I picked up The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish Origins of Christianity by Carsten Peter Thiede on a whim at my local public library. I knew I had heard his name before, and I knew he wasn’t a wacko, but I had not read anything by him, so I figured it was worth a quick perusal.

The most interesting thing I found about the book was Thiede’s insistence on pointing out that the Dead Sea Scrolls, as revolutionary their discovery was, are not actually all that odd. There have been other scrolls found in the same area which express the same things, and all the theology expressed in the scrolls can be pieced together from other sources. If nothing else, the DSS give definitive “proof” of many things in a field otherwise filled with conjectures. But one is left to wonder if the real “revolution” of the scrolls was in showing just how shaky and unreasonable many of the vaunted conjectures were.

Thiede is interesting in that he stands between two worlds. On the one hand there is the Evangelical-inerrancy type which subconsciously regards the MT as inherently holy, and on the other hand there is the irreligious scholars who are more than willing to mock anyone who thinks these writings are holy, if given half a chance. Thiede’s approach in balancing and reasoning between the competing arguments of these camps is refreshing, though in a popular book such as this one his discussion on this point is disappointingly thin. Thiede’s approach reminded me that, even at the time the DSS were written, many of the texts were already considered sacred scripture, which means discussion of their composition and history should carefully account for them being treated with piety and devotion, while taking account of the fact that such piety at the time did not include modern ideas of a fixed inerrant text.

Thiede occasionally seems to lose track of himself, and his narrative slips into side notes, bunny trails, and sub themes on a regular basis, interrupting his overall point. He also tends to slip into his “second job” as an Anglican priest and slips into pastoral mode, and seems to be on the verge of giving a homily. His pointed critique of some of the crazy ideas popular in Christian circles are entertaining, but not always entirely appropriate in a general popular book such as this one.

Finally, one can not give a full review without mentioning the New Testament Issue. Thiede goes through piece by piece all his reasons for suggesting that the unknown fragments belong to Mark and 1 Timothy, and all the reasons why he thinks the scholarly world refuse to consider his proposal. After going through all of it I can understand why he thought the whole thing was very frustrating (the frustration almost drips off the page at times). I’m inclined to give his theory a sympathetic consideration, but in the end I believe that it is impossible to prove that the fragments are not Mark and 1 Timothy, and I also believe it is impossible to prove that they are. There simply is not enough solid evidence to prove one way or the other.

The book is very helpful in that it clearly situates the DSS in it’s proper context within the theology of Second Temple Judaism. Even the discussion of the fragments is helpful in that it shows in an engaging way what is involved in manuscripts studies and forming conclusions from the raw evidence. It would be a good supplemental book to an advanced NT studies course, or a good read for any moderately religious armchair theologian who wants to know more about the DSS.