Where’s Esther?

Robert Alter

  • The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography by John Collins
    Princeton, 272 pp, £16.95, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 691 14367 5
  • The Essenes, the Scrolls and the Dead Sea by Joan Taylor
    Oxford, 418 pp, £30.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 955448 5

The Dead Sea Scrolls, the first three of which came to light in 1947, were the most momentous manuscript discovery of the past hundred years. Almost from the beginning, controversy has swirled around them: who wrote the Scrolls; who carefully preserved them in jars in a series of caves at the northwestern corner of the Dead Sea; what can they tell us about the origins of Christianity and the formation of post-biblical Judaism; and, beyond these substantive matters, which scholars have the right to study and publish them. Over the years, the Scrolls have triggered two bizarre court cases, one in Jerusalem and the other in New York, involving contentious scholars; a sensationalist book claiming that publication of the texts was long blocked by the Vatican because it would reveal material that challenged the legitimacy of the Church; clandestine exchanges between shady dealers in antiquities and well-financed Scrolls-seekers; a series of proposals, of varying implausibility, about the nature of the Dead Sea community at Qumran; scandal-mongering news reports about two different scholars, one a mentally unstable alcoholic, the other pushing the fantastic notion that the Scrolls were associated with the purported beginnings of Christianity in the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms.

The initial discovery, accidentally made by a Bedouin shepherd, was of three documents: a complete text of the Book of Isaiah, a sectarian manual of discipline and a commentary on the prophet Habakkuk. During the next few years, excavations were conducted in adjacent caves. In the end, some nine hundred manuscripts were unearthed in various states of legibility or decomposition, together with an abundance of discrete fragments. It is estimated that the Qumran ‘library’ – that label is strongly contested by many – comprised several thousand scrolls, a vast collection in the ancient world. There were portions of every canonical book of the Hebrew Bible, with the exception of Esther. This has led most observers to infer that Esther, an odd fairy-tale narrative in which God’s name is never mentioned, was not considered a holy text by those at Qumran, though it is possible that it is simply by chance that no scrap of Esther survived. In any case, all these biblical scrolls antedate by a thousand years the oldest (partly) surviving manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, the Aleppo Codex, a scribal copy made in Tiberias in the late tenth century, and so are immensely important for the study of the biblical text. Because they are older does not mean that they are invariably more authoritative, but they certainly demonstrate that around the turn of the Christian era there was a degree of fluidity in the textual status of the books that would soon become canonical.

Other texts found at Qumran open a window on a variety of Judaism at this pivotal moment of which we had hitherto no more than glimpses. The texts include sectarian regulations; examples of the form of biblical interpretation known as pesher, which relates Scripture to figures and events in the writer’s own time; narrative paraphrases and expansions of biblical narratives; one important document making pronouncements on issues of Jewish law; apocalyptic poems and narratives, hymns and liturgical texts.

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