Ezra’s Legacy and the Dead Sea Scrolls

About the project

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

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

In the wake of the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and for centuries thereafter 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 was obligatory for non-Jewish converts to Christianity was also an important factor that emerging early Christian communities grappled with in defining their own boundaries (Acts 15). Finally, 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.

This project explores the evidence of two crucial witnesses along this journey: Ezra-Nehemiah and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Ezra-Nehemiah offers an account of a programme of reform inspired by the mission of the fifth century BCE priest-scribe 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 nature and place of Jewish law in Ezra-Nehemiah and the full corpus of the Dead Sea Scrolls offers a rich and largely unexplored field of enquiry.

Until now the lack of explicit engagement with the figure of Ezra in the Dead Sea Scrolls has often been taken to suggest that both literatures 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 in favour of recognizing that significant changes are more credibly perceived as the culmination of sustained periods of complex developments within larger communities. 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 expose a series of contact points between the circles behind both literatures that have hitherto been overlooked. Close attention will also be paid to narratives of exclusion, i.e. traces in our sources of voices that have been side-lined such as the members of the movements whose vision and practice departs from the dominant agenda promoted in the literature we have at our disposal.