Ezra's Legacy and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Law and Narratives of Exclusion

Today sees the start of Professor Charlotte Hempel’s project ‘Ezra's Legacy and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Law and Narratives of Exclusion’, funded by a £154,899 Fellowship grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Ezra was a fifth century BCE priest-scribe. He is commonly credited with introducing the Law which is the foundation of Judaism as it would develop, to Jerusalem. Beginning with the loss of the First Temple in 587 BC and for centuries thereafter, Ezra, the Jewish law and debates about its correct interpretation and implementation, played a defining role in the emergence of Judaism.

Disagreements about the extent to which requirements of the Jewish law, such as circumcision, were obligatory for non-Jewish converts to Christianity were also an important factor that emerging early Christian communities grappled with when defining their own boundaries. 

The central place of the Law and its correct interpretation in a changing world continues to define the identities of different strands of the Jewish community across the globe today.

Professor Hempel’s project will explore the evidence provided in two crucial sources on the history of Jewish law: Ezra-Nehemiah and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Ezra-Nehemiah is a book of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament that offers an account of a programme of reform inspired by the mission of Ezra to return the law from the Babylonian exile to Jerusalem and promulgate its correct interpretation among the people.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have revealed a substantial number of previously unknown Jewish legal texts. Since the full publication of the Scrolls, scholars have begun to integrate this new material into what we know of the history of Jewish law, from the Pentateuch to the emergence of classical Jewish texts like Mishnah and Talmud that were codified several centuries later.

The relationship of Jewish legal debate in Ezra-Nehemiah and the full corpus of the Dead Sea Scrolls offers a rich and largely unexplored field of enquiry.

Until now scholars have seen the Dead Sea Scrolls’ explicit lack of engagement with the figure of Ezra as an indication that the Scrolls and Ezra-Nehemiah emanate from circles that were at odds with each other. At the same time scholars have increasingly challenged accounts of the seminal impact of extraordinary individuals such as Ezra in favour of recognising that significant changes are more likely the result of sustained periods of complex developments within larger communities.

Professor Hempel suggests, “By shifting attention away from the portrayal of the single-handed achievements of individuals such as Ezra or the Teacher of Righteousness mentioned in a small number of Dead Sea Scrolls, this project will reveal and investigate a series of contact points between the circles behind both literatures that have so far been overlooked. “

“We will also play close attention to narratives of exclusion, i.e. traces in our sources of voices that have been side-lined, such as members of the movements whose vision and practice depart from the dominant agenda promoted in the literature we have at our disposal.”