The Dead Sea Scrolls

Below is a small collection of pictures of actual Dead Sea Scrolls. Click on the pictures to read commentary on the various fragments.

4Q Pesher Isaiah
Pesher Isaiah: a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran
Qohelet
Words of Moses
Messianic Rule
4QTestimonia
Copper Scroll
Testimonia: a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran

4QTestimonia
(or Messianic Anthology, 4Q175 [4QTest])


Testimonia was found in Cave Four near the site of Khirbet Qumran near the shores of the Dead Sea in the early 1950's. It is a short document, complete except for a piece missing in the lower right corner. The name "Testimonia" comes from an early type of Christian writing, which it resembles in literary style. The Christian Testimonia was a collection of verses from the Bible about the messiah, strung together to prove some kind of point. Verses used like this are usually called "proof-texts." The Testimonia from Qumran is not a Christian document, but does resemble the early Christian Testimonia because of its use of a number of verses dealing with a theme.

The Qumran text includes five biblical quotations connected by interpretation. The first two quotations refer to the raising up of a prophet like Moses. The third quotation refers to a royal Messiah, the fourth to a priestly Messiah. The quotation from Joshua is connected to the coming of a time of great disaster, brought on by those dedicated to evil. The manuscript is usually dated to the middle of the first century B.C.E.

Photograph by Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman, West Semitic Research, in collaboration with the Princeton Theological Seminary. Courtesy Department of Antiquities, Jordan. Commentary by Marilyn J. Lundberg.

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4Q Isaiah Pesher b (4Q162 [4QpIs b])


A Pesher is a kind of commentary on the Bible that was common in the community that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. This kind of commentary is not an attempt to explain what the Bible meant when it was originally written, but rather what it means in the day and age of the commentator, particularly for his own community. In the Isaiah Pesher, or commentary on the book of Isaiah, a verse or verses from Isaiah are quoted. Then the commentary begins, often introduced by the word "pesher," or "the interpretation of the word..." If we were to write a commentary in this way today we might quote a bible verse and then say, "and the meaning of the verse is..." and go on to show the significance of the verse for our own church, synagogue, or society.

This particular manuscript quotes several verses from Isaiah 5 concerning punishment or destruction, and applies them to the "arrogant men" who are in Jerusalem. We know from other scrolls at Qumran that the people who wrote many of the scrolls had serious conflicts and disagreements with the religious leaders in Jerusalem over the proper way to conduct worship in the Temple. Most scholars think that the community of the Dead Sea Scrolls was led by a group of priests who thought that the Jerusalem priests were corrupt. The group at Qumran therefore started their own community in which they tried to live pure and righteous lives, away from th corrupting influence of Jerusalem.


Photograph by Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman, West Semitic Research, in collaboration with the Princeton Theological Seminary. Courtesy Department of Antiquities, Jordan. Commentary by Marilyn J. Lundberg.

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The Rule of the Congregation (or Messianic Rule, 1Q28a [1QSa])

The Rule of the Congregation was found in Cave One near the site of Khirbet Qumran near the shores of the Dead Sea in 194. It was originally included in a larger scroll called the Community Rule (or Manual of Discipline, 1QS), but is a complete work in itself. It is intended to set down rules for behavior in the "congregation of Israel" in the "last days," as they prepare for a war with foreign nations, led by a messiah. The priests, or "sons of Zadok," are described as the highest leaders in the community, although the text also talks about the "Messiah of Israel." The manuscript is usually dated to the middle of the first century B.C.E.

The rules of life that are set down are meant for everyone who has "kept the covenant," men, women, and children. After a brief introduction, rules are given for males from youth to full adulthood. They are to be taught beginning when they are children, and at the age of twenty become full members of the community. At this time they are also old enough to fight in the holy army. As they grow older they are expected to increase in responsibility and be given higher and higher positions of leadership, depending upon their strength. Special duties are given to the men of the tribe of Levi (the Levites) and they are to be under the authority of the sons of Aaron (the priests).

As in the biblical book of Leviticus, those who have some kind of impurity, or physical defect, are not to take part in the community council, nor are they to have any leadership role.

The text ends with a description of the "community council" and instructions for the drinking of bread and wine together. The first to enter "the assembly" is the chief priest and other priests, then the "Messiah of Israel" (in other words, the political leader) together with the chiefs of the clans of Israel, the wise and the learned men. When they drink the new wine, the first to take the bread and wine should be the high prest, and then the Messiah of Israel. This is how each meal should be eaten.

It is important to realize that the figure of the messiah here does not have the religious significance that it does in Christian literature. The word messiah comes from the word "to anoint" and both kings and priests were anointed in ancient Israel. The Messiah of Israel is therefore simply the king, the ruler, and his status is lower than that of the high priest. This arrangement is similar to that found in Ezekiel 40-48, where the main leadershipin the restored land and temple is given to the priesthood. The secular ruler (or prince) has a place, but is under the authority of the religious leaders, and is not nearly as powerful as in the days prior to the exile in 58 BCE.


Photograph by Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman, West Semitic Research, in collaboration with the Princeton Theological Seminary. Courtesy Department of Antiquities, Jordan. Commentary by Marilyn J. Lundberg.

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The Copper Scroll (3Q15)

"In the fortress which is in the Vale of Achor, forty cubits under the steps entering to the east: a money chest and it [sic] contents, of a weight of seventeen talents." So begins the first column of the Copper Scroll, one of the most intriguing, and baffling, scrolls to be found among the collection known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Sounding like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, the text of the Copper Scroll (3Q15) describes vast amounts of buried treasure.

It was found in 1952 in Cave 3 at Khirbet Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea, one of the few scrolls to be discovered in the place where it had lain for nearly 2,000 years. Most of what are called the "Dead Sea Scrolls" were found by Bedouin and sold through antiquities dealers, but this one was actually discovered by archaeologists--a rare occasion during those years. In ancient times the text of the document had been incised on thin sheets of copper which were then joined together. At the time it was found, however, the document was rolled into two separate scrolls of heavily oxidized copper which was far too brittle to unroll. For five years scholars and experts discussed ways of opening the scroll. Finally, they decided to cut the scroll into sections from the outside using a small saw. Working very carefully they cut the scroll into 23 strips, each one curved into a half-cylinder. Before it was cut, one scholar thought he saw words for silver and gold and suggested that the scroll was a list of buried treasure. Sure enough, when it was deciphered that scholar turned out to be right!

What about all that treasure? What is it? Has anyone found it? The answer to the last question is, no, at least that they are telling.

The treasure described in the Copper Scroll consists of vast quantities of gold and silver, as well as many coins and vessels. It is difficult to assess the value of what is described, since we are not sure what the weights in the scroll are actually equivalent to, but it was estimated in 1960 that the total would top $1,000,000 U.S.

With this great treasure list, you may ask, why isn't everyone out looking for the treasure? (And why hasn't Stephen Spielberg made a movie out of it?) The truth is, some people are looking for it, but it is not all that easy. To begin with, we do not know what all the words in the text mean. The text is in Hebrew, which is certainly a known language, but most ancient Hebrew texts that we have are religious in nature, and the Copper Scroll is anything but religious. Most of its vocabulary is simply not found in the Bible or anything else we have from ancient times.

Not only is the vocabulary of the scroll very technical, some of the geographical locations are unknown after so many years, many are too specific and some refer to places that no longer exist. Take some of the following examples:

"In the gutter which is in the bottom of the (rain-water) tank..."

"In the Second Enclosure, in the underground passage that looks east..."

"In the water conduit of [...] the north[ern] reservoir..."

There are those who have suggested that the treasure never actually existed, that the Copper Scroll is simply a work of fiction. Even if the treasure did exist, we do not know where it came from or who it belonged to. Some believe the scrolls refer to Temple treasure, hidden for safekeeping before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. Others believe the treasure belonged to the sect that lived at Qumran, a sect usually identified with the Essenes, a Jewish group mentioned in the work of the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote in the 1st century C.E. However, these are just educated guesses. Who the treasure belonged to, and what happened to it, we may never know.


Photograph by Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman, West Semitic Research, in collaboration with the Princeton Theological Seminary. Courtesy Department of Antiquities, Jordan. Commentary by Marilyn J. Lundberg.

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4Q109 Qohelet (a); Fragments of Ecclesiastes from Qumran Cave 4

These fragments of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes are only some of the hundreds of fragments of the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, that were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is largely because of the presence of biblical texts like these that the find at Qumran is considered one of the most important of this century.

Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest copies of biblical books in Hebrew dated to the medieval period, which was nearly 1,000 years after the first books had begun to be considered sacred scripture by the Jewish community. The finding of the Scrolls has meant that we now have copies that are older by hundreds of years than anything we had before 1947.

Among the Scrolls are copies of every book of the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, except for the books of Esther and Nehemiah. Some of the books, however, are only represented by very small fragments. The most common biblical books among all of the scrolls and fragments found at Qumran are Psalms, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Exodus, Genesis and Leviticus. The only complete book still preserved among the Scrolls is the book of Isaiah.

One of the questions that frequently arises in connection with the Scrolls is "Did the Qumran community have the same canon as rabbinical Judaism?" (The word "canon" refers to the collection of books considered sacred and authoritative by a given community. Scholars use the word when they want to talk about the collection of books that are considered to be part of the Bible.) The Bible of Judaism today contains 24 books that are considered "canonical":

  • Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
  • Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets
  • Writings: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, The Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles

Protestant Christians accept the same books as part of their Bible, but use a different system of numbering and arranging the books.

What we do not know is whether the Jews at Qumran had the same books in their Bible. Other texts found in the caves show that some aspects of their belief system were different from those of other Jewish groups, so it is possible that some of the other texts were part of the Qumran Bible. We may never know, since the people who hid the Scrolls did not leave us a list of the books they thought of as their Bible.


Photograph by Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman, West Semitic Research, in collaboration with the Princeton Theological Seminary. Courtesy Department of Antiquities, Jordan. Commentary by Marilyn J. Lundberg.

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The Words of Moses (1Q22 [1QDM])

These fragments from Qumran belong to a kind of literature called the Testament or Farewell Discourse. A Testament represents the "last words" of a famous person in Israel to their descendants or followers. Testaments are a little bit like the modern "Last Will and Testament," except, instead of containing instructions for the distribution of money and assets, they give predictions of the future, warnings of dangers to come, and instructions on behavior.

Many of these Testaments were actually written long after the biblical characters themselves had died, during what is often called the "Intertestamental" period. That was the period of time between the writing of the Hebrew scriptures (called by Christians the Old Testament) and the Christian New Testament. Some Testaments have come down to us from sources other than the Dead Sea Scrolls, in Ethiopic, Syriac, Greek, and Coptic translations.

The Bible also contains some examples of "Last Words" or Testaments. For example, in Genesis 49, Jacob, who is about to die, calls all of his sons to him and pronounces blessings over them, blessings which also serve to some degree as predictions. 2 Samuel includes the "Last Words of David" in chapter 23 (see 2 Samuel 23:1). Jesus' words at the Last Supper in the Gospels might also be considered examples of the Testament or Farewell Discourse (see, for example, John 13:31b-17:26).

In the Words of Moses, God commands Moses to interpret the law for the leaders of the community, and at the same time predicts that the people will fall away from the worship of God. Moses, in turn, commands Eleazar the priest, son of Aaron, and Joshua, son of Nun, to speak the words of the law. Moses then goes on to order the people to choose for themselves men who can interpret the law for them, and himself repeats some of the laws. He warns them that they are to be very careful in obeying the law and keeping all of the precepts that they have been given.

The content of the manuscript is heavily influenced by the biblical book of Deuteronomy, which is primarily a long speech by Moses to the people of Israel before they enter the land of Canaan. Deuteronomy itself reviews, quotes and reworks some of the material from Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. The Words of Moses reworks material from Deuteronomy. This is not at all surprising, since much of the literature of this time (3rd century B.C.E. to 1st century C.E.) is based on older biblical texts. It was a common practice, as we can see from many of the Dead Sea Scrolls, to take passages from the Bible and rework them in some way for a particular religious purpose. The Words of Moses was perhaps intended to serve as a reminder to the people to obey the commandments given by God through Moses. It may also have served as a warning of what would happen if they did not.


Photograph by Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman, West Semitic Research, in collaboration with the Princeton Theological Seminary. Courtesy Department of Antiquities, Jordan. Commentary by Marilyn J. Lundberg.

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