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on 7 June 2007
I am a fan of the VSI - Very Short Introduction - Series done by the Oxford University Press. On literally hundreds of subjects, they provide a survey with enough depth and detail to be worthwhile to the non-specialist, a wide enough range to useful for students looking for authoritative information, and good as a general outline of the fields or subjects as preparation for further study.

This particular volume on the Dead Sea Scrolls touches on one of my areas of interest that I have been following for over a quarter of a century (and it pains me to realise that I am indeed old enough to have areas of study that reach back that far). When I first encountered information about the scrolls, one controversy about them was over ownership rights and publication rights - there were conspiracy theories about why the scrolls were being withheld, and no such thing as a complete volume of the scrolls. These issues are included in Timothy Lim's text, as that story has become part of the history of the scrolls.

Lim also addresses the role of the Dead Sea Scrolls as a cultural icon: 'Many people have heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but few know what they are or the significance they have for our understanding of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, ancient Judaism, and the origins of Christianity.' The scrolls have been a media sensation for what they are more so than for what they contain; the location where they were found (a mysterious place, the Dead Sea, the site of ancient battles and settlements, and a place that is still in turmoil today) also played a part of in the mystery of the scrolls, as did the Catholic-dominated scholarly team that worked on the translations and reconstruction for so long (conspiracy theories still resonate in works such as the Da Vinci Code). Lim also highlights the role of the Biblical Archaeology Society in 'freeing' the scrolls from the captivity of the scholarship team.

Lim discusses the history of the scrolls as an archaeological find, and puts forward several of the theories of their origins. The primary theory that Lim develops in good detail is the Qumran-Essene origin, which is the dominant theory among scroll scholars today. The archaeological sites are largely situated near the ancient settlement of Qumran, at the north end of the Dead Sea (an hour's drive from Jerusalem today, but a day's journey or more from Jerusalem in ancient Judea). Lim's discussion of de Vaux's archeological work on Qumran is one of the best brief overviews that I have read across several dozen books on the scrolls.

Lim discusses the scrolls themselves, discussing many of the difficulties of working with them. He mentions that there are 800 to 900 scrolls (and why we don't know for certain just how many of them there are in the collections), consisting of 25,000 fragments or more. Piecing them together is just one part of the problem; not having all the pieces complicates matters, and not having an accurate guide to follow in reconstruction is another. Biblical and ancient texts can be difficult enough to translate and reconstruct even when they are well known, so how does one account for differences in texts? Are they scribal errors (frequent in ancient manuscripts, given that they are hand written)? Are they reconstruction errors? Are they legitimate textual variants?

A large number of the scrolls are biblical texts - the Hebrew Bible has every book save Esther represented in the scrolls. This is important, as it backs up the antiquity of the writings we have by nearly a millennium - the oldest texts of the Hebrew Bible prior to the discovery of the scrolls were texts like the Leningrad Codex, which dates closer to 1000 c.e.; the scrolls date back in some instances as long as 250 years before the time of Herod, Hillel and Jesus. Lim highlights some of the intriguing finds, such as the discrepancy of Goliath's height, recorded in modern texts following the Masoretic text (that in the Leningrad Codex) as approximately 9 feet 9 inches, and the scrolls which record a more realistic 6 feet 9 inches - a giant in a world where 5 feet 4 inches would be closer to the norm, but hardly a super-human height.

This book is an excellent resource for study groups and individuals who want a quick introduction; in today's school environment, students are confronted with an increasing volume of information, but the means to organise and use that information hasn't increased at the same rate. The presentation of material in the typical VSI is good at addressing this need for organisation and utility, and Lim's text on the Dead Sea Scrolls is one of the best of this series that I have read thus far. In addition to the well-written text, it includes maps, graphics and pictures of the scrolls and associated places (the Shrine of the Book, Qumran, etc.), a good index, and a very good list of references keyed to each chapter.
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on 5 January 2011
This is a fact-heavy account of the circumstances surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient manuscripts discovered in caves near Khirbet Qumran that went on to become something of a cultural icon. I found the book informative, but if I'm being honest, a little on the dry side. There's an awful lot of information crammed in here, much of it concerning what we can gather about the Qumran community. Also a lot on how the scrolls have contributed to our understanding of the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. No doubt the media-driven mystique of the topic led me to unreasonably high expectations, but unfortunately the subject didn't capture my interest as much as I thought it would. On a positive note, I approached this book not quite knowing what the Dead Sea scrolls actually were, and Timothy Lim certainly cleared it up for me, dispelling the myths and explaining their importance to archaeologists and researchers of ancient Judaism/early Christianity. In that respect, job done.
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VINE VOICEon 3 February 2008
Despite the occasional carp that media coverage of the Dead Sea Scrolls coincides with high points of the Christian (as opposed to Jewish) calendar, or about the use of the term 'insurgents' for freedom fighters in the Second Jewish Revolt (against Rome), this is an admirably dispassionate and reasoned VSI. The finding of ancient scrolls in Khirbet Qumran, Palestine, in 1947, has been called 'the greatest manuscript discovery ever'. That Lim avoids exaggeration is evident from his own more qualified view (in more ways than one, I suspect): 'the greatest discovery ... for Jewish studies of the Second Temple Period and biblical studies' - which gives a rather less sensational slant.

Such avoidance of hyperbole might sound unexciting. Certainly, discussion of copyright law, or the torturous history of Second Temple Judaism might seem as arid as the desert sands, but there should be enough to engage the mind. There are no cheap, Dan Brownesque Vatican conspiracies exposed or major scriptural revelations announced. Yet in terms of the light shed on the early scribes and scriptures, on the archaeology of Qumran, on modern scholarly practice and on a unique period of human history, there are revelations and controversies enough.

Lim offers an insight into the religious life of one of the ancient world's great sects, the extremely ascetic Essenes. It was intriguing to learn that Jewish demotic was Aramaic, not Hebrew, during the Persian period. And that the Essenes may well have had scriptoria, like medieval monks, in which to copy their scriptures. I've also learnt a new word: 'parablepsis', a phenomenon whereby the eye skips a line or a phrase when copying - a mistake we've all made, but an especially taxing one when ancient scribes commit the error. Lim's account of how the Qumran texts have helped to fill in the gaps of suspected lacunae in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is exemplary - for example, 1 Samuel, 10-11. This isn't usually my 'territory', but I found Lim's VSI strangely fascinating nonetheless.
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on 3 July 2013
A Very Short Introduction should ideally have a Very Short Review.
I enjoyed this book I picked up at the British Museum. For those with only a sketchy notion of the scrolls and their significance this is ideal and it gives suggestions for further reading if you want more. Conspiracy theories are neatly dismissed. There seems little quesion the scrolls are linked with the Essene sect (although this is disputed by some) but it did seem that most of the book was taken up with discussion of the Essenes rather than the scrolls themselves. This didn't spoil things and my brief title sums it up.
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on 13 June 2016
A very intelligent and balanced introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Useful for understanding the Qumranic community, and the mechanisms used to date and understand the formation of the scrolls. Those looking at the content of the scrolls - particularly from the perspective of how they enhance our understanding of Christianity will need to look elsewhere.
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