Essays: Overview of the Dead Sea Scrolls


The following four essays were in response to a comprehensive essay exam I gave in my Dead Sea Scrolls course. They were written by my student Jeffrey Poplin and used with his permission. I thank Jeffrey for his superb work and happily pass these along to my blog readers:

Essay One:

Offer a comprehensive overview of the following: a) discovery and identification of the DSS; b) contents of the library;  c) dating methods and results; and d) impact on the text of the Hebrew Bible.

The story of the discovery and identification of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a complicated story that involves many personalities, the nations of Israel and Jordan, and the competing work of archaeologists and Bedouins in the Judean Desert. But, here is an attempt at summary: By the term Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), we are referring to the 850+ documents, mostly in fragmentary fashion, that were discovered in the Judean Desert, in and around Qumran, between the winter of 1946/47 and 1956. The initial discovery was supposedly made by a fifteen year old Bedouin shepherd boy named Muhammed Al-Dhib who was searching for lost sheep. He threw a stone into a cave and heard the sound of breaking pottery. Upon entering the cave, he found pottery jar and scrolls. This cave has come to be called Cave 1. Seven scrolls, including the Community Rule (or Manual of Discipline), the Genesis Apocryphon, the War Scroll, the Habbakuk pesher, the Isaiah Scroll, and the Thanksgiving Hymns were among the scrolls found in Cave 1. Several of these scrolls pass into the hands of an antiquities dealer in Bethelehem nicknamed Kando. Kando sells four of the scrolls to a prelate of the Syrian Orthodox Church named Mar Samuel. He entrusts these scrolls to the staff of the American School of Oriental Research (Burrows, Trever, and Brownlee). The staff at ASOR contact the prominent archaeologist William Albright of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who concludes that the scrolls are ancient Jewish manuscripts from the Maccabean period. Eleazar Sukenik of the Hebrew University purchases three of these scrolls, and when Mar Samuel places an add in the Wall Street Journal to sell his four scrolls, he also anonymously purchases those scrolls through a third party. Sukenik concludes that the scrolls are the products of the ancient Essenes.

The Jordanian Antiquities Authority authorize Lankester Harding and Father Roland de Vaus to excavate Cave 1 and the Khirbet Qumran, a site near the cave. De Vaux concludes that the scrolls were the products of the Essenes, a monastic-like group of ultra-orthodox Jewish celibates that lived in Qumran. Because of the discovery of inkwells and apparent writing tables, de Vaux even proposes the existence of a scriptorium at Qumran. By 1956, eleven caves (some within sight of Qumran) are discovered and de Vaux and the team assembled by de Vaux are given the charge to reassemble and translate the scrolls and fragments (mostly fragments) that are found in those caves. These scrolls and fragments are housed in the Rockefeller Museum under Jordanian control, and they remain under Jordanian control until the 1967 War when the area passes into Israeli control. Even after Israel assumes control of the museum and the scroll fragments, they allow de Vaux’s team to continue their agonizingly slow work on the scrolls. While the scrolls of Cave 1 were translated fairly quickly by the Israelis after their initial purchase, the remaining fragments remained largely un-translated and the domain of a few privileged scholars (not Jews or Israelis initially included) until the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when mounting public pressure (lead largely by the editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, Hershel Shanks) led to the removal of John Strugnell (who was the head of the Scroll Team at this point) and the creation of a larger and more diverse Scroll Team. During the 1990’s, all of the scrolls have been made available to anyone interested in studying them.

b). The Contents of the Library

The Dead Sea Scroll Library is made up of Jewish documents written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek between 200 BCE and 68 CE. The number of Greek manuscripts represented is very small and limited to the finds of Cave 7. The scrolls include portions of biblical books (all of the books of the Hebrew Bible except possibly Esther and perhaps Nehemiah; none of the Maccabean literature, might not have been esteemed by the Essenes. Perhaps Esther is not among the library because of its connection with the recent festival of Purim and the less-than-orthodox behavior of Esther), pseudipigraphical and apocryphal books (Enoch, Jubilees, Tobit, etc.), and sectarian books composed by the community itself (such as the Community Rule, the Damascus Document, the War Scroll, etc.) Contra Norman Golb, who conjectures that the library was brought to the caves from the Temple in Jerusalem as the Romans were approaching, the library could have been the possession of the ancient sect residing at Qumran who were probably the Essenes. While there is some diversity represented in the library, there is nothing in the library that would have been beyond the interest of the Essenes, and the collection as a whole has a sectarian character running throughout. The large number of sectarian documents scattered throughout the caves attests to this theory. Also, there is nothing in the library that blatantly contradicts the teaching of the Essenes that we know from the classical sources, like Pliny, Philo, and Josephus, particularly if you accept Josephus’ witness that there were both marrying and non-marrying Essenes. While the library could have been an Essene Library, the Essenes are not necessarily the authors or the scribes of all of the documents. Some could have been brought from elsewhere by the community at Qumran.

c). Dating Methods and Results

There are basically three methods used in dating the DSS: paleography, Radio Carbon Dating (including AMS), and archaeology. The early paleographic work done on the scrolls was done by Frank Cross, and he and his team concluded that the scrolls were dated between the Maccabean and Roman periods, with different scrolls being dated to specific periods within this frame of reference. Radio-carbon dating and AMS have basically confirmed the paleographic dating of the scrolls. The archaeological work done by people like Roland de Vaux and Jodi Magness at Qumran has also shown all of the paleographic and radio-carbon dates to be plausible dates for the production and/or collection of the scrolls by the Qumran community. Major documents like CD and IQS can be dated to around 100 CE. Hypotheses that make the Qumranites and their scrolls Christian (Robert Eisenman, Barbara Thiering) have to reject these paleographic, radio-carbon/AMS, and archeological conclusion concerning the dating of these documents.

d). Impact on the Text of the Hebrew Bible

Before the discovery of the DSS, the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible dated to the early Medieval period (Masoretic Text). With the discovery of the DSS, we now have manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible one thousand years older than what we previously possessed. In the DSS library, we see evidence of influence by proto-Masoretic texts, Samaritan Penteteuch texts and Septuagint texts of the Hebrew Bible. With the discovery of the DSS, we now have variant readings and additional texts that are older than the Masoretic texts, such as the DSS addition to the end of I Samuel 10(the story of Nahash, king of the Ammonites). Also, before the discovery of the DSS, we had very little paleographic evidence from the Second Temple period (the Nash Papyri being the exception). The discovery of the DSS has allowed the study of actual documents from the Second Temple period. The DSS also show us that the idea of “canon” was very fluid during this Second Temple period, at least among the Qumranites, much less an established standard text, since the group seems comfortable reading versions of the biblical texts that differ rather widely from one another.

Essay 2:

Discuss the issues involved with identifying the group associated with the scrolls (known or unknown?), and identifying the site of Qumran with that group. Most scholars are convinced the “Essenes” are the group behind the scrolls. What is gained by this hypothesis and what are some of its difficulties?

The classical sources of Philo, Pliny and Josephus all talk about a Jewish sect called the Essenes. Pliny locates the Essenes on the western shore of the Dead Sea and Philo and Josephus give extended descriptions of the thought and practices of the Essenes. Pliny, Philo and Josephus all praise the Essenes for their devotion and piety, describing them as a celibate group who lives alone in the desert. Josephus does mention that there were Essenes who married and lived among the cities of Palestine. Philo and Josephus both place the number of Essenes near four thousand. Besides disdaining marriage (or at least sexual relations except perhaps for procreation), the Essenes renounced pleasure and wealth. They would adopt children into their way of life. (Could John the Baptist have been adopted by the Essenes?) While Philo seems to imply that the Essenes were pacifists, Josephus mentions that Essenes showed great courage in the First Revolt.

Were the people of Qumran the Essenes of the classical sources? If the people of Qumran were the Essenes, and the people of Qumran were involved in the production and the collection of the DSS, then we can use the classical sources to aid our interpretation of the DSS. One of the things gained by the Essene Hypothesis is the use of these classical sources in interpreting the DSS. 1QS seems to point to a group of people who held property in common and disdained marriage. 1QS seems to point to a celibate group, or at least allows for the possibility of a celibate group. While some scholars believe that the evidence for the burial of women in the Qumran cemetery attacks the Essene Hypothesis, Joseph Zias has shown the women burials to be the result of later Bedouin burials. Jodi Magness’ archaeological work also shows evidence for a minimal presence of women at Qumran. The few (perhaps 2 – 4) burials of women thus far discovered at Qumran could be the result of women who died at Qumran while attending the annual Renewal of the Covenant Service or they could be secondary burials.

While the people of Qumran appear to be highly apocalyptic, and the Essenes of Philo and Josephus do not, this is not necessarily evidence that these were two different groups. It is understandable why these two authors (especially Josephus who was writing under the patronage of a Roman Emperor and who had fought against the Zealots of the First Revolt) would down-play the apocalyptic elements of their thought. Josephus, who claimed to have lived in his youth among a desert group under the teachings of a certain “Banus,” might well have been an Essene for a time, thus accounting for his high esteem of this group

There is much evidence that leads one to conclude that the people of Qumran and the people who produced and/or collected the scrolls are the same group. Some of the caves are literally within sight, indeed on the site, of the settlement at Qumran. Cave 4 is within a rock’s throw of the settlement. There appear to be paths between Qumran and Cave 4. It would have been difficult to get to Cave 4 without going through Qumran. There is evidence that the jars of the caves were made with clay from Qumran. The ideas that Qumran was a Roman villa (Hirschfield) or a fortress (Golb) are just not plausible. The archaeological evidence surrounding Qumran points to a religious sect. The ostracon discovered by James Strange in 1996 also link the settlement with some of the practices of transfer of wealth that is depicted in the scrolls. There is some preliminary evidence about the placement of the latrines at Qumran, 2000 cubits “outside the camp,” that would point to a religious sect. This evidence is unfortunately not yet definitive. While we should never allow an hypothesis to negate solid archaeological evidence, it is an almost scholarly consensus that the people of Qumran were involved in the production and collection of the scrolls and that the people of Qumran were Essenes. If they were not Essenes in the classical sense of the term, then we would have to posit another very Essene-like group within early Judaism to account for the people of Qumran. While making allowances for their biases and lack of complete information, it seems logical to allow Pliny, Philo and Josephus to help us interpret the people of Qumran and the community of the scrolls.

Essay 3:

Compare the tone, tenor, and essential view of things reflected in the two sectarian documents 1QS (Community Rule) and CD (Damascus Document). In what major ways are they similar and how are they different? Based on your reading of the two together offer a “profile” of the belief system of the DSS community.

Both 1QS and CD present a picture of a community that is radically devoted to the Mosaic Law, as they interpret it, and who have set themselves in opposition to the rest of the world, including Belial (Satan) and the rest of the world of Second Temple Judaism. The community expressed in these two documents see themselves as the “true Israel.“ Both documents underline the importance of the leadership of the “Sons of Zadok.” Both documents seem to imply a rejection of the more establishment groups that ran the Temple (presumably Pharisees and Sadducees) by their radical commitment to the Law of Moses and their denunciatory language about the apostates of Israel. Both documents underline the importance of their community’s dedication to the Covenant of Moses. Both documents show a highly-regulated community with a strict penal code. Strict Sabbath observance and the maintenance of purity are major concerns in both documents. Both documents show communities devoted to the study of their scriptures. Both documents show a deuteronomistic view of history: the faithful are rewarded and the apostates are destroyed. Both documents seems to be handbooks for the leaders of the community., though there is an evangelistic flavor in the admonitions of both documents. Both communities were predestinarian and both believed that they were living in the end of the age. Both interpreted their scriptures in ways that used scripture as an interpretation for their own age and situation.

But, there are some noticeable differences between 1QS and CD. 1QS is more dualistic than CD (note the section in 1QS about the two spirits). 1QS seems to be written for a community that was more communal and, possibly, though not necessarily celibate, while CD was written for a community that could marry, have property and live in the cities and villages of Palestine. CD seems to be concerned about the history of the group (notice the opening sections of CD) while this isn’t a concern in 1QS. The Teacher of Righteous is present in CD, indeed he seems to have come and gone, but not in 1QS. 1QS seems to envision each chapter having a leader called the Instructor. CD regulates slaveholding, but 1QS prohibits it.

Essay 4:

Based on a careful reading of the secondary reading from the DSD, discuss the issues related to the matter of women at Qumran and/or in the DSS text.

The topic of celibacy and the Dead Sea Scrolls is obviously a hot topic today. It is apparent that some scholars believe that if the presence of women at Qumran can be definitely shown then the Essene Hypothesis must be discarded. Certainly female presence at a high level of representation would make it unlikely that the people of Qumran could be the Essenes of the classical sources (Philo, Pliny, Josephus) who all agree that the Essenes were celibates. So, the important questions become: Were there women at Qumran? What were the attitudes of the Qumranites toward women?

By looking for “gendered objects” Jodi Magness of UNC has shown that there was only a minimal presence of women at Qumran. Magness found only one spindle whorl and no more than four beads buried in the cemetery. (But, we need to remember that de Vaux’s record, when it is finally published, might show more evidence of gendered objects.)

By looking at where they were buried and how they were buried, Joseph Zias has studied the female remains in the cemetery and concluded that they are almost all burials of Bedouin women that were not contemporary with the Qumranites of the scrolls. Zias work maintains that Qumran was a settlement of celibate Essenes like those depicted by Pliny, Philo and Josephus. The few female burials in the Essene section of the cemetery could be the result of Essene pilgrims who died in Qumran while they were at the annual Renewal of the Covenant Service or they could be secondary burials. A celibate community at Qumran does not absolutely preclude the occasional presence of women.

Moshe Bernstein looks at the scrolls themselves for evidence of women at Qumran. By looking at the legal and liturgical texts within the scrolls, Bernstein concludes that there was a pervasive textual presence of women at Qumran. Within the texts themselves there is abundant material about marriage, sexual activity, women’s vows and testimony, and purity issues concerning women. He says that the absence from women in 1QS was an anomaly. Does this pervasive presence of women in the texts of Qumran point to a pervasive presence of women at Qumran? Perhaps. We are led to a another question. Do these texts reflect merely a restatement of Pentateuch laws, or a vision of an ideal community, or the reality of life at Qumran?

Albert Baumgarten believes that the Essene Hypothesis is a unnecessary hypothesis that might prevent scholars from actually looking at evidence and perhaps exploring other possibilities for Qumran. I believe he calls it an unnecessary burden from which the study of Second Temple Judaism must be freed. He doesn’t see that there is anything to be gained by associating the Qumranites with the Essenes. He sees the presence of women in the cemetery at Qumran enough of an issue to seriously call into question the Essene Hypothesis and he seriously questions the work of Joseph Zias. He calls Zias’ scholarship confusion. Baumgarten cautions scholars against bowing down at the idol of origins and instead allow the Qumranites to speak for themselves. He quotes an Arab proverb: “Men resemble their times more than they resemble their ancestors


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