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The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been called the greatest manuscript find of all time. Discovered between 1947 and 1956, the Scrolls comprise some 800 documents but in many tens of thousands of fragments. The Scrolls date from about 350 B.C. to 68 A.D. and were written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek; they contain Biblical and apocryphal works, prayers and legal texts and sectarian documents. This priceless collection of ancient manuscripts is invaluable to our understanding of the history of Judaism, the development of the Hebrew Bible, and the beginnings of Christianity.

In early 1947 (or late 1946) an Arab shepherd searching for a lost sheep threw a rock into a cave in the limestone cliffs on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. Instead of a bleating sheep, he heard the sound of breaking pottery. When he investigated, he found seven nearly intact ancient documents that became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Three of the scrolls, including the Book of Isaiah, were acquired in Bethlehem by Eleazar L. Sukenik of The Hebrew University just as the United Nations voted by a two-thirds vote to partition Palestine, thus creating a Jewish state for the first time in 2,000 years.

The other four scrolls were acquired by the Metropolitan Samuel, the Jerusalem leader of a Syrian sect of Christians. When he was unable to sell them in Jerusalem, he took them to the United States, where they were displayed in the Library of Congress. Still unable to sell them, he placed a classified ad in The Wall Street Journal offering them for sale. Through fronts, they were purchased for Israel by war hero and archaeologist Yigael Yadin, Sukenik’s son. A special museum, The Shrine of the Book, was built in Jerusalem to house the scrolls.

Père Roland de Vaux of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem, together with G. Lankester Harding, the British-appointed head of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, mounted an archaeological excavation early on at Khirbet Qumran, near the cave where the scrolls had been found (by that time, the Bedouin had also found a second cave). Since then, a debate has raged among scholars over the relationship of the Qumran ruins to the scrolls. The majority of scholars believe Qumran was the monastery-like settlement of a Jewish sect known as Essenes, to whom the scrolls belonged. Other suggestions range from a caravanserai to a pottery factory.

Ultimately a total of 11 caves were found (mostly by the Bedouin) containing ancient manuscripts. Scholars date the scrolls between about 250 B.C.E. and about 68 C.E., when Roman legionaries overran the Judean Desert on their way to destroying Jerusalem and the Temple (which they did in 70 C.E.).

The most famous, or infamous, of the caves is Cave 4, found by the Bedouin practically under the noses of the archaeologists digging at the adjacent ruins. Cave 4 contained more than 500 different manuscripts, but all in tatters. About 80 percent of them had been looted by the Bedouin before the archaeologists discovered the cave. The archaeologists retrieved the remaining 20 percent, but they were forced to buy the other 80 percent, chiefly through an Arab middleman known as Kando.

The publication of the Cave 4 fragments was assigned under Jordanian auspices to eight scholars. Over the years the publications of this team gradually dwindled to a trickle and finally disappeared. In the meantime, the unpublished texts were unavailable to the public or to other scholars.

In 1977, Oxford don Geza Vermes declared that the failure to publish these scrolls and make them publicly available was threatening to become “the academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century.” In the late 1980s, Biblical Archaeology Review took up the call, publicly demanding the release of the scrolls so that all scholars could study them. After the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel gained control of the scrolls in Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum (formerly the Palestine Archaeological Museum), but the Israelis did not change the situation. The scrolls remained under the control of the small, non-Jewish, practically nonfunctioning scroll-publication team.

The then-editor-in-chief of the scroll team was Harvard’s John Strugnell, whose personal emotional problems, including alcoholism, were affecting his work. After Strugnell gave a grossly anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist interview to an Israeli journalist, Israel finally replaced him with Professor Emanuel Tov of The Hebrew University. At first he, too, refused to release the scrolls, although, as Strugnell had also done toward the end of his editorship, Tov appointed additional scholars to the publication team, including Israelis.

The first break in the release of the scrolls came when the Biblical Archaeology Society published some unpublished texts that had been reconstructed with the aid of a computer, based on a private concordance of the Cave 4 fragments. Then the Biblical Archaeology Society published a two-volume work of photographs of the unpublished scrolls, obtained in a still-mysterious way by Professor Robert Eisenman of California State University. Even now Eisenman declines to divulge how he obtained the photographs, although it was always clear they were genuine.

Finally, director William Moffett of the Huntington Library in California decided to release images of the unpublished scrolls on a microfilm strip that had been deposited in the library as a security measure in case the originals were lost. The Huntington’s decision to release its copy of the unpublished scrolls was announced at the top of the Sunday edition of The New York Times on September 21, 1991. Although Israel first considered suing the library (and the Biblical Archaeology Society), saner minds eventually prevailed, and the scrolls were declared open and available to all.

The "Book of Enoch" (1 Enoch) is a collection of texts composed between about 350 B.C.E. and the turn of the era. It is the earliest extant example of an apocalyptic blend of Israelite prophetic and wisdom theologies best known from the Book of Daniel, and it witnesses the variety within Israelite religion in the Greco-Roman period.

Two myths shape the Book of Enoch. The first, related to Genesis 6:1-€"4, ascribes the origins of evil to the rebellion of certain angels who mated with women and begat a race of giants that devastated the earth and whose demonic spirits continue to produce sin and misery (This refers to the episode in Genesis when "the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them," thus creating a race of giants called the Nephilim.). According to the second myth, Enoch (as said in Genesis 5:21-€"24) was taken to heaven, where he learned the secrets of the universe and of the coming judgment.

The Enochic texts claim to be Enoch's revelations transmitted through his son, Methuselah. The various parts of 1 Enoch were composed in Aramaic and translated into Greek, and from Greek into ancient Ethiopic, in which version alone the entire collection has survived.

Qumran Cave 4 yielded fragments of 11 Aramaic manuscripts of parts of 1 Enoch that cover perhaps one fifth of the Ethiopic text, as well as nine -­Aramaic manuscripts of "the Book of the Giants," a- text not included in 1 Enoch. The 1 Enoch manuscripts attest both to how closely the Ethiopic text corresponds to its Aramaic prototypes in some places and to where it differs in others. The Giants fragments indicate that the Enochic tradition was richer than 1 Enoch suggests. Missing at Qumran are fragments of the Book of Parables (1 Enoch 37-€"71), a Jewish text that provides a context for New Testament "Son of Man" christology. The absence of the Book of Parables from Qumran probably indicates that this expression of Enochic theology developed in circles different from those directly ancestral to the group that collected the texts at Qumran. The other Enochic writings were authoritative at Qumran, however, and were popular among early Christian writers as well. The Enochic texts remain a canonical part of the Bible of the Ethiopian Church.

The Temple Scroll is the longest Dead Sea Scroll (over 28 feet, preserved almost to its entire length) and one of the most important. It was excavated by Bedouin in Cave 11 in 1956 (since then no more scrolls have been discovered at Qumran). It was recovered in 1967 and published in 1977 (Hebrew edition) and 1983 (English) by Yigael Yadin.

The Dead Sea Scrolls can be divided into three main categories: Biblical, sectarian and other. The Temple Scroll is sectarian, that is, it belongs to the Dead Sea sect, identified by most scholars with the Essenes. It was composed, most probably, in the second part of the second century B.C.E., approximately 200 years before the destruction of the Second Temple.

The scroll is a halakhic (legal) composition, a rewriting of Pentateuchal passages, dealing with the laws as they were interpreted by the sect (mostly laws that differ from the laws of normative, Pharisaic Judaism). In the Pentateuch the Lord speaks to Moses and Moses speaks to the people. Here the Lord speaks directly to the people in the first person singular, and the style tries to imitate the language of the Book of Deuteronomy, but numerous slips betray its late origin.

Five major subjects are dealt with in the scroll: the Temple, the king's statutes, the feasts, the festival sacrifices, and laws of purity. More than half of the scroll, however, is devoted to the Temple and the Temple City, hence its name. The members of the sect did not participate in the cult of the Temple that existed in their period because they regarded it as unclean. The temple described in the Temple Scroll is an ideal edifice that was never built.

According to the scroll, the sect had a calendar of its own that was different from the calendar of the rest of the Jewish people. In addition to the regular Jewish feasts, the sect celebrated festivals of the first fruits such as the Festival of the First Wine and the Festival of the First Oil.

The law code of the sect is characterized by its harsh and ultra-conservative laws. For instance, they prohibited sexual relations in Jerusalem, and they prescribed that lavatories were to be built at a distance of about a mile away from the Holy City.

The Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness (or in short, the War Scroll) is one of the first seven Dead Sea Scrolls to have been discovered. Its genre is unique, describing an eschatological war that is to put an end to evil in the world. It is a kind of military manual, intended for priests, describing their role in providing ceremonial, cultic, and even tactical leadership to the army of the Sons of Light.

The introduction gives the historical background to the war and the sequence of its development. It will begin with a “War against the Kittim,” a short but intense battle against Israel’s eschatological enemy (Numbers 24:24). After six rounds during which the Sons of Light will alternate between gaining and losing the upper hand, God will intervene with his mighty hand to miraculously bring victory.

This battle will introduce a second stage in the eschatological war, the “War of Divisions,” one that will be launched after six years of war preparations during which Israel’s exiles will be able to return to Jerusalem. The fighting itself will be spread out over 35 years, with breaks every sabbatical year, until the entire world is conquered.

The War Scroll contains a series of rules (called serakhim in Hebrew), describing the trumpets and banners to be used, the different infantry and cavalry units, various purity rules, as well as tactical matters. These rules, originally intended for the War of Divisions, were eventually adapted to fit the War against the Kittim. A series of prayers, imported from other sources, to be recited on the battlefield.

From Cave 4, seven additional scrolls related to the eschatological war were found, being either copies of the War Scroll or compositions closely related to it, or perhaps its sources. They further support the impression gathered from the War Scroll that it had at least two stages in its composition, a first dating to the Maccabean period, and a second intended to adapt the composition to a new reality resulting from the Roman conquest of Judea in 63 B.C.E.

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