The Dead Sea Scrolls are the ancient manuscripts dating back to the time of Jesus that were found between 1947 and 1956 in caves by the Dead Sea. Since they were first discovered, they have been a source of fascination and debate over what they can teach — and have taught — about Judeo-Christian history. In his new book, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography, Yale professor John J. Collins tells the story of the scrolls, their discovery and the controversies surrounding the scholarship of them.
The scrolls appear to have been hidden in the desert near Qumran in the West Bank by a Jewish sect known as the Essenes that existed around the time of Jesus. The Essenes were an extreme sect of Judaism and, Collins tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “if they existed nowadays, we would regard them as a fundamentalist cult.”
Collins, who was raised Catholic, is particularly interested in what the scrolls tell us about the history of Christianity.
“I’ve been interested in Messianism,” he says. “What kind of Messiah were people expecting? What do the scrolls tell us about that? … Why does a movement decide to go off and live in the wilderness and — some of them at least — not marry and have all their possessions in common? What’s the kind of thinking that goes into that?”
The fact that the Essenes appear to have been fundamentalists, however, does not mean that the Dead Sea Scrolls don’t offer insight into life more broadly speaking during that period.
“Nobody can be an extremist all the time,” says Collins, “and so if you have a collection of writings held by this extremist group, there will still be an awful lot of stuff in that other people would have shared. They had the same Scriptures as everybody else. They observed the same festivals as everybody else, even if they observed them at a different day.”