Dead Sea Scrolls

University of Wisconsin - River Falls

Nov. 8, 1996

Dead Sea Scrolls Course Explores Religion

What may be the only college-level course in Wisconsin and Minnesota exploring the Dead Sea Scrolls will be offered through UW-River Falls beginning in January.

The course will be taught Dr. Steven Derfler, area executive director of the American Jewish Committee of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Derfler specializes in teaching courses in archeology, comparative religions, Biblical history and geography. He is an accomplished author and has participated in numerous archeological excavations in Israel.

The Dead Sea Scrolls course will offer an intriguing look back in history when the foundations of the modern Bible were still emerging, Derfler said. The course will explore both the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their religious implications today to both the Jewish and Christian religions.

"I think that it is commonly accepted that there has been a revival across the board in America with an interest in religious matters," Derfler said of the attraction in such a course. "It is not simply characterized by a move to the (political ) right. There has been a heightened awareness of religiosity over the last five years.

"People are talking about family values, strengthening of the center, and continuity in their lives with a return to religious roots and values.

"The period of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a period in time that is right at the forefront of understanding Judaism today and the development of Christianity from Judaism," Derfler said.

Course participants will explore a variety of facets of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in 1954 in caves near Qumran, Israel. They were hidden in 68 A.D. from Roman armies that destroyed the sect that created the Scrolls.

The Scrolls have slowly been translated, interpreted and released to the public by an internationally prominent team of researchers. But within the last few years, scholars who were frustrated with that pace, circumvented the team and provided substantial amounts of the Scrolls' contents to the world at large. Many scrolls still have not been interpreted and released, and others are still being discovered.

Derfler said a major portion of the course will deal with reading the translated scrolls, many of which were written during the time of Jesus.

"The Dead Sea Scrolls community was an innovative Jewish sect, much like Jesus's ministry," Derfler said. "There were many parallels between the two."

The sect, Jesus's ministry, and traditional Judaism based in Jerusalem constituted a period of religious exploration that set the foundation for the modern Bible, which did not appear until the Fourth Century.

"It was a time when they were searching for a baseline, and a solidified final version (of the Bible.)"

As an example, the Scrolls contained 28 more verses of the Book of Isaiah then the current Bible. In another comparison, the current Bible contains four more verses of the Book of Samuel than did the Scrolls.

Other sections of the Scrolls are significantly different than the current Bible, Derfler adds.

"The Dead Seas Scrolls will help us to see the transmissions of text as these communities grappled with what's 'official.' That wouldn't come for several hundred more years," Derfler said.

Students also will read a translation of the sect's "handbook." The translation describes the total lifestyle of the sect's members that tells new conscripts exactly how they are to conduct themselves in all aspects of communal life. "It is like a training manual," Derfler explains.

The class also will cover a third Scroll topic: "a battle plan against the agents of darkness." Derfler notes that section of Temple writings describes how the sect should survive and flourish.

It includes a description of hidden treasure troves "that would make Indiana Jones' mouth drool," Derfler said. He said it relates such wonders as a cistern packed with 962 silver chalices. The directions to find it, however, are vague: it instructs the searcher to dig 18 cubits into the earth near a large rock.

Students also will study several texts on the archeology and excavation of the sites, the methods of analysis, as well as the historical, social and political turmoil of the Ancient World at the time of the Scrolls.

Derfler noted that the course is subsidized in part by a grant from the Jewish Chataqua. The organization pursues educational goals to provide students with heightened awareness of cultural diversity.

The course should help participants to understand the evolution of Western religion that is leading to increased awareness of the roots of anti-Semitism and the ongoing healing process as Christians accept the strong Jewish roots of Christianity. Similarly, it will reflect the increasing acceptance in Judaism of the ministry of Jesus Christ that evolved out of the Jewish religious sphere, Derfler noted.

"What the Qumran Community does is put flesh on the bones of the shared Bible heritage and allows us to appreciate our own spirituality today in a much better fashion, and to respect the other religions that grew from the same sphere-and to understand and appreciate those religions and their practitioners," Derfler said.

The cost of the three-credit course is $363 for Wisconsin residents and $404 for Minnesota residents with reciprocity. The course may be audited on a non-credit basis. The cost for Wisconsin residents is $81. For Minnesota residents the non-credit cost if $93.

The class will meet from 9:35-10:50 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For more information, contact the UW-RF history department at 715/425-3164.

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