Famous Dead Sea Scrolls and Ancient Jewish Texts

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Jeremiah or Ezra holding a scroll superimposed on a Dead Sea Scroll

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain early copies of almost every book of the Hebrew Bible and have been called, justifiably, the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century. Dating between roughly 200 B.C. up until about A.D. 70, when the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and Qumran was abandoned, the 900 manuscripts found in 11 caves contain materials that include canonical works from the Hebrew Bible, including Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Kings and Deuteronomy. They also include psalms, hymns, calendars, apocryphal (non-canonical) biblical works and community rules. One scroll made of copper describes the location of buried treasure. Questions about who wrote the scrolls are still debated. Many scholars believe they were writtem by a monastic sect called the Essenes, who lived at Qumran. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, September 30, 2013]

Shaye I.D. Cohen of Brown University wrote: “The manuscripts that we call the Dead Sea Scrolls are a wide variety of texts. Some of these texts are hardly sectarian texts. These are texts that all Jews would have had, all Jews would have read. For example, the largest single category of Dead Sea text or Qumran Scrolls are text you and I call Biblical. No one is going to say the Book of Genesis was a Qumran document because fragments of the Book of Genesis were found in the Qumran scrolls.... We have to realize then that the Qumran scrolls contain a wide variety of text and we are not always able to distinguish clearly those texts which they simply read from those texts, which they actually wrote. [Source: Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

L. Michael White of the University of Texas wrote: “Among the cache of scrolls that we now call the Dead Sea Scrolls, are three distinct types of material. First, we have a collection of copies of the actual books of the Hebrew Scriptures. These people were copyists. They were preserving the texts of the Bible itself. Secondly, there were commentaries on these biblical texts. But these commentaries also show their own interpretation of what would happen. This is where we begin to get some of the insights into the way the Essenes at Qumran believed, because of the way they interpret the prophecies of Isaiah, or the prophesies of Habakkuk as well as the way they read the Torah, itself. So among the scrolls, then, we have a complete set of almost all the biblical books, and commentaries on many of them. "The Isaiah Scroll" is one of the most famous of the biblical manuscripts. And the commentaries on Isaiah is also very important for our understanding of Jewish interpretation of Scripture in this period. [Source: L. Michael Whit, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“The third major type of material found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, though, in some ways is the most interesting insight into the life of the community that lived there, because this material includes their own sectarian writings, that is, their rules of life ... their prayer book. Included then, is the book of the rule of the community or sometimes called "The Manual of Discipline", which talks about how one goes about getting into the community. The rules for someone who wants to be pure and a part of the elect community. We also have something called "The War Scroll" and the War Scroll seems to be their own battle plan for the war that will occur at the end of the present evil age. And so this is something that really is real in their mind ... that this coming end of the age will be a cataclysmic event in their view. Also was found something called "The Copper Scroll". Quite literally, with the letters incised, in Hebrew, into soft, burnished copper. And the contents of the Copper Scroll are still a source of great interest among many people, because people think it may be a treasure map of their own holdings.”

War Scroll

Shaye I.D. Cohen of Brown University wrote: “The Qumran Scrolls reveal a variety of scenarios for the end of days. The most conspicuous one or the best known one perhaps, is the scroll called the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness. Where the Sons of Light, of course, is short-[hand]... for themselves. The group itself clearly consists of the Sons of Light... the Sons of Darkness are everybody else, apparently - Jews, gentiles, priests, plain people, all alike, lumped together, under the category of the Sons of Darkness, and at some point there will be a major battle, a cataclysmic struggle, not just between people, not just between the bad guys and the good guys, as we would say in America, but also between cosmic forces, the cosmic forces of evil and the cosmic forces of good. And, in this gigantic struggle, the angels will fight along side the Sons of Light, against the Sons of Darkness and the forces of evil. And, needless to say, this will end with a victory for the Sons of Light.... What will happen after the victory, the Scroll does not clearly spell out as carefully as or clearly as we might have liked. Other scrolls have different scenarios or different pictures, which downplay or minimize this battle aspect and play up instead other aspects. [Source: Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

Michael Wise told PBS: This section of the scrolls presents the Essenes' apocalyptic vision of the final battle between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. This kind of apocalyptic sensibility was a discernible strain of Jewish thought at the time of Jesus; some scholars detect this sensibility in Jesus' message about the coming Kingdom of God. Armageddon: the war to end all wars. These words stir up images of inevitable conflict, the final focus on the dark side of human nature, the ultimate catharsis that ushers in an age of peace. All of these issues come to a head in the War Scroll, a text that describes the eschatological last battle in gory detail as righteousness is fully victorious and evil is forever destroyed. This vivid account gives us insight into how, at about the time of Jesus, some Jews conceived of Armageddon. [Source: Michael Wise, Frontline, PBS, April 1998.Book; “Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation” by Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, Jr. And Edward Cook (Harper, 1996) ]

“The first lines of the scroll (1QM 1:1-7) lay the framework for a three-stage conflict between the Sons of Light--that is, members of the Yahad[1] (see 1QS 3:13)--and the Sons of Darkness. The first battle finds the adversaries led by the Kittim of Assyria. (Although the name Kittim is often used in the scrolls as a reference to the Romans, its basic sense seems to have been "archetypical bad guys.") The Kittim of Asshur come in alliance with the biblical enemies Edom, Moab, Ammon, and Philistia. Cooperating with this unholy alliance are the "violators of the covenant": Jews who had spurned the message of the Yahad and in so doing aligned themselves with the Sons of Darkness. The second stage expands the war's influence to the Kittim who dwelt in Egypt, and then finally to the Kings of the North.

War Scroll

“Although this war is said to extend over forty years, the writer of the scroll was particularly concerned with the details of the very final day of battle. After six bloody engagements during this last battle, the Sons of Light and Sons of Darkness are deadlocked in a 3-3 tie. In the seventh and final confrontation "the great hand of God shall overcome [Belial and al]l the angels of his dominion, and all the men of [his forces shall be destroyed forever]" (IQM 1:14-15). Along the way, in true apocalyptic fashion, the scroll goes into elaborate detail Concerning the battle trumpets (2:15-3:11), banners (3:12-5-2), and operational matters (5:3-9:16). Priestly prayers for the various phases of the conflict are recorded next (9:17-l5:3). Finally, the seven savage engagements of the final day of battle are detailed (15:4-18:8), culminating in a ceremony of thanksgiving on the day following the victory (18:10-19:14).

“As with biblical representatives of apocalyptic literature, Ezekiel 38-39 and the Revelation of John as pertinent examples, one can easily lose sight of the primary purpose of the work. It is not to be found in the intricate and often mysterious details of the text. Rather, the author was concerned with the tribulation and hopelessness that his readers were currently experiencing. He built his encouragement on a biblical theology of rescue: the defeat of Goliath at the hand of David (1QM 11:1-2), and Pharaoh and the officers of his chariots at the Red Sea (11:9-10). Coupled with this aspect was his understanding that great suffering was part of God's will for the redeemed. Indeed, God's crucible (17:9) was seen as a necessary component of man's existence so long as evil continued to exist in the world. Ultimately, God's purpose was to exalt the Sons of Light and to judge the Children of Darkness. The message is one of hope. In the face of such perverse evil, the Sons of Light are encouraged to persevere to the end. God was preparing to intervene and bring a permanent solution for the problem of evil.”

Contents of the War Scroll

The War Scroll itself is one of the first seven texts found by the Bedouin in 1947. Nineteen columns of text are preserved, lacking only a few lines at the bottom edge and the final page or pages of the composition. The description of the eschatological war Col. 1 reads: “For the In[structor, the Rule of] the War. The first attack of the Sons of Light shall be undertaken against the forces of the Sons of Darkness, the army of Belial: the troops of Edom, Moab, the sons of Ammon, the [Amalekitesl, Philistia, and the troops of the Kittim of Asshur. Supporting them are those who have violated the covenant. The sons of Levi, the sons of Judah, and the sons of Benjamin, those exiled to the wilderness, shall fight against them with [ . . . ] against all their troops, when the exiles of the Sons of Light return from the Wilderness of the Peoples to camp in the Wilderness of Jerusalem. Then after the battle they shall go up from that place a[nd the king of] the Kittim [shall enter] into Egypt. In his time he shall go forth with great wrath to do battle against the kings of the north and in his anger he shall set out to destroy and eliminate the strength of I[srael. Then there shall be a time of salvation for the People of God, and a time of dominion for all the men of His forces, and eternal annihilation for all the forces of Belial. [Source: Michael Wise, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

There shall be g[reat] panic [among] the sons of Japheth. Assyria shall fall with no one to come to his aid, and the supremacy of the Kittim shall cease, that wickedness be overcome without a remnant. There shall be no survivors of [all the Sons of] Darkness.

“Then [the Sons of Rig]hteousness shall shine to all ends of the world, continuing to shine forth until end of the appointed seasons of darkness. Then at the time appointed by God, His great excellence shall shine for all the times of e[ternity;] for peace and blessing, glory and joy, and long life for all Sons of Light. On the day when the Kittim fall there shall be a battle and horrible carnage before the God of Israel, for it is a day appointed by Him from ancient times as a battle of annihilation for the Sons of Darkness. On that day the congregation of the gods and the congregation of men shall engage one another, resulting in great carnage. The Sons of Light and the forces of Darkness shall fight together to show the strength of God with the roar of a great multitude and the shout of gods and men: a day of disaster. It is a time of distress fo[r al]l the people who are redeemed by God. In all their afflictions none exists that is like it, hastening to its completion as an eternal redemption. On the day of their batlle against the Kittim, they shall g[o forth for] carnage in battle. In three lots the Sons of Light shall stand firm so as to strike a blow at wickedness, and in three the army of Belial shall strengthen themselves so as to force the retreat of the forces [of Light. And when the] banners of the infantry cause their hearts to melt. then the strength of God will strengthen the he[arts of the Sons of Light.] In the seventh lot the great hand of God shall overcome [Belial and al]1 the angels of his dominion, and all the men of [his forces shall be destroyed forever].

War Scroll

Community Rule Scroll

Originally known as The Manual of Discipline, the Community Rule contains a set of regulations ordering the life of the members of the "yahad," the group within the Judean Desert sect who chose to live communally and whose members accepted strict rules of conduct. This fragment cites the admonitions and punishments to be imposed on violators of the rules, the method of joining the group, the relations between the members, their way of life, and their beliefs. The sect divided humanity between the righteous and the wicked and asserted that human nature and everything that happens in the world are irrevocably predestined. The scroll ends with songs of praise to God. [Source: ibiblio.org/expo/deadsea.scrolls.exhibi

The Community Rule (Serekh ha-Yahad) is 8.8 centimeters (3 7/16 in.) high and 21.5 centimeters (8 7/16 in.) wide. Written on parchment, it was copied in late first century B.C. or A.D. first century and is now kept by the Israel Antiquities Authority. A complete copy of the scroll, eleven columns in length, was found in Cave 1. Ten fragmentary copies were recovered in Cave 4, and a small section was found in Cave 5. The large number of manuscript copies attests to the importance of this text for the sect. This particular fragment is the longest of the versions of this text found in Cave 4.

Shaye I.D. Cohen of Brown University wrote: “The Manual of Discipline is a text that envisions a community living in almost total isolation, a community that is self-contained, that is governed very strictly by a Board of Governors, or a series of overlapping authorities, governing community in which everybody owes obedience to their superiors. There's an oath of entry; it is a very much monastic community, for want of the better word, a community with little or no private property. That point is debated in the text but it seems at least that you surrendered if not all, then at least some of your property to the kind of community pot; in turn, then, the community would look out for you and look after you. So, it is very much a community where the individual has somehow been merged into a communal group.... Like a monastic community, there is no private property and, most striking of all, there are no women, and as a result, there are few children. It is a group almost exclusively consisting of adult males, who are to spend their life following the rules of the group and acting out the theological principles and beliefs of the group.... [Source: Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Reconstructing the Text of the Book of Enoch

The Book of Enoch is an apocryphal text thought to be written sometime between the third century B.C. and the second century A.D. It is named for the biblical Noah’s great-grandfather. Only a few scholars know much abou the book as it wasn’t included in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. The only complete copy to survive from antiquity was written in an ancient Ethiopic language called Ge’ez. But beginning in the 1950s, more than 100 fragments from 11 different parchment scrolls of the Book of Enoch, written largely in Aramaic, were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Michael Langlois, a professor of Old Testament studies at the University of Strasbourg, has studied the fragments and the texts. [Source: Chanan Tigay, Smithsonian magazine, January-February 2023]

Chanan Tigay wrote in Smithsonian magazine: A few fragments were relatively large — 15 to 20 lines of text — but most were much smaller, ranging in size from a piece of toast to a postage stamp. Someone had to transcribe, translate and annotate all this “Enochic” material — and Langlois’ teacher volunteered him. That’s how he became one of just two students in Paris learning Ge’ez.

Langlois quickly grasped the numerous parallels between Enoch and other books of the New Testament; for instance, Enoch mentions a messiah called the “son of man” who will preside over the Final Judgement. Indeed, some scholars believe Enoch was a major influence on early Christianity, and Langlois had every intention to conduct that type of historical research. He started by transcribing the text from two small Enoch fragments, but age had made parts of it hard to read; some sections were missing entirely. In the past, scholars had tried to reconstruct missing words and identify where in the larger text these pieces belonged. But after working out his own readings, Langlois noticed the fragments seemed to come from parts of the book that were different from those specified by earlier scholars. He also wondered if their proposed readings could even fit on the fragments they purportedly came from.But how could he tell for sure?

To faithfully reconstruct the text of Enoch, he needed digital images of the scrolls—images that were crisper and more detailed than the printed copies inside the books he was relying on. That was how, in 2004, he found himself traipsing around Paris, searching for a specialized microfiche scanner to upload images to his laptop. Having done that (and lacking cash to buy Photoshop), he downloaded an open-source knockoff. First, he individually outlined, isolated and reproduced each letter on Fragment 1 and Fragment 2, so he could move them around his screen like alphabet refrigerator magnets, to test different configurations and to create an “alphabet library” for systematic analysis of the script. Next, he began to study the handwriting. Which stroke of a given letter was inscribed first? Did the scribe lift his pen, or did he write multiple parts of a letter in a continuous gesture? Was the stroke thick or thin?

Then Langlois started filling in the blanks. Using the letters he’d collected, he tested the reconstructions proposed by scholars over the preceding decades. Yet large holes remained in the text, or words were too big to fit in the available space. The “text” of the Book of Enoch as it was widely known, in other words, was in many cases mistaken. Take the story of a group of fallen angels who descend to earth to seduce beautiful women. Using his new technique, Langlois discovered that earlier scholars had gotten the names of some of the angels wrong, and so had not realized the names were derived from Canaanite gods worshipped in the second millennium B.C.—a clear example of the way scriptural authors integrated elements of the cultures that surrounded them into their theologies. “I didn’t consider myself a scholar,” Langlois told me. “I was just a student wondering how we could benefit from these technologies.” Eventually, Langlois wrote a 600-page book that applied his technique to the oldest known scroll of Enoch, making more than 100 “improvements,” as he calls them, to prior readings.

Ein Gedi Scroll

Ein Gedi is a desert oasis located on the western shore of the Dead Sea. Its rich history includes nearly 5,000 years of off-and-on human occupation. Perhaps best known as the hideout of David when he fled from King Saul, Ein Gedi was also the site of a Byzantine Jewish village. At some point, the entire village burned down, including its mosaic-floored synagogue. In 1970, archaeologists unearthed a badly scorched scroll at the site where Ein Gedi’s synagogue used to be. Fire damage made it impossible to open, let alone read.

Almost 50 years later, modern technology did the unimaginable; it allowed the 1,500-year-old scroll to be read without unrolling it. Scientists scanned the parchment with specialized software that opened the scroll virtually. They were stunned when the process revealed legible writing, which nobody had truly expected. What they found were the opening verses of the Book of Leviticus. Now recognized as the oldest biblical text since the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Ein Gedi scroll is also the first Torah scroll to be unearthed in a synagogue during archaeological excavations.

Qumarn Ostracon and Genizah at the Ben Ezra Synagogue

The Qumarn Ostracon, found in 1996 in Qumarn, is a deed that may include a reference to the community that wrote the Dead Sea scrolls.

Another important find in the understanding of Judaism was the discovery of a cache of old manuscripts, dating from the from A.D. 882, found in the Genizah (store rooms) at the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, an early Islamic city near Cairo. The manuscripts had been preserved because of a Jewish law that required flawed manuscripts to be set aside rather than thrown out. Among the manuscripts were fragments from Genesis copied in the 5th or 6th centuries or perhaps earlier.

Some of the most interesting revelations came from vellum pages that had been washed to be used again but still had legible original text on them. The earliest of these is a literal translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek by Aquila around A.D. 125. A fragment from the 6th century manuscript kept at the Cambridge University library shows that Greek was still used by Jews. Another Genizah fragment, two passages with the end of Nehemiah (13: 20-21), with a date corresponding to A.D. 903-904, is the earliest dated medieval Hebrew manuscript. The format of the manuscript is remarkably similar to Iranian Korans made around the same time.

Another treasure thought to have originated at Genizah is the earliest near complete dated manuscript of the Bible. copied in A.D. 929 . According to Souren Meliken, art critic in the International Herald Tribune, it is decorated in a similar way as Korans from Syria made around the same time.

Digitally Cataloguing Ancient Biblical Texts

Robert Draper wrote in National Geographic:“Because the authentic Dead Sea Scrolls are “the most significant cultural treasure of a Jewish nature on Earth,” as curator Adolfo Roitman puts it, the sacred documents are preserved with exquisite care. Meanwhile multitudes of other biblical manuscripts are left to molder in academic storerooms or be consumed by fire, flood, insects, looters, or war in countries wracked by political upheaval. Conserving and documenting them before their secrets slip away forever is “literally a race against time,” says Daniel B. Wallace, head of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts in Plano, Texas. [Source: Robert Draper, National Geographic, December, 2018]

“Wallace and other globe-trotting textual scholars — most notably the Benedictine monk Father Columba Stewart of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University in Minnesota — have logged tens of thousands of miles traveling the world on an urgent mission: to digitally document ancient biblical manuscripts in archives, monastic libraries, and other repositories and make them available to scholars everywhere via the internet. It’s a daunting task. In the case of the New Testament, whose authors wrote in Greek, more than 5,500 Greek manuscripts and fragments have been found — more than any other ancient text. They total as many as 2.6 million pages, Wallace estimates, and like the Oxyrhynchus papyri, most of them have yet to receive scholarly attention. “About 80 percent of already known manuscripts that would be of help for New Testament scholarship aren’t published yet,” says Father Olivier-Thomas Venard of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française, a Dominican research center in Jerusalem. “It’s an embarrassment of riches,” adds Venard’s colleague Father Anthony Giambrone, “which frankly makes the challenges of textual criticism insurmountable. There are just not enough specialists to work on them.”

“The Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster, Germany, has sought to reduce the labor challenges by classifying biblical documents according to key passages, but such a system amounts to triage that wholly ignores numerous texts. A far more comprehensive solution may soon be technologically feasible, predicts Wallace, who hopes to use optical character recognition (OCR) software to digitize every volume of the Greek New Testament. “Right now it would take a scholar 400 years to read and collate all the known documents,” he says. “With OCR, we think we can do the job in 10 years.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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