A first-rate distillation of many scholars’ work over the past five decades on the century’s most important, and in many ways most controversial, archaeological find.
Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, as well as of the collection Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls (1992), has played a key role in making public many of the 800 scroll fragments, written between 250 b.c. and 68 a.d., found in Qumran, in Israel’s Judean desert. He illustrates how important the scrolls are in understanding Judaism in the late Second Temple period, the era when Jesus and Christianity emerged. He also describes how the scrolls have been used to clarify textual confusions in other ancient editions of the Hebrew Bible (they include one complete book, Isaiah, and excerpts from every other except Esther). Concerning the community that actually lived in Qumran, Shanks carefully marshalls the evidence both for and against the hypothesis that they were Essenes, a close-knit, communitarian, ascetic, and fatalistic Jewish sect that kept a separate calendar from their brethren elsewhere, before making clear his own belief that Qumran was likely an Essene community. He deftly sifts through the evidence, and clearly describes many areas of continuing controversy in the study of the scrolls. Admirably, when there is insufficient evidence to settle a point, or conflicting evidence, he says so. On the question of whether or not the scrolls belonged to the Qumran community or originated in the Temple in Jerusalem, he notes that, ultimately, “we are left with mere speculation. Anyone can play the game. The uncertainties will remain--until, perhaps, new evidence surfaces”. Such scholarly judiciousness, combined with a succinct, accessible style, typifies Shanks’s thoughtful, balanced, yet at times also colorfully anecdotal approach.
When dealing with these difficult texts (which are, as Shanks notes, “fragmentary, elliptical, and written in arcane, symbolic, and metaphorical language”) one could hardly ask for a better guide.