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The "Mysteries" of Qumran: Mystery, Secrecy, and Esotericism in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The "Mysteries" of Qumran: Mystery, Secrecy, and Esotericism in the Dead Sea Scrolls. By SAMUEL I. THOMAS. Early Judaism and Its Literature, vol. 25. Atlanta: SOCIETY OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE, 2009. Pp. xvii + 311. $39.95 (paper).

This book is the author's revised dissertation written at the University of Notre Dame under the supervisor of James VanderKam, and it reflects the careful, patient style for which Professor VanderKam is well known. In the introductory chapter, Thomas states, "I attempt in this book to describe how Jewish texts from the Second Temple period employ mystery language, and how Qumran texts in particular express concepts of mystery in a way that encompasses sectarian knowledge and the different modes of religious authority in which it operates" (p. 2). Thus, in addition to describing how mystery language functions within the Qumran texts, Thomas has socio-historical aims, which are to describe how concepts of mystery and esoteric knowledge are employed within a social context as instruments for claiming authority and power. Thomas' socio-historical concerns require a more comprehensive approach to the topic of "mystery," so in addition to analyzing the usual mystery language texts, often apocalyptic in genre, he also examines the appearance of mystery language in interpretative (e.g., pesharim), liturgical (e.g., Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice), and wisdom instruction texts--texts that may reflect the broader interpretative and experiential contexts of the members of the Qumran community/ies.

For readers of this Journal, chapters two and three may be of special interest because here Thomas discusses such concepts as "mystery," "secrecy," and "esotericism" in a broader cross-cultural perspective; he also seeks in more detail to situate mystery language within its broader ancient Near Eastern context. In chapter two ("Esotericism, Sectarianism, and Religious Discourse") Thomas sets up a heuristic division for analyzing different Second Temple period discourses that utilize and cultivate mystery language. Not surprisingly, Thomas observes that these discourses, which are also reflected in the broader ancient Near East, are the "prophetic, the priestly, and the sapiential" (p. 71). Another important aim of Thomas is to highlight the necessary correlation between "secrecy" and "esotericism" and how these phenomena serve important functions within a sectarian context, in this case that of the Qumran community/ies.

In chapter three ("Secrets, Mysteries, and the Development of Apocalyptic Thought") Thomas brings to the discussion a range of "texts and traditions that bear importance for understanding the broad cultural and religious context of mystery language in the Qumran scrolls" (p. 81). He first tackles biblical traditions regarding the sod, the divine assembly motif that reoccurs regularly throughout the Hebrew bible, and its relevance for understanding Jewish motifs of secrecy and divinely revealed knowledge. More important for Thomas, however, is the Persian word raz (adopted into Aramaic and Hebrew), and he quickly moves forward chronologically to discuss how in the Second Temple period a new type of heavenly figure emerges in apocalyptic literature, who has ascended to the heavens to gain access to divine raz. An important example of such a figure, one significantly adapted from the broader Mesopotamian scribal milieu, is Enoch. Thomas argues that while the terms sod and raz were already operative in early prophetic and sapiential traditions, it is during the "late Achaemenid" or "early Hellenistic" period, particularly within Aramaic-speaking scribal circles steeped in apocalyptic thinking, where we find the appropriate conceptualization of "mystery" to investigate the use of mystery language in a Qumran context.

In chapter four ("A Lexicology of Mystery in the Qumran Scrolls") Thomas attempts to establish the overall semantic and lexical range of the word raz in the Qumran Scrolls; he focuses on the meaning of such phrases as "mysteries of wonder," "mystery of what will be" (an important and difficult phrase to interpret that continues to generate much scholarly discussion), and "mysteries of knowledge," among others. This is no easy task; Thomas continually reiterates just how slippery word-meaning can be. The English word "mystery," or mysterion in Greek, may not always form an equivalent to the Aramaic/Hebrew word raz, Nonetheless, his discussion in this chapter forms the foundational core for his thesis.

The implications of the research in chapters three and four are considered in chapter five ("Prophetic, Sapiential, and Priestly 'Mysteries'"), where Thomas discusses "the various ways in which mystery language is deployed in the texts most closely related to the Yahad" (p. 33). In this chapter we see more particularly how Thomas' division of "mystery" language into three types of discourse--the prophetic, sapiential, and priestly--works. Regarding mystery language within the prophetic discourse, Thomas points especially to the Qumran pesharim as examples in which the mysteries of God revealed in prophetic literature are properly understood by authoritative interpretation, in this case by the Teacher of Righteousness, and are understood as God's continuing revelation.

The focus in sapiential discourse as it relates to mystery language is to understand the "mystery that is to be." Elsewhere Thomas notes several specific types of mysteries in Qumran literature that would be understood as a "mystery that is to be" ("[1] the temporal dominion of God; [2] eschatology; [3] creation; [4] determinism; [5] torah; [6] instruction for daily life; and [7] ethical dualism" [p. 153]), but here he discusses more the dynamics of how the "mystery that is to be" would have been uncovered (or discovered) within the select and restricted group of the Qumran community/ies. In his discussion of priestly aspects of "mystery," Thomas limits himself to examining how the language of "mystery" priestly discourse is centered on the true nature of the cosmos, that is, the natural ordering of the cosmos, and how to live harmoniously within it. Thus, we find a mystery language often associated with the proper observance of calendar and liturgical texts.

In his summary and conclusions in chapter five, Thomas states that he hopes "to have sketched out the contours for a fruitful path of additional study" (p. 240). At the end of the book this reviewer was left wanting a more substantive discussion with regards to the social dynamics of "mystery" language in the Scrolls, not least because "mystery" language, secrecy, and esotericism are important social phenomena in religious thinking. The first two chapters especially, approximately one-third of the book, contain much methodical throat-clearing, caveats, and disclaimers--always a necessary part of any academic discipline (and particularly important in a dissertation)--but one wonders if there wouldn't have been more room to discuss these dynamics if Thomas had shortened his discussion of these preliminary matters. Thomas does establish a framework for discussing social-historical aspects of "mystery" language in chapter two, but as one reads on, the language of "mystery" at a textual level becomes the main focus. Despite this small criticism, the book provides a good survey of the appropriate texts central to the study of "mystery" language in the Dead Sea Scrolls.


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Author:Penner, Jeremy
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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