The Dead Sea Scrolls: a window on ancient Jewish history 

Very rarely are ancient historians in the privileged position of being able to consult substantial original literary sources. The discovery of around 1000 ancient manuscripts (dating from the third century BCE to the first century CE) in eleven caves on the north-western shore of the Dead Sea is arguably one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time.

The first scrolls were found more than sixty years ago, but the full impact of their significance for our understanding of ancient Jewish history is still a matter of debate. The full publication of all the texts is now complete. The texts from Cave 4, the last to be published and the material at the heart of the controversies over the delay in publication, did not reveal anything to support various conspiracy theories who spoke of a cover-up by the Vatican or the Israeli secret service. What they did reveal, however, is equally significant and exciting.

The first Scrolls to be published from Cave 1 (especially the Community Rule) gave the impression that this newly found library belonged to a small and tightly-knit sect that had withdrawn from society at large. The perception was wide-spread that whereas this new material ought to be studied by a small group of experts, it would have little impact on wider scholarship of this period of Jewish history. Current scholarship on the Dead Sea Scrolls has revealed that even though some of the texts do indeed refer to a particular community, the bulk of the texts (around two thirds) either belong to the oldest known copies of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) or ancient Jewish texts that were cherished far beyond the confines of the group described in the ‘sectarian texts’. Given the last centuries before the Common Era are the context from which the roots of both early Judaism and Christianity emerged, the significance of this new cache can barely be exaggerated.

In short, because of the huge amount of progress made in terms of publishing the texts in the last two decades or so it is almost as if, for the majority of scholars, the discovery of the texts happened much more recently, and full access to all the unpublished texts for the last twenty years had, in practical terms, a huge impact on scholarship, comparable almost to the impact of the initial discoveries.

Dr Hempel began her doctoral work on the Damascus Document in the same year as access to all the unpublished material was granted to qualified scholars for the first time (1991). She has published extensively on the Dead Sea Scrolls and her writings on the Damascus Document and the Community Rule are frequently cited and have influenced current scholarly directions in the field. In 2007 she hosted an international conference on the Dead Sea Scrolls at which a group of leading and progressive thinkers in the field, spanning four generations, were able to take a wider view of the field sixty years since the first discoveries. The proceedings of this conference have now been published in Charlotte Hempel (ed.), The Dead Sea Scrolls: Texts and Context, Leiden, Brill, 2010

Dr Hempel co-chairs the Qumran Section of the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in the USA, is a member of the International Advisory Board of the Theological Dictionary of the Qumran Texts headed by Prof. Fabry (Bonn, Germany), and the committee of the UK Society for Old Testament Study. She serves as Reviews Editor for the Journal of Jewish Studies and is a member of the Editorial Board of Dead Sea Discoveries