Book Review: Wisdom Texts from Qumran by Daniel J. Harrington S.J.

Daniel J. Harrington S.J.  Wisdom Texts from Qumran. New York, NY.: Routledge, 1996. [1]

A few years ago, I had to pleasure to take a Wisdom Literature survey course with Dan Harrington at Boston College.  The portion of the course dealing with the sapiential literature from Qumran was a personal highlight for me.  I remember asking Dan if I could purchase a copy of Wisdom Texts from Qumran at the BC bookstore, but he suggested that I shouldn’t waste my money on his book.  He argued that other scholars have pushed the field much further since he penned it, and that it wasn’t worth purchasing.   Instead, Dan recommended that I get my hands on Discerning Wisdom: The Sapiential Literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Matthew J. Goff.  (In his opinion, this is/was the best book on the market dealing with the wisdom genre from the DSS.  Last year, I was able to purchase a copy of this book, and I hope to provide a review of it when things settle down.)

Despite Dan’s impressive credentials and prolific editorial and authorial output, he is one of the most unassuming humble scholars that I have ever met.  Therefore, take his commentary about his own book with a grain of salt.  Wisdom Texts from Qumran is still a valuable book!

The Author:

Dan is a clear writer and is up front about his presuppositions.  He, like his professor before him (Frank Moore Cross, Jr.), believes that these scrolls come from a library installation associated with the building remains found at Qumran.[2] He also believes that these scrolls were maintained by the Essenes, but not necessarily authored by them.  Dan is a minimalist in his interpretations.  He is often hesitant to assign a sectarian origin to these texts, which is something that I appreciate.  Even if you are unconvinced by the library theory or the scrolls association with the Essene community, Dan’s cautious interpretations has allowed this book to stand the test of time.  The author’s reconstructions or translations are occasionally challenged.  However, in the fifteen years since its publications, his conclusions (by in large) have not been overturned.

As previously suggested, Professor Harrington is a giant in biblical studies with more than a passing interest in Dead Sea Scroll scholarship.  Along with his mentor, John Strugnell, he was responsible for editing Qumran Cave 4. XXIV: Sapiential Texts Part 2.  4QInstruction: 4Q415ff. With a re-edition of 1Q26 (DJD 34; Oxford: Claredon, 1999).  Wisdom Texts from Qumran was written while Harrington was putting his DJD volume together, which made him uniquely qualified to create a synthetic treatment of this literature for a popular audience.

Intended Audience:

The book is not overly technical, and was intended to serve as an introduction to undergraduate and uninitiated graduate students.  However, I imagine that well read high school students would not have a problem with its contents.  Also, this book can be read in a single sitting, which would allow an instructor to supplement this book with more recent and technical treatments throughout a semester.

Purpose and Content:

Wisdom Texts from Qumran was not intended to be the definitive statement on this corpus.  It was intended to serve as an introduction or a survey to the sapiential texts of the DSS.  The book does not cover every wisdom text, but only the most significant ones.  Despite its diminutive size (only 117 pages long), Wisdom Texts from Qumran does cover quite a bit of ground.  The selected texts give the reader a good taste for the type of literature found at this site.

Chapter Breakdown:

This book is made up of ten short chapters and a nice appendix.  The first two chapters function as an introduction devoted to Qumran and its literature and to the form and content of Canonical and Deuterocanonical wisdom literature. Chapter three includes a discussion about biblical and targumic wisdom manuscripts found at Qumran (this chapter likely will peak the interest of future text critics).  Chapters four through eight provide a survey of unique-to-Qumran wisdom texts (these include, but are not limited to, the Psalm Scroll from Cave 11, Wisdom and Folly [4Q184-185], Sapiential Work A., and miscellaneous fragmentary sectarian texts with a sapiential flare). Chapter nine is a synthesis of the previous chapters, in which Harrington tries to illustrate the thematic continuity between the DSS wisdom texts and earlier Jewish wisdom texts.  Chapter ten illustrates the parallels between wisdom strands in the DSS and those found in the New Testament.  Lastly, Harrington includes an appendix that discusses the Hebrew manuscript of Ben Sira that was found in Massada.

Chapter Layout:

Harrington has organized each chapter well.  The chapters typically consist of an introduction, an English translation of a wisdom text, and a brief summary or commentary of the text.

The best feature of the chapter’s layout is Harrington’s translations.  I have seen many students use introductory or survey books without every cracking the spine of the material that it introduces.  I appreciate a text that forces its readers to actually read chunks of a primary source by including it in the book itself.  This feature was especially important at the time of its initial publication, because these texts were not made widely available to students.

Final Thoughts:

My only critique has to do with the book’s age, which is not exactly fair to the book or the author.  The bibliography has become a little long in the tooth, and could stand to be updated.  I would also love to see a revised and updated version of this book, which takes into account the advancements of DSS sapiential scholarship.  As mentioned previously, I feel that this book still has great value, and its value lies in the fact that there still is no book like it on the market (at least to the best of my knowledge).  Harrington has succeeded in creating a readable and informative book that still meets the needs of his intended audience, students.

Disclaimer:  This review was not solicited by Routledge.  I purchased this book, and the choice to review it was my own.


[1] This is my second attempt at writing this book review.  My computer locked up and decided to save an empty file instead of the three page review that I had previously written.

[2] During an after class conversation, Dan suggested that I read this book.  He argued that, despite the books age, Cross’ conclusions were solid and worthwhile.  Frank Moore Cross Jr., The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies (Revised Edition.; The Haskell Lectures 1956-1957; Garden City, NY.: Doubleday, 1961).

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