Monday, April 29, 2013

Science, Religion, and the Modern West: The April Issue of Historically Speaking

Randall Stephens

In the coming week the April 2013 issue of Historically Speaking will be posted to the Project Muse site.  Subscribers can expect it soon in mailboxes.  The issue includes essays on environmental history, ancient religion, teaching, and Harry Truman.It also features interviews with Matthew Bowman on Mormonism in American history, John R. Gillis on seacoasts in history, and turning points of World War I with Ian F.W. Beckett. 

In addition the April issue includes a lively forum on "Scientific Culture in the Modern Era" with intellectual historian Stephen Gaukroger (University of Sydney).  "One of the most distinctive features of Western culture since the 17th century is the gradual assimilation of all cognitive values to scientific ones," writes Gaukroger in his lead essay. "A particular image of the role and aims of scientific understanding is tied up in a very fundamental way with the self-image of Western modernity. One striking illustration of this is the way that the West’s sense of what its superiority consisted of shifted seamlessly in the early decades of the 19th century from religion to science. From that time on, but particularly in the second half of the 20th century, this self-understanding has been exported as an essential ingredient in the process of modernization."

With this major shift in Western thought, soon enough religion came under new scrutiny. Using the perspectives of historical-critical thinking and later developments in science, researchers from the late-19th century forward began to reinterpret the sacred texts of the West. In an essay on "The Dead Sea Scrolls," also in the April issue, John J. Collins  (Yale Divinity School) examines changing perspectives and decades of wrangling about the meaning and context of the scrolls.  ""No archaeological discovery of the 20th century has aroused more interest than the Dead Sea Scrolls," Collins observes.

Below are two sections from Collins' fascinating piece on the arguments and counterarguments about the scrolls:

[American biblical scholar and historian] Robert Eisenman argued that the Scrolls, rather than the Gospels, were the primary documents of early Christianity, which was a hate-filled, xenophobic movement. Australian scholar Barbara Thiering claimed that Jesus was the figure called “the Wicked Priest” in the Scrolls. Two British writers, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, published a book called The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception in 1991, in which they argued that Allegro and Eisenman were right, but that the truth was suppressed by the priests on the editorial team at the behest of the Vatican. Most scholars dismiss all of this as nonsense, but it always finds a ready market in the press. Even now, after most of the debates have subsided, laypeople ask earnestly whether Jesus or John the Baptist were Essenes. There is no reason to think that they were.
Text from The Great Isaiah Scroll,
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.


In fact, the relevance of the Scrolls to early Christianity is complex. They fill out many details about the world in which Christianity was born. The followers of Jesus, like the Essenes, believed that history would soon come to an end, that a savior figure would come from heaven, and that messiahs would restore the right order on Earth. Their idea of what constituted the right order, however, was very different from that of the Essenes. Jesus and his followers did not place great emphasis on purity, and were more concerned about what came out of a person’s mouth than with what went in. The sect known from the Scrolls, in contrast, was obsessed with purity, and separated themselves from their fellow Jews to avoid defilement.

The Arab-Israeli war of 1967 was a turning point in the history of scholarship on the Scrolls. Both the site of Qumran and the Rockefeller Museum where most of the Scrolls were kept came under Israeli
An aerial view of the ruins of Qumran. From the
BBC documentary Traders of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1998).
control. The Israelis did not immediately interfere in the publication process. The old editorial team remained in place for more than twenty years. But Yigael Yadin, who was both a general in the army and a distinguished scholar, took some soldiers and paid a visit to Kando, the cobbler in Bethlehem who was the middleman to whom the Bedouin brought the Scrolls. After some “unpleasant” negotiations, Yadin took possession of a long document called the Temple Scroll, which Kando had hidden in a shoe box under the floor boards. Kando later received a payment from the Israelis by way of settlement. . . .

The debates about the Scrolls have often been acrimonious. Norman Golb, long-time professor at the University of Chicago, has persistently disputed the Essene attribution, and has complained vociferously whenever his position is not acknowledged. His son Rafael, a real-estate lawyer in New York, was convicted in the State Supreme Court in November 2009 of impersonating a prominent Scrolls scholar, Lawrence Schiffman, who disagrees with his father, and pretending to confess to plagiarism in Schiffman’s name, apparently in the hope of incriminating him. Elisha Qimron, the scholar who helped publish 4QMMT, sued a magazine publisher, Herschel Shanks, for unauthorized publication of the reconstructed text and translation. Shanks was convicted by an Israeli court and had to pay damages. Exchanges about the Scrolls have often been more heated than is usual in the normally peaceful world of biblical scholarship.

It is somewhat difficult to say why this is so. For scholars like Golb, the Jewish character of the Scrolls seems to be at stake. The implication is that if they are attributed to a marginal sect, the Essenes, they are not “really Jewish” and are more akin to Christianity. For a long time Christian scholars had seemed to appropriate the Scrolls and set them against rabbinic Judaism. Certainly, some of the claims about the relevance of the Scrolls for early Christianity have been wildly exaggerated. . . .

The full essay will soon be posted at Project Muse. Subscribe to Historically Speaking here.

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