"In the fall and spring of 1996 and 1997, I was working at an archaeological site called Ein Gedi along the shores of the Dead Sea. To say that the experience changed my life is an understatement."
Ian Werrett, Ph.D., professor of religious studies, traveled to Jerusalem in April to attend an international symposium, The Dead Sea Scrolls at Seventy: Clear a Path in the Wilderness. The Dead Sea Scrolls are significant for religious, historical and linguistic reasons, and contain some of the oldest copies of the texts that would eventually become the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, with some manuscripts dating as early as the 8th century BCE and as late as the 11th century CE. Werrett presented his paper, Out of the Wilderness: Qumran, Jesus, and Ritual Purity, at the symposium. Werrett writes below about his research, the symposium and how his experiences in Israel have shaped his career.
In the fall and spring of 1996 and 1997, I was working at an archaeological site called Ein Gedi along the shores of the Dead Sea. A recent graduate of what was then Saint Martin’s College, my interest in the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and ancient Judaism had taken me to Israel for the first time. I’d been introduced to the Dead Sea Scrolls for the first time in the fall of 1994 by emeritus Saint Martin’s professor Dr. David Suter. At the beginning of a class, David had walked into the room holding a spool of microfilm and said, dramatically: “In my hand I hold the Dead Sea Scrolls!” After explaining the significance of the scrolls and the microfilm to the class, I was mesmerized. Shortly thereafter I had decided to pursue a career in Biblical studies.
Although most of my memories from the experience in Ein Gedi are of digging, brushing, and sifting countless buckets of soil, I vividly remember my first visit to Qumran – the location where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1947. As my new friends and I walked through the ancient ruins and listened intently to our guide, I remember feeling overwhelmed, inspired, and exhilarated. There I was standing in the very place where the authors of the scrolls once lived, prayed, and worshipped.
To say that the experience changed my life is an understatement, and less than a year later I was enrolled as a graduate student at Trinity Western University’s Dead Sea Scrolls Institute in Langley, British Columbia. Two decades on, and four visits to Israel later, I have become an active member of the Dead Sea Scrolls scholarly community, focusing primarily on the concepts of ritual purity, ancient literacy rates, scribal practices, and the development of Greco-Roman libraries.
Earlier this year I was invited to participate in a symposium in Jerusalem honoring the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Organized and hosted by Hebrew University, New York University, the University of Vienna, the Israel Antiquities Authority, and the Israel Museum, the symposium took as its focus a famous passage from the Book of Isaiah, which the New Testament writers associate with John the Baptist (“A voice crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God”). Not unlike the Gospel writers, the Dead Sea Scrolls community understood Isaiah’s prophetic utterances as being relevant to their own experience and they adopted Isaiah 40:3 as their mission statement. However, whereas John the Baptist was an apocalyptic preacher whose prophetic statements were understood by the writers of the Gospels as being related to the appearance of the Messiah, the Dead Sea Scrolls community interpreted Isaiah’s words in relation to themselves – they removed themselves into the wilderness of the Judaean Desert to pursue a rigid and unyielding interpretation of Judaism in opposition to the religious authorities of their time, with whom they disagreed. By selecting Isaiah 40:3, and its references to barren places, the organizers of the symposium had hoped to get a variety of scholarly perspectives on the appearance and usage of the “wilderness” in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
My own contribution to the symposium focused on the wilderness experiences of Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls community. By utilizing research from the field of human behavioral genetics and the concept of micro-climates, I tried to show how the wilderness experiences of the scroll community and Jesus’ 40-day retreat into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; and Luke 4:1-13) could have resulted in radically different interpretations of Judaism and the purity requirements that were incumbent on Jews. Not unlike the family unit, the wilderness is often portrayed in literature and film as a singular environment that produces a predictable list of outcomes for anyone who spends enough time there. But as the studies of human behavioral genetics have shown, there is no such thing as a singular, monolithic family unit. Rather there are as many family units within the family structure as there are children to explore them. And it is precisely this realization – the recognition that a myriad of non-shared environments can exist within a single setting and that these micro-environments have the potential to affect the behavior and personalities of individuals in radically different ways – that I brought to bear on Jesus and the Qumran community’s wilderness experiences.
I thoroughly enjoyed the symposium and the feeling of being back in Israel once again; particularly in that I was able to share the experience with my partner, Lyubov, and our newborn son, Oliver. I couldn’t help but notice, however, how much had changed since my first visit. This change was most apparent when I took my family to see Ein Gedi – the place where I had worked as an archaeological volunteer all those years ago. As we entered the site, which had been turned into a minor tourist attraction, we were greeted by a young kibbutznick (a member of a kibbutz, a collective community) manning a newly constructed ticket booth. When I mentioned that I had worked at the site in 1996 and was keen to show my partner around, he shrugged his shoulders and looked down sheepishly. “What do you want me to do about it?” He mumbled. “That was a long time ago.” He was right. It was a long time ago. But the experience of living and working in the wilderness of the Judaean Desert in the mid-90’s affected my development as an individual and those unique experiences continue to inform me as a scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls and professor of religious studies.
Many thanks to the Saint Martin’s Faculty Development Committee and President Heynderickx for their support in helping me to attend the symposium.