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The Dead Sea Scrolls

Raphaele Dechirante

The discovery in the late summer of 1947 of the hitherto largest known collection of Hebrew manuscripts in Palestine was a genuine sensation. The "manuscripts of the cave" or "Dead Sea Scrolls," as they are known, which came to light have meanwhile been expounded in a large number of publications and many discussions about them have been recorded in learned journals. A great deal more detailed work will be needed to clarify the problems which are presented by the discoveries. The first essential is that all the texts should be published in scholarly editions in their integrity: so far this has not happened. Thanks to the systematic investigation of the district where the first discoveries were made, numerous further texts have been added so that, using the name of the nearest ancient settlement, it is now possible to speak of the discoveries of Khirbet Qumran.

The site of the first discoveries was the cave of 'Ain Feshka which lies in the desert area of Ras Feshka, a range of mountains by the Dead Sea from which the cave is about a mile away as the crow flies. A line drawn in a southerly direction from Jericho, parallel to the degree of longitude, passes more or less precisely through the spot, just before it reaches the Dead Sea.

This discovery of ancient manuscripts was not the result of systematic investigation. It was a pure accident. A bedouin of the tribe of Ta 'amera, who live as goatherds in the area, was searching for a stray animal on the mountail slope, found a round opening in the rock and out of sheer curiosity threw a stone inside. He heard the clinking sound of a cracked vessel, as it was hit by the stone. With a companion whom he summoned he later went into the cave and saw, in addition to the pitcher which had been smashed by his stone, a number of undamaged pitchers, which he opened. They contained leather scrolls wrapped in linen, the inner sides of which were written on: parchment writings have not been found in the cave.

In the Near East even the uneducated nomad realise the value of antiquities. The bedouin and his companion therefore sold the scrolls to antique dealers in Bethlehem. From there part of the find came into the hands of the Archaeological Institute of the University of Jerusalem, the Director of which was Professor Sukenik, who died in 1952. Other scrolls, in which the Syriac Metropolitan Athanasius of St. Mark's Monastery in Jerusalem became interested, were at first kept in the monastery but during the war they were taken to America because the monastery was so close to the battle-line. The war between the State of Israel and the Arabs seriously hindered the study of the problems raised by the discovery of the manuscripts, because for the time being it meant that the archaeological exploration of the site and its surroundings was out of the question. A comprehensive study of the problem of the date of the manuscripts had therefore to be postponed. For both groups of texts, the Biblical and the non-Biblical, the problem of dating is of supreme importance. As far as the scrolls contianing the Old Testament writings are concerned, the problems they raise as to the form and history of the Old Testament books in question can only be satisfactorily answered when the problem of the date of the scrolls has been solved. As for the non-Biblical texts the dating is important because it will enable us to obtain information which may throw much needed light on the group for whom this material was their sacred book. It would also help us in the study of their particular traditions and the influence they had on later groups. Since, however, the texts that have so far come to light contain no chronological statements, direct or indirect - they have no colophons giving the name of the scribe and the date at which he did his writing - and no references to contemporary personalities or events from which it would be possible to draw chronological inferences, a number of auxiliary methods have to be used to examine the question further. These include the study of the writing materials used and, above all, the nature of the script, both of whch are the concern of palaeography. The excavating of the site and its surroundings, which is the task of archaeology, may also be expected to yield vital information.

There is no agreement among the scholars involved on the date of the manuscripts. It has to be accepted that it is extremely unlikely that it will be possible to establish an absolutely reliable date, at any rate for the time being, and that the various chronological indications provided by the writing materials, the script and the orthography, the pitchers, the cave and the nearby settlement, may not necessarily coincide with the date of the manuscripts. It is quite possible that the manuscripts were written a long time before they were deposited in the cave. On the whole, the view that predominates today is that the scrolls were written in the first century B.C. This conclusion, which was reached with the aid of traditional methods of research, has been confirmed by the radio carbon test suggested by Werner Heisenberg and carried out by W.F. Libby, an American. This makes it possible to establish, with the help of the so-called carbon clock, the approximate period at which the linen was made in which the scrolls are bound; the method is based on our knowledge of the time it takes for C14 (carbon isotope with the atomic weight of nitrogen) to disintegrate under radioactive conditions. Libby's measurement showed that the piece of linen submitted to him late in the year 1950 was then 1917 years old, plus or minus 200 years; that is, it was made within 200 years of 33 A.D. or between 167 B.C. and 233 A.D.

As far as the Old Testament portions of the scrolls are concerned this dating is highly significant because it means that the manuscripts from the cave have preserved a text which was in existence before the canon was established at the Synod of Jamnia in the year 90 A.D. This is supremely important for the light it throws in particular on the text of the book Isaiah. Two scrolls containing this book have been discovered in the cave. In the early stages it was thought this was a mere accident and the subsequent discovery of further Biblical texts has reduced the possibility that there was a special connection between Khirbet Qumran and the book of the prophet Isaiah. Of the two Isaiah scrolls, scroll number two, which was acquired by Professor Sukenik, is by far the worse preserved, although the script itself suggests that it is in fact the later of the two. The text is fragmentary and infra red photography had to be used to render it legible at all. Sukenik, however, regarded the poor state of the scroll as supporting his theory that the cave of 'Ain Feshka was a genitza, that is a chamber belonging to a synagogue for storing used and unusable manuscripts which it was not permitted to destroy on account of the sacredness attaching to them, but only leave to decay. The almost universal belief now held, however, is that the Khirbet Qumran group hid their sacred writings in the cave to preserve them during a period of persecution. This view is supported by the fact that many of the scrolls are in a good state of preservation and that efforts were made to keep them in good condition by wrapping them in linen and storing them in jars. Unlike the manuscripts in the Cairo geniza with which we are familiar, thanks to the research of Paul Kable, the manuscripts in 'Ain Feshka were probably concealed at a definite point in time, not over a period of several centuries. Finally, the archaeological report that no remains of an old synagogue are to be found in the vicinity of the cave shows that the poor state of preservation of the second Isaiah scroll cannot be taken as evidence for the existence of a geniza.

The Isaiah scroll number one, which is the most important item of the Biblical canon discovered so far, is a leather scroll made of strips sewn end to end. When unrolled it is about 1 foot wide and 24 feet long. It consists of seventeen pieces of leather sewn together, which contain the text of the book of Isaiah in 54 columns of writing. The script differs from the later form of Hebrew-Armaic, the so-called square script in which almost every character is squeezed into a square. The script used in this scroll had not attained this final stage but it is not far removed from it. With a knowledge of the square script it is possible to decipher it with relative ease. Final letters with a slightly modified form of the consonants k, m, n, p, s, when they come at the end of a word, are not used consistently throughout.

Orthographically, too, there are differences from the later form of the text, above all at two characteristic points. In the first place, some of the pronouns are longer than in the hitherto known texts of the Bible; this may reflect an earlier stage in the pronunciation of Hebrew. It is also noteworthy that the texts are unpointed, that is, are lacking in vowels. The system of vowel points that was introduced as an aid to reading, came later. On the other hand, the greatest possible use is made of the "full" or "plene" system in which weak consonants (Aleph, Jod, Waw, and He) are used to indicate the vowels. This is a definite help for those who are not completely at home in Hebrew; it is also much used in the present State of Israel, where Hebrew is the official language for a population with very varied linguistic backgrounds.

As far as the actual contents are concerned, they do not differ essentially from the Book of Isaiah as we know it. There is, admittedly, a wealth of textual variants but very few affect the meaning. They do not allow us to draw any conclusions as to the special character of the group of Khirbet Qumran. The situation created by the Habakkuk scroll is quite different. In addition to the canonical text of the book of Habakkuk as we have it in the Bible, the scroll contains a commentary in which the Biblical text is interpreted from the sectarian angle of the group of Khirbet Qumran. It is substantially smaller in size than the Isaiah text described above and has undergone more damage; the script is closer to the square script and probably comes from a later period. The text is unpointed. It is also very remarkable that the tetragram of the name of God, JHWH, appears in Old Hebrew characters and stands out clearly from the rest of the text. It is a striking fact that the scroll only contains the first two chapters of Habakkuk; the third chapter is missing. It may be useful to quote a few passages from the Commentary which show how the Khirbet Qumran group interpreted the Biblical Habakkuk. The Commentary on verses 12b-13a of chapter one:

"O Lord, thou has ordained them for judgement; and O mighty God, thou hast established them for correction. Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity."

which form part of a lament about the way God allows sinful tyranny to hold sway, is as follows (Column V):

"This saying means that God will not destroy his people by the hand of the nations, but into the hand of his elect God will deliver judgement of all the nations and by their chastisement all the wicked among his people will be punished; because they kept his commandments when they were in distress. For as for that which it says having eyes too pure to behold evil, this means that they did not follow the lust of their eyes in the period of wickedness."

It is clear that the historical vision of the prophet Habakkuk, who, like Nahum, considers the righteous activity of God in the world events of central importance, corresponds to some extent to the interpretation given in this Commentary. But the words of Habakkuk himself were addressed to the actual troubles of his own time, that is, "the tyranny of the Assyrian Imperium which preceded the Chaldean Empire." In many passages the Commentary also refers to a foreign power which it calls the Kittiim; but the basic conflict between the godless and the righteous was not limited to international struggles but referred explicitly to internal Israelite conflicts as well.

Other passages in the Commentary supplement the conception of a basic religious struggle between the "men of light" and the "men of darkness." For example, Habakkuk 2, 4B, ("The just shall live by his faith") is explained as follows (Column VIII):

"This means all the doers of the law in the house of Judah, whom God will rescue from the house of judgement because of their labour and their faith in the teacher of righteousness."

The main points here are, firstly, that the strict fulfilment of the law is essential for "the mean of truth, the doers of the law, whose hands do not grow slack from the service of the truth." Secondly, there is an important reference to a "teacher of righteousness" whose interpretation of the scriptures was evidently regarded as authoritative by the Khirbet Qumran group. Finally, as in the Commentary from which we have already quoted, there is a reference to a last judgement which will usher in the victory of the men of truth and light over the followers of darkness, godlessness and sin.

The Commentary includes an important reference to this world of evil in its comment on Habakkuk 2, 8b (" ... all the remnant of the people shall spoil thee; because of men's blood, and for the violence of the land, of the city, and of all that dwell therein." (Column IX).

"this means the wicked priest, who, for the wrong done to the teacher of righteousness and the men of his party, God delivered into the hand of his enemies, afflicting him with a destroying scourge, in bitterness of soul, because he acted wickedly against his elect."

It is quite clear that this passage contains an allusion to historical events in the life of the group which are interpreted in the light of the anthropological and theological antithesis between truth and sin, light and darkness. It has not yet been ascertained who the "wicked priest" was. He was clearly the embodiment, however, of a priesthood which took a less austere view than did the group of the fulfilment of the law. Scholars are still working on his identification.

The Habakkuk scroll forms part of the group of Biblical texts discovered in the cave but it is also one of the religious documents of the sect of Khirbet Qumran. We also have other sources of information on their theological views and way of life. The archaeological discoveries that have been made in the meantime and the literary material connected with the group, have thrown much light on these matters. In the present context the archaeological discoveries are of interest only insofar as they contribute directly to our understanding of the texts. Of prime importance are the excavations that have been made at Khirbet Qumran, which is situated one kilometre south of the cave of 'Ain Feshka. The ruins and cemetery of Khirbet Qumran have been excavated by Pere de Vaux (Jerusalem) and L. Harding (Amman). It has been possible to establish the existence of three different strata in the settlement, of which the third, the camp of a Roman legion, is irrelevant as far as the texts are concerned. The first two, which can be dated as earlier than 70 A.D., have revealed a monastic type of settlement, separated by walls from the surrounding terrain. Since the graves of women and children have been found in the adjacent cemetary, it was probably not the settlement of a strictly monastic commujnity but of a religious sect which, though not celibate, lived according to strict rules.

These rules form an important part of the texts found in the cave of 'Ain Feshka. They make up an essential part of the scroll which the American editor W.H. Brownlee has edited under the name of the "Manual of Discipline."

The "Manual of Discipline" opens with a general statement on the aims of the Community (Column I):

"These are the ordinances for the whole assembly including children and women; to live in the order of the Community: to seek God in His ordinances, dedicating themselves in community to do what is good and right before Him, as He commanded through Moses and through all His servants, the prophets; and to love everything that He has chosen, and to hate everything that He has rejected; to keep far from every evil and to cling to every good deed; and to practise truth and righteousness and justice in the land; and to walk no more in the stubborness of a guilty heart and lustful eyes so as to do any evil. All who dedicate themselves to do God's ordinances shall be brought into the covenant of friendship, to be united or to become a community in God's counsel and to walk before Him perfectly in all things that are revealed according to their appointed seasons and to love all the sons of light, each according to his lot in God's counsel, but to hate all the sons of darkness, each according to his guilt in provoking God's vengeance!"

This passage hints at various intentions of the sect which are described in greater detail later on in the scroll. These intentions relate to the formation of a community on the lines of a religious order, involving separation from the rest of the world and an intense awareness of a closely knit fellowship, ("the covenant of friendship". There is a reference, also, to the assemblies at which the divine revelations, which must according to the present text have included the Torah, and the Prophets, were expounded. The group had no fixed initiation rites but the scroll refers to the blessing which its priests pronounced on "all the men of God's lot, who walk perfectly in all his ways";

"May he bless you with all good and keep you from all evil; may he enlighten your heart with the life-giving prudence and be gracious to you with eternal knowledge, may he lift up his loving countenance to you for eternal peace."

Members of the group were subject to a life of austere discipline and a strict order of precedence which was apparently revised annually. Full members were obliged to hand over their property and to put all their physical and intellectual gifts at the disposal of the community. Offences were punished with penalites graduated according to the seriousness of the crime; there is a special reference to exclusion from the community meals as a possible punishment. For grave offences it was possible to be expelled from the group either temporarily or permanently. In the latter case the member's property was restored to him.

The texts not only tell us about the strict Rule on which the life of the group was based, but also throw light on its theological foundations. In one of the group's Thanksgiving Psalms, which have not yet been published in full, the nothingness of man is compared with the absolute transcendence of God in words that remind us of the Psalmist's "What is man?" (Psalm 8, 5) and the words of Isaiah: "Cease ye from man; from wherein is he to be accounted of?" (Isaiah 2, 22):

"For what is man? He is earth, a cut-off bit of clay, and to dust is his return; but thou dost make him wise in wonders like these, and of they true counsel thou wilt give him knowledge. But I am dust and ashes. What can I plan unless thou hast desired it, and what can I think apart from thy will? What can I accomplish unless thou hast desired it, and how can I be wise unless thou hast planned for me? What shall I speak unless thou openest my mouth, and how should I reply if you didst not make me wise? Behold thou art Prince of gods and King of the honoured ones. Lord of every spirit and Ruler over every work. Apart from thee nothing is done; it is not known without thy will. There is none besides thee, and there is none with thee in strength; there is nothing over against thy glory, and thy power has no price. Who among all thy wondrous, great works is able to stand before thy glory? What then is he who returns to his dust, that he should prevail against thee? For thy glory alone thou hast made all these. Blessed art thou, my Lord, God of mercy!"

This monotheism is made the basis of a dualistic conception of life. Just as the powers of light and darkness confront each other in human society, and struggle for supremacy in every human being so they attain their absolute incorporation in the Angel of Light, who is nowhere mentioned by name in the texts that have so far come to light and in Belial, the angel of darkness:

"One of the spirits God loves for all the ages of eternity, and with all its deeds he is pleased forever; as for the other, he abhors its company, and all its ways he hates forever."

The absolute conflict between the angels of light and the angels of darkness is expressed in words for which parallels may be found in the Zoroastrian dualism of Yasna 45 and the gnostic systems of late antiquity:

"In the abode of light are the origins of truth, and from the source of darkness are the origins of terror. In the hand of the prince of lights is dominion over all the sons of righteousness; in the ways of light they walk. And in the hand of the angel of darkness is all dominion over the sons of error; and in the ways of darkness they walk."

Clearly the Khirbet Qumran group did not regard this polarity as a state that could continue for ever. In a scroll which Professor Sukenik has called The War of the Sons of Light with the Sons of Darkness there are detailed, though anything but realistic, instructions for a battle which the group may have thought of as coming at the end of time. The battle ends with the victory of the powers of God; the description of the battle is followed by a song of praise:

"Blessed be the God of Israel, who maintains loyalty to his covenant and testimonies of salvation for the people he has redeemed. And we are the people of thy holiness, we praise thy name for the works of thy truth and extol thee for thy marvellous deeds! Arise, arise, God of the heavens, and be exalted in thy strength."

When one studies the literature of the Khirbet Qumran group, it becomes apparent that a few basic ideas are represented as the absolute truth and expressed not only in beautiful language but with genuine fervour. The problem remains, however, as to how these texts are to be classified. The attempts that have so far been made to solve the problem may be summarised as follows: It is generally conceded that there is an affinity between the ideas and language of the writings of 'Ain Feshka and the Damascus Document, which was discovered in Cairo in 1897 and published in 1910. This latter document may therefore perhaps be considered a later product of the thought of the community of Khirbet Qumran. If this were the case it would be evidence of the continuing influence of the group, even if it did not throw any further light on the group's historical position.

It has often been suggested that the group were adherents of Essenism, for which the writings of Philo and Josephus are our main sources of information; the syncretist ideas and the monastic organisation of the group, their common possessions, common labour and common meals have also been cited as parallels. H.J. Schoeps has come to the conclusion that they were pre-Christian Jewish gnostics and he has sought to establish the existence of cognate ideas in the pseudo Clementine writings. According to J.L. Teicher, the scrolls were written by the Jewish-Christian Ebionites.

The views expressed so far about the origin of the outstanding features of the texts are naturally as varied as the attempts to classify the community itself. In spite of a few isolated attempts to establish a close affinity with religious orthodoxy, attention has generally drawn to the not insignificant differences, especially in view of the emphasis on a dualistic theory, the important part played by the "teacher of righteousness" and the monastic community life of an isolated settlement in the desert. It has been suggested that Persian influences are apparent in the group's dogmatic utterances and the Greek influence of the Pythagorean brotherhood in its mode of life.

It will be necessary to secure a solid foundation of knowledge about the historical origins and chronology of the texts before it will be possible to solve the extremely important problem of the influence of the sect. This will involve an investigation of the sect's relationship to late Judaism, to the community of the Baptist and, possibly, to the beginnings of Islam.