“They display an extraordinary interest in the writings of the ancients, singling out in particular those which make for the welfare of soul and body” (Josephus, Jewish War II, viii, 6).
The sectarians attached supreme importance to the study of the Scriptures, to biblical exegesis, to the interpretation of the law (halakha), and to prayer. The hundreds of scrolls discovered at the site and the rules of the Community preserved in them indicate that they took the biblical injunction, “Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night” (Joshua 1:8), quite literally. Their laws enjoined them to ensure that shifts of community members be engaged in study around the clock, in order to reveal the “divine mysteries” of the law, history, and the cosmos.
The sectarians’ scribal and literary activities apparently took place in several rooms in the communal center at Khirbet Qumran, mainly in the “scriptorium” on the upper floor. Most of the scrolls were written on parchment, with a small number on papyrus. The scribes used styluses made from sharpened reed or metal, which were dipped into black ink – a mixture of soot, gum, oil, and water. Inscribed bits of leather and pottery shards found at the site attest to the fact that they practiced before beginning the actual copying work.
Most of the Hebrew and Aramaic scrolls found at Qumran were written in “Jewish” or square script, common during the Second Temple period. A few scrolls, however, were written in ancient Hebrew script, a very small number in Greek, and fewer still in a kind of secret writing (cryptographic script) used for texts dealing with mysteries that the sectarians wished to conceal. Scholars believe that some of the scrolls were written by the community scribes, but others were written outside of Qumran.
“Being versed from their early years in the holy books [and] various forms of purification . . .” (Josephus, Jewish War II, viii, 12)
All the books of the Hebrew Bible, except for Nehemiah and Esther, were discovered at Qumran. In some cases, several copies of the same book were found (for instance, there were thirty copies of Deuteronomy), while in others, only one copy came to light (e.g., Ezra). Sometimes the text is almost identical to the Masoretic text, which received its final form about one thousand years later in medieval codices; and sometimes it resembles other versions of the Bible (such as the Samaritan Pentateuch or the Greek translation known as the Septuagint). Scrolls bearing the Septuagint Greek translation (Exodus, Leviticus) and an Aramaic translation (Leviticus, Job) have survived as well.
The most outstanding of the Dead Sea Scrolls is undoubtedly the Isaiah Scroll (Manuscript A) – the only biblical scroll from Qumran that has been preserved in its entirety (it is 734 cm long). This scroll is also one of the oldest to have been preserved; scholars estimate that it was written around 100 BCE. In addition, among the scrolls are some twenty additional copies of Isaiah, as well as six pesharim (sectarian exegetical works) based on the book; Isaiah is also frequently quoted in other scrolls. The prominence of this particular book is consistent with the Community’s messianic beliefs, since Isaiah (Judean Kingdom, 8th century BCE) is known for his prophecies concerning the End of Days.
Apocrypha in the Scrolls
“Against them, my son, be warned! The making of many books is without limit” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)
Besides the biblical books, there are many other literary works of the Second Temple period which, for religious and other reasons, were forbidden to be read (in public?) and were therefore not preserved by the Jews. Ironically, many of these works were preserved by Christians. Apocryphal books such as Tobit and Judith were preserved in Greek in the Septuagint translation of the Bible, and in other languages based on this translation. Pseudepigraphical books (attributed to fictitious authors) were preserved as independent works in a variety of languages. The Book of Jubilees, for example, survived in Ge’ez (classical Ethiopic), and the Fourth Book of Ezra survived in Latin.
These apocryphal and pseudoepigraphical books were cherished by the members of the Judean Desert sect. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of the books had been known only in translation (such as the book of Tobit and the Testament of Judah), while others were altogether unknown. Among these are rewritten versions of biblical works (such as the Genesis Apocryphon), prayers, and wisdom literature. In some cases, several manuscripts of the same work were discovered, indicating that the sectarians highly valued these compositions and even considered a few of them (such as the First Book of Enoch) as full-fledged “Holy Scriptures.”
Sectarian Scrolls: The Pesharim
“Being versed from their early years in . . . apophthegms of the prophets; and seldom if ever do they err in their predictions” (Josephus Jewish War II, viii, 12)
The Bible was the basis for the intellectual and spiritual experience of the members of the Qumran Community, and the purpose of its interpretation was in order “to do what is good and right before Him as He commanded by the hand of Moses and all His servants the prophets” (Community Rule 1:1–3). The exegetical works written by the sectarians deal with the interpretation of the laws of the Pentateuch (such as the Temple Scroll), of various biblical stories (such as the Testament of Levi), and, in particular, of the words of the Prophets.
The method of biblical interpretation known as pesher is unique to Qumran. The pesharim may be divided into two types: those dealing with a specific subject (such as 4QFlorilegium), and those written as running commentaries. In pesharim of the second type, the biblical text is copied passage by passage in the original order, and each passage is explained by turn. Most of the “running” pesharim, of which there are about seventeen, are based on books of the Prophets, such as Isaiah, Nahum, or Habakkuk; there is also one pesher on the book of Psalms, which the Community also regarded as a prophetic work. The interpretations themselves are prophetic in nature and allude to events related to the period in which the works were composed (hence their importance for historical research). With a few exceptions, they name no historical personalities, but employ such expressions as “Teacher of Righteousness,” “Priest of Wickedness,” or “Man of Falsehood.”
The Community Rule: The Sect’s Code
“They live together formed into clubs, bands of comradeship with common meals, and never cease to conduct all their affairs to serve the general weal” (Philo, Apologia pro Iudaeis 11.5)
Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the only evidence of the Essenes’ way of life was provided by classical sources (Josephus Flavius, Philo, and Pliny the Elder) and by a few allusions in rabbinic literature. The discovery of the scrolls allowed a rare first-hand glimpse of the lives of those pietists, through the “Rule” literature that governed their lives. This literature, later to evolve in a Christian monastic context, is unknown in the Bible, and its discovery at Qumran represents the earliest testimony to its existence.
The work known as the “Community Rule” is considered a key to understanding the Community’s way of life, for it deals with such topics as the admittance of new members, rules of behavior at communal meals, and even theological principles. The picture that emerges from the scroll is one of a community that functioned as a collective unit and pursued a severe ascetic lifestyle based on stringent rules. The scroll, written in Hebrew, was found in twelve copies; the copy displayed in the Shrine of the Book, which is almost complete, was discovered in 1947.
The Temple Scroll
“They shall not profane the city where I abide, for I, the Lord, abide amongst the children of Israel for ever and ever” (Temple Scroll XLV: 13–14).
The Temple Scroll, which deals with the structural details of the Temple and its rituals, proposes a plan for a future imaginary Temple, remarkably sophisticated, and, above all, pure, which was to replace the existing Temple in Jerusalem. This plan is based on the plan of the Tabernacle and of Solomon and Ezekiel’s Temples, but it is also influenced by Hellenistic architecture.
The scroll is written in the style of the book of Deuteronomy, with God speaking as if in first person. Some authorities consider it an alternative to the Mosaic Law; others, a complementary legal interpretation (midrash halakha). This work combines the various laws relating to the Temple with a new version of the laws set out in Deuteronomy 12–23. Its author probably belonged to priestly circles and composed it at a time before the Community left Jerusalem for the desert, in the second half of the second century BCE. It was apparently written against the background of the controversy centering on the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Temple Scroll, the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls (8.148 m), comprises 66 columns of text.
Prayers, Hymns, and Thanksgiving Psalms
The profoundly religious, reclusive community living at Qumran devoted all its energies to the worship of God. The sectarians believed that the angels were their companions and that their spiritual level elevated them to the border between the human and the divine. The atmosphere of sanctity that enveloped them is evident from the one hundred biblical psalms and more than two hundred extra-biblical prayers and hymns preserved in the scrolls. Most of the latter were previously unknown; they include prayers for different days (even the End of Days), magical spells, and so forth.
Among this abundance of literary texts is a unique genre of hymns called hodayot or “Thanksgiving Hymns,” on the basis of their fixed opening formula, “I thank Thee, O Lord.” Scholars have divided the eight manuscripts of the Thanksgiving Hymns into two main types: “Hodayot of the Teacher,” in which an individual (the sect’s “Teacher of Righteousness”?) thanks God for rescuing him from Belial (Satan in the sect’s writings) and the forces of evil, and for granting him the intelligence to recount God’s greatness and justice; and “Hodayot of the Community,” hymns concerned with topics relevant to the Community as a whole. Both types extensively employ such terms as “mystery,” “appointed time,” and “light” and express ideas characteristic of the Community’s beliefs, such as divine love and predestination.
The End of Days: The “War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness”
“This is the day appointed by Him for the defeat and overthrow of the Prince of the kingdom of wickedness” (War of the Sons and Light and the Sons of Darkness XVII:5–6)
The members of the Community of the yahad retired to the desert out of a profound conviction that they were living in the End of Days and that the final Day of Judgment was close at hand. They believed that all the stages of history were predetermined by God, and thus any attempt by the forces of the “Prince of Darkness” and “all the government of sons of injustice” to corrupt the “Sons of Righteousness” was destined to fail; salvation would ultimately arrive, as we read in Pesher Habakkuk (VII:13–14): “All the ages of God reach their appointed end as He determines for them in the mysteries of His wisdom.”
The sectarians divided humanity into two camps: The “Sons of Light,” who were good and blessed by God – referring to the sectarians themselves; and the “Sons of Darkness,” who were evil and accursed – referring to everyone else (Jews and gentiles alike). They believed that in the End of Days these two camps would battle each other, as described in detail in the scroll now known as “The War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness.” This work, which provides a detailed account of the mobilization of troops, their numbers and division into units, weaponry, and so forth, states that at the end of the seventh round of battles, the forces of the “Sons of Light,” aided by God Himself and His angels, would vanquish the “Forces of Belial” (as Satan is called in the sect’s writings). Only then would the members of the Community be able to return to Jerusalem and engage in the proper worship of God in the future Temple, which would meet with the stringent requirements set out, for example, in the scroll known as “The New Jerusalem.”