Scholar of Dead Sea Scrolls to be honored by his students

Book to be published as tribute to Professor James H. Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary

By: David Campbell
   In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd was searching for a stray goat on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea when he made a remarkable discovery.
   He threw a rock into a cave in the barren hills of Qumran, hoping to scare out his sheep. Instead of the animal, he heard the sound of breaking pottery. Upon entering the cave to investigate, he found several ancient jars containing scrolls wrapped in linen.
   Thus begins the famous story of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery, which today continues to fundamentally reshape scholars’ understanding of ancient Palestine during the time that Jesus of Nazareth lived.
   Professor James H. Charlesworth, the George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, is a leading expert on the scrolls.
   The author and editor of many books, his other areas of research include the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, the Gospel of John, and the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old and New Testaments.
   As seminary teacher and founder and longtime director of the Princeton Theological Seminary Dead Sea Scrolls Project, Professor Charlesworth has mentored generations of students who themselves have gone on to academic positions nationwide and around the world.
   Now, 11 of his former students, all of whom worked with him on the Scrolls Project, have written essays for a forthcoming new book dedicated in his honor, "Qumran Studies: New Approaches, New Questions," to be published by William B. Eerdmans in the spring.
   Asked to comment on the book’s dedication, Professor Charlesworth, 65, noted, "The highest honor a professor can receive is the respect and love of his or her students."
   The seminary’s Scrolls Project was founded in 1985. It seeks to uncover scrolls that still may be buried in the Dead Sea region; locate fragments believed still to be in private collections; and record, translate and make public the text of the scrolls and fragments.
   As the founder and director of the project, Professor Charlesworth has worked on the computer-enhanced photographing and translating of the Qumran scrolls.
   Six volumes of a projected 12-book series have been published to date, with a forthcoming seventh volume, "The Temple Scroll" — the longest scroll found in the Judean desert.
   The mostly fragmented Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 11 caves between 1947 and 1956. In all, scholars have identified the remains of about 825 to 870 separate scrolls.
   The scrolls can be divided into biblical and non-biblical texts, with fragments of every book of the Old Testament except the book of Esther. They predate the New Testament gospels and epistles.
   They appear to be the library of a Jewish sect — the Essenes — a library that apparently was hidden in the caves around the outbreak of the First Jewish Revolt of 66 to 70 A.D.
   The scrolls likely date back to 200 B.C., placing their composition and copying within the Second Temple Period, which extends from the return from the Babylonian exile about 538 B.C. and the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 A.D.
   Professor Charlesworth said he travels the world as part of his research, visiting Jerusalem about three times a year. A Methodist minister, as well as a scholar, he said his studies into the scrolls has considerably deepened his faith.
   "The story in the gospels is founded on history," he said. "Jesus is not a myth. There was a person named Jesus, he comes from Nazareth, and the Dead Sea Scrolls help us understand the landscape through which his ideas took shape."
   Professor Michael Thomas Davis, who teaches at Westminster Choir College and works on the Scrolls Project with Professor Charlesworth, is editor of the forthcoming book with Professor Brent A. Strawn of Emory University. Both were Professor Charlesworth’s students at the seminary, and both contributed essays to the book.
   Professor Davis said the book grew out of a 2001 conference organized by the Regional Society of Biblical Literature, for which he tapped colleagues from around the world to come and present papers on the scrolls.
   He said that while the scrolls predate Christianity, they shed light on the "religious thought world" of Judaism in the time of Jesus, and this, he said, is crucial in understanding the early Christians.
   "While this is material relating directly to Judaism, it does illumine the context in which Jesus preached and lived," Professor Davis continued. "Earliest Christianity is very much a Jewish affair, and in order to understand Christianity’s origins, we have to go back to its emergence in the context of Judaism and Roman Palestine."
   He said the book’s dedication is an expression of thanks to a generous and influential teacher.
   "I thought it would be good to dedicate it to Professor Charlesworth because he has made significant contributions to the field, and we all are indebted to him," he said. "This is just a kind of thanks from those of us involved in the project for his impact on our education and careers."