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The Book of Mysteries, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.

The Dead Sea Scrolls
Another set of manuscripts, very similar to the Sapiential Works, have been entitled Mysteries. These documents, sharing many of the same ideas and language used in the wisdom materials, contain even more sectarian terminology. When read together with the Thanksgiving Hymns, the Mysteries seem more integral to the Qumran sectarian corpus than the other sapiential texts.
The Mysteries consist of four manuscripts. Three of these—the cave 1 Book of Mysteries and the cave 4 Mysteries A and Mysteries B—are one and the same text. But the fourth, Mysteries C, although classified by the original editors as part of this same composition, shows no definite overlap with these other texts. It does, however, show parallels to the poetry of early Jewish mystical literature. Because such parallels are found in this text but not in the other three manuscripts, we need to be more cautious about identifying it with the others. We will, therefore, refer to a Book of Mysteries, represented in at least three manuscripts. This book is poetic, belonging to a type of reflective (that is, nonliturgical) poetry typical of many compositions in the Qumran library.

The Mysteries share much in common with the so-called Sapiential Works, especially Sapiential Work Ic They belong to a similar genre, and share similar content and terms. However, the fact that their texts do not overlap at all, considering how much material we have recovered from both documents, makes it extremely unlikely that these constitute parts of the same text.

The Mysteries get their name from the term, raz—”mystery”—a word of Persian derivation that appears in the Book of Daniel as well as in these texts. Numerous studies compare the use of the term raz in Qumran literature to the use of “mystery” in the New Testament. These similarities indicate that Christians derived their ideas from Jewish sources, not from Greco-Roman mystery religions.

In the Mysteries and Sapiential Works, raz refers to the mysteries of creation, that is, the natural order of things, and to the mysteries of the divine role in historical processes. The source of these mysteries is divine wisdom. Therefore, all natural phenomena and historical events are part of the divine wisdom.

The largest single unit of text in this group of manuscripts is a long poem reconstructed from three of the texts. Following is a composite rendering that will convey the flavor of the composition. The text begins by explaining why wisdom was given to mankind (Book of Mysteries 1 I 3 = Mysteries B 3 2–3)-

… in order that they would know (the difference) between good and evil, (that they would understand the) mysteries of transgression (with) all their wisdom.

This wisdom should have led human beings to righteous behavior, but its lessons were ignored (Book of Mysteries 1 I 3–4)-

But they did not know the mystery of that which was coming into being,

and the former things they did not consider,

nor did they know what was to come upon them.

And so they did not save their lives,

from the mystery that was coming into being.

Despite clear evidence of major cosmic changes, human beings did nothing to prepare themselves.

Although they should have realized that God’s plan for the End of Days, the mystery, was soon to unfold, they ignored the signs (5–7)-

And this shall be the sign to you that it is taking place-

When the begotten of unrighteousness are delivered up,

and wickedness is removed from before righteousness,

as darkness is removed from before light.

(Then,) just as smoke wholly ceases and is no more,

so shall wickedness cease forever,

and righteousness shall be revealed as the sun

(throughout) the full measure of the world.

And all the adherents of the mysteries of [Belial] will be no more.

But knowledge shall fill the world,

nor shall folly ever[more] be there.

These mysteries clearly describe the coming of the End of Days, at which time the wicked will be destroyed. Signs have already begun to make its impending arrival clear (Book of Mysteries 1 I 8–12 = Mysteries A I 1–4)-

The thing is certain to come,

and true is the oracle.

And from this you will know that it will not be reversed-

Do not all the people]s hate iniquity?

But it goes on at the hands of all of them.

But does not the truthful report (issue) from the mouth of all the nations?

Is there a language or a tongue which upholds it (truth)?

What nation desires that a stronger one should oppress it?

(Yet) what nation (is there) which has not stolen property (of another)?

It is precisely humanity’s complete dishonesty and the nations’ struggles with one another that bear witness to the imminent dawning of the End of Days.

Although God had granted human beings the wisdom to distinguish between good and evil, truth and falsehood, human beings had failed to heed that wisdom. They did not realize what would ultimately happen to them in the future, because they did not properly grasp the significance of past events. Therefore, God was now announcing that the End of Days was about to dawn, when all the wicked and evil itself would be eliminated and cease forever, and when knowledge of God would fill the earth. How would one know that the End of Days was really at hand? God would send unmistakable signs; the hypocrisy of all the nations would reveal itself—although all nations would denounce evil, they themselves would commit it against their neighbors. This last notion is reminiscent of rabbinic teachings that on the eve of the messianic era, “impudence will be abundant” (M. Sotah 9-15).

Although humankind has failed to grasp this fateful message, God has made these mysteries manifest as part of His order of creation-

He causes everything [which comes into being]. H[e is from be]fore eternity; the Lord is His name, and for e[ternity … the p]lan of the time of birth He opened be[fore them […] for He tested our heart, and He caused us to inherit [. . .] every mystery and the tribulations (that would come) upon every creature. (MYSTERIES A 2 II 11–15)

The text emphasizes the omniscience of God, who determines the fate of all humanity. And God has given human beings the means to understand these secrets. In this passage we encounter the familiar sectarian concept of predestination- that God is the cause of everything, governing a person’s life with a divine plan from the moment of birth.

To a great extent, the divine wisdom is sealed so that human beings cannot uncover it, except when God grants understanding in reward for a person’s righteousness. When contemplated properly, these divine signs apparently can be understood, if we can judge from this extremely difficult and fragmentary passage-

… the mag]icians (?) who are skilled in transgression, say the parable and relate the riddle before it is discussed. Then you will know if you have considered, and the signs of the heav[ens …] your foolishness. For the [s]eal of the vision is sealed up from you, and you have not considered the eternal mysteries, and you have not come to understand wisdom. The[n] you will say […] for you have not considered the root of wisdom, and if you open the vision it will be clo[sed to you…] all [yo]ur wisdom, for yours is the […] His name, for [wh]at is wisdom (which is) hidden [… sti]ll there will not be […] the [vis]ion … (MYSTERIES B 1 II 1–5)

The magicians are called upon to explain the hidden meaning of the parable or riddle to see if they have properly understood the signs. But the text makes clear that they cannot, since the true vision, perhaps that of prophecy, is hidden from them and they do not understand the mysteries of God. The text seems to expect them to acknowledge their lack of understanding. And even if they were to uncover the vision (the text goes on), they would still not understand it, because their wisdom is valueless. They are then summoned to hear what the true hidden wisdom is.

As in the Sapiential Works, this hidden wisdom, vouchsafed only to the righteous, takes the form of extensive moral advice, for example-

… and what man is more exalted than a righteous [person …], and there is nothing more poisonous before Him than one who takes vengeance by bearing a grudge without […] His judgment, like the na[me] of One Who is righteous in all [His ways … what] is more evil than hating … (MYSTERIES B 7 1–4)

Evil is the worst course of action; justice, the best. Bearing a grudge poisons a person’s moral state. Nothing is worse than hating one’s fellow. God is righteous and just. The use of rhetorical questions here is common in this literature, as it is in the genre of wisdom literature in general.
As already mentioned, it is not at all clear whether Mysteries C is actually part of the same document, especially because it contains a poetic text strongly reminiscent of some later Jewish mystical hymns. The poem is characterized by a sequence of adjectives describing the majesty and greatness of God such as, “Great is He/Exalted is He.”

An additional feature is the use of certain sectarian terms, such as “chosen ones” and “period of evil.” That kind of terminology affirms the familiar sectarian scenario- The present age is a time of evil, to be followed by a sectarian victory in the war of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness. The preserved portion of the poem (Mysteries C 34–8) follows-

…] and honored is H[e] in His sl[ow]ness to anger,

[and gr]eat is H[e] in [His] great anger.

And exalted is He in the multitude of His mercies,

and awe-inspiring is He in the plan of His anger.

Honored is He [in] … and in which the earth is His rule.

[And ho]nored is God by His holy people,

and exalted is H[e for] His chosen ones,

and exalted [is He in the heights of] His [holi]ness.

Great is He in the blessings […] their glory and […],

when there comes to an en[d] the period of evil …

This poetic text begins by praising God in a series of opposing pairs- God is long-suffering but also wrathful; extremely merciful, yet willing to pour out His anger. Furthermore, He is both an exalted, transcendent God and an immanent God, who is close to His people. His true greatness will ultimately be revealed in the End of Days, when evil will be entirely destroyed.

In other passages of the Mysteries texts, we read about the knowledge of what came before and what will come after the world as we know it. As in the rabbinic esoteric tradition, part of the hidden wisdom concerns what happened before creation and what will happen in the End of Days This text, together with the related Sapiential Works, encourages the reader to investigate these mysteries, as opposed to Ben Sira and the Rabbis, who discourage such speculation.

The Mysteries texts and the Sapiential Works open to us a new genre of wisdom literature. In that literature, hidden secrets, unlocked by way of a proper understanding of the past, spell out the future, but such secrets are available only to a select group endowed with an ability to interpret the signs. Unlike biblical wisdom literature, the hallmark of which was commonsense advice, these texts proffer wisdom of a deeply religious character. What we have here is a wedding of wisdom and prophecy—not only a new literary genre, but further testimony to the religious creativity of Second Temple Judaism.

Like the apocryphal texts, the wisdom literature found at Qumran can in some ways be seen as the continuation of the biblical tradition. We next look at how the Bible itself was interpreted in the Qumran texts, examining the ingenious methods developed by Second Temple Jews to adapt what they saw as God’s eternal word to their own times and circumstances.

Pages 206-210

1 Comment on "The Book of Mysteries, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994."

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  1. Margaret says:

    I very much appreciate all the time and effort you have put into your pages. Please send me more…so much to work through here…Thank you!