A brief look at the Dead Sea Scrolls

A brief look at the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of 972 texts from the Hebrew Bible and extra-biblical documents found between 1947 and 1956 at Khirbet Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea from which it derives its name.

The texts are of great mythical and historical significance, as they include the oldest known surviving copies of biblical and extra-biblical documents and preserve evidence of great diversity in late Second Temple Judaism. They are written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, mostly on parchment, but with some written on papyrus. These manuscripts generally date between 150 BCE and 70 CE. The scrolls are traditionally identified with the ancient Jewish sect called the Essenes, though some recent interpretations have challenged this association and argue that the scrolls were penned by priests in Jerusalem, Zadokites, or other unknown Jewish groups.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are traditionally divided into three groups: "Biblical" manuscripts (copies of texts from the Hebrew Bible), which comprise roughly 40% of the identified scrolls; "Apocryphal" or "Pseudepigraphical" manuscripts (known documents from the Second Temple Period like Enoch, Jubilees, Tobit, Sirach, non-canonical psalms, etc., that were not ultimately canonized in the Hebrew Bible), which comprise roughly 30% of the identified scrolls; and "Sectarian" manuscripts (previously unknown documents that speak to the rules and beliefs of a particular group or groups within greater Judaism) like the Community Rule, War Scroll, Pesher on Habakkuk (Hebrew pesher ??? = "Commentary"), and the Rule of the Blessing, which comprise roughly 30% of the identified scrolls.

The significance of the scrolls relates in a large part to the field of textual criticism and how accurately the Bible has been transcribed over time. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible were Masoretic texts dating to 10th century CE such as the Aleppo Codex. The biblical manuscripts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls push that date back a millennium to the 2nd century BCE. Before this discovery, the earliest extant manuscripts of the Old Testament were in Greek in manuscripts such as Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209 and Codex Sinaiticus.


The Essenes (in Modern but not in Ancient Hebrew: Isiyim; Greek: Essenoi, Essaioi, Ossaioi) were a Jewish religious group that flourished from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE that some scholars claim was derived from the Zadokite priests. Being much fewer in number than the Pharisees and the Sadducees (the other two major sects at the time), the Essenes lived in various cities but congregated in communal life dedicated to asceticism, voluntary poverty, daily immersion, and abstinence from worldly pleasures, including marriage. Many separate but related religious groups of that era shared similar mystic, eschatological, messianic, and ascetic beliefs. These groups are collectively referred to by various scholars as the "Essenes." Josephus records that Essenes existed in large numbers, and thousands lived throughout Roman Judæa. The Essenes believed they were the last generation of the last generations and anticipated Teacher of Righteousness, Aaronic High Priest, and High Guard Messiah, similar to the Prophet, Priest and King expectations of the Pharisees.

The Essenes have gained fame in modern times as a result of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, commonly believed to be their library. These documents include preserved multiple copies of the Hebrew Bible untouched from as early as 300 BCE until their discovery in 1946.

Community Rule

The Community Rule (1QS - which stands for : "Cave 1 / Qumran / "Serekh" = 'rule'), which was previously referred to as the Manual of Discipline and in Hebrew "Serekh ha-Yahad" is one of the first scrolls to be discovered near khirbet Qumran, the scrolls found in the eleven caves between 1947 and 1954 are now referred to simply as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Rule of the Community is a key sectarian document and is seen as definitive for classifying other compositions as sectarian or non-sectarian (1QpHabakkuk; 1QM; the Hodayot; and CD (see below) are other core sectarian documents). Among the nearly 350 documents (900+ manuscripts) discovered, roughly 30% of the scrolls are classified as "sectarian".

The most complete manuscript of the Community Rule was found in Cave 1, and is designated 1QS. Numerous other fragments of this document, containing variant readings, were found in caves 4 and 5 (4QSa-j, 5Q11, 5Q13). Two other documents, known as the Rule of the Congregation (1QSa) and the Rule of the Blessing (1QSb), are found on the same scroll as 1QS and while they were originally thought to be part of the Community Rule are now considered separate compositions and appendices.

There is some debate about the identification of the community described in 1QS. The most significant question that has been asked and debated is the relationship of the scroll to the ruins of the nearby settlement. While the vast majority of scholars would argue that a Jewish religious community in the Second Temple period occupied the site at Qumran and owned the scrolls found in caves nearby, a larger issue related to their identity as "Essenes" continues to be debated to this day. Striking similarities are found between the site of Qumran and rites and practices described in 1QS. Most noteworthy is the concern in 1QS for ritual purity by immersion and the discovery of nearly 10 ritual baths (mikva'ot) at Qumran. Moreover, 1QS describes communal meals and a dining hall with multiple cups, plates and bowls was discovered at Qumran. Much of the debate about the communities' identification with Essenes has centered on comparing and contrasting Josephus' descriptions of Essenes (he describes other "philosophical schools" such as Pharisees and Sadducees) with the details that emerge from sectarian literature found at Qumran (esp. 1QS) and the site itself. Josephus, for example, describes initiates to a male monastic order who are given a trowel for use when defecating (they are to dig a hole in private, away from the group, and ease their bowels while covering themselves with their robe), a detail about toilet habits that he finds amusing and entertaining for his readership. And yet, the discovery of a toilet at Qumran seems to contradict the witness of Josephus. Another question that has arisen, among others, when identifying Josephus' Essenes (see also Philo and Pliny) to the group at Qumran is the presence or absence of women. The cemetery that is adjacent to the settlement has only been partially excavated and there appear to be at least a few skeletal remains of women, which is seen by some to contradict an association between Essenes and the group there.

Scholars of earliest Christianity have traditionally taken note of 1QS because it refers to the messiahs of Aaron and Israel. This and other writings from the Dead Sea Scrolls have opened a window to the past that allows us to understand ideas and developments related to the religious milieu near to the time of earliest Christianity

Rule of the Congregation

The Rule of the Congregation (1QSa) is an appendix to one of the first seven Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in caves near the Qumran site in 1946. Three related sectarian documents were discovered in Qumran Cave 1: The Community Rule (1QS), The Rule of the Congregation (1QSa), and The Rule of the Blessing (1QSb). The Rule of the Congregation and the Rule of the Blessing were at first overlooked by researchers and considered a continuation of the much longer Community Rule. After careful study, it was revealed that the two texts acted as appendices to the first Community Rule scroll, and described an eschatological community (identified as the Yahad in the Community Rule) existing in Israel during the "end of times."

Since their discovery, the two passages have been called many names, including The Messianic Rule, The Charter for Israel in the Last Days, The Rule of the Benedictions, and A Priestly Blessing for the Last Days. The book's Hebrew names are Serekh ha-'Edah, and Serekh ha-Berakhot. They have also been referred to by 5 sigla: 1QSa and 1QSb are the most common, but 1Q28a, 1Q28b, and 4Q249a-i may also be used to reference passages.

Only one complete copy of the book exists with certainty, but 9 other copies of the Rule of the Congregation written in a cryptic script may exist. This first scroll (the scroll containing the Community Rule, the Rule of the Congregation, and the Rule of the Blessing) dates from 100-75 BCE. As this document is not an autograph document, it has been hypothesized that the original composition of the Rules occurred in the 2nd century BCE.

The Rule of the Congregation is the longer of the two appendices, and describes an eschatological congregation of men, women and children who have kept God's covenant and atoned for the ways of wicked men. The title of the work itself is derived from the opening passage, which follows:

"This is the rule for all the congregation of Israel in the Last Days, when they are mobilized [to join the Yahad. They must l]ive by the law of the Sons of Zadok, the priests, and the men of their Covenant, they who [ceased to walk in the w]ay of the people. These same men of His party who kept His Covenant during evil times, and so aton[ed for the lan]d."

The scroll continues to say that in the "last days" there will be a great war with the Gentiles, and the whole of Israel will join with the Yahad to fight. The Rule of the Congregation then outlines in several sections the rules for governing the eschatological sect, stages of life for members of the sect and the duties expected of them at each age, those disqualified from service, duties for members of the Tribe of Levi, acts of the council of the community, a description of a man (or men) described as "the Messiah of Aaron and of David" entering, and the eschatological banquet that will follow to celebrate his arrival. The Rule of the Congregation concerns itself largely with the operations of the sect during these "end-times," and the functions and purity prerequisites demanded of the sect during the messianic assembly (banquet).

Damascus Document

The Damascus Document (CD) is one of the most interesting texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls because it is the only Qumran sectarian work that was known before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There were a number of fragments from the scroll found before the Qumran discoveries in Cairo Geniza. The Cairo Geniza was located in a room adjoining The Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, which was gradually stuffed full of papers until it was discovered by European scholar Dr Solomon Schechter in 1897. He found over 190 000 manuscripts and fragments that were written in mainly Hebrew, Judaeo-Arabic.

The fragments were quite large, and a number of them matched documents found later in Qumran. They were divided into two separate sections, CDa, and CDb. Schechter dated CDa to the 10th century C.E and CDb to 11th or 12th century CE. In contrast to the fragments found at Qumran, the CD documents are largely complete, and therefore are vital for reconstructing the text.

The title of the document comes from numerous references within it to Damascus. The way this Damascus is treated in the document makes it possible that it was not a literal reference to Damascus in Syria, but to be understood either geographically for Babylon or Qumran itself. If symbolic, it is probably taking up the Biblical language found in Amos 5:27, "therefore I shall take you into exile beyond Damascus"; Damascus was part of Israel under King David, and the Damascus Document expresses an eschatalogical hope of the restoration of a Davidic monarchy.

The Damascus Document can be dived into two separate sections of work, The Admonition and the Laws. The Admonition comprises moral instruction, exhortation, and warning addressed to members of the sect, together with polemic against its opponents; it serves as a kind of introduction to the second section. Meanwhile, the Laws looks at this new covenant community expressed to them through the Teacher of Righteousness. It goes into great detail of the different social arrangements that were taking place at the time.

Book of Mysteries

The Book of Mysteries is closely related to another unnamed wisdom book found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, variously called Sapiential Work or The Secret of the Way Things Are. In both texts, the term raz occurs frequently. Raz means "mystery" or "secret," and is defined as a type of wisdom or knowledge that is known by God and can only be known by humans by divine revelation (Harrington 2000:588-589). This word often occurs in the phrase raz nihyeh which can be translated as "the secret of the way things are." The assumption behind The Book of Mysteries is that revelation, not reason, is the key to wisdom. The book is authored by an unnamed teacher who claims to be the recipient of such a revelation and is passing it along to his students.

Secret of the Way Things Are

The Secret of the Way Things Are (also called the Sapiential Work Scroll) is considered a wisdom scroll among the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is authored by a spiritual expert, directed towards a beginner. The author addresses how to deal with business and money issues in a godly manner, public affairs, leadership, marriage, children, and family, and how to live life righteously among a secular society.

Book of Enoch

Book of Enoch is any of several works that attribute themselves to the biblical figure Enoch, great-grandfather of Noah

  • Book of Enoch dates to the 2nd century BC or earlier, and survives in the Ge'ez language, with small portions also extant in Aramaic and Greek
  • Second Book of Enoch dates to the 1st century AD, and survives only in Old Church Slavonic
  • 3 Enoch dates to the 5th century, and survives in Hebrew

Book of Giants.

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