The importance of the scrolls from Qumran for understanding the Hebrew Bible is fairly wide-ranging and has in some respects been underestimated. If ‘revolutionize’ is too strong a term, the Dead Sea Scrolls have undoubtedly provoked biblical scholarship into completely new ways of thinking about the manner in which the biblical literature originated and was, transmitted, interpreted, and canonized. In the areas of text and canon, much has been learned, and a good deal of discussion generated; in respect of Hebrew linguistics, the nature and variety of Qumran Hebrew has also been much debated, though with rather less acknowledged impact on other aspects of biblical studies. Even less, perhaps, has it been appreciated how the discovery of an ancient Jewish library itself can help us in modelling the formation and history of the biblical literature within similar scribal communities.
Another far-reaching and widely felt implication of the Scrolls for study of the Hebrew Bible, however, is for our understanding of early Judaism. The description which the Qumran manuscripts offers us of a self-consciously ‘elect’ group, deriving from their reading of the scriptures a system of Jewish belief critical of the current religious and political leadership, and sustained by a segregated lifestyle, obliges us to recognize the variety of beliefs, practices, and controversies that comprise Second Temple Judaism. But what has not been generally deduced from this realization is that the scriptures themselves, in the closed canon and fixed text in which the rabbis transmitted it, do not offer a normative or even balanced account of the official religious discourse of ancient Judaism. Rather, it seems that the official scriptural canon, and the meaning and application of much of its contents, were a source of contention among Jews.
We shall look first at Qumran evidence for the ‘Bible’ itself relating to the emergence of a scriptural canon and the textual characteristics of its components; then at the way in which the Qumran literature ‘extends’ scripture through rewriting and interpretation; and finally we shall consider the broader issues raised by the Scrolls about the nature and function of the Jewish scriptures.