Dead Sea Scrolls

Dead Sea Scrolls, collection of about 600 Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts discovered in a group of caves near Khirbat Qumran in Jordan, at the northwestern end of the Dead Sea. The leather and papyrus scrolls, which survive in varying states of preservation, came to light in a series of archaeological finds that began in 1947. The manuscripts have been attributed to members of a previously unknown Jewish brotherhood. The scrolls include manuals of discipline, hymnbooks, biblical commentaries, and apocalyptic writings; two of the oldest known copies of the Book of Isaiah, almost wholly intact; and fragments of every book in the Old Testament except that of Esther. Among the latter is a fanciful paraphrase of the Book of Genesis. Also found were texts, in the original languages, of several books of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. These texts-none of which was included in the Hebrew canon of the Bible-are Tobit, Sirach, Jubilees, portions of Enoch, and the Testament of Levi, hitherto known only in early Greek, Syriac, Latin, and Ethiopic versions.

The seven principal scrolls were discovered by Bedouins and were purchased partly by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and partly by the Syrian monastery of Saint Mark in Jerusalem. The scrolls in the possession of the Syrian monastery were later purchased by the government of Israel.
The initial discovery of the scrolls was followed by scientific exploration of the neighboring caves under the auspices of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, the Dominican cole Biblique et Archéologique of Jerusalem, and the Palestine Archaeological Museum (now the Rockefeller Museum). These explorations, and further purchases from the Bedouins, yielded tens of thousands of additional fragments, as well as a record of buried temple treasures punched out in Hebrew characters on strips of copper.
The manuscripts appear to have belonged to the library of the community, which was located in what is now Khirbat Qumran, near the place of the scrolls' discovery. Paleographic evidence indicates that most of the documents were written at various dates between about 200 BC and AD68 (see Paleography). Archaeological evidence further supports the latter date, since excavations at the site establish that it was sacked in AD68. The community may have been plundered by the army of Roman general Vespasian, which was dispatched in February of AD67 to suppress a Jewish rebellion that had begun the year before. Presumably, then, the documents were hidden at some time between AD66 and 68.

The Qumran brotherhood is portrayed in the manuals of discipline as an idealized House of Israel, designed to prepare the way for the imminent coming of the kingdom of God and the day of judgment. The brotherhood was constituted along communistic lines and in imitation of the organization of Israel under Moses. Members underwent a two- or three-year probation and were ranked in ascending degrees of purity. Promotions and demotions were put to a vote at an annual review. The spiritual direction was vested in 3 priests, aided by 12 lay presbyters (elders), and each of several so-called chapters was administered by an overseer whose position resembled that of a bishop. The overseers were subject in turn to the archbishop, or prince, of the entire order. Study of the Torah, the first section of the Hebrew Bible, was obligatory, and it was claimed that the correct interpretation of it had been handed down by a series of spiritual monitors, known as correct expositors, or teachers of righteousness. The members of the community expected their own era to end with the appearance of a new expositor and prophet (Deuteronomy 18:18). Prophetic details of a final war between the so-called sons of light and the sons of darkness are contained in one of the scrolls.
Similarities between the beliefs and practices described in the scrolls and those credited to the Essenes by Jewish-Hellenistic philosopher Philo Judaeus and by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus have suggested to many scholars that the Qumran brotherhood is related to that sect. Further evidence for this identification may be found in the works of the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, who reported that in his day the Essenes lived in the Khirbat Qumran area. Other scholars, however, stress the dissimilarities between the Qumran brotherhood and the Essenes, which suggest a general affinity rather than absolute identity.

Allusions have been found in the scrolls to figures and events of the Hellenistic and early Roman periods of Jewish history (3rd to 1st centuries BC). For example, a commentary on the Book of Nahum mentions a figure named Demetrius and seems to refer to an incident in 88 BC recorded by Josephus. It involved Demetrius III, king of Syria, and Alexander Jannaeus, the Hasmonaean (Maccabean) king. Similarly, repeated allusions to a persecuted teacher of righteousness have variously been thought to refer to such religious figures as the last legitimate Jewish high priest, Onias III, who was deposed in 175 BC; the Maccabean leaders Mattathias, the high priest, and his son the military leader Judas Maccabeus; and Menahem, leader of the Zealots in AD 66. Attempts have also been made to trace allusions, specifically those mentioning a wicked priestâ and man of lies, to certain notorious figures such as the sacrilegious Jewish high priest Menelaus; Antiochus IV, king of Syria; the Maccabean leader John Hyrcanus; and Alexander Jannaeus. All these identifications are tentative, however, and scholarly opinions on the subject vary dramatically. See also Maccabees (family).
The various biblical manuscripts found among the scrolls offer a text several centuries older than that of the traditional Masora, and they occasionally corroborate readings preserved in the Greek Septuagint and other ancient versions. They are consequently an invaluable aid in establishing the original text of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Many ideas found in the Dead Sea Scrolls recur in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament and in the earlier parts of the Talmud. In addition, many parallels with Iranian concepts provide evidence of the extent to which Jewish thought was indebted to that source during the intertestamental period (2nd and 1st centuries BC).
The many similarities between the thought and idiom of the scrolls and of the New Testament are of special interest. Both emphasize the imminence of the kingdom of God, the need for immediate repentance, and the expected discomfiture of Belial, the Evil One. Similar references occur in both to baptism in the Holy Spirit, and the faithful are similarly characterized as the elect and the âœchildren of light; for biblical references, see, for example, Titus 1:1, 1 Peter 1:2, and Ephesians 5:8. These parallels are more striking because the Qumran brotherhood was active at the same time and in the same area as John the Baptist, whose ideas were subsequently reflected in the teachings of Jesus.
As they were discovered, the manuscripts were put under the control of the Israeli Antiquities Authority by the government of Israel. The longer and more complete scrolls have been published by the American School of Oriental Research, the Hebrew University, and the Jordanian Service of Antiquities. The majority of the material is in tiny, brittle fragments, however, and the pace of publication has been exceedingly slow. In September 1991, scholars at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, announced that they had used a published concordance to create a computer-generated text of one of the unreleased scrolls. The same month, officials at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, granted unrestricted access to the library's complete set of photographs of the scrolls, and subsequently the scholars of the Israeli Antiquities Authority likewise consented to allow unrestricted access to all unpublished material. Most of the scrolls reside in the Shrine of the Book and in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, and in the Museum of the Department of Antiquities in Amman.
Contributed By: Theodor H. Gaster, M.A., Ph.D., D.D.
Late Professor Emeritus of Religion, Barnard College. Author of The Dead Sea Scriptures.
Qumran Community Scrolls Analysis