The Bible Commentary

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Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

Scrolls, the Dead Sea (dss), broadly, scrolls and fragments discovered roughly between 1947 and 1960 at seven sites along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea (eleven caves near Wadi Qumran, three caves of Wadi Murabba‘at, caves of Nahal Hever, Nahal Se'elim, and Nahal Mihras, and at Khirbet Mird and Masada); related to the dss in this sense are medieval copies of Qumran texts found in 1896 in the Cairo, Egypt, Genizah. More specifically, however, dss is restricted to the Qumran scrolls and fragments, which are the most important of the finds.

Specific finds are the following: Qumran Cave One: seven major scrolls (two copies of Isaiah, one complete and one fragmentary; Manual of Discipline; War Scroll; Thanksgiving Hymns; Genesis Apocryphon; Pesher [or ‘commentary’] on Habakkuk) and fragments of seventy-two other texts. Qumran Cave Two: thirty-three fragmentary texts (eighteen biblical, fifteen nonbiblical). Qumran Cave Three: fourteen fragmentary texts (three biblical, eleven nonbiblical) and the Copper Scroll. Qumran Cave Four: the most important, no complete scrolls, but a heap of fragments (between 15,000 and 40,000), which have constituted a giant jigsaw puzzle for scholars; to date, 520 texts have been identified (157 biblical texts, thirteen pesharim or ‘commentaries’ on quoted parts of the Jewish Bible, and 350 nonbiblical documents including sectarian texts, Semitic originals of previously known intertestamental literature, and many previously unknown Hebrew and Aramaic texts). Qumran Cave Five: twenty-five fragmentary texts (eight biblical, seventeen nonbiblical). Qumran Cave Six: thirty-one fragmentary texts (seven biblical, twenty-four nonbiblical). Qumran Cave Seven: nineteen fragmentary texts, all written in Greek (two have been identified: Exod. 28:4-7; Let. Jer. 43-44; the others are tiny and unidentified); despite claims to the contrary, none of these is from the nt. Qumran Cave Eight: five fragmentary texts (four biblical, one nonbiblical). Qumran Cave Nine: a lone papyrus fragment. Qumran Cave Ten: an inscribed potsherd. The total number of texts found in Qumran Cave Eleven is not known, but sixteen have been published in whole or in part. The texts from Caves One through Three and Five through Ten have been fully published, as have the majority from Cave Eleven, but approximately seventy percent of those from Cave Four still await publication (since 1952!).

The texts from Qumran are dated roughly between the end of the third century b.c. and a.d. 70. The Hebrew and Aramaic documents were written in four basic scripts, which permit their palaeographic dating (within a fifty-year margin of error): Archaic Script (end of the third century to 150 b.c.); Hasmonean (150-50 b.c.); Herodian (50 b.c. to a.d. 40); and Ornamental (mid-first century a.d. on), a form also used in the Murabba‘at texts. The majority of the Qumran texts are in the Hasmonean and Herodian scripts, as are those of Masada. The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of Murabba‘at date roughly from between the two Jewish revolts against Rome (a.d. 66-70 and 132-135). According to preliminary reports, the texts from H\ever, S\eÕelim, and Mihras apparently come from that same period, but they have not yet been published. The texts from Khirbet Mird are of later date (roughly fifth to eighth centuries a.d.); the Arabic texts and a few Christian Palestinian Aramaic fragments found there have been published.

The Qumran texts, ‘the greatest manuscript discovery in modern times’ (W. F. Albright), are important for the light they shed on three areas: Palestinian Judaism before and at the beginning of the Christian era; the transmission of the ot text in the same period; and the Palestinian background of the nt.

Palestinian Judaism: Josephus mentions three kinds or ‘sects’ of Palestinian Jews in his day: Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. He devotes his longest description to the Essenes, and, even though what is learned from the dss about the Qumran community does not agree in every detail with this description, most modern scholars have accepted the identification of the Qumran community with the Essenes (or some branch of them). Thus, the Qumran scrolls would represent the library of this sect. The sectarian writings in the Qumran literature provide an almost complete copy of the Essene rule book (Manual of Discipline) and ten fragmentary copies of it from Cave Four (not yet published). This text differs from another, previously known rule book of the sect, the Damascus Document, found in the Cairo Genizah, extensive copies of which came to light in Caves Four, Five, and Six. How to relate these two rule books is a major problem of interpretation and of understanding the sect. From Cave One have also come a copy of the community’s prayer book (Thanksgiving Hymns) and a text describing an eschatological war in which God and his angels will join the ‘sons of light’ (the sect) in wiping out all evil and their enemies (War Scroll). Further fragmentary copies of both texts were found in Cave Four but are only partially published. From Cave Eleven have come the community’s psalter (or possibly another form of prayer book), containing biblical psalms in a different order mixed with nonbiblical writings; and the lengthy Temple Scroll, which recasts much of the pentateuchal legislation in a new form put on the lips of God himself and gives elaborate details about the building of the Jerusalem Temple. Lastly, light has been shed on this sect’s mode of interpreting Scripture, not only in their pesharim (verse-by-verse ‘commentaries’ on passages from the Prophets and Psalms) but also in isolated quotations from the ot in their sectarian writings. This mode is quite different from anything in the later writings of the rabbis (third to fifth centuries a.d.). We also learn of the messianic expectations of this sect: their expectation of a prophet like Moses (cf. Deut. 18:15-18), a Messiah of Israel (Davidic), and a Messiah of Aaron (priestly).

Transmission of ot Text: Prior to the discovery of the dss, the oldest copy of any extended portion of the Hebrew Bible was dated a.d. 895 (a codex of the Former and Latter Prophets, from the Cairo Genizah). In Cave One, however, a full text of Isaiah was found, dated palaeographically to 100 b.c. The differences between the Qumran text and the Masoretic Text (mt), the Hebrew text preserved from medieval manuscripts, separated in date by a thousand years, amounted to thirteen significant variants and a host of insignificant spelling differences, which have proved a gold mine for the study of first-century b.c. Palestinian Hebrew. This illustrated the care with which the text of Isaiah had been transmitted over the centuries. When Cave Four was discovered, however, a different picture appeared. For certain books of the ot, especially 1 and 2 Samuel, Jeremiah, and Exodus, there were copies of the Hebrew text, from pre-Christian times, in forms differing from the medieval mt. In some cases, the Qumran biblical texts were closer to the Greek Septuagint (lxx); in others, closer to the Samaritan Pentateuch. It is now apparent that these differing ancient text forms of the ot deserve far greater care and attention than they received in the past. The lxx, for example, is now seen not just as a poor, tendentious translation of the Hebrew, but rather as a witness to a different pre-Christian Hebrew text form. Moreover, there appear to have been three local text types in pre-Christian times: a form of the Pentateuch known in Babylon, close to the mt; a form known in Palestine, close to the Samaritan Pentateuch; and a form of ot books known in Egypt, related to the lxx. Eventually (probably between a.d. 70 and 132 in Palestine), a process of standardization apparently set in, preferring one form of text, a set spelling, and even a definitive shape of writing.

Palestinian Background of nt: So far, no mention has been found in these thoroughly Jewish writings of Jesus, John the Baptist, or early Christians. Many of the tenets and practices of the Essene community, however, as seen in the dss, provide a new and interesting background for aspects of nt writings. The use of isolated ot quotations in the nt resembles many of the similar quotations of the ot in the dss; the formulas introducing such quotations in the nt are far closer to Qumran introductory formulas than to those in the Mishnah (the earliest part of the rabbinic writings). The ‘sons of light,’ a designation for Christians (Luke 16:8; John 12:36; 1 Thess. 5:5), has no ot background and is not found in rabbinic writings, but it occurs, with its counterpart ‘sons of darkness,’ in the Manual of Discipline and the War Scroll. Light has been shed from various Qumran texts on several titles applied to Jesus in the nt (‘Son of God,’ ‘Son of man,’ ‘Lord,’ ‘Prophet,’ ‘Christ’); thus, these titles apparently were not the product of the hellenization of the Christian gospel as it was carried by early missionaries from Palestine into the Greco-Roman world, as some have maintained. Parallels have been found for many items and expressions in the Gospels of Matthew and John, in the Pauline corpus, and in the Letter to the Hebrews. Lastly, whereas the origins of Christian monasticism were formerly traced to the Christian fathers of the Egyptian desert, the dss, in agreement with Josephus’ description of the Essenes, reveal Qumran as an ascetic community, at least partially celibate, living a strict communal life, and thus, in the judgment of some, a far more intelligible matrix for early Christian monasticism than the Egyptian fathers.


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Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer
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