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Monday, August 4, 2014

The Formation of the Canon (Part III): The Evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The accidental discovery of a collection of ancient documents preserved within clay jars stored in some caves above the Dead Sea in 1947 has been the source of much scrutiny, speculation and debate on the part of archeologists, historians and religious scholars. I am neither qualified as, nor desirous of being, a participant in that debate. Nevertheless, the documents themselves do constitute evidence within the context of this present discussion about the possibility of a Divine role in the formation of the Judeo-Christian canon.

In particular, we are concerned with the biblical texts that were discovered among the many documents in the caves. In the light of my assertions that the Hebrew canon was largely settled by the time of the Christian era, it is interesting to note that archeologists and biblical scholars have determined that most of the scrolls and parchments which contain copies or translations of the Hebrew scriptures date to the period between 200 BCE and 70 AD (In other words, the period of most interest to the points made in these posts). According to The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library (http://www.deadseascrolls.org), documents and/or fragments of documents have been discovered containing the texts of every book of the Hebrew canon except the book of Esther.

In the interest of full disclosure and objective reporting, it should also be noted that the non-canonical or apocryphal books of Ecclesiasticus, Jubilees, Tobit and Epistle of Jeremiah were also found among these writings. Likewise, some of the copies of canonical texts reflect a willingness on the part of the scribes who wrote them to make corrections or otherwise edit the texts that would make most Fundamentalists uncomfortable. In short, although these scrolls and parchments suggest fairly widespread agreement about a sacred set of texts, they do not conform to the modern Christian Fundamentalist notions of a closed canon. It should also be noted that a few of these documents are much older or more recent than the period of interest here (or what is representative of the majority).

Although the original assessment of these materials characterized them as belonging to the Essene branch of the Jewish religion, modern scholarship has assigned a more diverse origin to these documents. According to Josephus, there were three primary philosophical camps within the Jewish religion of the First Century: Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that there was fairly widespread agreement among these diverse groups pertaining to which writings should be regarded as sacred. In much the same fashion that modern Christians have used their common canon (it should be noted that there are important differences relative to the way that most Protestants and Catholics treat the writings known as the Apocrypha) to arrive at a diverse set of beliefs, these writings resulted in some very diverse religious ideas and teachings among the Jews. Nevertheless, as with most Christians, they all appealed to basically the same set of texts to support their particular brand of Judaism.

Hence, in the opinion of this blogger, the existence of the Dead Sea Scrolls supports a number of the conclusions reached here by considering other evidence from the time period. In particular, they reinforce the perception that the writings contained in what we regard as the Hebrew canon were widely available within the Jewish community by the time that Christ appeared on the scene. Likewise, they suggest a fairly common perception that those writings were regarded as sacred by the community as a whole. Finally, the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls also reinforces the view that Scripture was not the property of an elite (priests, scribes, councils or government officials) within the Jewish community (i.e. the freedom to manipulate them and the diversity of opinions reflected in their interpretations of those documents).

Stating my thesis in different terms: Although the evidence reflects the diversity inherent within human interpretations of any literature, what accounts for the uniformity and coherence that is suggested by the same evidence? Are we going to attribute those qualities to the same human sources responsible for the diversity? And, if we answer yes to this second question, does that mean that we are excluding God as a potential source of inspiration for both the diversity and the uniformity? What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. In some private e-mail correspondence, DC commented: "In some of my statements about the canon, I probably ideally should be more careful not to overstate my case. I completely agree that God can inspire the canon and can indeed inspire anything and in some way has surely inspired just about everything.

    And I'm not saying this this way to trivialize the concept of inspiration by seeing as ubiquitous what I believe can be divine inspiration.

    I think the scribes and monks who changed or redacted wording here and there can be inspired in the same way that the "original" authors were.

    I think holy books of other religions can be, and surely sometimes are, just as inspired (maybe sometimes more inspired) as are the books in and around the Bible.

    I think what I'm acknowledging here (and you're saying) reflects an important concept. God can and does transmit or broadcast his inspiration generously in all ways and ages.

    Maybe indeed in some situations something that is particularly wonderful happens in the way of the inspiration of a particular set of writings.

    I think all of that is possible and indeed likely in different places and times.

    My vocalized impulses were only to mean that I don't believe the canon means the Bible is the complete Word of God or that the Bible must be read and understood as excluding other writings from our careful and pious consideration or that the Bible can't contain gross chaff along with the healthy wheat.

    Here's a related point that I don't think I've stated before: I don't think God requires us to accept the Bible at the expense of rejecting or minimizing the importance of any other books, including books some people describe as holy. Indeed, I don't think God requires us to accept the Bible at all. Even if God has inspired the creation and wording of the Bible more than he has any other books, I do not think he regards it as mandatory for us. Some of the principles in the Bible mandatory? Sure.

    I'm still not making myself clear. I think you bring up nuances -- even if that's all they are and surely they're not only that -- that people need to think about.

    Your paragraph, above, included: 'Are we going to attribute those qualities to the same human sources responsible for the diversity? And, if we answer yes to this second question, does that mean that we are excluding God as a potential source of inspiration for both the diversity and the uniformity?'

    I think there is ultimately little qualitative difference between human and godly sources. It -- they, we, all, everything -- is a whole. There is indeed a range that can be seen as positive through negative or low through high or bad through good or demonic through angelic, and that is true whether we're talking about books that are seen as penned by men or those seen as divinely inspired through religiously acceptable methods."