Princeton University Press, £16.95 / Oxford, £30 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography By John J Collins / The Essenes, the Scrolls and the Dead Sea By Joan E Taylor

For six decades, the enigmatic texts have excited and baffled seekers after the origins of faith

There is surely no better example of academics collectively acting like angels dancing on pinheads than the sorry saga of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Way back in the late 1940s, a Bedouin herder was looking for his lost goat in a cave south of Jericho when he stumbled upon a stash of ancient religious texts, dating back to the time of Jesus. It caused an international sensation and gripped the public's imagination.

Once studied, it was confidently claimed, these 900 scrolls, some of them little more than fragments, would finally allow the claims of Christianity regarding the historical Jesus, and his context, to be seen afresh. At first all went swimmingly. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, there was a steady flow of books setting out the theories agreed by most of the first generation of scholars given access to this precious haul – namely, that most of it related to a sect of Jews, the Essenes, who had lived an ascetic life at Qumran close to the cave.

The key figure in the scrolls – believed to have been hidden to preserve them from a Roman onslaught in 70AD – was the "Teacher of Righteousness", a precursor or perhaps even a contemporary of Jesus who preached much the same radical message. There was apparently more than one messiah presenting himself to the Jewish people at that time.

The logical next step should have been for the Dead Sea Scrolls to be made public, while a new generation carried on research work into the finer details. Instead, they were lost again for three decades behind closed doors. There were plenty of excuses given for this extraordinary delay. The reality was that they had become objects of the most unedifying squabble: between rival academics, jealously guarding their pet theories (one learned scholar even resorted to the law courts to defend his thesis); between Christianity and Judaism, as to which one came out best in these accounts; and between Israel and its neighbours in the melting pot of Middle East politics.

Final publication of (most of) the scrolls only happened in the 1990s. So it took half a century - and, since then, the rows over what exactly they tell us seem only to have only intensified. Popularisers, keen to cash in on the market for "religious mystery" books, have piled in. Where once there was excitement about what this extraordinary stash might tell us about a period that saw the birth of one of the world's major religions, today for most there is only bemusement. Even though we know we should care, we have no ready means of weighing the competing claims, but equally we are not so daft that we cannot see when history has been subverted to sectarian ends, to the egos of scholars and to the cash registers.

But a saviour is at hand. John Collins – a good, plain name that is very appropriate on the jacket of a good, plain book – is an Old Testament professor at Yale. In his short, sharp, snappy "biography", he rehearses all the various theories on the scrolls, separates the wheat from the chaff, and brings light to the darkness. This is not simply a digest. Collins takes our hand and guides us to oh-so-reasonable conclusions.

The scrolls were not simply the library from the Essene community at Qumran, he suggests, libraries being rare outside major cities, and libraries with secular books in them (as found among the fragments) rarer still. Instead, they represent the sum total of all texts held at various Essene communities, spread around the region, but returned for safekeeping to the motherhouse at Qumran in times of turmoil.

And this was not a community of monkish men – one standard Christian view being that the Essenes were a forerunner of monasteries - because the cemetery at Qumran contains the bones of women. It is remarkable what graveyards can tell us about past ages. Collins positions the Essenes as more widespread and more mainstream in the Jewish world of their day - albeit open, in the form of the Teacher of Righteousness, to new approaches in a way that the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus's acquaintance were not.

For Joan Taylor, Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King's College, London, the coincidence of the publication of her new theory on the scrolls and the arrival of John Collins's excellent back-to-basics account is unfortunate. By describing The Essenes, the Scrolls and the Dead Sea as "ground-breaking" and "presenting a solution to the mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls", her publishers are, I'm afraid, putting her firmly in the camp of those who seek to inflate the already giant question mark hovering over the whole subject, only then to burst it with a cunning new take on familiar facts.

Which is to do Professor Taylor a disservice. Her prose is carefully measured and her proposition, that the Essenes were not a sect but one of the leading legal schools of Judaism, sounds plausible - at least to this layman. She might, though, have been advised to avoid beginning her conclusion with "for those who have reached the end of this book, the argument will hopefully seem plain", but her lack of confidence in a field where so many fellow scholars delight in striking a pose is oddly endearing.

'How to Read a Graveyard: Travels in the Company of the Dead' by Peter Stanford is published by Bloomsbury in March

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?