Second Temple Judaism did indeed give rise to the chaos described at the beginning of the Book of Mormon. Her numerous books about temple theology and “the older Testament” demonstrate credible connections between ancient noncanonical writing and Book of Mormon allusions. The point is that between Hugh Nibley and Margaret Barker, Mormons feel justified in “owning” something of the Dead Sea Scrolls story.
So this Very Short Introduction volume belongs on our bookshelves.
But according to Andrea Keegan, the series’ humanities and social sciences editor, one of the keys to its success is that “authors are asked to write about what they want to write about, not necessarily ticking every box” (see http://www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk/news/2016-07-03-very-short-introductions-very-big-success-it-presents-its-500th-subject). Timothy Lim, the Professor of Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Period at New College, Edinburgh, has written several books on the Dead Sea Scrolls and has been in the thick of scholarly controversy around their ownership and distribution since their discovery. This slim book is not an apologia for Mormon ideas about ancient theology. In fact, there’s little to no theology in it at all. What there is is much information about the archaeological controversies around the sites of discovery, the cultural clashes around the ownership and translation of the documents, and the value of the discoveries for worldwide Hebrew and Biblical scholarship.
Bookended by chapters on their import for our day (from “cultural icon” to “the greatest manuscript discovery”), the book presents theories about who wrote and kept the scrolls and why (“Who owned the scrolls?” “Jewish sectarianism in the Second Temple period,” “The religious beliefs of the sectarian communities”). Other chapters examine archaeological evidence for the nature of the groups who may have written or at least preserved the documents. Lim recounts (and mostly dismisses) conspiracy theories about the suppression of allegedly subversive contents of the scrolls, rather than providing translations we might find full of juicy implications for Mormon beliefs. The theories and findings of scholars, editors, and publishers like John Allegro, John Strugnell, Frank Moore Cross, and Roland deVaux are presented in detail. The general effect is of demystification. The Scrolls are a magnificent find, Lim concludes, but they do not debunk Christianity OR Judaism. They merely shed light on the variety of texts that preceded the canonization of our current Biblical books.
As a useful compendium of facts about the Dead Sea Scrolls as a great manuscript discovery for Biblical scholars, this little book is probably without equal. It’s possible, though, that for interesting commentary on what the scrolls actually say, and what that means for Mormons, it might be at least as satisfying to go to Hugh Nibley and Margaret Barker. Sacred texts have an earthly history, yes, and of course it matters to know what that is, and what scholars have to say about it. But it may be even more fascinating to know what their teachings imply about our daily rites and relationships with heaven.