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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient Roman writer Pliny (1st century C.E.) mentions a community of Jewish holy men who lived on the western shore of the Dead Sea. Not long after the discovery of the scrolls near the ruins known as Khirbet Qumran, scholars suggested that the scrolls had belonged to the community to which Pliny referred. The settlement was apparently connected with a larger religious movement known as the Essenes, a group described by the Jewish historian Josephus and by the Jewish philosopher Philo. The community, which was organized as a religious sect, probably arose as a reform movement during the first half of the second century B.C.E. Its members were concerned to live a life of strict obedience to the will of God as disclosed through their interpretation of the law. The Qumran community's interpretation differed in important respects from that of many other Jewish groups, especially concerning the calendar that should be used in observing Sabbaths and holy days. These differences caused the Qumran community to reject the validity of the sacrifices as they were carried out by the priests in charge of the Jerusalem temple. They believed that their own lives of obedience, prayer, and praise would be an acceptable offering to God until such time as the temple service could be reformed. The Qumran community expected that God would soon intervene decisively to overthrow the gentile powers and other forces of evil and to allow for the reformation of Israel according to the sect's beliefs.

The scrolls that belonged to the Qumran community can be divided into three groups: (1) copies of biblical books; (2) sectarian texts, i.e., writings composed by and for the sect; and (3) nonsectarian texts, i.e., various religious writings that were of interest to the sect but not composed by them. Among the nonbiblical texts it is difficult to be certain in some cases whether a text was written by the community, although there is a general consensus concerning most of the major writings. The question is important because those texts that are not sectarian give us insight into the type of literature that circulated in a variety of circles in ancient Judaism.

COPIES OF BIBLICAL BOOKS. Every book of the Hebrew Bible with the exception of Esther is represented among the scrolls and fragments. The relatively large number of copies of Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Psalms suggests that these books were especially influential. Biblical manuscripts from Qumran and other ancient sites (Muraba‘at, Nahal Hever, and Masada) are important because they are almost a thousand years older than the earliest of the medieval manuscripts that provide the basis for modern editions and translations.

SECTARIAN TEXTS Several of the texts that scholars call “Rules” were perhaps written as manuals of instruction for teachers and/or new members. The most important of these is the Community Rule (designated 1QS; sometimes called the Manual of Discipline). It describes the purposes for which the community was formed, gives an account of the yearly covenant renewal ceremony, and explains some of the distinctive religious beliefs of the sect. It also sets out procedures for the conduct of community meetings, for the admission of new members, and for disciplining those who break the society's rules. An appendix to the Community Rule describes the ideal organization of the community as it will exist in the end of days and gives the blessings to be pronounced over the community and its leaders.

Another Rule, usually called the Damascus Covenant (CD), seems to have been written not for the particular community that lived at Khirbet Qumran but for related groups that lived in towns and villages elsewhere in Judea. Although the Damascus Covenant contains a number of tantalizing references to the history of the sect, they are frustratingly obscure. It does appear, however, that the sect was in conflict with other Jewish groups about the proper interpretation of the law and the conduct of the temple service. The Damascus Covenant contains laws governing general behavior (e.g., concerning vows, Sabbath observance) as well as regulations relating to the internal life of the community.

The most unusual of the Rules is the War Rule (1QM). It describes the war of the end time, when the Children of Light will defeat the Children of Darkness and the proper forms of service will be restored in the temple. A considerable amount of this complex work is devoted to a minute description of the equipment to be used in the battles (banners, trumpets, weapons), military formations, the organization of the camp, and the leading role of the priests and Levites. The War Rule is not a scroll of practical instructions but a work of the imagination describing an event believed to be predetermined.

Not many of the scrolls found at Qumran deal primarily with the sect's distinctive interpretation of the law. One important text, entitled by its modern editors Matters of the Law (4QMMT; in Hebrew, Miqsat Ma‘aseh Ha-Torah), appears to have been a letter sent by the sect to its opponents, outlining their differences in calendar and legal interpretation. Another legal text, the lengthy and well-preserved Temple Scroll (11Q Tem), presents itself as God's instructions to Moses. In large part the Temple Scroll is a systematic reworking of legal material from Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, with particular emphasis on laws pertaining to temple service. Extensive regulations are given concerning the construction of the temple and the procedures required to ensure its purity. The latter part of the scroll, drawn largely from Deuteronomy, concerns more general legal issues. Although the Temple Scroll was probably not written by a member of the Qumran community (its style and language are quite different from the sectarian writings), it has important similarities with the Damascus Covenant and the War Rule.

The Qumran community engaged in intensive study of scripture, not only in order to clarify the commandments but also to understand the history of the end time, in which the community believed it was then living. According to the Qumran community, the Psalms and the ancient writings of the prophets contained cryptic references to their sect, its struggles with its opponents, and the anticipated vindication of their community in the end of days. The results of their interpretations of scripture were embodied in a series of commentaries called “Interpretations” (in Hebrew, Pesharim). For the most part these Pesharim cite the text of a prophetic book section by section, accompanying each brief citation with an interpretation. In a few instances the sect wrote topical interpretations, selecting biblical texts from various books and interpreting them as prophetic references to the end time. The Midrash on the Last Days (4Q Flor; also called the Florilegium) and the Melchizedek Midrash (11Q Melch) are the best examples of these topical Pesharim.

An important part of the life of the Qumran community consisted of acts of worship. Prayers, blessings, religious poetry, and liturgical texts of various kinds are abundantly represented among the scrolls. One large collection of hymns, the Thanksgiving Scroll (1QH), contains psalms of thanksgiving spoken by an individual. Most of the hymns could represent the religious experience of any member of the sect, but a few seem to be written from the perspective of a persecuted leader. Although the members of the Qumran community were to offer prayers to God at set times every day, it is not known whether they used prayers specially composed by someone within the sect. There are several collections of apparently nonsectarian prayer texts that may have served these purposes, including the Daily Prayers, The Words of the Heavenly Lights, and the Prayers for the Festivals. A text called Blessings and Curses may contain part of the annual ceremony of covenant renewal to which the Community Rule refers. Having separated themselves from participation in worship at the Jerusalem temple, the Qumran community developed a strong interest in the heavenly temple and its angelic priesthood, an interest reflected in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. Preoccupation with heavenly and demonic forces is also represented in a collection of songs of exorcism known as the Songs of the Sage.

NONSECTARIAN TEXTS. A type of literary activity that flourished during the second temple period was the practice of using a biblical character or narrative as the basis for a new composition. Some of these writings (often termed Pseudepigrapha) stick rather closely to the biblical text, while others have only a loose relationship to it. Many of the nonsectarian texts found in the Dead Sea caves are examples of this type of literary activity.

One fairly well preserved text, the Genesis Apocryphon (1Qap Gen) is a retelling and elaboration of narratives from Genesis, some of which are told in the first person. The book of 1 Enoch, which is actually a compilation of various compositions, is an example of apocalyptic literature. In addition to expanding the biblical traditions about Enoch with additional legendary material, it presents this biblical character as a recipient of revelations concerning astronomical lore, the relationship between rebellious angels and the Flood, and the history of the world until its appointed end when the rebellious angels and other evildoers will be punished. The interest in the heavenly world and in the end time are prominent themes in apocalypses. Although only fragments of 1 Enoch have been found in the Qumran caves, the complete text is known from medieval manuscripts in Greek and Ethiopic. Also found among the caves are very fragmentary copies of texts that appear to be testaments (i.e., death-bed farewell speeches) of Kohath and Amram, the great-grandfather and grandfather of Moses, respectively. All of these texts are written in Aramaic.

Several texts written in Hebrew are directly associated with Moses. One of these, the book of Jubilees, is preserved only in fragments at Qumran but was previously known from medieval manuscripts in Ethiopic and fragments in other languages. Although presented as an address to Moses by the angel of the Presence, the content of Jubilees is a reworking of the biblical material from Genesis 1 to Exodus 12 . The author is very much concerned with calendar and chronology, advocating a calendar based on a solar rather than a lunar reckoning. Chronology is calculated on forty-nine year jubilee periods. The proper celebration of festivals and the importance of Levi, the ancestor of Israel's priests, are also major themes of the book.

Among the more fragmentary texts associated with Moses is one called The Words of Moses. Strongly influenced by the language and style of Deuteronomy, it appears to contain a speech by God and an address by Moses to the Israelites. Another text, also in the style of Deuteronomy, provides instructions for a ritual for distinguishing between true and false prophets (the so-called Liturgy of the Three Tongues of Fire). As mentioned above, the Temple Scroll also takes the form of a divine revelation to Moses. The various texts that are associated with Moses probably do not come from a single community. Their styles and contents are too different. They point to the relatively widespread literary technique of writing in the name of a famous figure of the past.

In addition to texts associated with Moses, there are rewritings of biblical narrative featuring Joshua (the so-called Psalms of Joshua), Samuel (published as The Vision of Samuel), and perhaps David. A very different adaptation of biblical material is characteristic of the work known as Second Ezekiel. That text, which presents itself as a series of dialogues between God and the prophet Ezekiel, appears to be concerned in part with the fate of the righteous in the end time. In this respect it has much in common with 1 Enoch. Similarly, the fragmentary text of Pseudo-Daniel recounts history from the time of Noah to the end of days. Also related to the Daniel literature is the Prayer of Nabonidus, an Aramaic text that contains numerous parallels with the story of Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4 .

In addition to narratives and apocalyptic revelations, nonbiblical psalms and wisdom writings have been found in the Qumran caves. Although the proverb collections have not yet been published, several sermon-like compositions or admonitions and a poem based on Proverbs 7 have been. One well-preserved psalms scroll from Cave 11 contains both canonical and noncanonical psalms, all of which are attributed to David. Two other collections of noncanonical psalms, unfortunately very fragmentary, appear to have contained psalms attributed to various biblical figures, including Obadiah, Manasseh, a “man of God,” and an unnamed king of Judah. As mentioned above, several collections of prayers and blessings that have been found in the caves were probably also of nonsectarian origin. The richness and variety of this literature is a clue to the wealth of literary production in the late second temple period.

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