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Shemaryahu Talmon (1920–2010)

February 18, 2011

Shemaryahu TalmonShemaryahu Talmon, J.L. Magnes Professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and one of the world’s foremost scholars on the Dead Sea Scrolls, passed away in December at age 90.

Talmon was an original member of the editorial committee established by the Israel Department of Antiquities (now the Israel Antiquities Authority) to oversee the final publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls and was a strong supporter of the speedy but responsible publication of the scrolls. Talmon himself was assigned the large corpus of calendrical texts from Qumran, which he edited and published in 2001 as part of the Discoveries in the Judaean Desert series.a

The fascinating but fragmentary and poorly understood calendrical documents confirm that the sectarian Jewish community of Qumran—most probably Essenes—followed a 364-day solar calendar, as opposed to the 354-day lunar calendar used by the Temple priests in Jerusalem and still followed by Jews today. The divergent calendars resulted in radically different views about the cosmos and, more importantly, the timing of annual Jewish festivals. The Qumran solar calendar, as Talmon argued, “was a major cause, possibly the causa causans, of the Yahad’s [Community’s] separation from mainstream Judaism.”b

In addition to his work on the scrolls, Talmon was editor-in-chief of the Hebrew University Bible Project. Established in 1956, the project aims to produce an authoritative critical edition of the Hebrew Bible based on the tenth-century C.E. Aleppo Codex but with notes on textual variants found in other ancient sources, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint.

Talmon was born in Poland in 1920 and survived three months in Buchenwald concentration camp at the start of World War II. He immigrated to Palestine in 1939 and earned his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in 1955, after which he joined the school’s humanities faculty as a lecturer. He retired as emeritus professor of Bible in 1988.

b. This view has recently been questioned by Sacha Stern of University College London, who doubts that “the 364-day calendar was ever used in practice, or intended for such use, at Qumran or in any other community,” although “Qumran sources are clearly committed to it” and the scrolls use it to date the festivals. Was this solar calendar part of the Qumran community’s sectarian identity? This interpretation is based, Stern argues, on “over-interpretations and sometimes even, quite frankly, misinterpretations.” Sacha Stern, “Qumran Calendars and Sectarianism,” in Timothy H. Lim and John J. Collins, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010).
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