By April 8, 2008 Read More →

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Greco-Roman Period
Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

The term Dead Sea Scrolls designates a corpus of manuscripts which have been
discovered in the last forty years in the Judean Desert in caves along the Dead Sea. The
main body of materials comes from Qumran, an area situated near the northern end of the
Dead Sea, 8 1 /2 miles south of Jericho. The scrolls were collected by a sect of Jews in the
Greco-Roman period. They were hidden in ancient times and rediscovered in 1947, when
a young Bedouin shepherd entered what is now designated as cave 1 and found several
pottery jars containing leather scrolls wrapped in linen cloths. Starting in 1951 a steady
stream of manuscripts was brought to light.

Actually, this was not the first discovery of its kind, for several accounts preserved by
the church fathers indicate that scrolls were unearthed in the Dead Sea region as early as
Roman and Byzantine times. Medieval accounts speak, as well, of an ancient Jewish sect
of cave dwellers in the area.

The dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls was a subject of controversy from the very
beginning. Some regarded the new texts as medieval Karaite documents. Others held that
they dated from the Roman period, and some even thought they were of Christian origin.
The dating question was resolved by means of several kinds of evidence.

Of primary importance was the archaeological excavation of the building complex on the
plateau immediately below the caves. In the view of most scholars, this complex was
connected with the scrolls. The residents of the complex copied many of the scrolls and
were part of the sect described in some of the texts. Numismatic evidence has shown that
the complex flourished from around 135 B.C.E. to 68 C.E. Occupation was interrupted
only briefly by an earthquake in 31 B.C.E.

Similar conclusions resulted from carbon-14 dating of the cloth wrappings in which the
scrolls were found. Studies of the paleography (the form of the Hebrew letters in which
the texts are written) have supported much the same dating. Scholars have identified the
scrolls, therefore, as the library of a sect which occupied the Qumran area from after the
Maccabean revolt of 168–164 B.C.E. until the Great Revolt of 66–73 C.E.

The many scrolls found in the Qumran caves can be divided into three main categories-
biblical manuscripts, apocryphal compositions, and sectarian documents. Fragments of
every book of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) have been unearthed at Qumran
with the sole exception of Esther. Among the more important biblical scrolls are the two
Isaiah scrolls (one is complete), and the fragments of Leviticus and Samuel (dated to the
third century B.C.E.). The study of the biblical texts from Qumran has given rise to a
theory of local texts. This theory maintains that at the root of the variations are three
recensions of the Hebrew Bible- One is the Palestinian, from which the Samaritan
Pentateuch is ultimately descended. A second is the Alexandrian, upon which the
Septuagint is based. Finally, there is the Babylonian, which is the basis of the Masoretic
(received and authoritative) Hebrew text fixed by the tannaim (the Mishnaic rabbis) in
the late first century C.E. While the division of biblical manuscripts into three basic
families has much to recommend it, it is unlikely that these text types originated outside
of the Land of Israel. Further, recent studies show that the proto-Masoretic texts are the
most common and that only a few proto-Samaritan or Septuagintal texts can be identified.
In addition, there are a substantial number of manuscripts written in a form peculiar to the
Qumran sect.

The contribution of the biblical scrolls to our understanding of the history of the biblical
text and versions cannot be overstated. We now know of the fluid state of the Scriptures
in the last years of the Second Temple. With the help of the biblical scrolls from Masada
and the Bar Kokhba caves, it is possible to trace the early stages of the standardization
process that ultimately led to the final acceptance of the Masoretic (received) Hebrew
text as authoritative by the first-century rabbis. We can understand as well the manner in
which local texts played a role in this history, and finally, the nature of the Hebrew texts
which served as the basis for the ancient translations of the Bible.

By far the most interesting materials among the Dead Sea Scrolls are the sectarian
compositions. These are the writings of the sect which inhabited Qumran. They consist of
biblical commentaries and documents outlining the regulations by which the sect was
governed, its approach to Jewish law, and its messianic yearnings.

The Pesharim were the sect’s biblical commentaries. They seek to show how the present
pre-messianic age (i.e., the era in which the scrolls were written) is the fulfillment of the
words of the prophets. As such, they provide an important source for an understanding of
the sect’s self-image and view of its own history and place in the general society. These
Pesharim include commentaries to Habbakuk, Nahum, and some of the psalms. It is only
in the commentaries that we find the names of actual historical figures who lived in the
period during which Qumran was occupied.

Another of the manuscripts in the Qumran collection was the Damascus Document, also
known as the Zadokite Fragments. Two copies of this work, dating from the tenth and
twelfth centuries C.E., had been among the Hebrew manuscripts that Solomon Schechter
had found in the genizah (“storehouse”) of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo, Egypt, and
brought to Cambridge University in England in 1896. Until the discovery at Qumran the
Damascus Document, which detailed the life and teachings of an otherwise unknown
Jewish sect, had been regarded as a strange composition of quite uncertain provenance. It
now became apparent that it had been written by the Qumran sect and thus that at least
one Dead Sea text had continued to circulate in the Middle Ages.

Admission into the Qumran sect, the conduct of daily affairs, and the penalties for
violating its law are the subjects of the Manual of Discipline (Rule of the Community).
This text makes clear the role of ritual purity and impurity in defining membership in the
sect, and, as well, details the annual mustering ceremony and covenant renewal.
Appended to it are the Rule of the Congregation, which describes the community at the
end ofdays, and the Rule of Benedictions,which contains praises of the sect’s leaders.
The Thanksgiving Scroll contains a series of poems describing the beliefs and theology
of the sect. Many scholars attribute its authorship to the so-called teacher of righteousness
(or “correct teacher”) who led the sect in its early years.

The Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness details the
eschatological war. In it, the sect and the angels fight systematically against the nations
and the evildoers of Israel for forty years, after which the end of days dawns. This scroll
is notable for its information on the art of warfare in the Greco-Roman period.
Unique is the Temple Scroll, an idealized description of the Jerusalem Temple and its
cult, including, as well, various other aspects of Jewish law. The text takes the form of a
rewritten Torah, and the various verses dealing with the subjects at hand are harmonized
into one consistent whole. Debate surrounding this text concerns the question of whether
it is actually a sectarian scroll or simply part of the sect’s library like the biblical and
apocryphal compositions described above. Numerous smaller texts throw light on
mysticism, prayer, and sectarian law. Many of these texts have not yet been published or
await thorough study.

Exceedingly significant is a still unpublished text called the Miqsat Ma’aseh Ha-Torah
(literally, Some Matters Relating to the Torah), referred to in chapter 6 in connection with
the Sadducees. Described as a “halakhic letter,” it is written in the form of a letter from
the leaders of the sect to the Jerusalem establishment, outlining the disagreements over
Jewish law and Temple practice that had caused the sectarians to secede. The text
indicates that there were close connections between the founders of the sect and the
Sadducean priesthood, and demonstrates, as we have noted, that views later attributed to
the Pharisees governed actual practice in the Jerusalem Temple in Hasmonean times.
The Dead Sea Scrolls have illuminated the background for the emergence of Rabbinic
(Mishnaic) Judaism and early Christianity. While many of the detailed comparisons that
have been suggested do not have adequate support, the more general conclusions reached
by scholars are very important. We now know that as a result of the Great Revolt of 66–
73 C.E., and to some extent even in the years preceding it, Judaism was moving toward a
consensus that would carry it through the Middle Ages. As Talmudic Judaism emerged
from the ashes of the destruction, groups like the Dead Sea sect fell by the wayside.
Nonetheless, the scrolls allow us an important glimpse of the nature of Jewish law,
theology, and eschatology as understood by one of these sects.

The scrolls show us that the Second Commonwealth period was an era in which Jews
engaged in a vibrant religious life based on study of the Holy Scriptures, interpretation of
Jewish law, the practice of ritual purity, and messianic aspirations. Jewish practices
known from later texts, such as the putting on of tefillin (phylacteries), daily prayer, and
grace before and after meals, were regularly practiced. Rituals were seen as a preparation
for the soon-to-dawn end of days which would usher in a life of purity and perfection.
The scrolls, therefore, have shown us that Jewish life and law were already considerably
developed in this period. Although we cannot expect a linear development between the
Judaism of the scrolls and that of the later rabbis, since the rabbis were heir to the
tradition of the Pharisees, we can still derive great advantage from the scrolls in our
understanding of the early history of Jewish law. Here, for the first time, we have a fully
developed system of postbiblical law and ritual.

At the same time, it is now clear that the sect, emphasizing as it does the apocalyptic
visions of the prophets, provides us with a background for understanding the emerging
Christian claims of messiahship for Jesus. The Dead Sea Scrolls are especially
illuminating with regard to the world-view of early Christianity. This is true despite the
fact that the Dead Sea sect, and for that matter all the known Jewish sects of Second
Temple times, adhered strictly to Jewish law as they interpreted it.

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