Recently, I spoke to students about the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Scrolls, discovered in 1947 on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea (in a series of Caves), represent the oldest versions of the Hebrew Bible. From the time of their discovery, the scrolls have been in the possession of various institutions. And since their discovery, scholarly consensus on some important questions related to the scrolls has proved elusive. Who wrote the scrolls? Why were the scrolls places in Caves? Five theories exist to answer these questions. The most dominant theory is the Qumran-Essene theory that postulates the Essenes from Qumran hid the scrolls in the cave during the Jewish Revolt (66-68 AD).
In my comments, I acknowledged the archeological interest in the scrolls and their general historical importance for Judaism. I also indicated that the examining the theories related to the scrolls constituted a good intellectual exercise for students.
Nevertheless, I went on to say that at some point historians must draw a line as to where the research agenda must come to an end. And as for further inquiries into the origins of the scrolls and the reason for their placement in the caves…well, who cares? The reason the research should end is that aside from some additional discoveries that somehow answer these questions, all we have is further speculation without evidence. Indeed, even the existing theories contain a fair share of inference…in the absence of evidence. (I’m not certain what current efforts are underway to augment our understanding of the scrolls.)
In response to my comments, a student emailed me stating that what I said about the scrolls could be said about almost anything in the past. The student stated that it’s not the facts about a historical topic that change but how they are viewed or what facts are selected for a theory that shapes our understanding of history. It’s almost an interesting point. But wrong.
If we accept the student’s premise, we place all historical topics in a state of equivalence…and admit that interpretations must go on ad infinitum because a new view of the facts may surface. But this is only true for events and topics with a considerable amount of primary source material. And the problem with the Dead Sea Scrolls is that we’ve just about run out of new discoveries in this area and period. It is true that on many historical topics, views change over time. Facts are reconsidered in a new light. But with a limited set of facts about a specific set of objects, theories run dry soon. Historical study should be limited to interpreting topics that inform our present or guide us into the future. The value of history is not in ruminating over something for its own sake, but in explaining why something is the way it is for our sake.