The Qumran Library

The collection of writing recovered in the Qumran environs has restored to us a voluminous corpus of Jewish documents dating from the third century B.C.E. to 68 C.E., demonstrating the rich literary activity of Second Temple-period Jewry. The collection comprises documents of a varied nature, most of them of a distinct religious bent. The chief categories represented are biblical, apocryphal or pseudepigraphical, and sectarian writings. The study of this original library has demonstrated that the boundaries between these categories is far from clear-cut.

The biblical manuscripts include what are probably the earliest copies of these texts to have come down to us. Most of the books of the Bible are represented in the collection. Some books are extant in large number of copies; others are represented only fragmentarily on mere scraps of parchment. The biblical texts display considerable similarity to the standard Masoretic (received) text. This, however, is not always the rule, and many texts diverge from the Masoretic. For example, some of the texts of Samuel from Cave 4 follow the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Bible translated in the third to second centuries B.C.E. Indeed. Qumran has yielded copies of the Septuagint in Greek.

The biblical scrolls in general have provided many new readings that facilitate the reconstruction of the textual history of the Old Testament. It is also significant that several manuscripts of the Bible, including the Leviticus Scroll are inscribed not in the Jewish script dominant at the time but rather in the ancient paleo-Hebrew script.

A considerable number of apocryphal and pseudepigraphic texts are preserved at Qumran, where original Hebrew and Aramaic versions of these Jewish compositions of the Second Temple period were first encountered. These writings, which arc not included in the canonical Jewish scriptures, were preserved by different Christian churches and were transmitted in Greek, Ethiopic, Syriac, Armenian, and other translations.

Some of these are narrative texts closely related to biblical compositions, such as the Book of Jubilees and Enoch, whereas others arc independent works-for example, Tobit and Ben Sira. Apparently some of these compositions were treated by the Qumran community as canonical and were studied by them.

The most original and unique group of writings from Qumran are the sectarian Ones, which were practically unknown until their discovery in 1947. An exception is the Damascus Document (or Damascus Covenant), which lacked a definite identification before the discoveries of the Dead Sea area. This widely varied literature reveals the beliefs and customs of a pietistic commune, probably centered at Qumran, and includes rules and ordinances, biblical commentaries, apocalyptic visions, and liturgical works, generally attributed to the last quarter of the second century B.C.E. and onward.

The “rules,” the collections of rules and instructions reflecting the practices Of the commune, arc exemplified by the Damascus Document, the Community Rule, and Some Torah Precepts. Here we witness a considerable corpus of legal material (Halakhah) that has Much in common with the rabbinic tradition preserved at a later date in the Mishnah. The Halakhah emerging from the sectarian writings seems to be corroborated by the sectarian Halakhah referred to in rabbinic sources.

The biblical commentaries (pesharim), such as the Habakkuk Commentary, the Nahum Commentary, and the Hosea Commentary, are attested solely at Qumran and grew out of the sect’s eschatological presuppositions. The Scriptures were scanned by the sect for allusions to current and future events. These allusions could be understood only by the sectarians themselves, because only they possessed “eyes to see”-their distinct eschatological vision. Liturgical works figure prominently among the sectarian manuscripts at Qumran because of the centrality of prayer in this period. The Thanksgiving Psalms (Hodayot) are of two types: those characterized by a personal tone, attributed by some to the “teacher of righteousness,” and the communal type, referring to a group.

Many more compositions deserve mention, but this brief survey demonstrates the major role played by the Dead Sea Scrolls in improving our comprehension of this pivotal moment in Jewish history.

Jewish Virtual Library: www.jewishvirtuallibrary.orgRead more.

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