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What are the Dead Sea Scrolls? Lawrence H. Schiffman, COJS.

Wadi QumranAn introduction

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of for the most part fragmentary remains of almost 850 ancient Jewish documents dating to the pre-Christian period. The first seven scrolls were discovered in a cave at the shore of the Dead Sea in 1947. Subsequently, between 1952 and 1956, an additional ten caves yielded scrolls and scroll fragments. These documents were painstakingly assembled by 1960, but for a variety of reasons most of the documents remained unpublished until their recent release by the Israel Antiquities Authority, after a public campaign led by the Biblical Archaeology Review. As a result, scholarly editions and translations of the remaining texts are rapidly being published and the entire corpus is now available for study.

It is generally believed that these scrolls were gathered by a sect that occupied the ruins known as Khirbet Qumran from some time after 150 BCE until 68 CE when this site, adjacent to the caves where the scrolls were found, was destroyed by the Romans during the Great Revolt of the Jews against Rome (66–73 CE). The composition of the texts included in the scrolls ranges over a very long period, beginning with the earliest books of the Hebrew Bible. The non-biblical works were composed from the third century BCE through the turn of the era. The date of the preserved manuscripts is from the third century BCE through the early first century CE, although the vast majority of the scrolls were copied in the first two centuries BCE. This dating, originally arrived at by paleography (the study of the history of writing) and the archaeology of the ruins, has been confirmed now by sophisticated carbon-14 dating. This means that most of the compositions preserved in this ancient library were not composed by the sectarians who inhabited the building complex at Qumran. It also means that the texts are pre-Christian and for this reason have no direct references to Jesus or John the Baptist.

Any evaluation of the scrolls collection will depend to some extent on a judgment of who the people were who gathered the scrolls and placed them in the caves at Qumran. From the earliest stages of Qumran research, it has been determined that the scrolls, the caves and the ruins were related. This is the case because the caves preserve a unique pottery assemblage, including a specific type of jar unique to Qumran in which some of the scrolls were found. There is only one exception, one exemplar from nearby Jericho, which was the commercial center nearest to Qumran.

The archaeological excavation of the ruins, carried out in 1951–56, determined that the site was occupied in a number of periods. Initially, this place served as a border outpost in the period of the divided monarchy, and some remains of an Iron Age cistern and some walls testify to this period. Thereafter, the core of the building complex seems to have been in use already by 150 BCE, as shortly afterwards, the period of sectarian occupation seems to have begun. This period featured a large communal dining hall and a large number of ritual baths and Jewish burials. Some interruption of the occupation may have occurred in connection with the earthquake that hit Judea in 31 BCE, but otherwise the buildings continued to be used until the destruction of the center at the hands of the Romans during the Great Revolt of the Jews against Rome, most likely in 68 CE.

Since the remains at the site seem to provide facilities appropriate for a Jewish religious group (loosely termed a “sect”) and since the documents include the previously unknown compositions of such a group, it has been concluded that this sect occupied the building complex at Qumran, gathered the scrolls of the Bible, those of other authors and the group’s own compositions, and hid them in the caves where they were found two millennia later.

The scrolls can be divided roughly into three separate categories- (1) Approximately one third of the material represents books of the Hebrew Bible, known by Christians as the Old Testament. Parts of all the books of the Hebrew Bible are found except for Esther. While some scholars believe that Esther was not part of the Bible at Qumran, others see its absence among the biblical fragments as mere coincidence. (2) The second group is made up of apocryphal or pseudepigraphical texts, that is, Jewish texts from the Second Temple period that in some way related to the Bible, that were part of the general literary heritage of the Jewish people at this time. In some cases, these books had been previously known in Greek, Ethiopic or other languages, and the Qumran manuscripts preserved the text in the original language, but in many cases these were previously unknown works. (3) The third type of texts is that of the sectarian compositions, those works composed and transmitted within the group that used the Qumran buildings, gathered the scrolls, and hid them in the caves in ancient times. These texts are the most important for the discussion of the identification of the sect. However, the collection as a whole must be studied to illumine the history of Judaism in the period and its relation to the later developments in Judaism and to the rise of Christianity.

The debate over the identity of the sect actually started before the discovery of scrolls in the Judean Desert in 1947. In 1910 two fragmentary medieval manuscripts of a previously unknown work recovered from the Cairo genizah, the storehouse of the Ben Ezra synagogue in old Cairo, appeared in England. These manuscripts would later turn out to be part of the Dead Sea Scrolls when ten partial copies of the same text were found in the Qumran caves. The publication of this text effectively began the debate over the identity of what would become known as the Dead Sea Sect.

At that time, virtually all the same theories later put forth had already been suggested. The scrolls sect was identified as Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Christians, Zealots and the medieval Karaites. Some argued that these were the documents of a previously unknown group.

With the discovery of the Qumran scrolls in 1947, most scholars agreed with those who had suggested that the scrolls sect was to be identified with the Essenes, a group mentioned by Josephus, Philo and other ancient writers. This view remains the majority view among scholars of the scrolls even though the precise meaning of the word “Essene” is not certain and it does not occur in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Recently, some have concluded that the Jewish legal tradition of the sect stems from that of the Sadducees, and this has led to some modifications in the Essene theory. Some scholars now believe that the group called Essene developed from a group of Sadducees who split from their brethren in the aftermath of the Maccabean revolt (168–164 BCE). Others have called for a redefinition of the term “Essene” to designate a type of sectarian group but not necessarily one particular sect.

The scrolls have done much to illumine the state of the Hebrew Bible in the last two centuries BCE. The scrolls provide early evidence for the concept of a three-part biblical canon—Torah, Prophets and Writings—such as is found in the Rabbinic tradition. While all the books that are part of our canon were also considered holy by the sectarians (with the possible exception of Esther), it is possible that they also included a Jubilees and a version of the Testament of Levi in their “Bible.”

Within the books there is also evidence for textual variation. Indeed, the sectarians tolerated multiple texts of the same book, in a way that later Jews would have found unacceptable. A few biblical fragments show evidence of the Hebrew text that was translated into Greek as the Septuagint. A few others are evidence of the text that formed the basis for the later Samaritan Torah. The vast majority of texts are either of the proto-Masoretic variety, pointing toward the fixed texts of the Talmudic Rabbis, or of a mixed type that often included the linguistic forms known from the compositions of the Qumran group. Yet the text was already on the way to standardization, and by the time of the Masada and Bar Kokhba texts, from the first century CE, the proto-Masoretic text had become standard. We should note, also, that no New Testament texts have been found at Qumran.

Regarding the history of Judaism, the scrolls have taught us of the rich variety of approaches to Jewish law and theology in the second and first centuries BCE. In addition, they have also made clear the extent to which messianic speculation was practically the norm for many Jewish groups at this time. They have indirectly thrown much light on the early history of the Rabbinic tradition since they polemicize so extensively against the approach of the Pharisees, the forerunners of the Rabbis. These arguments have shown us that much of what we know as the Rabbinic tradition in the Mishnah was already the norm among the Pharisees in this period, and this conclusion has confirmed the historical value of both Josephus’ and later Rabbinic accounts.

Regarding the origins of Christianity, the scrolls help us to understand the nature of the approaches to Judaism that existed when Christianity came into being. Much of what may have been previously taken to be foreign influence is now understood to stem from Jewish roots. Further, we can now better understand where Jesus differed from the Jewish groups of his time. Yet no direct links can be shown between Jesus and the scrolls, and, in fact, many substantial differences exist between his teachings and those of the Qumran sect, and these militate against any simplistic judgments on this question.

All in all, the scrolls have opened up for us a new chapter in the study of Judaism precisely when Western civilization was involved in major developments. The study of these documents is really only at its beginnings and we can hope for many more important conclusions as research proceeds.


John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star- The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature (New York, 1995).

Frank Moore Cross, The Ancient Library of Qumran, 3rd ed. (Sheffield, 1995).

Florentino García Martínez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated- The Qumran Texts in English (Leiden, 1994).

Florentino García Martínez and Julio Trebolle Barrera, The People of the Dead Sea Scrolls- Their Writings, Beliefs and Practices (Leiden, 1995).

James C. Vanderkam and Peter Flint, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls- their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus and Christianity (San Francisco, 2002).

Lawrence H. Schiffman, The Halakhah at Qumran (Leiden, 1975).

Lawrence H. Schiffman, The Eschatological Community of the Dead Sea Scrolls- A Study of the Rule of the Congregation, Society for Biblical Literature Monographs 38 (Atlanta, 1989).

Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls (Philadelphia, 1994).

Lawrence H. Schiffman, Sectarian Law in the Dead Sea Scrolls- Courts, Testimony and the Penal Code, Brown Judaic Studies 33 (Chico, CA, 1983).

Eugene Ulrich and James VanderKam, eds., The Community of the Renewed Covenant- The Notre Dame Symposium on the Dead Sea Scrolls (Notre Dame, IN, 1994).

James C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today (Grand Rapids, 1994).

Roland de Vaux, Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls (London, 1973).

Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls- Qumran in Perspective (Cleveland, 1977).

Yigael Yadin, The Temple Scroll- The Hidden Law of the Dead Sea Sect (New York, 1985).

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