GROSS: And so when Jewish scholars came on, did they see the teacher completely differently, and did they see the Essenes differently, looking at a more Jewish interpretation, looking at Jewish history?
COLLINS: You know, if somebody had been asked, say, in 1960 what was the importance of the teacher, they would probably have put it in terms of how he founded this movement, that it was a lot like the early church, where people shared their possessions, and at least some of them were celibate, and they tried to live a life of holiness, much like later monasticism.
But then it wasn't only the increased involvement of the Jewish scholars, but also some of the other material that came to light. And one of the big turning points in the study of the scrolls was in 1984, when a scroll that's called for, QMMT - or it means some of the works of the law - was presented at a conference in Jerusalem.
And this scroll actually says pretty explicitly why it was that this group separated from other Jews. Now that all had to do with minute points of purity and interpretation of the law relating to purity. There was a long section also on the religious calendar.
Now this is a kind of material that, by and large, doesn't interest Christians at all. My favorite illustration is the purity of liquid streams: If you pour water from one cup into another, but the second cup is dirty, does the impurity travel upstream?
Now, I'd say, you know, most Christians find their eyes glazing over when you get into a debate about that sort of thing. And it was only when Jewish scholars were brought into the process that they realized the importance of this text.
GROSS: I've got to stop you here, because, like, what is the importance of whether the second cup of water can dirty water going upstream? It seems very arcane, yeah.
COLLINS: Yes, it is very arcane. But if you're obsessed with purity, and your greatest fear in life is becoming impure or being at a stage of impurity, then you worry about this sort of thing.