Dead Sea Scrolls

Dead Sea Scrolls

Name given to over eight hundred ancient Jewish manuscripts recovered from eleven caves along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea.

The first cave, containing seven scrolls, was discovered accidentally in early 1947 by a young Bedouin shepherd. Between 1952 and 1956 ten more caves containing manuscripts and related material were found. Scholars have dated these manuscripts from the third century b.c. to the first century a.d. Most were not found intact; rather, scholars have had to piece together, and thereby attempt to understand, thousands of fragments. This process has been very tedious and slow; hence, many fragments remain unpublished.

Near the caves in which the scrolls were discovered lies an archaeological site known as Khirbet Qumran. Archaeologists excavated the ruins between 1951 and 1956 and determined that the site was inhabited by a community of Jews from the middle of the second century b.c. to a.d. 68. There were two main periods of occupation. The first period (c. 141-107 b.c.) consists of two phases: an initial phase involving modest, temporary buildings, and a second phase (107-31 b.c.) characterized by extensive building activity, which fixed the permanent lines of the settlement. Following an earthquake and fire in 31 b.c. the settlement was abandoned. The site lay deserted until 4 b.c., which marked the beginning of the second main period of occupation (4 b.c.-a.d. 68), during which the site was repaired and rebuilt along the same plan. Evidence of a great fire and the presence of Roman arrowheads and coins signal the destruction of the settlement by the Romans during the Jewish revolt in a.d. 68.

The Qumran complex included a large building and several smaller ones. In the large building was a tower, a kitchen, storage rooms, a large cistern, and several other rooms, one of which contained tables, benches, and inkwells, and seems to have been used for copying manuscripts. Just to the south of the main building was a large meeting hall with an adjoining pantry, from which over a thousand pieces of pottery were recovered. The settlement also included a pottery complex, a grain complex, a number of large cisterns and smaller pools, and an extensive aqueduct system. Outside the settlement are three cemeteries containing over a thousand graves. The main cemetery contains only men; two secondary cemeteries include women and children. At an oasis one mile to the south is a smaller settlement called Ain Feshka. This was apparently an agricultural and industrial center for Qumran. It included an irrigation system, an enclosure for animals, and what seems to have been a tannery.

Links between the ruins and the scrolls suggest that the scrolls belonged to this community. First, the caves are close to the ruins, most within five to ten minutes' walking distance. Cave 4, which contained more than five hundred of the eight hundred manuscripts, is literally a stone's throw from the site. Second, the manuscripts were copied during the same period of time that the settlement was occupied. Third, pottery found in the ruins matches pottery found in the caves. Fourth, writing found on pottery in the ruins matches that found on pottery in several of the caves. Finally, the character of the ruins provides the logical setting for the ritual washings, sacred meal, and manuscript copying reflected in the scrolls. The Qumran inhabitants probably hid the scrolls in the caves in anticipation of the advance of the Roman forces. Most scholars identify this community as a group of Essenes, a monastic sect of Jews described by the ancient writers Josephus, Philo, and Pliny the Elder.

The scrolls consist of four types of material. First, there are copies of Old Testament books. Only Esther is missing among the scrolls. Second, there are apocryphal books. Some, such as Tobit and Jubilees, were known prior to the discovery of the scrolls. Many others, such as the Genesis Apocryphon and the Testament of Amram, were not. Third, there are books that exhibit the distinctive doctrines and practices of the sect. These consist primarily of rules, poetical and liturgical books, and books of biblical interpretation. Finally, there are books that do not fit into any particular category, such as the Copper Scroll.

This article will focus on the sectarian documents. It will survey the main ideas found in these documents and, hence, give some insight into this community of Jews that, in its later stages, was contemporary with Jesus and the early church.

Although the origins of the sect are obscure, they seem to have centered around differences that the sect had with the temple leadership. The key figure in the early history of the sect was the Teacher of Righteousness, an otherwise unnamed individual who gave the sect direction and focus in its early stages. The sect believed that God had revealed to the Teacher of Righteousness the mysteries concerning the Law. Thus, he alone could properly interpret the Law; other Jews misunderstood it. Led by the Teacher of Righteousness, who was himself a priest, the sect rejected the temple cult in Jerusalem as it was currently practiced and probably even the ruling priesthood as being illegitimate. Guided by Isaiah 40:3 ("In the desert prepare the way for the Lord" cf. Matt 3:3 ), the sect removed itself to the desert area by the Dead Sea to await the final war, from which, with God's help, they as the true Israel would emerge victorious and after which they would restore the sacrificial cult and proper priesthood to Jerusalem.

The community was governed by stringent entrance procedures, a detailed code of conduct, and a strict organizational hierarchy under the leadership of the priests. The sectarians had a communal lifestyle, sharing property and work, studying the Torah, and meeting together for discussion of community matters and ceremonies. Worship was an important aspect of communal life; the sect understood itself as participating in the angelic worship of God. Especially significant was the sacred Meal. Ceremonial washings for purification were regular, and emphasis was placed on the use of the solar calendar rather than the lunar calendar of official Judaism. Unable to offer sacrifices in the defiled Jerusalem temple, the community viewed prayer and obedience as acceptable offerings. Other aspects of personal piety included a deep sense of human frailty and sinfulness and thanksgiving to God for his grace and election.

One of the foundational documents of the Qumran community is the Manual of Discipline (1QS) or the Rule of the Community. The Manual depicts its members as the Sons of Light; outsiders are the Sons of Darkness, from whom they have been called to separate. They have united together as the Community of God that has received his Covenant of Grace. They live a communal life, sharing property and work, studying the Law, and meeting together for discussion of community matters and ceremonies, such as the communal Meal. The community has a strict organizational hierarchy; virtually all matters, from the seating arrangement to the order of speaking, are determined by rank. At the top are the priests, the Sons of Zadok. Next come the Levites, or elders. Finally, there are the people, who are ranked in Thousands, Hundreds, Fifties, and Tens (cf. Exod 18:25 ). Over the entire community stands the Master. Each individual is examined annually, at which time his rank may be adjusted upward or downward, depending on his understanding and behavior.

Entrance into the community is carefully regulated. The initiate first takes an oath, in the presence of the entire community, to obey the Law as it is interpreted in the community and to separate from the Men of Falsehood. He is examined by the Master and, if pronounced fit for the discipline, is admitted into the Covenant to begin receiving instruction in the rules of the community. During the first year he does not partake of the communal Meal, and he keeps his property separate from that of the community. At the end of the first year he undergoes a second examination. If he is allowed to continue, he embarks upon a second probationary year, during which he does not partake of the communal Drink and his property is held in trust by the community. At the end of the second year he undergoes a third examination. If he is found acceptable, he becomes a full-fledged member of the community and is given a rank, and his property is merged with that of the community.

The Manual also gives insight into some of the fundamental doctrines of the community. God has created for people Two Spirits in which to walk until the End: the Prince of Light/Angel of Truth/ Spirit of Truth and the Angel of Darkness/Spirit of Falsehood (cf. 1 John 4:6 ). Those who walk according to the Prince of Light will receive everlasting life; those who follow the Angel of Darkness, eternal torment. The spirit to which people belong is determined by God's choice, not theirs. The hymn that concludes the Manual expresses a deep sense of human sinfulness and dependence on the mercy of God. The Manual also reveals the messianic expectations of the sect. Three figures are anticipated: the Prophet and two Messiahsthe Messiah of Aaron, presumably a priestly Messiah, and the Messiah of Israel, presumably a royal Messiah.

A number of concepts in the Manual have striking New Testament parallels. The centrality of the sacred Meal (and Drink) calls to mind the importance of the Lord's Supper in the early church and reference to being sprinkled with purifying water has led some to think of baptism. Aspects of the organizational structure (elders, overseer) are reminiscent of that found in the Pastorals. The dependence on God's grace has been linked by some to justification by faith. In addition, there is list of attitudes that characterize those led by each of the Two Spirits (cf. Gal 5:19-23 ), a call to love the sons of light (cf. John 13:34 ) and to hate the sons of darkness (cf. Matt 5:43-44 ), and identification of the sect as the Way (cf. Acts 9:2 ), the use of Isaiah 40:3 to justify a movement in the wilderness (cf. Mark 1:2 ), the notion of prayer as sacrifice (cf. Heb 13:15 ), and an interpretation of the cornerstone of Isaiah 28:16 (cf. 1 Peter 2:4-8 ).

A second important rule containing legal statutes and organizational regulations for the community is the Damascus Rule (CD). This document also provides important information about the origins of the community, praising the Teacher of Righteousness and castigating his chief adversary, the Scoffer, or the Man of Lies. The Damascus Rule seems to exhibit an expectation of one Messiah, the Messiah of Aaron and Israel, rather than two. In addition, it anticipates the coming of the Interpreter of the Law and the Prince of the whole congregation. In the meantime, the sect understands itself to be the community of the New Covenant.

The Rule of the Congregation (1QSa) is a short document setting forth regulations for ordering the Qumran community in the last days. It describes, among other things, the council meeting called by the priestly Messiah, to which the Messiah of Israel will come, and the ritual of the messianic meal. Significant is the preeminence of the priestly Messiah over the royal Messiah in this document. The Rule of the Congregation provides some noteworthy parallels to the New Testament. Its exclusion of those with physical defects from the council meetings (and, hence, from the messianic meal) forms a striking contrast to Jesus' teaching in Luke 14:12-24. To connect the rationale for this exclusion with the presence of angels is similar to one aspect of Paul's argument concerning a woman's head covering in 1 Corinthians 11:10. Its comments on the Meal, which are the most extensive in the scrolls, appear to link the regular communal meal with the eschatological messianic meal, much as Jesus does in Matthew 26:26-29.

The Temple Scroll (11QT) is a restatement of the Law given to Moses. It takes laws related by subject matter, but scattered throughout the Pentateuch, and brings them together to form a systematic code. It also rewrites some of the laws and adds new ones. In particular, it fills in the obvious gaps in the Pentateuch with detailed regulations concerning the temple and the king. It exhibits a special concern for the layout and purity of the temple, as well as of Jerusalem itself, and for the cycle of festivals and their sacrifices according to a solar calendar.

The War Rule (1QM) is a description of the eschatological war between the Sons of Light (i.e., the sect), and the Sons of Darkness, sometimes called the Kittim (cf. Dan 11:30 ). The Sons of Light are under the dominion of the Prince of Light, apparently identified as the archangel Michael (cf. Dan 12:1 ); the Sons of Darkness are ruled by Belial. The priests continue their preeminent role; they lead the troops into battle, although not as fighters themselves. The community's trust, however, lies not in its own military proficiency, but in the power of God. A large part of the War Rule is taken up with detailed descriptions of weapons, battle regalia, and strategy. On the surface, the Rule seems to have been written to provide a manual for how the final war was to be conducted. Its real purpose was probably to confirm the members of the community in their sectarian outlook by reassuring them their sojourn in the desert would not last forever; ultimately God would give them victory over their enemies and exalt them to their proper standing as his elect.

There are parallels between the War Rule and certain parts of Revelation. Certainly the idea of a final war depicted in cosmic terms is strong in both (cf. Rev 12:7 ; 16:13-16 ; 19:11-21 ). They also share songs celebrating the defeat of the enemy (cf. Rev. 18). There is an interest in the role of trumpets (cf. Rev. 8-9) and in precise specifications and precious stones (cf. Rev 21:12-21 ). Although overshadowed by Christ, the figure of Michael has a significant place at one point in Revelation ( 12:7 ); also, while the War Rule mentions the kingdom of Michael, Revelation speaks of the kingdom of Christ ( 11:15 ). The use of military imagery in the context of spiritual conflict is paralleled in Ephesians 6:13-17.

In addition to the rules, there are a number of poetical and liturgical documents among the scrolls. The longest is the Thanksgiving Scroll (1QH), a collection of psalms of thanksgiving and praise. Themes that permeate these hymns include a deep sense of human frailty and sinfulness, an affirmation of God's grace and election, a division of humanity into the righteous and the wicked, and God's revelation of this knowledge within the covenant community. One hymn speaks of the birth of a wonderful counselor, which some scholars have interpreted messianically; another depicts an eschatological war between God and Belial (i.e., Satan). Whether the collection was intended for private reading and meditation or had a liturgical role in communal worship is unclear.

The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (4QShirShabb) is a collection of thirteen liturgical songs, one for each Sabbath during the first quarter of the year. The songs seem to follow a certain progression over the thirteen-week cycle: songs 1-5 focus on the earthly worshiping community; songs 6-8 shift the attention to the heavenly worship, highlighting the number seven, which is developed elaborately in song 7 in seven calls to praise directed to the seven angelic priesthoods; and songs 9-13 center on the features of the heavenly sanctuary and the participants in the heavenly worship. The songs may have been intended to lead the worshiper into an experience of angelic worship and thereby reinforce the community's understanding of itself as God's faithful and legitimate priesthood. Such mystical participation in the heavenly worship is paralleled in Revelation and may stand behind the problem addressed in Colossians.

The Blessings (1QSb) is a series of blessings pronounced by the Master over the members of the community, the high priest, the priests, the Sons of Zadok, and the Prince of the congregation, an eschatological figure who will establish, and rule, God's eternal kingdom. The Berakoth (11QBer) is a liturgical benediction petitioning God for natural blessings (e.g., rain, an abundant harvest) upon the community.

One of the most striking characteristics of the sect was its distinctive manner of interpreting the Old Testament. The members believed that the Old Testament books were full of mysteries that were fulfilled in the history of the community. The meaning of these mysteries was hidden until God revealed them to the Teacher of Righteousness and some of his followers; hence the need for interpretation. One approach to such interpretation was the production of continuous commentaries on the following Old Testament books: Habakkuk, Micah, Psalms, Isaiah, Hosea, Nahum, and Zephaniah. The commentaries are filled with enigmatic historical allusions to figures related to the history of the sect, such as the Teacher of Righteousness, the Man of Lies, the Wicked Priest, and the Lion of Wrath. Furthermore, they illustrate the sect's understanding of how the Old Testament has been fulfilled in it. One noteworthy example is the interpretation of Habakkuk 2:4 ("The righteous shall live by faith"), which was so important for Paul's understanding of justification by faith in Christ ( Rom 1:17 ; Gal 3:11 ): the commentator views the righteous as those who are characterized by obedience to the Law and faithfulness to (the teachings of) the Teacher of Righteousness.

Another interpretive strategy of the sect was to collect and interpret Old Testament passages in accordance with a particular theme. 4QTestimonia (4QTestim) seems to be an anthology of messianic texts; 4QFlorilegium (4QFlor) is an amalgam of eschatological texts and interpretations. Together they anticipate a number of eschatological figures (the Prophet, the Star of Jacob, the Sceptre of Israel, the Branch of David, and the Interpreter of the Law), the precise relationship among which is not clear. By contrast, Melchizedek (11QMelch), a collection of Old Testament texts and interpretations centering around the mysterious Old Testament person of the same name (cf. Gen 14:18-20 ; Heb 5:10 ; 6:20-7:17 ), views Melchizedek as the key figure in the final jubilee who will restore and make atonement for the sons of light and will execute God's judgment against Belial and his lot.

Since their discovery the Dead Sea Scrolls have aroused intense controversy. Many have made sensationalistic claims about alleged connections between the scrolls and Christianity. The long delay in publishing all of the fragments has only fueled the controversy, leading to accusations of a scholarly and/or ecclesiastical conspiracy to suppress fragments that would be detrimental to Christianity and/or Judaism. Such allegations are surely false. Indeed, most conjectures of any direct link between the scrolls and early Christianity (e.g., that Jesus and/or John the Baptist were at one time a part of the Qumran community) have little support. On the other hand, the scrolls serve as important background material for the study of the New Testament and contain numerous verbal and conceptual parallels with New Testament books, especially the Gospel of John. Yet such parallels should not overshadow the differences between a monastic sect of Jews obeying the teachings of a dead Teacher and a missionary-minded movement of Jews and Gentiles proclaiming the death and resurrection of a living Lord.

Joseph L. Trafton

Bibliography. M. Black, The Scrolls and Christian Origins; idem, ed., The Scrolls and Christianity; J. H. Charlesworth, ed., Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls; idem, John and the Dead Sea Scrolls; idem, Paul and the Dead Sea Scrolls; idem, The Dead Sea Scrolls; E. M. Cook, Solving the Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls; F. M. Cross, The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies; R. de Vaux, Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls; W. S. LaSor, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament; H. Shanks, ed., Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls; K. Stendahl, The Scrolls and the New Testament; G. Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran in Perspective; idem, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English; J. C. Vander Kam The Dead Sea Scrolls Today.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.


Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Dead Sea Scrolls'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.