The Origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls

by Norman Golb

ntended both as a treatment of the scrolls in their relation to Jewish history and as a chronicle of the rise and fall of a notable idea of modern scholarship, Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? differs from studies in literature, languages, and other disciplines in an important respect. While also involving the investigation of texts and sources, the immediate challenge of historical study is not only to decipher, translate, and interpret pertinent records but, beyond this, to construct the narrative necessarily lying behind the words of the texts. The words are not, of course, the history itself, but rather provide the means to write it.

Yet once this is accomplished, a fundamental contrary element is brought into play, particularly as one proceeds further and further back through the centuries and discovers the increasing sparseness of historical testimony. Whatever historical witnesses we possess for these older periods, they remain islands in a sea of muteness. Compared to what we might have known had the records of the human past not mostly perished, we can learn little from ten existing documents of one vanished king, from fifty of another, or yet a thousand of another. We do not, in effect, possess the wholeness of history, but only some of its pages--and a historian faces his severest challenges when he attempts to grasp the silences that lie between them. For this goal, philology and analysis of texts are only preliminary tools aiding another process. This consists not in whimsy or fantasy, nor in the imagination of the painter or poet, but rather in the synthesis of new ideas regarding the historical unknown, made from separately experienced elements: the faculty, that is, by which we attempt to reconstruct what is absent. Except for those narrow historical works that only recite the barest known facts, there are none that do not require this mental synthesis--and no process is more difficult for the historian to master or use judiciously.

The discovery of the scrolls

The Messianic Rule was one of over seventy fragmentary manuscripts taken from Cave 1 alone. In late January 1949, an expedition discovered this cave after only a few days of searching on the escarpment lying just west of Khirbet Qumran, approximately one kilometer north of the site (designated 1Q on the map which follows). Once explored and excavated, it was found to contain remnants of a large variety of Hebrew literary texts. Twelve of these were scriptural writings, including fragments of a scroll of Leviticus written in the Old Canaanite or palaeo-Hebrew script, attesting to their great age. Among the nonbiblical texts were fragments of commentaries on the biblical Micah, Zephaniah, and Psalms, in general similar to the Pesher Habakkuk (Habakkuk Commentary) found earlier. Fragments of writings of the Apocrypha were identified, including two of Jubilees and one of the Testament of Levi, along with pieces of previously unknown pseudepigraphical writings. Among the discoveries were new fragments of the War Scroll and the Manual of Discipline. There was a considerable variety of liturgical poetry lacking all evidence of sectarian orientation.

The commentary fragments

map The commentary fragments drew particular attention, because they seemed to stem from the same movement that included the author of the Pesher Habakkuk: a pesher (or commentary) on Micah preserved portions of words that could be taken to mean "Preacher of the Lie," "Teacher of Righteousness," and "Council of the Unity" (in a declining order of certainty), and contained the Divine Name YHWH (the so-called Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters that form a biblical proper name of God) in its palaeo-Hebrew form, as did the Pesher Habakkuk. The several words preserved from a pesher on Zephaniah, although containing no such key expressions, at all events did preserve the Tetragrammaton in its archaic form as well. Only a few words were left from a pesher on Psalms, appearing to offer no hint of its provenance. Other texts were rather more enigmatic in a collection the editors felt free to describe as being from "the library of the Essene Community." For example, the previously unknown pseudepigraphs, only retrieved in small fragments, were furnished with titles by the editors such as Book of Noah or Sayings of Moses. What they had in common were imaginative expansions on biblical themes, such as the author of the Genesis Apocryphon had accomplished--but they contained no appeals to a "Unity" brotherhood or "Teacher of Righteousness," and no notable ideas resembling those of the Manual or the Damascus Covenant.

Manual of Discipline One work did make use of an unusual expression found in certain other Qumran texts: "the secret of what will be." This is in fact an entirely suitable expression for describing the unknown future of humankind, bearing no necessarily sectarian overtones. Although only a few columns of the work were (partially) preserved, enough could be deciphered to clearly indicate the growing diversity of the texts. The most trenchant lines were these:

When the wellsprings of wickedness are closed off, when evil is banished by righteousness as darkness is banished before light, and as smoke ceases to be--then will evil forever end and righteousness be revealed as is the sun that holds fast the world. Then will all those who believe in the secrets
of . . . [illegible word] be no more. Knowledge shall fill the earth and perversion will cease. . . .

The utterance is soon to come to be, truthful is the vision, and in this way you will know that it goes not back upon itself. Do not all nations hate wickedness--while yet it lurks among them all? Do not all peoples praise truth--yet is there a language or tongue that grasps onto it? What nation desires that another stronger than she oppress her? Who desires that an evil man should steal his money? Yet what nation exists which has not oppressed another, and where is the people that has not stolen another's wealth? (author's translation)
Two themes intertwine in this remarkable passage: the eventual triumph of righteousness and knowledge (de'ah), and the present hypocrisy of nations. The author declares that evil will someday be banished by righteousness, just as light banishes darkness--but he shows no awareness of the Manual's theology of light and darkness. Once righteousness triumphs, the soothsayers who have spoken of the Lord's mysterious ways will no longer have a cause to champion. Although the nations proclaim their pursuit of truth and righteousness in mock assent, this is only a shield hiding a lust for gain--no nation is truly virtuous. In the author's vision, no apocalyptic battles take place, and no charismatic prophets of truth appear to bring about a triumph of virtue. It is highly likely that in carrying forward this sober and expressive rumination, the author is urging an inner turnaround in the hearts of men to achieve the devoutly sought age of goodness.

The text's message, expressed with great simplicity, is unlike any other preserved in the manuscripts of Cave 1; when read with the other anomalous texts then being discovered, its signaling of their doctrinal variety could have helped set the stage for reevaluating the problem of Qumran origins. However, when one scholar attempted to relate this work to the time of the Hasmonaean rulers, explaining it as a sermon addressed to them, his interpretation was summarily rejected by the official editor on the grounds that "it does not appear likely that the founders of the Hasmonaean dynasty were remembered very favorably by the Essenes." From this response and others like it, we see that the Qumran-Essene hypothesis had become a fact in the minds of the editors, serving as a touchstone for the interpretation of the manuscripts--a procedure in disharmony with normal scholarly method and common sense.

The meaning of the number of scribes

In addition, virtually each new fragment brought out of Cave 1 yielded words or lines in a Hebrew script different from all the others, enabling scholars to count a growing number of scribes responsible for copying down the texts. Over fifty different handwritings were represented in this first Qumran cave alone--where, according to the notion of a sect living at Qumran and the corresponding identification of one building there as a scriptorium, one would have rather expected to find several groups of texts, each written by a much smaller number of scribes, and with a relatively large number of texts done by a single scribe. Such was the situation on the island of Elephantine, in upper Egypt, where, as we have already noted, Aramaic manuscripts of the fifth century B.C. were discovered many years ago. Michael Wise, formerly of the University of Chicago and now teaching at Northwestern College in Minnesota, and an incisive interpreter of the Qumran texts and their cultural milieu, has pointed out that, by any reasonable estimate, the number of inhabitants at Elephantine was perhaps fifty times the estimated number of "sectarians" who have been claimed to live at Khirbet Qumran, and that nevertheless the Elephantine inhabitants "relied upon only a dozen or so scribes. And this total served over a period of three or four generations." As Wise points out, only three or four scribes at the most could have been active there in a given generation. Thus, the large variety of handwritings exhibited by the Qumran scrolls should alone have marked an opportunity for pause--at all events with the publication of these Cave 1 texts in 1955--to reconsider the wide acceptance of the dominant hypothesis. But scholars did not respond to this evidence either, and an opportunity was again missed to break the grasp of an increasingly tenacious idea.

The question of origins

With the exploration of the first Qumran cave completed, scientific exploration in the Judaean Wilderness temporarily stopped. The Ta'amireh bedouin, however, continued their clandestine digging, eventually finding the autograph manuscript fragments from the Bar Kokhba period in the Wadi Murabba'at gorge--as we have observed, a discovery whose bearing on the question of the actual physical nature of the Qumran texts was never publicly discussed, and which apparently made no impact on investigators bent on seeking the lost history of the Essenes of the Dead Sea shore. The subsequent period of archaeological activity was characterized by startling new manuscript finds in other caves not far from the Cave 1 site. In 1952, the bedouin returned to the Qumran area, and in February they found additional Hebrew manuscript fragments in a cave (subsequently named Cave 2) located less than two hundred meters to the south of the first cave (See Map, site 2Q). This second cave yielded some thirty small fragments, divided evenly between writings that are now considered part of the Hebrew Bible and very fragmentary nonbiblical writings. Among the latter were bits of the apocryphal Jubilees and Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sira), three unidentifiable pseudepigraphs and a liturgical fragment, and a scrap of an Aramaic description of a future-day Jerusalem.

This last fragment opened up what would become a new genre of Qumran manuscripts: namely, imaginative compositions that, in the closest detail, describe various buildings conceived of as being part of the Temple complex, along with their dimensions, all envisioned as part of a cultic capital in a future age. But the scrolls' editors, ever true to their faith in a uniform Essenic sectarianism at Qumran, simply asserted that "the presence of such a document at Qumran confirms the sacerdotal attachments of the sect and its interest in the (sacrificial) cult."

In any case, with the above discoveries to consider, it dawned on the East Jerusalem scholars that the Qumran area might contain many more manuscript-laden caves, and in March 1952 they quickly organized and set to work on an expedition with several teams; that month they explored over two hundred caves in the vicinity of Qumran, discovering pottery in a score of them. On 14 March, they entered the cave now known as 3Q, and brought to light fifteen parchment pieces. These included a few biblical fragments, and also some small scraps which the editors described as being, respectively, from a commentary on Isaiah, a hymn of praise, angelic descriptions, an apocryphal prophetic text, a "writing of the sect," and several unidentifiable fragments. Of the six or seven legible words in the so-called sectarian writing, not one proved that the fragment stemmed from any particular sect. The words included, for example, the Hebrew for "you have sinned," "in a spirit of"(?), and "to turn back wickedness"--all biblical expressions that could have been used by any Jewish writer of the intertestamental period interested in the topic of sinfulness. Again, the small remainders of scrolls were each in the handwriting of a separate scribe.

Considerably more intriguing than these parchment finds was the discovery farther back in the same cave of two sections of a scroll made of copper. When partially deciphered, the scroll's contents seemed to consist of descriptions of hidden artifacts and treasures, with geographical indications of various hiding places. Later on it would become evident that the described items also included manuscripts. This document constitutes what is undoubtedly the most important single text discovery ever made in the Qumran caves.

The archaeological teams found no further manuscript caves in the area they were investigating, and so terminated the expedition in the spring of 1952, thus offering the skilled Ta'amireh bedouin an opportunity to return to the vicinity of Qumran. They began to explore the marl caves south of the settlement, and in the summer penetrated into what later became known as Qumran Cave 4 (4Q). Here they made a sensational discovery: Approximately one meter beneath the surface was a huge number of fragments from what had been several hundred manuscripts. When word reached the researchers in East Jerusalem, another expedition was mounted (September 1952) and the archaeologists succeeded in finding fragments of at least a hundred additional manuscripts in that cave.

The variety of scrolls

The finds of Cave 4 remain the high-water mark of manuscript discovery in the Judaean Wilderness. Once in Jerusalem, the fragments in their thousands were first sorted and classified, primarily by Josef Milik, and then, in 1954, they were assigned to an expanded team of scholars for eventual publication. Starting already in the mid-fifties, the journals Revue biblique and Biblical Archaeologist published descriptions and partial text editions. Accounts by team members made it possible to gain an impression of the variety of texts coming from this cave: commentaries and paraphrases on many books of the Bible, apocalyptic visions, liturgical works and psalms, apocryphal writings both known and previously unknown, "wisdom" texts in the style of the Book of Proverbs, interpretations of Pentateuchal laws, messianic speculations, and even horoscopes and puzzles. All of these and much more highlighted the Cave 4 discoveries.

Who had written and read this dizzying variety of literary types and genres? Were all these texts only written by and destined for the members of a small sect living on a plateau in the desert--or was the entire phenomenon in reality a much broader one, reflecting various elements in the Jewish society of intertestamental times? The answer was crucial and remains so, because at issue is our very understanding of Jewish life and thought in its latest prerabbinic manifestation and in the period of the earliest Christianity. This is of course the central scholarly issue today, in which virtually everyone working on the scrolls has a stake.

Damascus Covenant Archaeologists occupied at the 4Q site in September 1952 soon found two other manuscript caves close by: 5Q and 6Q, the latter explored some time earlier by the bedouin, who had emptied it of manuscript remains. In addition to a total of fifteen biblical fragments, the texts found in these caves included various new apocryphal and apocalyptic fragments, as well as a few writings of sectarian character, notably fragments of the Damascus Covenant. Three years later, in the spring of 1955, archaeologists discovered four more caves in the area of Qumran (7Q-10Q), but they contained only a small number of minuscule fragments. Cave 7 contained text fragments written only in Greek, and on papyrus. Most of these were unidentifiable, but one proved to be a fragment of Exodus, and another possibly the apocryphal Letter of Jeremiah.

Then, in February 1956, the indefatigable Ta'amireh bedouin located another manuscript cave near Cave 3, to the north of Khirbet Qumran. This cave (11Q) held some of the most important treasures discovered at Qumran, including a few nearly intact scrolls such as had been found in Cave 1. Among these finds were an ancient Aramaic translation of a large portion of the Book of Job, a scroll containing extracts from the Book of Psalms and other devotional literature from both known and unknown sources, a copy of the Book of Leviticus in palaeo-Hebrew script, and other writings.

The phylacteries

One of the most remarkable finds to result from these explorations was that of phylacteries (Hebrew, tefillin) discovered in several caves. To the present day, strictly observant Jews attach leather thongs to small capsules, containing the text of Exodus 13.1-16, Deuteronomy 6.4-9 and 11.13-21, and bind these capsules to forehead and arm in literal fulfillment of the Deuteronomic injunction to "bind [these words that I command you this day] as a sign upon your hand and as frontlets between your eyes" (Deut. 6.8). The following words, "And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts [mezuzot] of your house" (6.9), are likewise carried out literally by posting capsules (or mezuzot) containing Deuteronomy 6.4-9 and 11.13-21 on the doorway.

phylacteries Both Josephus and the author of the Letter of Aristeas refer to the custom among the Jews of wearing phylacteries. What remains uncertain to this day, however, is whether all ancient parties and/or sects among the Jews literally and uniformly applied the injunction to bind the words commanded by the Lord ''as a sign upon your hand . . . and as frontlets between your eyes." The author of the Letter of Aristeas states that the Lord "has put the [divine] oracles upon our gates and doors . . . and upon our hands, too, he expressly orders the symbol to be fastened . . . "--but he says nothing about the fastening of phylacteries to the forehead. Josephus in his own description of the laws of Moses describes the latter practice as well, but does not tell us what specific verses were embedded in the boxes. The Samaritans for their part did not have the custom of wearing phylacteries at all. The New Testament refers once to the wearing of phylacteries by Jews, but without indicating whether they were worn on the arm, hand, or both (Matt. 23.5).

Now a considerable number of phylacteries were found in Caves 1, 4, 8, and perhaps elsewhere--approximately thirty in all. The authors of the Manual of Discipline, insofar as they evince the very opposite tendency to interpret the literal injunctions of the Pentateuch as metaphors, were not good candidates for carrying out such an injunction literally. But whether the members of the Unity, or Yahad, group did or did not actually wear phylacteries, it was already obvious by 1970 that those phylacteries discovered in the caves could not have belonged to the individuals of any single Jewish group, whether encamped upon the desert plateau of Qumran or living elsewhere. For the texts of most of the phylacteries found in the caves--published by several scholars in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s--showed no textual consistency with one another.

This unusual feature of the Qumran phylacteries would be quite accurately described by Josef Milik in his 1977 edition of many of those from Cave 4. Some texts are much lengthier than others, taking in relatively long passages of the Pentateuch, including Exodus 12.43-13.16 and Deuteronomy 5.1-6.9 and 10.12-11.21; and to these lengthy sections the Song of Moses (Deut. 23) was also once added. Four additional texts are much shorter, approximately equaling the passages used eventually by the rabbinical Jews. In four cases the admonition contained in the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy beginning with the familiar words "Hear O Israel, the Lord is your God"--universally considered to be at the very core of the content of phylacteries--is itself excluded. The distribution of the various passages is, in Milik's words, "most capricious."

Milik himself tried to retain the integrity of the Qumran-Essene hypothesis by claiming that these great variations among the texts showed only that the practice remained essentially, "if one might say so, private and semi-sacred." It defies logic, however, to believe that a small and radical sect, whether of Essenes or others, who were according to the standard theory highly restrictive and formal in their religious legislation and practice, would have allowed their members to be so inconsistent with one another in carrying out a religious law that has been considered sacrosanct among practicing Jews for well over two millennia. This would be all the more the case if--as the old theory held--this sect was actually localized, as a Yahad or "Unity," in and around the Khirbet Qumran site. The great variations in the contents of the phylacteries can, on the other hand, be reasonably explained in consonance with the abundant variety of the scrolls, tending to show that they derived from various currents in ancient Judaism, not just one.

Yet even with this crucial new evidence, the multifarious contents of the caves did not shake scholarly faith in the theory of Essene origins. The first conclusions (1948) had been based on only seven texts. Now, however, there were fragments from approximately eight hundred scrolls--and the response was to claim that Essenism had been a much more comprehensive movement than had been supposed until just after the discovery of the first cave. This was perhaps a legitimate approach in the sense of being theoretically possible, but one also threatening to broaden the sense of "Essenism" until this group was defined out of existence. No scholar of the time even concerned himself with offering a cogent explanation for the wide variety of phylactery versions found in the caves.

Thus we see that as more manuscript-bearing caves came to be discovered, the Qumran-Essene theory was expanded in like measure. Having started out with the hypothesis that the Essenes had produced the seven texts found originally in Cave 1, scholars were now vigorously defining these sectarians as the producers of hundreds of literary texts on an increasing variety of subjects--this despite the estimate shared by Philo and Josephus of only four thousand Essenes in all of first-century Palestine. As we have seen earlier, tacitly implicit in this idea was the assumption that all of the literature of first-century Palestinian Jews other than the Essenes had simply disappeared--and the belief that at the same time this one small sect had, as it were miraculously, saved many of its own literary treasures from destruction.

In fact, the great variety of discovered texts clearly undermined such a belief, and at the same time raised a new question: Would not other Jews of Palestine, to whom abundant caves were readily accessible, have acted similarly during the war with Rome, when their lives, culture, and religion were no less threatened than were those of the Essenes? By this token, could there be any certainty, given the totality of facts known even by 1955, that the Essenes alone were the ones responsible for the hiding of all these manuscripts?

Concluding Remarks: Judaism and the Scrolls

Taken from Jerusalem libraries and personal collections at a crucial hour and hidden away in many places in the wilderness, the Dead Sea Scrolls are the remnants, miraculously recovered, of a hoard of spiritual treasures of the Jewish people of Second Commonwealth times. They are the heritage of the Palestinian Jews of that time as a whole, according to various parties, sects, and divisions that served as the creative source--so an increasing number of scholars have come to perceive--of a multitude of spiritual and social ideas. Before the discovery of the scrolls, we could not draw so emphatic a conclusion about the Jews of intertestamental times. Much is still lacking of their literature, and there is little chance that we will ever be able to grasp the full magnitude of the creative power of this people in the days of the Hasmonaeans and their successors. One may only wonder how many works of the ancient literature of the Jews perished totally in the caves near Khirbet Qumran and elsewhere in the Judaean Wilderness, and whether others remain there awaiting discovery. But those scrolls that were saved, relatively few though they may be, invite us toward gradually more sophisticated historical reflection.

We may see today that coming to terms with the individual concepts and practices at work in the scrolls does not require their being forced into a narrow sectarian bed, either of Essenism or any other single group, but rather calls for the careful extrapolation of their individual ideas through content analysis, and a gradual shaping of those ideas into the various spiritual currents that characterized Palestinian Judaism of the intertestamental era. The recognition of the variety of spiritual streams in prerabbinic Judaism was, to be sure, already anticipated sixty years ago. The discovery of the scrolls and creation of the Qumran-Essene hypothesis had the paradoxical effect of placing this view in obscurity, and increasingly so as pan-Qumranism became rampant. The scrolls in effect now give us valuable details of the broader picture that, long before they were discovered, had already begun to be sensed by serious students of Josephus, the intertestamental writings, and the rabbinic literature.

At the turn of that era, a great many Hebrew authors had become deeply concerned with eschatological and messianic themes. The scrolls were written a century and more before the age of the early rabbinic masters who molded Judaism in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple and the Bar Kokhba revolt, and thus reflect aspects of religious and social thinking often not characteristic of rabbinic Judaism. This thinking also found its echo in some of the writings later gathered together as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha--writings themselves created by intertestamental Judaism during the two centuries before the war with Rome. But with the publication of more and more scrolls, the Judaism of that period has emerged as a far more complex, richly textured, and subtle phenomenon than it was ever believed to have been before. The scrolls are imbued with the rich literary heritage of the Jewish people in an age of crisis leading up to and marking the early beginnings of Christianity.

Seen in this light, the scrolls offer a portrait of underlying spiritual factors that generated events leading up to the First Revolt. We observe the tortured evolution of Jewish thinking from its early basis in Mosaic religion toward new religious and social values. That evolution was accomplished by struggle, among themselves, of various groups and individuals. The dynamics of a vigorous and often anguished interchange of ideas created a climate of fervor and zeal in intertestamental Jewish Palestine, eventually leading to militant opposition to Roman rule. The anguish undoubtedly reigned throughout those regions of Palestine where the Jews were heavily settled. It was, however, in Jerusalem, the religious and political capital, that it expressed itself most intensely.

The Romans knew that Jerusalem would be their chief prize. This was not only because it represented the polity of the Jews. They perceived that by its stubborn will to exist, the city continued to carry the message to the pagan world that a final time would arrive when Rome's own swords, which had conquered so much of that world, might be beaten into plowshares and all mankind come streaming up to the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem (Isaiah 2.2-4; Micah 4.1-4).

The Jews, for their part, deeply feared that the Romans intended to destroy the Temple, the physical embodiment of the Jewish ideals. They hoped that by saving their collections of scrolls and thereby the words that expressed their beliefs and aspirations of centuries--by literally hiding those words, that is, until the terror had passed--the time would yet come when the message of the Jews and of Judaism to the nations of the world might be heard again.

The hiding away of the writings of the Jews at the time of the First Revolt thus emerges as an historic act of desperation. Through such efforts, the Hebrew scriptures and many other writings of the Palestinian Jews were given the chance of survival.

In reflecting on this secret confined within the Qumran caves for so many centuries, may we not ask, if only as travelers contemplating a far-off horizon: When the Temple burned and blood flowed through the streets of Jerusalem, what witness to that sight could have imagined that a daughter religion, spawned in relative obscurity in the Jews' midst, would adopt those scriptures and then go on to flourish and profoundly influence the thinking of the Western world? Who could have believed that the Jews themselves, defeated at the hands of the Romans throughout Palestine, would emerge again, in renewed creativity of spirit, as bearers of a rational and messianic culture?

Relevant link

The Oriental Institute


Professor Norman Golb has achieved worldwide renown through his manuscript discoveries and historical writings. A prolific author and twice a Guggenheim Fellow, he is the first holder of the Rosenberger Chair in Jewish History and Civilization at the University of Chicago and a voting member of its celebrated Oriental Institute.

COPYRIGHT | Adapted from pages XV, 95-104, and 382-385 of "Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?: The Search for the Secret of Qumran" by Norman Golb. Copyright 1995 by Norman Golb. Reprinted by arrangement with Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York.

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