Dead Sea Scrolls

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Dead Sea Scrolls

Dead Sea Scrolls (130-27 B.c.)

A collection of writings long concealed by semimonastic Jewish ascetics, the Dead Sea Scrolls preserve the library of a fringe cult forced into hiding due to oppression by the Romans during a civil uprising. At a cliff complex of 11 caves, a mystical brotherhood called the Essenes established their headquarters far from Herodean control and temple turf wars. In accordance with Isaiah’s PROPHECY, they took shelter in the desert to await the coming of a messiah. In the meantime, laymen of the sect organized a religious academy comprised of discussion rooms, a priestly burial site, and a scriptorium and archive of works dating to 200 B.C. The hideaway flourished from 130 to 27 B.C., when Roman rule weakened the power of orthodox Jewry.

The desert librarians compiled myriad sectarian perspectives on shifting territorial control. One scroll, the Habakkuk Commentary (ca. 5 B.C.), dates to the first decades of the Roman Empire, when greed whetted appetites for power and wealth across the Middle East and North Africa. The Nahum Commentary notes that “God did not permit the city (Jerusalem) to be delivered into the hands of the king of Syria, from the time of Antiochus Epiphanes until the coming of the Kittim (the Romans)” (Dead Sea Scrolls 2005, 4Q169), but the author correctly anticipates that Roman conquerors will devour the Hasmonean dynasty, who descended from the Maccabees, a Hebraic dynasty of heroes. The Manual of Discipline, the brotherhood’s handbook, notes the coming of a prophet, Yohanan the Baptizer (John the Baptist), who, around A.D. 25, cleanses sinners with purifying water. Because of the frequent appearance and discreditation of such prophets, Yohanan receives limited attention.

Too late, the Essenes spread the alarm that the “sons of darkness” may destroy Jerusalem and crush hopes for a resurgence of the Davidic kingdom, which date to 1005 B.C. A scroll of Psalms warns of “pangs of travail that rock the world’s great womb” (11Q). Although the library depicts the Jewish ascetics as victims, the Roman chronicler TACITUS declared in book 5 of his Histories (A.D. 107) that the Jews were the aggressors. In A.D. 39, an envoy from Caligula raised a statue to the emperor of Jerusalem in the temple to proclaim his divinity. His successor, the emperor Nero, so outraged the righteous that they created a code term labeling him the Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. After the emperor Vespasian’s son Titus razed the temple at Jerusalem in April A.D. 70, the desert academy appears to have fallen to a legionary invasion and arson, events corroborated by the Judaeo-Roman historian FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS in History of the Jewish

War (A.D. 75). In Jerusalem, according to the Copper Scroll, from A.D. 70 to 90, temple priests continued to collect tithes and fees for performing sacrifices, but they escrowed the money until it was safe to practice their faith in the open.

Recovery of the Scrolls

There are approximately 900 texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the first of which a Bedouin goatherd or shepherd found in early 1947. Scroll discoveries continued, all from caverns at Wadi Qumran, the desert frontier near Jericho. The weathered leather, papyrus, and copper manuscripts in Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew are still informing archivists and scriptural scholars about the rule of a Jewish rabbinate and the emergence of Christianity. The seven linen-wrapped scrolls and fragments comprise a library of texts in a variety of genres, including psalteries; daily PRAYERS; and The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and the Hymns of Thanksgiving, which extol the rise of David from shepherd to king of Judah. The scrolls include BIOGRAPHY in the Book of Noah and the Letter of Jeremiah; Pesharim (Commentaries) on Genesis, 2 Samuel, Psalms, and the minor prophets; the prophecy of Isaiah in The Messianic Leader and of Abraham's dynasty in the Book of Jubilees; sermons in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs; WISDOM LITERATURE in Tobit; 45 Psalms of Joshua; allegory in The Heavenly Prince Melchizedek; VISIONARY LITERATURE by Daniel and Ezekiel; a priestly handbook, the Book of Ordinances; a FABLE, the Tree of Evil; and examples of APOCALYPSE LITERATURE: The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, The Resurrection Fragment, The Angels of Mastemoth and the Rule of Belial, I Enoch, and the Apocalypse of Lamech. A surprising addition to scripture includes a paean to Sarah's beauty and wisdom in the Genesis Apocryphon, a compendium of CREATION LORE and patriarchal lore describing Abraham, Noah, Lamech, and Enoch. In one of the fragments of Psalms, a scrap of exultation injects hope into the fall of nations: “Kings of great armies flee; even the housewife shares the spoil” (1Q16:3).


The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation Rev. ed.

Translated by Michael O. Wise, Martin G.

Abegg, and Edward M. Cook. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.

Thiede, Carsten Peter. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish Origins of Christianity. New York: Macmillan, 2003.