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Dead Sea Scrolls Collection Review Essay

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Updated: Sep 10th, 2021

Dead Sea Scrolls is one of the most important collections of Jewish texts from the centuries before the rise of Christianity. The Dead Sea Scrolls were not discovered all at once in 1947. In modern times, the earliest scroll materials to be discovered were two partial medieval manuscripts of the Zadokite Fragments, also called the Damascus Document by many scholars. These manuscripts came to the attention of Solomon Schechter in 1896, when he retrieved them from the Cairogenizah, a storehouse for old books and documents in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, Old Cairo.

Manuscripts of the very same text were later found in the Qumran collection. It is now clear that this document was a central sectarian text. There is a point of view that scrolls were gathered in Qumran by a sect whose members left Jerusalem in the aftermath of the Maccabean revolt. Thesis Historical documents and archeological discoveries allow to say that Dead Sea Scrolls were written and collected by the sect of Essenes leaving near Khirbet Qumran (the Qumran-sectarian theory).

When the Hasmonaean rulers adopted the rulings of the Pharisees regarding the conduct of the Temple in about 152 B.C.E., the loyal opposition, a band of pious Sadducees -retreated to the desert, taking up residence at Qumran. Soon after the Qumran scrolls were unearthed, it became the prevailing view that the sect described in the scrolls was none other than the elusive sectarian group termed the Essenes, a theory previously championed based on evidence from the genizah manuscripts of the Zadokite Fragments (Baigent 166).

First suggested by Sukenik, that theory was fully developed in a series of works, the most important of which was that written by Cross. The theory took its roots from descriptions of the Essenes by the ancient authors Philo Judaeus, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder. Numerous parallels to the Dead Sea Scrolls are cited in their descriptions pointing to this identification. Scholars used the material from Philo, Josephus, and Pliny as a means of interpreting the scrolls and vice versa, thus giving rise to a circular process. This material was then used in searching for Christian origins that, the theory held, might be found in the library of the Essenes (Attanasio and Daniaelou 93-94).

Critics (Attanasio and Daniaelou) admit that it is true that the scrolls illuminate much about the background of Christianity, it is not true that they are proto-Christian documents. Despite this fact, confessionalists often picture the sect in terms derived from the New Testament, interpreting the New Testament in light of the scrolls. Archaeological and paleographic examination and carbon tests have established that the manuscripts were copied in a few cases in the third century B.C.E., for the most part in the second and first centuries B.C.E., and in a few cases in the first century C.E. (Baigent 167).

The manuscripts were composed during the period beginning with the Torah’s composition until about the turn of the common era, when the last of the Qumran texts were composed. The manuscripts were gathered at Qumran sometime after 134 B.C.E., when the sect established a center at Qumran, and before 68 C.E., when the Qumran area was destroyed by the Romans during the Great Revolt of 66-73 C.E. Most of the texts are in Hebrew, with some 20 percent in Aramaic and a few in Greek. This picture already indicates that the community that collected and used these manuscripts was only minimally affected by Hellenism (Attanasio and Daniaelou 103).

First are the biblical texts, covering some part of every book except Esther, which is probably missing only by chance. Many of them were certainly copied outside the sect. Second are the apocryphal compositions and other texts that were part of the literary heritage of those who formed the sect or that were composed by similar groups. They were composed outside the sectarian center and brought there, although some of them may have been copied there (Baigent 170). The third group of texts, sectarian, describe the teachings and way of life of a specific group of Jews, apparently some of whom lived at the sectarian center excavated at Qumran. For instance, the Enoch (4Q201(En ara) depicts the community order as:

[They (the leaders) and all… of them took

for themselves]

wives from all that they chose and

[they began to cohabit with them and to defile

themselves with them];

and to teach them sorcery and [spells and

the cutting of roots; and to acquaint them

with herbs.] (Dead Sea Scrolls n.d.)

Dead sea Scrolls include texts outlining the beliefs of the sect, rules for entry to the sect, legal codes, and liturgical compositions. Critics cannot be sure that all of them, or even most of them, were copied at Qumran (Baigent 166).

The specific documents of the Qumran community form a substantial part of the collection, and allow to say that the Dead sea scrolls were composed by the Essenes. They constitute some 249 manuscripts, or about 115 works. These texts are distinguished by a number of characteristics: they generally reflect the practices and organization of the Qumran community, the history of the community and its own self-image, and the theological views and specific biblical interpretations of the community (Baigent 166).

Although parallels to many of these ideas can be located outside the community, what makes these documents unique is the combination, within a text, of these particular aspects and the specific linguistic character of Qumran sectarian compositions. It is that special character that clearly marks these as distinctively Dead Sea sectarian documents.

On the other hand, many of the Qumran texts reflect the general literature of the period. The contents of these texts parallel those found in the Masada excavations, which certainly cannot be identified with the Qumran sect (Baigent 171). Rather, the communities occupying Qumran and Masada, together with most Jews in the Second Temple period, shared a literature in common: apocryphal documents, some known before the discovery of the scrolls in other languages and now known in the original Hebrew or Aramaic. This class of texts has great significance for historians because it can teach not only about the Qumran sect but also about a variety of Jewish groups of the period (Attanasio and Daniaelou 105).

Sometime after 152 B.C.E., the sect came into being and then went through a period of formation and solidification. By the reign of John Hyrcanus, the sectarians were fully established at what had already been an inhabited site. Apparently, they adapted the site to their own use and expanded it. Their lives included communal meals in a large room, which contained facilities for preparing food for large numbers of people. The sectarians occupied themselves extensively with ritual purity (Attanasio and Daniaelou 105). They engaged in making pottery, examples of which were found at Qumran, and they may have had an area for preparing manuscripts, a scriptorium.

The sect, as an organized group, apparently broke up sometime during the Great Revolt, in the aftermath of the destruction of Qumran in 68 C.E. Some scholars have tried to link the phases of occupation of Qumran with the specific internal history of the sect, assuming that the different phases represented stages in the sect’s history and ideology. To bolster this theory, they have relied excessively on the excavators’ conclusion that there was a hiatus in occupation after the earthquake of 31 B.C.E. It makes the assumption that the sect is to be identified with the Essenes (Attanasio and Daniaelou 108).

They [sect] condemn the sacrifices of the Temple, thusexaggerating the attitude of the Zadokites. Like the Essenes, they have daily ritual baths. For their sacred meals they use unleavened bread and water, but they condemn the use of wine. They were surely Essenes” (Attanasio and Daniaelou 124).

The only information scholars have about the group is gleaned from Greek sources, primarily Philo, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder. According to the testimony of Philo and Josephus, there were about four thousand Essenes, scattered in communities throughout Palestine, although there is some evidence that they avoided the larger cities. The Roman author Pliny identifies an Essene settlement between Jericho and Ein Gedi on the western shore of the Dead Sea.

For those scholars identifying the Essenes of Philo and Josephus with the Dead Sea sect, that location has been regarded as decisive proof of their claims. One of the sects that disappeared was the Dead Sea sect. Now, after almost two thousand years of silence, its writings have been rediscovered (Attanasio and Daniaelou 108). Examining the origin and early history of the sect will help researchers to understand the forces that operated after the Maccabean Revolt and how various Jewish groups reacted to those forces. While some sects were accommodating themselves to the new order in various ways, the group decided it had to leave Jerusalem altogether in order to continue its unique way of life.

It is important to note that there are distinctions between the Essenes and the sect depicted in the texts. In the Qumran materials, a novice takes an oath at the beginning of the process; in Josephus’s description, he does so at the end. In the Qumran texts, he is admitted to common meals at an earlier stage than Josephus’s Essenes, who can eat with members only at the very end of the process.

One of the central questions in Qumran studies concerns the relationship between the Essenes of Philo and Josephus and the sect. In order to show that the Essenes and the Qumran sect were not one and the same, historians need more evidence than that provided by a few minor differences in their admissions procedures (Attanasio and Daniaelou 109). Despite Josephus’s claim that he himself went through the process of Essene initiation, it may be that historical changes or the coexistence of different groups under the general heading “Essene” might make the situation much more complex. Critics admit that Testaments of the XII Patriarchs

“offers so many similarities with the Qumran scrolls that it may be viewed as an Essenian document. This is evident in the characteristic expressions themselves: the name of Belial given to the demon, the “visitation of the Lord” which one finds in the Manual of Discipline ( III, 18) and in Luke 19:44” (Attanasio and Daniaelou 115).

Comparing the initiation rites of the Qumran sect with those of the havurah, critics underline similar comparisons between the Qumran sect and the Essenes as described by Josephus. Differences in the evidence provided by the scrolls versus that in the rabbinic material regarding the havurah indicate that despite their similarities, the two groups did not practice the same initiation rites and were therefore not identical. Indeed, in the Judaism of this formative period, numerous groups of this kind existed, and these documents provide but three examples of how such groups inducted members (Attanasio and Daniaelou 123).

Despite many differences, all the Jewish groups of this period shared much more in common than is usually assumed. Sectarian life was formulated into a complex system of initiation procedures, similar to parallel processes followed by the Essenes. Those procedures were intertwined closely with the attainment of higher states of ritual purity. Behind the procedures lay the notion that ritual purity was a symbol of the inner spiritual purity of the sectarian and of his closeness to God. As he progressed up the ladder of ritual purity, he progressed spiritually. For instance, Ritual Purity Laws (4Q274) state:

1…when God reveals the apple of his eye and he calls out 2… their drink and

they may not eat the pure food and all 7… after they are pressed and their

juices run out, no one may eat them 8… if the unclean person touches them

and also the greens…9 or boiled cucumber, and the person who waters… (Dead Sea Scrolls n.d.).

In the main sectarian center, it was possible to progress to the highest level of full membership, although in sectarian communities located elsewhere, it was possible to attain only the first two stages (Attanasio and Daniaelou 93-94). For this reason, the mingling of property for communal use was practiced at Qumran, but not in the other camps. Even within the main center, aspects of the biblical notion of private ownership persisted, as can be seen in the commercial laws of the sect.

Josephus’s descriptions of Jewish sects in the Second Temple period have been instrumental in the quest to identify the Dead Sea sect. In light of this, it is useful to examine Josephus’s descriptions to see how the beliefs prevalent in the sectarian doctrines compare with what Josephus says about other groups of the period, especially the Essenes, whom so many scholars have identified with the sect (Attanasio and Daniaelou 106). The Qumran scrolls, with its varied sectarian literature, richly represents the complex tapestry of competing Jewish approaches in the Second Temple period. By the time of the Great Revolt, the Qumran group had completed its original compositions.

In sum, Dead Sea Scrolls were written by one of the sects leaving in Khirbet Qumran. Researchers suppose that it can be the sect of Essenes leaving near Qumran. The Jewish world in which the sectarians lived was marked by sectarianism and schism. Differing ideologies and approaches to Jewish practice and belief competed for adherents. Historians know little about the history of the Qumran settlement in the almost century and a half between the Roman conquest and the Jewish revolt. Archaeological evidence has suggested that Qumran was abandoned at about the time an earthquake shook Judaea in 31 B.C.E., but it was soon reinhabited once.

The Qumran texts richly represent the complex tapestry of competing Jewish approaches in the Second Temple period. By the time of the Great Revolt, the Qumran group had completed its original compositions. In the revolt itself, the Essenes disappeared as independent entities, as did the Sadducees, who lost their natural power base when the Temple was destroyed.

Works Cited

Attanasio, S., Daniaelou, J. The Dead Sea Scrolls and Primitive Christianity. Helicon Press, 1958.

Baigent, M. Dead Sea Scrolls Deception. Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Dead Sea Scrolls. n.d. 2007. Web.

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