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Introduction to the Scrolls from the Judean Desert

(Summary of a lecture by J. R. Davila on 8 February 2005)

The story of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 or thereabouts has rightly taken its place in modern legend. It reads like a tale from the Arabian Nights: Bedouin shepherds were grazing their flocks near a place called the Wadi Qumran, a stream that only flows during the rainy season and that leads into the Dead Sea. In passing, one shepherd threw a stone into a cave in the hillside and, hearing the sound of shattering pottery, they fled. But one returned in a short time to find that the cave was truly a cave of treasure. It contained large jars, most of them empty, but one holding several ancient and decayed leather scrolls. Over the next year some of the scrolls were carried around by the Bedouin, shown to antiquities dealers, and eventually came into the hands of scholars who determined that they were quite ancient -- from around the turn of the era -- and that one of them was a copy of the biblical book of Isaiah. The many excellent introductions to the Scrolls give the details of the further discoveries over the next decade or so, but the upshot was that a total of eleven caves near the Wadi Qumran were found to contain fragments of ancient scrolls, probably all placed there by the same people at the time of the Great Revolt against Rome in CE 68-70, when Jerusalem was besieged and finally destroyed by the Romans. Since the 1950s, numerous other scrolls and manuscripts have been recovered elsewhere in the Judean Desert, including finds at the Nahal Hever, the Wadi Murabba'at, Masada, and Jericho. The most recent confirmed manuscript find of which I am aware was in 1993.

It is worth noting that scrolls have actually been discovered in this region at least twice before. A Church father named Origen, who died in the early third century CE, wrote that in his day a jar was discovered "near Jericho" that contained Hebrew and Greek books. Some of these were biblical scrolls and Origen made use of them in his own research. We have a similar story from an eastern Church father named Timothy, who wrote around the year 800 CE. One of his letters, to a man named Sergius, is preserved in the Syriac language. He tells how a cache of books was discovered , again "near Jericho." The dog of a local Arab was chasing after another animal and ran inside a cave. When it didn't come out for some time its owner followed it, and discovered that the cave was full of scrolls. The hunter reported his find to the Jewish community in Jerusalem, and when they investigated they found many books in Hebrew, including books of the Bible. It has been suggested that the phrase "near Jericho" describes Qumran itself, although this seems geographically difficult. But in any case, Jewish scrolls have been discovered and removed from caves in the Judean desert a number of times in the past. This may explain why some Syriac hymns, otherwise unknown, were found in their original Hebrew forms among the Dead Sea Scrolls; they may have been retrieved from the caves and translated centuries before. These early references to scroll finds may also explain some peculiar discoveries in Egypt which we will look at in more detail next week.

One other manuscript find also prepared the way for the Dead Sea Scrolls. A small scrap, now known as the Nash Papyrus, was discovered in the 1920's in Israel. On it was a copy of the Ten Commandments as found in the book of Deuteronomy, with some variations. Scholars were able to date this scroll fragment to sometime in the second century BCE.

So, to return to the story of the scrolls. The most important of these was Cave 4 (caves are identified by the order in which they were discovered), which was found by Bedouin in 1952 and was only later excavated by archaeologists. Several hundred manuscripts were found there altogether, but most, unfortunately, were very badly decayed, and had been reduced to tens of thousands of fragments, usually brought in shoe boxes or cigar boxes, mixed together in no particular order. The process of cleaning, humidifying, and sorting the fragments took a full decade. Imagine gathering up a thousand jigsaw puzzles, mixing the pieces thoroughly together in a huge heap, then throwing away 80-90% of the pieces, along with most of the boxes. Then imagine trying to sort out the individual puzzles and reconstruct the pictures that were on them. Such, more or less, was the task of the original Scrolls editors, a task still not quite complete after more than half a century.

Most of the scrolls were written in Hebrew or Aramaic, with a few in Greek. The overall contents of the Qumran library fall roughly into the following four categories. (These are procrustean categories that I use with reservation, in that they make sense to us but probably would not have made sense to the original compilers of the library.)

First, bits survive of about 200 manuscripts of books of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament (itself a highly problematical category whose deconstruction cannot delay us here). The most popular book is Psalms, with thirty-six copies. Deuteronomy is second, with twenty-nine copies. The prophet Isaiah is third, with twenty-one copies. The Pentateuch is very well represented, with eighty-two of the manuscripts being from one of these five books. But almost every book of the Hebrew Bible is represented in at least one copy. The only exception is the book of Esther. This could be an accident of preservation or a matter of deliberate selection. It is possible that the people who deposited the Qumran library did not celebrate the feast of Purim, and if so Esther would not have been among their scriptures. Some of the "Apocrypha" (works accepted in the Catholic canon but not in the Jewish or Protestant canons) also survive, including fragments of Tobit and Ecclesiasticus/Ben Sira in their original Aramaic or Hebrew.

The second category is multiple copies of a number of "sectarian" texts, meaning, roughly, Jewish texts that define their Judaism in contrast to the Judaism of the cult and priestly apparatus in Jerusalem. Among others, these include the Community Rule, the Damascus Document, the War Rule, the Pesharim or biblical commentaries, the Hymns Scroll, the Halakhic Letter, and the Temple Scroll. We will look at all of these in detail in this course.

The third category consists of non-biblical Jewish texts known mostly from translations in early Church languages (Greek, Latin, Syriac, Ethiopic, etc.) and mostly assigned today to the even more problematical category "Old Testament Pseudepigrapha", about which I refer you to the online course module I teach periodically. These include the Ethiopic book of 1 Enoch and the book of Jubilees. Aramaic fragments of the former and Hebrew fragments of the latter survive among the Dead Sea Scrolls. A few of these documents, such as the Damascus Document and Aramaic Levi, were preserved in Jewish circles into the Middle Ages, so we still had at least fragments of the Hebrew or Aramaic originals. The Damascus Document is the only sectarian text in this category. Aramaic Levi is a source for one of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a Greek and (at least in its current form) Christian composition in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.

The fourth category is a grab-bag, consisting of non-biblical, non-sectarian Jewish texts that were entirely new to us until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many of these are in Aramaic, such as the Genesis Apocryphon, the Targum to Job, and the Prayer of Nabonidus. The mysterious Hebrew Copper Scroll can also be assigned to this category.

It is perhaps not as well known that there have been other manuscript discoveries in the Judean desert which came from places other than Qumran and are unrelated to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

First, there is a group of papyri found in a cave not far from Samaria. Unlike most scroll finds, this was well north of the Dead Sea basin. The Samaritans, who rightly or wrongly trace their own origins to the ten lost tribes of Israel, had an independent government there in the Second Temple period. We know from classical writers that the Samaritans revolted in the 4th century BCE against Alexander the Great and they burned his prefect, Andromachus, alive. Alexander hastened to Samaria, destroyed the city and replaced it with a Macedonian colony. We now know that the leaders of the rebellion fled into the desert and hid in a cave. Alexander found them , lit a fire at the cave mouth, and suffocated them. Their skeletons & possessions, including some scrolls, were found again by the Bedouin in 1962. In fact the same man who found the first scrolls in Qumran Cave One also found these texts, the "Samaria Papyri." They are mostly personal and business documents whose contents are jejune, but which contribute evidence for important questions about Jewish and Samaritan history and the Aramaic language of that time and give us valuable background for a period about which we have very little information.

Second, in the 1960s scientific excavations were carried out by Yigael Yadin at the site of Masada, an immense plateau also on the western shore of the Dead Sea, which was made into a military garrison by Herod the Great. The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tells us the story of the defenders of Masada, who refused to surrender to the Romans after the Great Revolt had been put down in CE 70. They survived on the mountain fortress for several years, and when the Romans had built a siege ramp up the side of the cliff and were about to capture it, the revolutionaries committed suicide rather than surrender. Yadin and his crew systematically excavated the whole top of Masada and they were able at least to some degree to confirm Josephus' story.

In the ruins of Masada some scrolls were found which had been left there by its defenders. This was one of the very few cases where scrolls have been found in the land of Israel outside of caves. Some were found in the ruins of a synagogue on the plateau. In the floor was a "geniza", a receptacle for the storage of worn scrolls, and scrolls had been left in it. Nearby, in a storage chamber within the outer wall, more scrolls were found. Others were found in a wall tower, and in a rubbish heap left by the Romans. These scrolls included fragments of the original Hebrew of the book of Ecclesiasticus/Ben Sira and a fragment of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, an angelic liturgy known also from the Qumran library.

Other scroll discoveries in the Judean Desert are associated with the second Jewish revolt against the Romans which was led by the messianic leader Shimon Bar Kokhba in CE 132-135. Until these scrolls were discovered, all we knew about this revolt came from scattered references in the classical writers and some very confused stories in the Talmuds and other rabbinic literature. The only archaeological evidence was a series of coins referring to the revolt.

It began when the Roman emperor Hadrian broke his promise to allow the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. At the same time he apparently outlawed circumcision, considering it a form of castration, and thus against Roman law. There was a massive uprising against the Romans, led this time by a man known in the classical sources as Shimon Bar Kochba, Shimon son of a star. His real name, we learn from the scrolls, was Shimon Bar Kosiba. Jerusalem and Judea were temporarily recovered. The battle with the Romans was long and brutal. The rabbinic sources tell how the Romans battered out the brains of 300 children on a single stone, and how they would wrap students in Torah scrolls and set them aflame. Altogether twelve Roman legions were mobilized against the revolt. Losses were heavy on both sides. Eventually the Romans got the upper hand. They beseiged Bar Kosiba at his main fortress, Betar, and there he was killed. Some of his followers escaped into the Judean desert and hid in caves there. The Romans tracked them down, group by group, and beseiged them in the caves until they starved. They left behind their belongings, including their private papers, in Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew. Among the hundreds of documentary texts recovered from the Wadi Murabba'at, the Nahal Hever, and elsewhere, are letters dictated by Bar Kosiba himself.

These documents not only corroborate Bar Kosiba's existence; they give some interesting details about his personality, his administration, and the problems of the war, providing us a with picture of a very authoritarian, almost tyrannical man, who never gives an order without including a threat of punishment if it is not carried out. Still his army was closely knit, and called each other brothers. Bar Kosiba also appears as a deeply pious man, who forbids his troops to travel on the Sabbath, and who carefully arranges for the proper transport of lulavs and etrogs for the correct celebration of the Sukkot holiday, even during the desperate final stages of the war.

The significance of these finds for Jewish history cannot be overemphasized. It's something like discovering letters dictated by King Authur at Camelot.

Finally, a few documentary texts from the vicinity of Jericho have also been recovered, mostly again in caves. A couple in Aramaic date to the fourth century BCE, while most of the rest (in Aramaic, Greek, and perhaps Hebrew) seem to have been left during the Bar Kokhba revolt and date to the first and second centuries CE.

A number of comprehensive theories have been advanced to explain who produced the Qumran library and why the scrolls were hidden in the caves around Qumran. Shortly after the discovery of the scrolls in Qumran Cave One it was proposed that a library had been discovered that had been produced by a Jewish sect known as the Essenes (the meaning of the word is debated) who are mentioned by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria; the Jewish historian Josephus; and a Roman naturalist named Pliny the Elder, all of whom wrote in the first century CE. They describe a celibate, quasi-monastic Jewish group (with a wider following of less rigorous adherents in the towns of Judea) who had ideas in some ways quite similar to those in the sectarian texts from Qumran. Pliny describes the location of the Essene community. The interpretation of his comments is debated, but many would argue that he locates it on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, which is precisely the region where the ruins of Wadi Qumran are found. The majority of Qumranologists accept some form of the hypothesis that the Qumran sectarians and the Essenes are to be identified on some level. One version of this theory, the "Groningen hypothesis," refines the Essene hypothesis by arguing that the Qumran sectarians were a subgroup within a larger Essene movement. Another recent refinemen has been published by Gabriele Boccaccini in his book Beyond the Essene Hypothesis, in which he correlates the development of the Essene movement and the Qumran sectarians with the related "Enochic" literature found in the book of 1 Enoch. We shall be considering the Essene hypothesis and its various formulations at various points throughout the semester.

A significant minority of scholars do not accept the identification of the Qumran sectarians with the Essenes at all. One example is Professor Norman Golb of the University of Chicago, who has argued for many years that the Dead Sea Scrolls are not the work of sectarians at all, but rather are literary archives from the vicinity of Jerusalem, removed during the siege of the Great Revolt and hidden at Qumran, which he takes to have been the site of a military fortress. Golb has raised some interesting challenges to the mainstream view but, as far as I know, no other Qumranologists has accepted his theory and he has received little support from archaeologists for his view that the site of Qumran was a military fortress in the time of the Scrolls.

Another theory, advanced by Joseph Baumgarten and Lawrence Schiffman, is potentially compatible with the Essene theory, but need not be harmonized with it. These scholars have noted that the halakhic (legal) material in the sectarian scrolls tends to agree with the laws and exegesis of the Sadducees as far as we can reconstruct their views from scattered hostile references in the rabbinic literature. The "Sadducees" were the "Zadokite" priests who presided in the worship of the Jerusalem temple (the first word is a Greek pronuciation of the second, Hebrew, word). The Zadokite priests are also important among the sectarian scrolls, so we may be looking at a group of priests who broke with the Jerusalem priesthood to pursue their own radical agenda.

Numerous other global interpretations of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been advanced, some more plausible than others. We will look at some of the others in passing, but our main focus toward the end of this course will be on the Essene, Sadducee, and Jerusalem archive theories.

A number of methodological considerations are worth raising as we begin our study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I will outline them briefly here. We will no doubt return to them repeatedly as we look at and discuss specific texts and problems.

What is a "sectarian" text? To what degree can we speak of a single sectarian movement vs. a range of broadly similar but somewhat inconsistent sectarian factions? To what degree do the texts represent utopian ideology vs. practical instruction for real organizations? The sectarian texts share a broad range of similar terminology and ideas but present their views and agendas in differing and not entirely consistent forms. This is true not only from one work to another (e.g., the Damascus Document compared to the Community Rule or Temple Scroll), but often even among different manuscripts of what appears to be the same work.

What is the relationship of the ruins at Wadi Qumran and the scrolls found in the vicinity? To what degree are we justified in trying to harmonize the archaeology of Qumran with the contents of the scrolls to produce a global historical reconstruction?

How do we go about comparing the Dead Sea Scrolls to other ancient documents? To what degree should we ignore other texts and try to understand the Scrolls on their own terms only and to what degree can outside texts illuminate and be illuminated by the Scrolls? Can we harmonize them with the accounts of the Essenes? (What does the word "Essene" mean? How did Essenism develop over time? How distorted is our understanding of the Essenes, given that our information comes entirely from accounts by non-members?) What is the role of comparison with the New Testament or the Mishnah? (I have said more about the methodology of advancing "parallels" here.)

How do we distinguish a good theory from a bad one? How do we test our theories? How do we go about (or should we go about) "falsifying" our theories? Falsification is a concept used primarily in the hard sciences, first described clearly by the philosopher Karl Popper. It involves formulating a theory in such a way that it (1) has a greater overall explanatory value than current theories and (2) can be refuted--shown to be wrong and discarded. Then one tests the theory in various way (experimental testing is especially important in the sciences, but this is not the only means of testing). If it is refuted, we have learned something. If it is not refuted after lengthy, rigorous testing, it achieves the status of the current "working hypothesis" until it it eventually replaced with a theory with greater explanatory value that also survives testing. This, in my view, is the best means of advancing human knowledge and it should always be in our minds as we attack the problems of the scrolls from the Judean Desert.

For more on Popper's approach, I recommend the following highly:

Bryan Magee, Popper (Modern Masters series; 3rd edition; London: Fontana, 1985)

(c) 2005
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

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