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Overview: Biblical Literature

The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Biblical Canon

The term “canon” is borrowed from debates which took place in the fourth century on the subject of which books should be included in the New Testament. It is a Greek word, derived from Sumerian, meaning “reed” or “rod;” in other words, a rule, standard, or limit. It has come to mean the list of authoritative scriptural books.

The only Jewish discussions of canonicity appear in rabbinic sources. The Mishnah debates the sanctity of some books, such as Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and possibly Esther. By this time, the Torah and Prophets were fixed, so debate was only possible regarding books of the Writings.

The Qumran texts reveal much about the status of the biblical canon in the sect itself and in the Second Temple period at large.

The first fact which must be determined is- Which biblical texts were found at Qumran? In fact, all of the biblical books are represented at Qumran with the exception of Esther. A number of theories have been put forth which deliberate reasons that the sectarians would not have considered Esther to be authoritative (and therefore would not have celebrated the holiday of Purim). It is also possible is that the book’s absence is purely coincidental. Indeed, some other books of Writings have only been found in one or two copies. It seems that the sectarians had read the Book of Esther. They employ expressions from it; additionally, an apocryphal book found at Qumran called Proto-Esther is clearly related to it.

However, the mere presence of these books does not indicate that either the sect or other Second Temple groups considered them to be authoritative. To investigate this further, we have to determine whether the concept of a canon existed at all in this period, and, if it did, whether that canon was recognized by the sectarians.

From evidence found in the Book of Ben Sira (about 180 BCE), 2 Maccabees, and the Book of Luke, it can be concluded that the division of the Bible into three parts had already been accepted at the time. These three parts are the Torah (Five Books of Moses), Prophets (Nevi’im), and the Writings (Ketuvim). The Qumran texts clearly attribute canonical authority to the Torah and the Prophets, but do not mention the Writings in this context.

The Halakhic Letter does allude to “the Book of Moses, [and the words of the Pro]phets, and Davi[d, and the chronicles of each] and every generation” (Halakhic Letter C 9–11). The “words of David” probably refer to the Psalms and “the chronicles” to the Books of Chronicles, and possibly Ezra and Nehemiah as well. So it would seem that the sectarians recognized a tripartite canon, and that this was standard amongst most Jews of the period.

It has been suggested that it is possible to identify canonical books by the method used to quote them. In the Qumran texts, a biblical passage is usually preceded by “as He (or it) said.” If we accept this as an indication of canonicity, we would include the Testament of Levi and the Book of Jubilees in the Qumran canon. However, rabbinic sources quote the Book of Ben Sira in the same manner in which they quote biblical passages, yet they prohibit public reading of the book. Since the Book of Ben Sira had obviously attained near-canonical status (and therefore such extreme measures were taken to exclude it), we may still maintain that the method of quotation indicates whether a work was considered authoritative.

Another way to determine canonicity is by examining the use of texts in liturgical works, as liturgy of the Second Temple period and of later Judaism is typically composed through reuse of biblical passages. The Qumran liturgy uses all books of the canonical Hebrew Bible in this way, but none of the other books found at Qumran were used for liturgy. Therefore, we can conclude that the sectarian Bible was identical to that of the later Rabbis, which the Pharisees and Sadducees of the Second Temple period also accepted.

Text Types and Families

The Qumran corpus of biblical books does not differ from other biblical corpuses as far as basic content, but there is some fluidity in the nature of the texts. In order to understand this, a short introduction of the “witnesses” to the biblical text, or sources providing evidence about the state of the text in late antiquity, is necessary.

Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the only texts discovered which were in the original Hebrew was the Masoretic Text, meaning “traditional text.” The consonants in the Masoretic Text were fixed in antiquity (the vowels and accents were added in the early Middle Ages).

The Greek translation of the Bible, known as the Septuagint, presents a different text of the Bible. The Bible was translated into Greek during the third and second centuries BCE, in many cases from a Hebrew text which was different from the Masoretic text. Along with the Septuagint, a collection of books known as the Apocrypha were translated and preserved by the Christians.

A third witness to the biblical text is the Samaritan Torah. The Samaritan sect remained in the Land of Israel after the exile in 722 BCE. They intermarried with foreigners who were settled in Israel by the Assyrian conquerors, and accepted only the Torah as canonical. The Samaritan Torah contains some changes made by the Samaritans, but also has variant spellings or wordings caused by the process of transmission and copying. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it has become clear that the Samaritan Torah was expanded and developed from an earlier recension found at Qumran.

Most of the Qumran biblical texts are based on a proto-Masoretic text, which was the dominant text outside the sect during this period. The sectarians modified this text with their own spelling (orthography) and grammatical forms (morphology). The process of standardization of the text had already begun by this time, and was completed by the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–135 CE).

Significant Variant Manuscripts

A few manuscripts have particular variations from the Masoretic text which should be studied.

Two large manuscripts of Isaiah were found at Qumran. Isaiah B, which is missing whole chapters and is fragmentary in places, represents a proto-Masoretic text with very few variants. Isaiah A, an essentially complete scroll, uses Qumran linguistic forms and therefore can be assumed to have been copied by the sectarians.

The Samuel A scroll discovered reflects both the proto-Masoretic text and the Septuagint. It is the only scroll which contains an addition which appears to be an original composition rather than an explanatory passage; this addition, it would seem, was part of the original book of Samuel.

The four Jeremiah texts discovered at Qumran can be split into two groups. Jeremiah A and C are proto-Masoretic, while Jeremiah B and D preserve the Septuagint version, which is both shorter than the Hebrew and places its chapters in a different order. The discovery of these texts—the closest to the Greek Septuagint found at Qumran—proves that the Septuagint was based on a different Hebrew text and was not the result of a Greek revision.

Proof that the Samaritan Torah was based on an earlier Hebrew text can be found in Paleo-Exodus. This scroll of the Book of Exodus shares three features with the Samaritan Torah- the old paleo-Hebrew script, a text in the proto-Samaritan tradition, and the extensive use of vowel letters.

Two types of Psalms scrolls were found at Qumran. One is very close to the Masoretic text. The other includes additional non-canonical Psalms. However, these scrolls were not meant to be biblical manuscripts. Instead, they serve as liturgical compositions. This function was emphasized in an excerpt from the end of the Cave 11 Psalms Scroll, which speaks of the role of Psalms in being sung on different occasions in the calendar year.

Based on the evidence presented here, it is clear that the concept of a biblical canon existed at Qumran, and that, although standardization of the text had not yet been perfected, the process was well under way inside and outside of the sect.

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