Dead Sea Scrolls

Course No. 6362
Professor Gary A. Rendsburg, Ph.D.
Rutgers University
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Course No. 6362
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Course Overview

The year: 1947. A Bedouin shepherd tracks one of his stray goats into a cave mouth above the shore of the Dead Sea at a desolate place named Qumran. Inside, he discovers a pair of tall, thin clay pots. And what he finds when he opens those pots will be nothing less than the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century: the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Soon enough, archaeologists began swarming the dusty cliffs of Qumran in search of more caves and more scrolls. In time, the original 7 scrolls this Bedouin shepherd haphazardly uncovered grew to 930 scrolls; some of them complete, others merely fragments.

In the 60 years since their dramatic discovery, excavation, reassembly, and translation, the Dead Sea Scrolls have provided us with these and other fascinating insights:

  • Our oldest biblical manuscripts, including all of the book of Isaiah, portions of virtually every other book in the Hebrew Bible, and other texts esteemed by ancient Jews
  • An unprecedented window into two great monotheistic traditions in the pivotal years before and after the time of Jesus, offering insights into Jewish history, culture, and religion, as well as the growth of early Christianity out of Judaism
  • Evidence of both the theological stance and ritual practices of the Yahad, an Essene group that had authored the scrolls and that, thousands of years later, have given scholars a fresh perspective on rival sects like the Sadducees and Pharisees
  • The remarkable consistency in wording and meaning between the biblical texts discovered at Qumran and the great medieval codices that form a part of the spiritual lives of millions of Jews and Christians
  • Enhanced knowledge of how the Bible was transmitted across the ages

Whether complete or only fragmentary, the 930 extant Dead Sea Scrolls irrevocably altered how we look at and understand the foundations of faith and religious practice.

Now you can get a comprehensive introduction to this unique series of archaeological documents, and to scholars' evolving understanding of their authorship and significance, with The Dead Sea Scrolls. Taught by Professor Gary A. Rendsburg, a dedicated Dead Sea Scrolls scholar who has spent decades immersed in the study of this amazing find, these 24 lectures will tell you what the scrolls are, what they contain, and how the insights they offered into religious and ancient history came into focus.

And in following the extraordinary story of how the scrolls were acquired and ultimately published—a story fully 40 years in its unfolding—you'll also gain a fascinating peek behind the scholarly curtain to see the rivalries, setbacks, and drama surrounding that process.

Follow a Tale of Scholarly Intrigue

Few areas of historical scholarship can match the Dead Sea Scrolls' combination of intellectual excitement, novel-like intrigue, and curiosity-satisfying forays along fascinating side trails. Organizing his lectures both chronologically and topically, Professor Rendsburg draws on history, religion, archaeology, close textual analysis, linguistics, and other key disciplines to help you share in this excitement.

What kinds of continuities have these ancient scrolls established between periods in ancient history? How can they authenticate biblical texts for both believers and skeptics?

These are just a few of the many provocative questions whose answers you'll uncover in The Dead Sea Scrolls.

An Unlimited Treasure Trove of Insights

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has offered scholars what seems an almost unlimited treasure trove of new facts and insights, which this course shares. You'll learn about these and other topics:

  • The only historical instance of the Jews ever forcibly converting a conquered people to Judaism, which happened when the Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus brought the vanquished people of Idumea (the biblical land of Edom) under the rule of Judea
  • The three key sects of Judaism as observed by the great Jewish historian Josephus: the priestly Sadducees and their lack of belief in the immortality of the soul and in fate; the Pharisees, whose monopoly on historical perspective would eventually be shattered by the Dead Sea Scrolls; and the Essenes, whom most scholars regard as including the Qumran sect
  • The rare stroke of scholarly fortune represented in the discovery of the first seven scrolls sealed in jars, and the triumph of recovering more than 900 documents from the ravages of 2,000 years of exposure
  • The extraordinary intrigue (sometimes spanning generations) that overlays the story of the scrolls, such as the tale of Professor Eliezer Sukenik—who purchased three of the original seven scrolls disguised as an Arab—and his son, Yigael Yadin, who later purchased the remaining four scrolls through a classified advertisement in The Wall Street Journal
  • The ways that parchment scrolls of the time were made and written upon
  • The great lengths to which some ancient Jews went to ensure their adherence to the strict interpretations of halakha, or Jewish law

These stories and many more are brought vividly to life by Professor Rendsburg, whose knowledge of and enthusiasm for his subject are enhanced by decades of study and repeated visits to the Qumran site.

Develop an Appreciation for an Unprecedented Find

At the heart of The Dead Sea Scrolls are the documents themselves. Throughout the course, you spend a wealth of time reading parts of the actual scrolls in English translation. Professor Rendsburg continually trains your eye to uncover the salient religious practices and intriguing theological ideas expressed in these documents.

In addition, his specialized knowledge in the history of the Hebrew language and his skilled literary approaches to the Bible show through in every lecture of this wide-ranging exploration of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their invaluable importance. By the conclusion of the final lecture, you'll have developed a newfound understanding and appreciation of an unprecedented historical find and its enduring influence on the way we think about—and talk about—ancient Judaism and Christianity.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Discoveries and Their Significance
    Learn what the Dead Sea Scrolls are, the story of their unlikely discovery, and the state of scholarship about ancient Judaism and early Christianity prior to the scrolls' surfacing. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls would alter our understanding of every aspect of the crucial historical period in which they were created. x
  • 2
    The First Seven Scrolls
    Plunge into a tale of excitement and adventure and discover more about how scholars gained access to the first seven scrolls discovered at Qumran—and what they found when they began to translate these extraordinary initial discoveries. x
  • 3
    Opening and Reading the First Scroll
    This lecture begins your immersion into the text of the scrolls themselves, starting with the scroll known as the Community Rule or Manual of Discipline—the important text that gives us our first insight into the community and theology of the scrolls' creators and guardians. x
  • 4
    The Historical Backdrop of Ancient Judaism
    Consider history prior to the scrolls, beginning with the biblical period and moving forward to focus on the Maccabean revolt, the arrival of the Romans, the reign of King Herod, the life of Jesus, the Zealot uprising, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the fall of Masada. x
  • 5
    The Rise of the Jewish Sects
    Gain insight into the appearance of Jewish sectarianism in late antiquity—focusing primarily on the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots—through the Jewish historian Josephus, along with the Jewish philosopher Philo, the authors of the New Testament books, the later rabbis, and even the Roman polymath Pliny the Elder. x
  • 6
    The Dead Sea Site of the Qumran Sect
    Journey to the isolated region of Qumran's caves and learn how archaeological excavations of a nearby ruin helped scholars form the most accepted hypothesis of who wrote the scrolls and why the scrolls were deposited in the caves. x
  • 7
    The Emergence of the Rabbinic System
    Step forward in time to examine some later rabbinic texts from the 3rd century and the rise of the rabbinical tradition itself, both of which provide vital perspectives on the composition of the Dead Sea Scrolls. x
  • 8
    A Dead Sea Scroll from Medieval Cairo
    Focus on the famous Damascus Document, two copies of which were discovered in a Cairo synagogue in the 1890s. Although the copies were medieval, the texts themselves were believed to be ancient—a conclusion later confirmed when fragments of the same texts were found at Qumran. x
  • 9
    Pesher Interpretation—Prophecy Read Anew
    Look at a scroll known as the Pesher Habakkuk, the most prominent representative of an interpretive method whereby the true message of a biblical book is read as speaking to present-day conditions, as opposed to the original setting centuries earlier. x
  • 10
    The War Scroll and Other Apocalyptic Texts
    Two key scrolls—one of which details a cataclysmic battle between the "Sons of Light" (the Qumran sect's self-designation) and the "Sons of Darkness" (all other Jews, apparently)—offer you a window into apocalyptic belief among the Dead Sea sectarians. x
  • 11
    Biblical Manuscripts at Qumran
    Using clarifying examples of biblical text, enter the arcane world of textual criticism, learning about the transmission of texts in antiquity, the oral reading tradition, the translation of the Bible into Greek, the Samaritan version of the Torah, and, of course, the Qumran biblical manuscripts themselves. x
  • 12
    Alternative Views of Qumran and the Scrolls
    Most scholars believe the Dead Sea Scrolls were authored by a Jewish sect identified with the Essenes, who then hid the documents from the advancing Roman army in 68 C.E. This is not the only view, however. In this lecture, learn about several dissenting views. x
  • 13
    Stops and Starts En Route to Publication
    The story of the Dead Sea Scrolls involves much more than just archaeology and analysis. This lecture takes you into the intrigue, scholarly rivalry, and sometimes astonishing delays that marked the scrolls' long journey from discovery to complete publication. x
  • 14
    The Qumran Vision for a New Temple
    Explore in detail the Temple Scroll, which reworked the Torah's laws, using the book of Deuteronomy as a base. Also, learn how a key shift in the text's narrative voice—to that of God speaking in the first person—has drawn attention to a major belief central to the Qumran sect. x
  • 15
    Daily Life at Qumran
    How did the Qumran community go about its daily life? This lecture integrates both textual and archaeological data to examine the sect's social structure, economy, farming, food production, and the question of women at Qumran. x
  • 16
    The Halakhic Letter—Rituals Define the Sect
    This treatise on 20 points of Jewish law, written by the Qumran sect's leader, was published in modern form 40 years after its discovery. Follow the twists and turns of that story before delving into the contents of this foundational text for the Qumran community. x
  • 17
    The Qumran Biblical Canon
    When the Qumran community existed, the biblical canon was not yet fixed, with different Jewish groups seeing as canonical some texts that others did not. Examine some texts shedding light on the Qumran canon, including the Genesis Apocryphon and its detailed elaboration of Sarah's physical beauty. x
  • 18
    The Qumran Calendar
    Look at the ways in which the arrangement of the yearly calendar influenced the practice of faith, and how the Qumran community used a different calendar from other Jews of the time. x
  • 19
    Jewish Scholars and Qumran Ritual Practices
    Return to the process by which the scrolls were published, learning how several key events in 1991 ultimately shattered the scholarly monopoly and paved the way for close examination of religious practices at Qumran, including the use of tefillin, the mezuzah, and the recitation of Grace after Meals. x
  • 20
    Prayers, Hymns, and the Synagogue
    Continue your focus on Jewish ritual at Qumran, with special attention to prayer and the role of the synagogue, before turning to the last of the original seven documents to be examined in this course, a lengthy collection of poetry known as the Thanksgiving Hymns. x
  • 21
    Qumran Hebrew as an Anti-Language
    Turn to the dialect used in the Dead Sea Scrolls known to scholars as "Qumran Hebrew"—an example of the sociolinguistic phenomenon of "anti-language"—and investigate how it could be used by the sect to set itself apart. x
  • 22
    The Enigma of the Copper Scroll
    Learn how the Qumran community's most remarkable and puzzling text—the corroded metal sheets of which needed to be cut apart into strips to permit reading—proved to contain obscure hints of the locations of vast and specific amounts of gold, silver, and other treasure. x
  • 23
    Connections to Christianity
    There are many links between the Dead Sea Scrolls sect and the Jesus movement. This lecture gathers connections already mentioned in earlier lectures and further explores beliefs and practices shared by the Qumran sect and earliest Christianity. x
  • 24
    Scroll Fragments and a New View of Judaism
    Even quite fragmentary scrolls offer new insights. This lecture samples three such fragments, turns to the ultimate fates of the different sects, and then concludes with a look at lessons the scrolls offer us today. x

Lecture Titles

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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 144-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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  • 144-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Gary A. Rendsburg

About Your Professor

Gary A. Rendsburg, Ph.D.
Rutgers University
Dr. Gary A. Rendsburg holds the Blanche and Irving Laurie Chair in Jewish History in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, where he also holds an appointment in the History Department. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from New York University and taught at Canisius College and Cornell University-the latter for 18 years-before joining the Rutgers faculty in 2004. The author of six books and...
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Dead Sea Scrolls is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 106.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Content and Presentation I love this course! I found the professor's presentation exciting and not boring. The content was excellent. And even though I had some prior knowledge of the subject matter, I learned much from this course. Additionally, the graphics were great! (I must say that TLC/TGCs has really improved their production quality over the years. I need visuals to enhance my reading, e.g., graphics, captions of the speaker's .quotations, graphs, photos, etc otherwise the lecturer is just a "talking head" and the lecturer becomes monotonous to watch. NOT so with this course! ) In any event, I found this one of the better video courses I have taken recently and I look forward to more. I am also a subscriber to The Great Courses Plus now and love it!
Date published: 2020-07-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course Loved everything about this course. I had certainly heard of the dead sea scrolls but had no knowledge of their content. This was an incredibly informative course.
Date published: 2020-07-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Filled with information, even though I have lived through this period of time--discovery of the scrolls, I was totally unaware of and never received info through the media. Interesting and enlightening. Well done study.
Date published: 2020-06-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I am leading a bible study at our church and found the information in the video outstanding and very useful. I thought the professor was excellent.
Date published: 2020-06-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Except presenation I have only listened to the first four lectures but am very pleased. The information is presented well and reflects great research.
Date published: 2020-03-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Extremely Knowledgeable Professor There are a number of inaccurate reports about the Dead Sea Scrolls that circulate through our communities. Dr. Rendsburg has been dealing with the scrolls for most of his professional life. He tells the real story about the scrolls in a manner that is informative and interesting.
Date published: 2019-09-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Eye-Opening and Enjoyable Beginning to End This 2010 TC course presented by Professor Gary A. Rendsburg really expanded my knowledge of and appreciation for the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Like most folks, I had a hazy idea that a lot of very old documents, many just fragments, had been found at Qumran (occupied by a group known as the Yahud, a Jewish sect likely related to the Essenes) on the Dead Sea back in the late 1940s, and that scholars had been working on them for decades. From time to time I would hear about new developments, and have even taken TC courses that mentioned the Dead Sea Scrolls. This course, however, brings everything together for an understanding of just how important the Dead Sea Scrolls have been for the study of Second Temple Judaism, and even early Christianity. As Professor Rendsburg states: “The Dead Sea Scrolls contain not only our oldest copies of the Bible but Jewish texts from the 3rd century B.C.E. through 68 C.E. that provide an unprecedented view of Jewish history, culture, and religion from before and during the time of Jesus” (Course Guidebook, Page 1). There is a great deal in this course that Professor Rendsburg presents chronologically and thematically to good effect, employing history, religion, archaeology, textual study, Bible transmission and more. I will not try to summarize or and analyze this course so much as to point out some matters that seem important to me. For instance, why there was a rough start in study and preservation in the decades after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The story borders on a mystery or even an adventure at times, including the posting of a 1954 sale notice in the Wall Street Journal for four of the Scrolls; how the Scrolls helped flesh out the existence of various sects of the era, especially the Sadducees and Pharisees; how they very significantly affected biblical scholarship; why it took so long to publish the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as the great variety and sometimes quite idiosyncratic theories about them; how religious affiliation affected Dead Sea Scroll study and interpretation, with Jewish scholars initially excluded; how a “cartel” (Lecture 19:Audio) was broken in the early 1990s allowing greater access by Jewish scholars; and how the Scrolls came to be identified more with Judaism than with Christianity. It is an absorbing set of lectures. One of the most interesting parts of the course relates to the Dead Sea Scrolls and Christianity. Professor Rendsburg references early Christians in many of the lectures and devotes the entire lecture twenty-three to ‘Connections to Christianity’. According to Professor Rendsburg: “Many of these [Yahud/Essene] beliefs resonate with the Christian movement, which began as a Jewish sect of the 1st century C.E. and which also was characterized by a communal lifestyle, distanced itself from the sacrificial system, and held apocalyptic beliefs. There are further points of similarity between the Dead Sea Scrolls community and the Jesus movement: Both groups believed in an ongoing revelation, both placed an emphasis on ritual immersion (baptism) not only for purification but for initiation, and both believed that the prophetic texts of old spoke to the present with new meaning and interpretation. This is not to say that Christianity and the Qumran community should be seen as one and the same—far from it, for as we stress in the course, the former relaxed Jewish law as much as possible, while the latter held to the most stringent interpretation of Halakah” (Guidebook, Page 2). An example of just how stringent they could be is in an apparent Sabbath prohibition on what Professor Rendsburg refers to as “toileting.” Such a prohibition, I am sure, would require considerable intestinal fortitude. I listened straight through on the audio version of the course on my walks and found it easy to follow most of the time. This course was also available to me in video format via The Great Courses Plus, and I sampled several lectures. I think if I had the time, I would prefer the video over audio. Not so much for the illustrations, since there are not so many as in other TC video courses, but for the key, often unfamiliar, words and ideas and summary points projected on the screen. The 133-page course guidebook is fine, including not only basic lecture summaries and a few of the graphics from the video, but also very useful timeline, glossary, biographical notes, and annotated bibliography.Highly recommended!
Date published: 2019-05-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from scrolls Ive been following this topic for years and I learned alot from the course.
Date published: 2019-04-04
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