What the Archaeologist Knew
The ghosts of Qumran have conjured up two distinct communities of modern scholars: the archaeologists who dig in the caves and discover the libraries, and the textual scholars who read and interpret the Dead Sea Scrolls in cavernous libraries of their own. Not many have been able to move with assurance among both. One of them was Hanan Eshel, who died earlier this month at age fifty-two.
The author of more than 200 articles and several books aimed at both scholars and the wider public, Eshel synthesized a broad knowledge of classical Jewish texts with rich archaeological experience and a deep understanding of life in the ancient world. Throughout his career he made exciting finds, from his first excavation in a cave near Jericho that yielded letters from the Second Temple period to a dig last year that uncovered the largest known cache of coins minted around the time of the failed Bar-Kokhba revolt of 135–136 C.E.
Indeed, aside from Qumran, the caves where Bar-Kochba and his rebels took refuge from Roman legionnaires were the chief focus of Eshel's work. In his judgment, the coins he found there ended a millennia-old debate over the causes of the revolt, showing that it was caused at least in part by the Roman re-dedication of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina, in an act that inflamed national—and apocalyptic—passions.
The work of scholars like Eshel, teasing all they can out of fragmentary texts and mute sites and artifacts, is no mere antiquarianism. The three centuries that formed his "field," from the Hasmonean revolt against the Seleucid Greeks in the mid-2nd century B.C.E. to Bar-Kokhba's doomed revolt against the Romans, remain among the most consequential in the history not only of the Jews but of Western civilization as a whole. It saw the destruction of the Temple, the birth of Christianity, and the emergence of rabbinic Judaism.
More broadly, the encounter of Greco-Roman culture with the Hebrew Bible and its adherents formulated terms of debate—reason versus revelation, power politics versus prophetic ethics—that continue to frame our world today. Thus does the painstaking labor of scholars in the heat of a dig and the hush of a library abet the task of modern self-understanding.
Comments are closed for this article.