A Brief Introduction To The Dead Sea Scrolls

Since I recently blogged about the Nag Hammadi Collection I thought I would continue our little adventure in ancient texts with an introductory look at another amazing collection, also from the Middle East.

Sometime between November 1946 and February 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd named Muhammed edh-Dhib and his friends Jum’a Muhammed and Khalil Musa came across some ancient storage jars in a cave near the Ein Feshka springs, close to the ancient town of Qumran near the Dead Sea. They thought that there might be someone interested in buying these old “books” so they brought some back with them, and soon found a buyer willing to take them “off their hands”. As they found more they sold them and soon the word got out that some Bedouin kids were selling ancient documents for waayyy less than they were probably worth, considering the growing interest. In the following years archeologists and treasure hunters would discover more scrolls and hundreds of fragments in the area, thus the findings would come to be known as the Qumran Cave Scrolls, and eventually the Dead Sea Scrolls.

These jars contained fragments and texts which were later revealed to be books of the Jewish Bible (Tanakh, except for the Book of Esther), plus rules for community life, commentaries, proverbs, fragments of the “lost” Book of Enoch, the secret teachings of Elijah, lists of false prophets, visions, and even a “treasure map” (the location of hidden caches of silver and gold). As most of these texts were either tattered or decayed, it is thought that the jars were genizot: storage vessels for worn out sacred texts prior to their burial (as it was forbidden to throw texts containing the name of God in the garbage). But whose genizot were they?

Though there is much debate, and no conclusive proof for or against any particular theory, it seems likely that they were genizot of the Essene sect, a branch of Judaism that stood apart from the Jewish groups of the day: the secular-minded (Hellenized) upper class Sadducees (no afterlife), the strict lower class Pharisees, the armed, Rome-hating resistance fighters called the Zealots, and a small group of Messianic Jews that was gathering behind a relatively unknown guy from Nazareth named Jesus. Little is known about the Essenes but what can be inferred from archeological study posits that they were apocalyptic (End Times fixated), communal, and tended to live outside of major centers as often as within them. The most compelling “evidence” so far may come from the fact that the Community Rule scroll (which outlines the laws of the sect) and Roman historian Josephus’ account of the Essenes shows similarities. Modern evidence also suggests that the Essenes might have been former Temple priests who rebelled and exiled themselves after the various Jewish kings took over the role of high priest, thus the organized and ritualistic nature of the various scrolls.

The first document we will look at is 1QS, also discovered in 4Q253-264a, and 5Q1. What does that mean? This work was found in the first Qumran cave, on the first scroll discovered (1-Q-S). The same text was also found in the fourth Qumran cave (4Q) on manuscripts 253 – 264a, and the first manuscript found in the fifth Qumran cave (5Q1). Since there are many Qumran and surrounding discoveries, fragments, scrolls, and such, I will make sure all the numbers and letters are clear.

1QS, the Charter of a Jewish Sectarian Association, is also known as the Community Rule, a set of instructions and rules for community life. Since the English word community is not an exact equivalent, it is most accurate (and useful) to use the terminology from the text itself, Yahad (“unity”), instead. Thus these were not rules for a community (singular) but basically a charter one could use in any community or chapter wishing to establish authority, and the rights of those under that authority. The community would understand their various rights and roles, and there would be unity amongst the people, i.e. a comm(unity) if you will. This didn’t always mean that each yahad was strictly religious. The text in the Community Rule also implies a yahad could be more philosophical if they were not an organized group living out in the desert, waiting for the Messiah for example. Once again, like the other manuscripts found in and around Qumran, missing text, as yet understood ergo untranslatable ancient words, allegory, and metaphor often make the various Dead Sea manuscripts and fragments hard to make factual statements about, based on clear evidence. But here is what can be said with certainty.

The group at Qumran, as the Community Rule manuscript describes, was an association of priests, a secondary order of priests (Levites), the community (“Israel”), and Gentile proselytes. Other Jews and Gentiles outside of the community “walk(ed) in the wicked way” and thus are “Men of Perversity”. But if such a person repented of sin, and went through a two year conversion process, they would be assigned a rank in the yahad and thus could advance themselves through maase ha-torah, “works of the Law”. The group considered themselves as having entered a new covenant with God, which fulfilled the old Mosaic covenant.This new covenant was called the Covenant of Mercy, or the Covenant of The Eternal Yahad.

On 1QS alone though is a small, two column appendix that is kind of amazing when seen in light of the rise of Christianity. The Community Rule is for a decidedly Jewish sect…yet this appendix (The Charter for Israel in The Last Days) seems to reference God fathering the Messiah of Israel, the Jewish war leader who would rise up from the line of David and lead the people in battle against evil in order to establish the New Jerusalem! The text is damaged and hard to read, and there are arguments for and against such an interpretation. But the idea of a divinely fathered Messiah showing up in the holy writings of ex-Second Temple Jews? They are not Christian, they are not classical Jews… pretty amazing stuff.

The Yahad was serious about maintaining law and order in each other’s presence, and any spoken mention of the name of God equaled immediate and permanent banishment (even in prayer!). The Common Rule also lays out the prescribed punishment (the rationing of food) for more mundane violations:

1). Anyone who speaks foolishness: three months (of rationing).
2). Anyone whose clothing is so ratty you can see his genitals through it: 30 days.
3). Anyone who draws out his left hand to gesture during conversation: 10 days.
4). Anyone who breaks into foolish horse-laughter: 30 days.
5). Anyone who accidentally participates in fraud: 3 months.

As we continue on with our series on the Dead Sea Scrolls let’s review some basic terms from “regular” Jewish culture. As Judaism became a highly literary religion after passing down its traditions orally for hundreds of years, certain terms became necessary for outsiders to learn if they were to understand the relationship between core and subsidiary writings. Basically, Jewish sacred literature is divided into these categories:

1). The Tanakh is the set of writings Christians call the ‘Old Testament’, organized into three sections: Torah (The Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus…), Nevi’im (The Prophets: Samuel, Isaiah…), and Kethuvim (The Writings: Psalms, Proverbs, Job…).

2). Midrash is a word that means “Biblical interpretation”, the actual method of interpreting the Tanakh, and a collection of commentaries on the Tanakh. 

3). The Torah is the first five books of the Tanakh, believed to be written by Moses while dictated by God himself. It was also believed that Moses also gave laws and commands to the Jews that were not written down, and thus a general ‘Oral Torah’ (The Talmud) was also handed down from generation to generation, alongside the official histories and laws in the original, written Torah. After the Jewish (Second) Temple was sacked by the Romans (during the reign of Nero in 66 CE), this oral tradition was written down so the scattering Jews could hold to a central belief system as they spread out across the world, and added their own updated material to it when their spiritual teachers (rabbis) needed to adapt to new cultural and spiritual situations. Thus we see the birth of what is known as Rabbinical Judaism, what you might call the core, basic form of the Judaism we see today. 

4). The Talmud: Jewish Law, which includes a). the Mishnah, brief explanations of various scriptures in the Torah and b). the Gemara, auxiliary commentaries on the Mishnah.  

5). The Zohar is a 13th century Spanish manuscript used by the various mystical branches of Judaism known as Kabbalah. It is filled with various mishnah, gemara and midrash as well as text on related subjects. It is not part of mainstream Judaism, but various Kabbalistic sects still exist, some even being Christian or Hermetic. Some even read it as a kind of mystical self-help book, like one might read the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu for daily wisdom, or businessmen read the Art of War by Sun Tzu for success strategies.

But as the Dead Sea Scrolls were being categorized and translated, a new set of writings began to emerge, a type of scriptural interpretation known as a pesher. The pesher writings (pesherim) dealt with either a specific subject or provided a running commentary on specific scriptures, one after the other, explained in turn. These running pesherim were usually found in the Nevi’im (Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc), though there is a pesher on Psalms, which at Qumran was considered a prophetic manuscript. The reason pesherim focused on such writings is that it often meant the “interpretation of dreams”, like Daniel interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue with feet of iron and clay. So a pesher had the quality of ‘mystery-solving’ through divine understanding. We see this occurring in a pesher (p) on Habbakuk (Hab) found in the first cave at Qumran (1Q).

1QpHab, a Pesher on Habbakuk, is the attempt by its author to figure out the secret truth(s) in Habbakuk the same way Daniel did for Nebchanezzar, through divine inspiration. Here is a verse (from my own copy of the Tanakh) that the writer “peshers” upon (Habbakuk 1:6): For lo, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that fierce, impetuous nation. In 1QpHab the author writes the following: “For I am now about to raise up the Chaldeans, that brutal and reckless people”. This refers to the Kittim (the enemy, i.e. the Romans), who are swift and mighty in war, annihilating many people, and have no faith in the laws of God”. The author then goes on to link many verses to the Romans and their various crimes against humanity, even getting in a few good licks on idolatry: “Woe to those who say to mere wood, ‘Be alert!’, or ‘Wake up!’ to some dumb stone. Can it enlighten you?”.

Also found amongst the various scrolls was one made of copper (3Q15: the 15th manuscript found in the 3rd cave at Qumran), inscribed upon which was a list of various caches of treasure (written in a unique form of Hebrew). The sites are scattered throughout what would have been Judea, but mostly concentrated in and around the Temple Mount, Jericho, and Qumran. At first it was believed the scroll was Essene but the work of a single individual; a private list rather than one the community would have known about (possibly a folktale written down like a legend of pirate gold). But since it is not a religious text, but rather a list (common to antiquity) some think it was a real inventory of some kind, like how Greek temples kept inventories of the various votive objects or gifts brought to them (such as coins, jugs, earrings, and so on). Thus the Scroll is kind of like a business document, since copper was also the medium of choice for Roman documents considered important for posterity: public documents, military discharges, and such.

One of the early editors of the scrolls, John Allegro, even mounted a search for the treasure but found nothing, especially when the Israeli government refused to let him dig under the esplanade of the Dome of The Rock(!). But the treasure may have been already looted by the Romans like how they looted the hidden treasures of Dacian king Decebalus, whose territory they conquered (part of what is now known as Romania). Decebalus diverted a river, buried treasure, then made the river resume its normal course. The Romans found and tortured a Dacian informant, and thus they got what they were looking for. It is thought that the Romans also did this to someone who knew about the Temple Mount treasure, and/or all the others, or possibly found another copy of the Copper Scroll. According to Roman-Jewish historian Josephus’ book WAR, the Roman looting of treasure in that region was so extenisve that the value of gold in nearby Syria fell by 50%! So where do all these Copper Scroll treasures supposedly rest? Let’s look at the actual manuscript:

1). “In the ruin that is in the Valley of Achor, under the steps, with the entrance at the east at a distance of forty cubits: a strong box of silver and its vessels — seventeen talents by weight. KEN“. Letters like the ones at the end (K-E-N) appear in other manuscripts, and editors have not figured out what they are supposed to mean. It is also not known what the precise modern value of talents (and other monetary units) would be, but they would collectively be worth many millions of dollars.

2). “In the dam of the Secacah Valley, dig down three cubits: twelve talents of silver coins, “in the fissure that is in Secacah, to the east of the Pool of Solomon: vessels of votive offering, along with their inventory list”, “at the head of the aqueduct of the Secacah Valley, on the north, under the big stone, dig down three cubits: seven talents of silver coins”, and “in the grave that is in the Wadi Ha-Kepah at the point of entry as you go from Jericho to Secacah, dig down seven cubits: thirty-two talents of silver coins”. I am combining four different cache listings into one because they are all at Secacah, which is actually mentioned in the Old Testament part of the Bible (Joshua 15:61) as one of the villages which the tribes of Judah inherit. Also, the grave at Wadi Ha-Kepah (the twenty-seventh cache) is the clearest geographical reference on the Scroll, as a path to and from a major city would have been well known. (Note: wadi is an Arabic word for a small valley or dry river bed). 

3). “At the grave of the common people — it is ritually pure — in it: fourteen votive vessels, and their inventory list is next to them”. The Qidron Valley was the traditional site for the burial of common people… though personally I find it odd that the Scroll would call the grave of the common people “ritually pure” considering it is where the ashes of the burnt pole of the Asherah idol was dumped (as stated in the Bible, 2nd Kings 23:6).

This is only a very basic introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I am going to add a little more in the days ahead once I scrounge through my old research notes, but hopefully it will whet your appetite for more information. I got all of this from reading The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, with all translations and commentary by Michael Wise, Martin Aregg Jr., and Edward Cook (2005). It is the book I got my old research notes from, and thus everything you have read is their intellectual property. If you want to get way more of the really great stuff from this book, go out and buy it. It is very inexpensive considering its size (662 pages) and a fabulous resource.

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