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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

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