A year after a Bedouin shepherd in 1947 discovered the first of what came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, near the shore of the Sea in the Judean Desert’s Qumran Caves, the man who would become one of the Scrolls’ most prominent experts was born. Lawrence Schiffman, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, went on to write his doctorate at Brandeis University on the Scrolls, serve as editor in chief of the “Oxford Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” and appear as a frequent guest on PBS and the BBC.

To coincide with the 70th anniversary this year of the Scrolls’ discovery, Schiffman helped design a six-part adult education course, “Great Debates in Jewish History,” which will include the findings of the Scrolls; it will be offered internationally this fall by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (myjli.com).

You developed your interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls while in college. What first attracted you to such an esoteric topic?

When I was writing an honors thesis, as an undergraduate, my advisor suggested some poetry from the Scrolls. That was my first exposure. As a graduate student, someone said, “Why don’t you continue with the Scrolls?” I was hooked; I got really interested.

Lawrence Schiffman: Scrolls crucial to knowing “how
rabbinic Judaism developed.” Wikimedia Commons

Why is there still public interest in the Scrolls?

It’s so important to the history of Western religion, how rabbinic Judaism developed.

Is there still any academic debate about the Scrolls’ authenticity?

There is no debate about their authenticity in general — the writing surface has been carbon-dated. There is a debate about some fragments that came on the market after 2002 — the question is when they were written.

How have the Scrolls added to our knowledge of early Jewish belief and practice?

They give us an amount of information into what we believed and argued about in the first and second centuries BCE … helping us understand the Jewish revolts against Rome and the rise of Christianity.

How has your study of the Scrolls affected your own faith and understanding of Jewish tradition?

It gave me a feeling of real continuity — a connection with the Jews of 2,000 years ago. You become more tolerant of the Jewish disagreements and debates that have gone on over the ages.

You have written that “we have been more successful with the general public who comes to Dead Sea Scrolls exhibits and lecture series than with our academic colleagues.” What don’t your colleagues get about the Scrolls?

We have not succeeded in getting your average scholar of Tanach [Jewish scriptures] and the New Testament to really engage with the Scrolls, to integrate the Scrolls [into their research].

Palestinians, under terms of the Oslo Accords, have made claims on the Scrolls. Do you fear losing Jewish control over the Scrolls?

I don’t fear it because no one is giving it to them. There is zero chance that an Israeli government will hand over ancient Torah to Palestinians — the Israel Antiquities Authority sees the Scrolls as one of their biggest projects.

Are there still scrolls to be discovered?

The most likely answer is no, [but] the Israel Antiquities Authority has a group that is re-exploring the caves.

You talk about the “Curse of the Scrolls.” What is that?

Some [researchers] lose a sense of balance, arguing their point of view in non-academic ways. Many of the scholars became alcoholics. Today, we’re at a point that [most of] these people function in a normal way.