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Wadi Murabbaat (M.R. 110185), Jerome Murphy O’Connor, Julia M. O’Brien, Anchor Bible Dictionary (ed. David Noel Freedman), Doubleday, New York 1992.

WADI MURABBAAT (M.R. 110185). At the end of November 1951 bedouin from the Judean desert began to bring fragments of manuscripts to Jerusalem. It was immediately clear that they did not come from Qumran, but it was only in January 1952 that the bedouin were persuaded to reveal their source. The documents came from a series of four caves in the N wall of the Wadi Murabbaat, which is the name given to a section of a long wadi that begins just W of Herodium and drains into the Dead Sea. On modern Israeli maps it is identified as Nahal Teqoa which becomes Nahal Darga.

A. Archaeology

When the excavators arrived on the site on 21 January 1952 they found the bedouin manuscript seekers actually at work in the caves. This guaranteed the provenance of the manuscripts and artifacts they sold in Jerusalem. The excavation continued until 1 March 1952, and was directed by R. de Vaux, L. Harding, and D. Barthélemy. Their task was complicated by two earlier clandestine excavations that had disturbed the stratigraphy. The first was the bedouin exploitation of guano deposits in the 1920s, when pieces of leather (now known to be manuscripts) were thrown away as valueless, and the second the recent manuscript hunt. Nonetheless, a clear occupation series could be reconstructed from the artifacts discovered.

In the 4th millennium B.C. the caves were occupied for a considerable time. The pottery vessels and flint tools are typical of the middle Chalcolithic period. Most unusual for this period in Palestine, an undisturbed layer produced wooden objects, splints, hardwood needles, fire-making devices, and an adze handle with its leather binding for the flint blade intact.

The later MB and Iron Age II remains do not suggest permanent occupation. The MB artifacts (a scarab of the Hyksos period, an alabaster juglet made in Egypt, toggle pins, wooden combs) suggest an Egyptian fugitive who, like Sinuhe, sought refuge in the desert. Similarly the paucity of Iron II remains (pottery and two iron knives with wooden handles) indicates a passing traveller who accidentally dropped a document (Mur 17).

The majority of the finds come from the Roman period. Although the clandestine operations had been most destructive in this level, the excavators were able to distinguish two main phases.

One coin of the year 42/43, three dated to 58/59, and one to 69/70, when taken in conjunction with pieces of pottery that have close parallels with Qumran II, indicate that the caves were occupied by Jewish refugees during the First Revolt (66–70). This is confirmed by an IOU dated to 55/56 (Mur 18), which would not have been conserved indefinitely by its owner.

The second phase is the more important, and is securely dated by nine coins of the Second Revolt (132–135), by two letters from the leader of the rebellion, Simeon ben Kosba (Mur 43–44), and by two legal documents dated 131 (Mur 22) and 133 (Mur 24). That Jewish rebels with their families took refuge in the caves during this troubled period is confirmed by a variety of domestic objects, a key, a writing tablet, needles, spindles, rings, combs, buttons, and sandals belonging both to adults and children. The remains of their garments show them to have been of excellent quality though repatched many times. They had prepared for their exile by bringing with them a saw to provide firewood. Some of these objects may have been leftovers from the occupation during the First Revolt.

The presence of Roman soldiers is indicated by the discovery of a pilum, two javelins, three arrowheads, and parts of military uniforms. One of the soldiers left behind a wooden stamp with two lines of Roman script, C[ENTURIA] ANNAEI/GARGILIU[S] “Gargilius of the century of Annaeus.” Since all the biblical texts on parchment, with the exception of the phylactery, were deliberately torn into shreds, it seems clear that the Roman patrol must have trapped the refugees, who would never have left their sacred books behind. On the basis of two coins of the Tenth Legion and a fragment mentioning the emperor Commodius (Mur 117), de Vaux argues that a Roman garrison must have remained in the caves until the end of the 2d century A.D. The evidence is perhaps better explained as due to sporadic visits by desert patrols, since the caves do not offer the wide perspective that would merit permanent observers.

The caves also had visitors in the 8–10th centuries A.D. as indicated by a coin struck in Ramla in the 8th century and by a document written in Arabic on paper and dated 938/939.

In March 1955, three years after the end of the excavation, a bedouin shepherd discovered the remains of a scroll containing the Hebrew text of the Twelve Minor Prophets in a fifth cave located in the S wall of the wadi some 300 m upstream from caves 1–4. It had been buried with a corpse, but the cave showed no sign of habitation.


Vaux, R. de. 1960. Archéologie. Pp. 3–50 in Les Grottes de Murabba˓ât. DJD 2. Ed. P. Benoit, O.P.; J. T. Milik; and R. de Vaux, O.P. Oxford.


B. Texts

In addition to material culture, finds in the four large Murabbaat caves have yielded numerous manuscripts. Letters appear from the period of the Second Revolt (132–135 C.E.), written on papyrus and addressed to the cave dwellers from Simeon Bar Kokhba. Other nonbiblical materials include documents written in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew.

The Hebrew biblical remains from Murabbaat date to the Roman period and are written in Herodian script. All are fragmentary, and their tears may have been deliberately made by Roman soldiers. Fragments from the Pentateuch appear to derive from a single scroll, although little of their text remains. Pentateuchal readings also appear on phylacteries which, unlike those found at Qumran, adhere to tannaitic regulations. From Isaiah, only eleven verses remain.

Most numerous and complete of the texts are fragments from the Minor Prophets, likely from a single scroll. Very little of Zechariah and no readings from Hosea and Malachi have been preserved; all other books of the Minor Prophets are represented, in present Masoretic order.

Many textual critics consider these biblical manuscripts, along with those retrieved from Nahal Hever and Masada, as evidence that the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible was standardized by the period of the Second Revolt. While the great variety in types of biblical texts found at Qumran suggests that no one textual type was considered authoritative at the turn of the era, the biblical manuscripts from the second century at Murabbaat, Nahal Hever and Masada reflect only the textual type preserved in the present MT. This interpretation of the Murabbaat finds was suggested by de Vaux during his initial work and has been accepted by most historians of the biblical text.

The Murabbaat biblical manuscripts do exhibit some differences from the present MT. Most of these differences are minor, often involving the presence or absence of vowel letters (25 cases) or alternate spelling. Occasional variations are more substantive, reflecting the use of a different preposition (e.g., Mic 5-7) or even a different phrase (e.g., Hab 3-10, perhaps a harmonization toward Psalm 77). Despite these differences, the prominence of the MT textual type is clear- all additions and corrections to the fragments are made toward the MT (18 cases).

Of further interest to textual critics, the Murabbaat texts alternately agree with the qere and the kethib readings of the MT. This fact may lend support to the argument of Rabin (1955) and Orlinsky (1960) that the Masoretic qere/kethib system functions to preserve variant readings rather than to offer corrections.


Benoit, P., Milik, J. T., and Vaux, R. de. 1961. Les Grottes de Murabba˓at. DJD 2. Oxford.
Orlinsky, H. 1960. The Origin of the Kethib-Qere System- A New Approach. VTSup 7- 184–92.
Rabin, C. 1955. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the History of the OT Text. JTS n.s. 6- 174–82.


Vol.6, p.862-864

Posted in: Excavation

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