The Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran

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The Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran


A collection of more than 900 Hebrew and Aramaic texts dated between 350 b.c.e. and 70 c.e., from caves near the Dead Sea; first discovered in 1947, published 1950–2002.


Including the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible and other ancient Jewish texts, as well as previously unknown texts, the collection is most likely the library of a separatist religious group that inhabited the site known as Qumran from around 150 b.c.e. until 68 c.e.

Events in History at the Time of the Scrolls

The Scrolls in Focus

Events in History at the Time of Discovery and Publication

For More Information

In early 1947 Bedouin shepherds investigating a cave in the cliffs northwest of the Dead Sea discovered the first of the scrolls that would be considered the greatest archaeological find of the twentieth century. Within a decade, ten nearby caves were found to contain more scrolls. Scholars soon recognized that these scrolls were 2,000-year-old manuscripts written or collected by an ancient sect, probably the Essenes, living at a site known today as Qumran. These Qumran scrolls form a subset of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include ancient texts discovered at other locations, such as Masada, Murabba’at, and Nahal Hever. Included among the Qumran manuscripts were sectarian texts describing a community that broke away from the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and lived a pietistic, communal life as they awaited the final battle when God would destroy the wicked and restore the righteous to a place of honor. Excavations indicated that the site itself was likely a community center that supported up to 200 people from before 100 b.c.e. until 68 c.e. The Qumran site contained communal dining facilities, an elaborate water system with as many as ten ritual baths, an assembly room, kilns for making pottery, and possibly a room for copying scrolls. Types of pottery within the settlement were also found in the nearby scroll caves, thus connecting the site with the scrolls. By combining the information from the scrolls with accounts from other ancient sources, scholars have begun to flesh out theories about the nature and history of this group. They posit that a group of pious Jews, some of whom were priests, separated from the temple in Jerusalem because of concerns about the legitimacy and purity of the mainstream high priests. At some later point a priest, called in some of the scrolls the Teacher of Righteousness, established a community of his followers at Qumran that focused on ritual purity, interpretation of Scripture, and preparation for the time when God would bring final judgement on the wicked and restore the Qumran community to control over a pure temple. In addition to collecting and copying many Hebrew and Aramaic texts commonly used by other Jewish groups (some are now part of the Hebrew Bible and some are not), the members of this community developed a rich literature of their own. They wrote prayers and hymns, legal codes, commentaries on biblical texts, wisdom texts (texts similar to Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes that deal with philosophical issues such as the meaning of life and the best way to live), and eschatological texts describing the last days. Among the first group of texts discovered, The Community Rule and The Commentary on Habakkuk express the unique worldview of the Qumran sectarians and provide evidence of religious and political diversity that has affected our understanding of the historical circumstances of the late Second Temple period (200 b.c.e.-70 c.e.) in and around Jerusalem.

Events in History at the Time of the Scrolls


After the conquest of Alexander the Great in 333 b.c.e., the entire population of the area known today as the State of Israel and the Palestinian territories was confronted with increasing tension between the religious and social traditions of Israel and those of the Greeks. Many Jews, attracted to the new ways of the Greeks, left behind their Jewish traditions and joined the dominant culture. This process, called Hellenization, accelerated after 200 b.c.e. when control of the region transferred from the Ptolemies based in Egypt to the Seleucids based in Syria. Significant segments of the Jewish population reacted against such assimilation and committed themselves to holding fast to their Jewish ways.

During the reign of the Seleucid king Anti-ochus IV Epiphanes (176-64 b.c.e.), the Jewish high priests presiding in the temple in Jerusalem adopted a Greek way of life and transformed Jerusalem into a Greek-style polis with a gymnasium and amphitheater. They were joined by many of the elite urban Jews who mingled easily with the Greeks among them. In 167 b.c.e. Antiochus, for reasons not totally clear from historical sources, outlawed practices of the Jewish religion, such as circumcision, and required, on penalty of death, that sacrifices be offered to the Greek gods. The Jewish temple in Jerusalem was rededicated to the chief Greek god Zeus Olympus, and swine and other animals forbidden to Jews were offered on the altar.

The Maccabean revolt and the Hasmonean Dynasty

The religious persecution by Antiochus sparked a revolt led by Mattathias, a rural priest from Modi’in, and his sons, John, Simon, Judah (called the Maccabee [Hammer]), Eleazar, and Jonathan. They were joined by other groups of pious Jews “zealous for the law,” among them the Asideans, also called the Hasidim (1 Maccabees 2:27). Together the groups waged a guerrilla war to restore religious freedom. In 164 b.c.e., the Maccabees, led by Judah, regained control of the temple in Jerusalem, purified it and rededicated it to the worship of Israel’s God. Even after this victory, Judah and his brothers continued fighting to gain political independence from the Seleucids. The Hasidim and perhaps others who were satisfied with religious freedom split from the Maccabees to make peace with the newly appointed Jewish high priest, Alcimus.

The Maccabees, also called by their family name Hasmoneans, eventually gained political independence from the Seleucids, and in 152 b.c.e. Jonathan, Judah’s brother, accepted the dual role of high priest and governor of Judea. From about 152 b.c.e. until 63 b.c.e., a Hasmonean representative ruled Israel as king and high priest in Jerusalem. Although the Maccabees’ military victories gave them authority to continue to lead the people, Israel’s tradition was clear that any king over Israel must be from the royal family of David, and that the high priest must be a descendent of Zadok, David’s high priest. Maccabee rule spelled a departure from Israel’s ancient traditions. This departure certainly attracted protest from the disaffected members of Zadok’s high priestly family and from the traditionalists that had originally supported the Maccabees and their revolt.

Another source of friction was the fact that the Hasmoneans’ access to power led to increased interaction with the Hellenized elite around them. In the end, the leaders of the traditionalist revolt against Hellenism became significantly Hellenized themselves, evidenced by their taking on Greek names.


The period of the rise of the Maccabees also saw the rise of a number of Jewish groups that competed for control of the Jerusalem temple and for influence on the people. Already brought to light is evidence of the disagreements between the Maccabees, the Hasidim, and the high priests. The first century c.e. Jewish historian Josephus provides more detailed information about three other groups: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. These groups differed from one another on issues of religious law, biblical interpretation, oral tradition, beliefs about predestination and the afterlife, and the degree that their community encouraged interaction with those around them.

Josephus described the Pharisees as excellent expositors of the Law, who passed down laws from their ancestors not recorded in the Bible. They believed in bodily resurrection and that fate and free will both influence human actions. They seem to have been a popular group that vied for political influence with the Hasmonean priest-kings. After a dispute, the priest-king John Hyrcanus (reigned 134-104 b.c.e.) rejected the Pharisees and allied himself with rivals, the Sad-ducees. The subsequent priest-king, Alexander Jannaeus (reigned 104-76 b.c.e.), dealt harshly with the Pharisees who opposed him. When he began waging war against them, they invited the Seleucid king Demetrius to come to their aid. In response, Alexander executed 800 Pharisees by hanging them alive. When Alexander died and his wife, Salome Alexandra, took the throne, she reversed his policies and restored the Pharisees to a position of influence. The New Testament mentions that the Pharisees often disputed with Jesus over matters of law and justice, but they also shared many common views. The Pharisaic approach to oral tradition and interpretation was eventually taken up by the rabbis and forms the foundations of rabbinic Judaism even today.

Unlike the Pharisees, very little is known about the Sadducees, since no writings clearly associated with them have been preserved. Josephus describes them as a group more popular among the wealthy. They were highly influential among the Hasmonean rulers from the time of John Hyrcanus until the reign of Salome Alexandra (reigned 76-67 b.c.e.), when the Pharisees were favored. The name Sadducee, which most likely is equivalent to the Hebrew Zadokim, probably indicates a connection with the priestly class. The Sadducees rejected the idea of an afterlife and the Pharisees’ oral traditions as well as God’s determination of human activity. In cases where specific legal rulings are discussed, the Sadducees seem to have held a stricter position than the Pharisees. For example, they believed ritual impurity could be transferred from one vessel to another, even if the two were connected only by an unbroken stream of water poured from the pure vessel to the impure one. The Pharisees only considered impurity transferable if the water traveled from the impure vessel to the pure one.

The third major group, the Essenes, to which the Qumran community was probably connected, is described in more detail by Josephus and also by Philo of Alexandria. Mostly living in communities of celibate men, the Essenes were extremely pious. They formed communal groups that shared property and in most cases did not marry or seek wealth. Not enamoured of power either, they seem to have avoided the struggle for political influence and to have cared for their own communities. They relied on fate and on a strictly observant life. The Essenes emphasized purity, immersing themselves in water before sharing communal meals. Also, says Josephus, they engaged in a lengthy, highly selective admission process for new members that ended with the initiate swearing “tremendous oaths” to the community (Josephus, 2.139).

These groups, as well as others, most likely emerged as reactions to the social and political conditions of the Hellenistic period. The influence and attractiveness of Greek culture, philosophy, literary traditions, athletic contests, and political ideals engendered a variety of responses from Jews intent on preserving their ancestral traditions. Some rejected all forms of interaction with the Greeks, while others sought a middle way that would allow them to maintain their identity as Jews within a Greek world. Even those who desired to maintain the ancestral traditions fragmented over who had the authority to interpret those traditions and over the correct interpretation of them.

As the central Jewish institution, the temple in Jerusalem was often a lightning rod for provoking opposition. As we have seen, the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids was ignited by Antiochus’s defiling of the temple. The Hasmoneans, in turn, stirred up opposition when they accepted for themselves the role of high priest, dismissing the rightful heirs to that post. The temple also served as the national treasury, regularly imposing and collecting taxes, often to pay the Greek and Roman rulers. Consequently, many people saw the priesthood as corrupt and sought other ways to identify themselves.

Roman occupation

In 63 b.c.e. the Romans removed the Hasmonean rulers and once again subjected Judea to foreign control. They appointed procurators to govern the region on behalf of the Roman emperor. Contrary to the Greeks, who through their ideology and culture had mainly exerted an indirect influence on the people they dominated, the Romans influenced their subjects by force. For the Jews this was most difficult to bear with respect to the temple in Jerusalem. The Romans allowed the practice of Judaism but stationed an army garrison in the tower overlooking the temple courts and assumed control of the high priestly garments, thereby controlling the priests’ activity. Josephus describes a number of occasions in which symbols of Roman might, such as banners or standards, were introduced into the temple area, causing great distress and protest from the Jewish people.

From 36–34 b.c.e. the Romans appointed Herod the Great as King of Judea. Herod, who was considered a half-Jew in the eyes of the Jews, was notorious for his extravagant building projects and his ruthless hold on the throne. While Herod enlarged and beautified the temple area in Jerusalem, he also built cities and temples in honor of Rome and its emperor. Soon after Herod died, Rome once again took direct control over Jerusalem.

Resistance to Roman rule eventually led to the First Jewish Revolt for independence from Rome, which began in 66 c.e. but was plagued by fighting among the many Jewish factions. When the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, there was so much internal strife that the Romans waited while the Jews within the city fought and killed one another. The revolt ended with the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 c.e. and the dispersal of the surviving Jewish communities out of Judea. The temple’s destruction initiated the decline of Jewish sectarianism, giving rise in succeeding generations to rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity.

The Scrolls in Focus

Contents overview

Found in 11 caves near the Dead Sea, the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran represent more than 900 texts. They can be divided into three categories: biblical, extrabiblical, and sectarian.

Texts categorized as biblical are versions of books that were later to be considered part of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) by Judaism and Christianity. While it seems that the Qumran community considered these books sacred, it is possible that they also considered some other books as having similar authority. The Old Testament books of Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah were found in multiple copies, and there was at least one copy for every book except for Esther. In all, more than 200 texts comprise the biblical category. These manuscripts are nearly 1,000 years older than those used as the basis for all modern translations of the Bible. Scholars have been able to better understand, on the basis of these ancient Qumran biblical manuscripts, a much earlier stage in the process by which the Bible became standardized and copied from generation to generation. These manuscripts show evidence that various Hebrew textual traditions existed before the “official” version was chosen to become today’s Bible. They attest to significant variations in some of the texts at a time before the books of the Bible were selected and standardized.

“Extrabiblical” is a catchall category that includes any texts not now considered biblical but also not written by the Qumran community. The category includes books long known in translation in Greek or Ethiopic, such as 1 Enoch, To-bit, Jubilees, and others. Also in this category are texts not found elsewhere but surmised to have been generated outside the Qumran community.

The final category, sectarian, includes all those texts considered to have been composed by the Qumran community. They consist of many types, from laws to hymns and prayers, Bible commentaries and translations, wisdom literature, and texts about the last days. From these texts comes the most information regarding the nature of the community at Qumran. Many of them are highly fragmentary and difficult to read. But two important sectarian texts, The Community Rule and The Commentary on Habakkuk, were found in jars in Cave One that kept them well preserved.

The Community Rule

Originally called The Manual of Discipline, The Community Rule was one of the first texts removed from Cave One. Multiple copies of it, with some variations indicating editorial activity, were also found in Cave Four. The manuscript, which dates to around 100 b.c.e., probably served as the community’s constitution, providing a basis for the hierarchical structure of the group and governing the behavior of its members. The text divides into three main sections: a description of the initiation ceremony with an exhortation regarding two spirits; a set of laws to govern behavior; and instructions for the Master, along with the Master’s hymn.

The text begins by describing the role of the Master, perhaps a priest, who is responsible for using The Community Rule to prepare potential members for the initiation ceremony. The Master is to determine who among the would-be initiates has “freely devoted” themselves to follow God’s truth according to what has been revealed to the community; these are the ones who can be “joined to the counsel of God and may live perfectly before Him,” loving the sons of light (the community) and hating the sons of darkness (its opponents) (Vermes, The Community Rule in The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls, pp. 98-99). The priests pronounce blessings on all those who have accepted the rule of the community and are being accepted into the covenant. The Levites, a secondary class of priests responsible for the upkeep of the temple, then pronounce curses on “the lot of Belial [personification of evil]”—all those who reject or oppose the community and are therefore considered agents of evil. Additional curses are spoken against those who might enter the covenant while secretly “walking in the stubbornness of their heart,” or who decide at a later time to leave the community to follow their own way (The Community Rule, p. 100). At a later point in the text we learn that initiates undergo a two-year probation period before they can participate in the communal meal and their property can be joined together with that of the community.

The text continues with the Master’s instructions for the community regarding some of the basic principles of its belief. First, all things were created and predetermined by God, even the tasks of humanity. Second, God created humankind and “has appointed for him two spirits in which to walk until the time of His visitation: the spirits of truth and injustice” (The Community Rule, p. 101). Those who continually choose to walk in the spirit of truth are worthy to be called sons of light and shall receive rewards of healing, peace, long life, blessing, and “eternal joy in life without end, a crown of glory and a garment of majesty in unending light” (The Community Rule, p. 102). In contrast, the spirit of injustice produces all sorts of cruelty and destruction and is rewarded by plagues and eternal torment. These two spirits are constantly battling within each person, as well as throughout the spiritual world of the angels. God has created the two spirits in equal measure for now, but in the end He will come and destroy the spirit of injustice forever and cleanse the people with waters of holiness and pour upon the people the spirit of truth. The teaching concludes with a reminder that each person’s eternal destiny is determined by the spirit within him or her at the time of God’s visitation.

The middle section of the text lists the rules governing the behavior of all those who “have freely pledged themselves to be converted from all evil and to cling to all His commandments according to His will” (The Community Rule, p. 103). The first part establishes the organizational structure of the community and grants complete authority to its leaders, the sons of Zadok, to determine doctrine, property issues, and justice. Each member must swear an oath before the community to return to the Law of Moses as interpreted by the divinely inspired Teacher of Righteousness and to separate from all men of injustice. All members are ranked according to their wisdom and understanding and are required to obey all those of higher rank. Whenever members of the community come together to eat, pray, or study the Law, they are to sit according to rank and participate in order, beginning with the priest. Murmuring against the authority of the community carries a penalty of expulsion from the community.

The next set of laws governs behavior during an assembly of the congregation. Members are not to interrupt one another nor speak out of turn. Punishments, typically in the form of exclusion from the pure Meal of the Congregation (presumably the communal covenant meal) for a period, are also described for other acts related to speech, such as lying, addressing a companion impatiently, speaking God’s name, speaking in anger against a priest, insulting someone, speaking foolishly, slandering someone, and so forth. Other punishable deeds include falling asleep during the assembly, spitting, and walking naked unnecessarily. This second section concludes with an admonition to “be ruled by the primitive precepts in which the men of the Community were first instructed until there shall come the Prophet and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel” (The Community Rule, p.’ 110). This designation of two awaited Messianic figures retains the traditional separation between the offices of the high priest (designated by the term “Aaron”) and the king (designated by the term “Israel”), in stark contrast to the Has-monean rulers who had merged these offices.

The final section begins with instructions for the Master regarding the education and evaluation of the members of the community according to their piety and their capacity for understanding. The Master is to reveal the true knowledge only to those he determines to be worthy, concealing the truth from men of injustice. The Master himself is to be perfectly obedient to the will of God, giving praise to God for all things at all the times ordained by God. There follows a lengthy hymn, first recounting the times of day and seasons of the year that require praise.

I will sing with knowledge and all my music
shall be for the glory of God.
(My) lyre (and) my harp shall sound
for His holy order
I will tune the pipe of my lips
to His right measure.
With the coming of day and night
I will enter the Covenant of God,
and when evening and morning depart
I will recite His decrees.
           (The Community Rule, p. 112)

The rest of the hymn reinforces God’s complete sovereignty and humanity’s need for God.

The Commentary on Habakkuk

Also found in Cave One, The Commentary on Habakkuk dates to the period when Herod ruled Judea for the Romans. This writing is the best preserved of the group of biblical commentaries found at Qumran called Pesher texts, which present a biblical prophetic book, interrupted periodically by commentary connecting the words of the prophet with the life and history of the Qumran community. (Found among these texts was a commentary on Psalms as well, which was read like a book of prophecy.) The Commentary on Habakkuk claims that the real meaning of the words of Habakkuk has been hidden to all prior generations but is now being revealed and understood. The text calls this new prophet, “to whom God made known all the mysteries of the words of His servants the Prophets,” the Teacher of Righteousness (Vermes, The Commentary on Habakkuk in The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 481). This Teacher of Righteousness is understood to be the founder of the community at Qumran. Habakkuk 2:4, “the righteous shall live by his faith,” is interpreted to refer to “those who observe the Law,” who will be delivered from judgement “because of their faith in the Teacher of Righteousness” (The Commentary on Habakkuk, p. 482).

The Commentary on Habakkuk also interprets phrases in Habakkuk as referring to the enemies of the Teacher and his group of followers. Habakkuk 2:5-11 is interpreted as describing the Wicked Priest, the main opponent of the Teacher, who, “when he ruled over Israel his heart became proud, and he forsook God and betrayed the precepts for the sake of riches.... [H]e took the wealth of the peoples, heaping sinful iniquity upon himself. And he lived in the ways of abominations amidst every unclean defilement” (The Commentary on Habakkuk, p. 482). The Wicked Priest is also accused of defiling the temple of God by his deeds and of pursuing the Teacher of Righteousness to confuse the community on Yom Kippur, called the Day of Fasting. This event highlights the fact that the Wicked Priest was not using the strict solar calendar observed at Qumran, for he would not have been permitted to travel on a holy day. Rather he must have been using a lunar calendar closer to the variety now used in Jewish life. Given the great emphasis within the scrolls on the importance of following a strictly solar calendar, the Qumran community would have considered this to be a significant failure on the part


A connection between the scrolls and the Essenes was made by scholars very soon after the texts were discovered This connection is based on a comparison of a number of ancient sources:

1) According to Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century c.e., the Essenes were one of the philosophies or sects of Jews at the end of the Second Temple period (100 b.c.e.70 c.e.). They are distinguished by belief in determinism and an afterlife, a long initiation process, celibacy (at least among some members), piety, and communal living.

2) The Roman geographer Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, published in 77 c.e., mentions that a group of solitary, celibate Essenes lived near the Dead Sea between Jericho and En Gedi.

3) The Qumran Scrolls themselves show evidence of isolation, celibacy, determinism, and a long rigorous initiation procedure.

Challengers have bdged protests to the Essene connection:

1) The term “sons of Zadok” in the scrolls and a number of similarities in legal rulings suggest connections with the Sadducees. Not enough is known about the Sadducees to determine whether these similarities are not just cases of shared traditions among different groups.

2) Josephus describes a total of 4,000 Essenes living in all the towns and cities, and of there being some who married and had families.

Since this second challenge raises issues about which there are differences among the Qumran scrolls, most conclude that the Qumran community represents one part of the broader Essene movement.

of the Wicked Priest. In the end, God finally delivered the Wicked Priest into the hands of his foreign enemies as punishment for his wicked treatment of the Teacher of Righteousness and his council.

The Commentary on Habakkuk also mentions a character it calls the Spouter of Lies, who led many astray and founded a community based on deceit. In other Qumran texts, this character has a number of other names related to lying and deception and seems to be connected with a group called the Seekers of Smooth Things (VanderKam and Flint, p. 287). Understanding that “smooth things” in the Bible refers to flattery and deceit, the Teacher of Righteousness is accusing this group of faulty interpretation of the Law in order to find an easy way out. Once again the Qumran community is claiming for itself the true interpretation of God’s Law and castigating those who do not accept Qumran legal authority. The Commentary on Habakkuk ends with the promise that “on the Day of Judgment, God will destroy from the earth all idolatrous and wicked men” (The Commentary on Habakkuk, p. 485).

The historical identities of those mentioned in the texts

One of the most intriguing and frustrating things about the Qumran texts is their use of code terminology to describe themselves and their opponents. Very seldom is a term used that corresponds well with designations given by other historical sources of the period. For example, the texts use descriptive titles such as Teacher of Righteousness, Wicked Priest, the Seekers of Smooth Things and so on, rather than names of historical figures or groups, like Jonathan or the Pharisees. This ambiguity has made it possible for scholars to propose many different identifications between the descriptive titles and historical figures; consensus has been reached in some cases.

First, there is the question of how to identify the group responsible for the texts. Based on comparisons between the scrolls and other historical sources, most scholars have agreed that they were connected to a group called the Essenes. The name’s precise meaning and its Hebrew or Aramaic equivalent has long been debated, so it is impossible to determine whether or not the community used this name for themselves. Their most common self-designations are “The Community” or “the sons of light,” but some scholars have proposed a connection with the term “doers” (osim) found in the phrase “doers of the Torah.” Others have argued for some connection with the Hasidim, who split with the Maccabees after achieving religious freedom.

After identifying the group, there is the question of who is the group’s founder, the Teacher of Righteousness. He was responsible for uniting the community, formulating their religious practice, and moving them to Qumran. Most importantly, he was considered by his followers to have received divinely inspired understanding of how the words of all the prophets applied to the life and future of the community. Although a few scholars have tried to identify the Teacher with key figures of early Christianity, these connections are impossible considering the texts were composed nearly a century before Jesus lived. Since we have no information about leaders of the Essene movement, the most we can say is that the Teacher of Righteousness was probably a priest, perhaps even acting as high priest when the Hasmoneans took over that office in 152 b.c.e.

The main opponent of the Teacher of Righteousness is somewhat more identifiable. The Wicked Priest was certainly a priest of high standing and power in the Jerusalem temple, likely the high priest. According to The Commentary on Habakkuk, he began his term favorably but grew prideful, amassing wealth and power when he became ruler over Israel. This description almost certainly identifies the Wicked Priest as one of the Hasmoneans, from whose dynasty came the leader that served as both the king and high priest of Israel from 152 to 76 b.c.e. The description of his amassed wealth and his death at the hands of his foreign enemies probably best fits the first Hasmonean ruler, Jonathan (reigned 152-42 b.c.e.).

The Spouter of Lies mentioned in The Commentary on Habakkuk has been identified as a leader of the group designated in other texts as the Seekers of Smooth Things. The Commentary on Nahum gives additional information that can help us identify this group. This text indicates that the Seekers of Smooth Things invited Demetrius, king of Greece, into Jerusalem but that God saved the city from him. Someone referred to as the “furious young lion” then exacted revenge on the Seekers of Smooth Things, hanging them alive (Vermes, The Commentary on Nahum in The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 474).

Josephus describes these events during the reign of the Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus in his conflicts with the Pharisees. According to the Qumran community, these Pharisees, especially their leaders, were deceiving the people and were being much too lenient regarding the faithful obedience to God’s Law.

Many Qumran texts also refer to a group called the Kittim. In The Commentary on Habakkuk they are great warriors who “inspire all the nations to fear and dread” (The Commentary on Habakkuk, p. 479). They come from afar to devour the peoples and lay waste to the earth. They also are described as making sacrifices to their standards and worshipping their weapons. It is clear from these descriptions that the Kittim are the Romans, who were known for their military capabilities and were perceived as a constant threat that stood ready to destroy Judea and the Jewish way of life. The Qumran community saw this impending destruction as a sign of the final judgement that would befall the wicked in Israel, the ones who had rejected the True Way taught by the Teacher of Righteousness.

Sources and literary context

As a group claiming to be the true remnant of Israel, the Qumran community and its writings were completely dependent upon the literature that became the Hebrew Bible. Frequently biblical language permeated even the sectarian texts. For example, The Community Rule describes the blessing of the righteous and the cursing of the wicked based on a blessing that Aaron and his sons, the priests, spoke to the people:

From the Hebrew Bible

Blessing of Aaron to the people:

The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

(Numbers 6:24-26)

From The Community Rule

Blessing of the righteous (members of the community)

May He bless you with all good and preserve you from all evil! May he lighten your heart with life giving wisdom and grant you eternal knowledge! May He raise His merciful face towards you for everlasting bliss!

Curse of the wicked (opponents of the community)... Be cursed without mercy because of the darkness of your deeds! Be damned in the shadowy place of everlasting fire! May God not heed you when you call on Him, nor pardon you by blotting out your sin! May He raise His angry face towards you for vengeance! May there be no “Peace” for you in the mouth of those who hold fast to the Fathers!

(The Community Rule, pp. 99-100)

The Qumran authors also drew from other texts not considered biblical that were circulating in contemporary Jewish communities. Examples are the books of Enoch, which describe the sin of the angels, whose interaction with the daughters of men caused the flood in the time of Noah and began the cosmic battle between good and evil, and Jubilees, which recast Israel’s history with an emphasis on the use of a solar calendar.

In addition, similarities between the scrolls and later New Testament and early Christian texts have helped scholars better understand Jesus and his early followers within the context of Second Temple Judaism. Early Christian texts seem to have been influenced, if not by the scrolls themselves, at least by the ideas that were circulating at Qumran and elsewhere at the time about communal life, the dualism of light and darkness, and the low worth of humans without God. It seems clear, however, that there is no direct link between the Qumran community and the early Christians.

Events in History at the Time of Discovery and Publication

Discovery of the scrolls

The scrolls from Cave One were discovered by Bedouin (nomadic shepherds) in 1946-47, just before the end of the British Mandate in Palestine. The period of British control of Palestine, which lasted from 1918-48, was a period of increasing tension and violence between the Jewish and Arab populations, with both sides claiming that the British were unfairly partial to the other. As the British were withdrawing and the United Nations was attempting to define a plan to partition the land into two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, antiquities dealers were attempting to determine the nature and worth of the scrolls. The tumultuous political climate made collaboration between Jewish scholars at the Hebrew University, European and American scholars in East Jerusalem, the Arab antiquities dealers in Bethlehem, and the Bedouin very difficult indeed. In fact, it was some time before any scholars knew that the scrolls, which had been separated into two groups, were found together in a cave, and it was not until early 1949 that the cave itself was identified and excavated.

After the conclusion of the 1948 war that established the modern state of Israel and divided Jerusalem, the newly formed Kingdom of Jordan acquired the caves and the rest of the scrolls and therefore controlled the appointment of a team to excavate the subsequent caves and publish the remaining scrolls. Because of the political tensions between Israel and Jordan, no Israeli scholars were selected for the team, which was made up of European and American scholars from the Ecole Biblique and the American School of Oriental Research, both in East Jerusalem. After the 1967 War, Israel gained control over the caves as well as the Palestine Archaeological Museum (renamed the Rockefeller Museum), which housed all the scrolls in East Jerusalem. However, out of respect for the original group of scholars, additional members, including Israeli scholars, were not added to the team until 1987.

Publication and reception

The discovery of the scrolls initiated a frenzy of excitement among scholars certain that these manuscripts would mark a major turning point in our understanding of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. The authenticity and antiquity of the scrolls was established originally by handwriting analysis, which was later corroborated by carbon-14 dating. Very early in the post-discovery period, scholars posited the theory connecting the Qumran community with the Essenes, which has since been modified but not discarded.

Of the 11 caves found containing scrolls, Cave 1 and Cave 11 contained the longest and best preserved texts. Cave 4 held by far the greatest number of manuscripts, but they were badly preserved and very fragmentary. The other caves produced relatively small fragments of relatively few texts. The texts from Cave 1 were all published within ten years or so, and the texts from the minor Caves 2-3 and 5-10 were also published quickly in the official series Discoveries in thejudaean Desert (vols. 1-3, 1955-62). The Cave 4 texts, and a few of the Cave 11 texts, however, remained unpublished and unavailable to the public. These texts numbered more than 600 and were very fragmentary and difficult to assemble. A team of seven scholars was given the daunting task of preparing them for publication. This work proved to be so slow that very few texts were published over the next 20 years.

Increased impatience and frustration led to public outcry for the release of the manuscripts. The mysterious delay of the publication of the texts opened the door for all kinds of sensationalized claims regarding the contents of those unpublished texts. The team of scholars was accused of either purposely covering up, on behalf of the Vatican, findings that would undermine Christianity or withholding evidence that the manuscripts were in fact Christian texts themselves. In the early 1990s, unauthorized editions began to appear based on computer reconstructions and on photographs released by the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Many scholars were therefore added to the official team to speed along publication. Since 1990, more than 20 additional volumes of the official DJD series, covering the rest of the Cave 4 texts, have been published, and photographs of all the texts are readily available to all. The discovery and publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls has by all accounts been a major turning point in the study of the Bible, Second Temple Judaism, and early Christianity. Scholars in these fields now have abundant evidence of the variety of beliefs and religious practices behind the emergence of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. This variety provides a context for understanding as Jewish many elements of early Christianity that had previously been considered non-Jewish in origin. The rise and success of rabbinic Judaism has also come to be regarded as a much more complex process than previously seen. All future discussions of this important period in world history will have to consider the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran.

—Russell C. D. Arnold

For More Information

Cohen, ShayeJ. D. From the Maccabees to theMishnah. Library of Early Christianity. Ed. Wayne A. Meeks. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987.

Discoveries in thejudaean Desert. Vols. 1-39. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955–2002.

Josephus, Flavius. The Works of Josephus. Trans. William Whiston. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1987.

Schiffman, Lawrence H., and James C. VanderKam, eds. Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

_____. Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their True Meaning for Judaism and Christianity. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

VanderKam, James. The Dead Sea Scrolls Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.

_____. An Introduction to Early Judaism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

VanderKam, James, and Peter Flint. The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2002.

Vermes, Geza, ed. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. New York: Penguin, 1997.

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The Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran

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