Quartz Hill School of Theology

B451 Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls


The purpose of this course is the introduce the student to the phenomenon known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Where did they come from? Who were the people who wrote them? What do they mean for modern Biblical interpretation? These are just a few of the questions we will attempt to investigate in this short study.

The student will need to diligently read the textbook: The Dead Sea Scrolls Today, by James C. VanderKam (published by Wm. B. Eerdmans: 1994). Questions asked at the end of this study will be answerable if the student does all the reading assigned and studies those Qumran texts referred to.

Another book which the student must acquire is The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated, by F. Garcia-Martinez (and likewise published by Eerdmans: 1996). This book is an excellent translation of all of the non Biblical documents from the Dead Sea Scrolls collection (with only minor and insignificant documents being left aside).

Both of these books can be ordered from any bookstore.

Finally, the student will find it necessary to examine several scrolls themselves. these have been attached as photocopies in the appendix at the end of this study (see the bottom of this page). When an assignment is given to examine a particular scroll, the appendix reference will be given. A knowledge of Hebrew is desirable, but not necessary for this course. Those items on the Scrolls themselves which must be examined will be circled at the appropriate spot on the document in the appendix. Questions given at the end of the course will be essay questions -- and each must be answered by a minimum of 3 typed, double spaced, pages. Assignments will be made throughout the course.

ASSIGNMENT: Read VanderKam, chapter 1; Garcia-Martinez, "Introduction".

Part 1

The Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The term "Dead Sea Scrolls" applies to a large number of manuscript finds from the region of the Dead Sea made around the middle of the 20th century A.D. Primarily these documents were found near a place called "Khirbet Qumran" or simply Qumran. There are texts from Nahal Hever, Masada, and several other nearby locations which also fall under the large umbrella term "Dead Sea Scrolls".

We shall be concentrating our attention here, however, on those scrolls found near Qumran; and on the alleged Sectarians who were their authors and copyists.

The story of the discovery of the scrolls is quite fascinating. Before we consider the modern discovery it is only appropriate that there is mention made of a similar discovery in the 8th century A.D.! Long before modern times a Bishop named Timothy wrote a letter to a friend describing a find of documents in the area of Qumran. The text of the letter follows:

Oskar Braun, "Ein Brief des Katholikos Timotheos I uber biblische Studien des 9 Jahrhunderts." Oriens Christianus 1 (1901) 299-313.

Contributed and translated by Robert Kraft (6 March 1997), for general use.

This is "letter 47" in the miscellaneous collection.

Timotheos writes to Sergios, Bishop and Metropolitan of Elam.

The first part (German pp 301, 303, and half of 305) discusses copies that were made of Origen's Hexapla, including details of how many copyists, how long it took, etc. (page 305 line 15)

... So much for that. We have learned(?) from trustworthy Jews who had been instructed as catechumens into Christianity that 10 years ago in the region of Jericho books had been found in a cave. It happened that the dog of a hunting Arab that was following an animal entered a hole/cave and did not come out. Its owner followed it and found in the cliff a little house containing many books. The hunter went to Jerusalem and informed the Jews. They came en masse and found the books of the old (Testament) and others in Hebraic writing. And since the narrator was knowledgeable about writing and was learned, I asked him about the many passages in our New Testament that seem to be derived from the Old, but nothing is found there either by us Christians nor by the Jews. He said, they exist and are up there.


Since I heard this from that catechumen and also asked the other separately and discovered the same story without difference, I wrote about it to the noble(?) Gabriel and to the Subhalemaran (Diaspora bishop?), the Metropolitan of Damascus, that they might search in those books and see whether there occurs anywhere in the Prophets the passage: "He will be called a Nazarean" (Mt 2.23), or "An eye has not seen and an ear has not heard" (1 Cor 2.9; Isa 61.4), or "Cursed is anyone who hangs on the wood" (Gal 3.13; Dt 21.23), or "He has wrested the borders of Israel" (?) according to the word of the Lord that he spoke through Jonah to the prophets of Geth Opher and other similar things that are introduced into the New Testament from the Old but are not present in the (text) that we possess.


I also bid them, if they were to find the following words in those books to transmit/translate them to/for me in any event. It reads in the (Psalm) that starts Have mercy on me, O God, according to your grace, "Sprinkle on me with the hyssop of the blood of your cross and purify me" (Ps 50/51.9/7). This saying is not found in the Septuagint, nor in the other (translations), nor in the Hebrew. But that Hebrew said to me, "we found in those books more than 200 Psalms of David." Now I am writing about that in addition. I think, nevertheless, that these books had been left behind by the prophet Jeremiah, or Baruch, or some other of those who heard the word of God and were moved by it. As the prophets in divine revelations revealed the conquest, plundering and destruction that would come upon the people because of their sins, they concealed there, being absolutely convinced that none of the words of God should be lost, the writings in cliffs and caves and deposited those so that they would not be burned with fire or stolen by the plunderers.


Many died in the course of 70 years or less and, as the people returned from Babylon, none of them were left who deposited the books. Thus Ezra and the others were forced to seek and discover what the Hebrew contains.

The (present text) in the Hebrew consists of 3 parts. From one part the 70 translators later translated that for the famous king Ptolemy (the Pentateuch); from the second part some others later translated (the rest of the OT); the third is that which among them was protected/kept (untranslated). When these passages are found in the aforementioned books, it is clear that they are as reliable as those (used) by the Hebrews and by us. But I have not received any answer from him in response to my letter/note/inquiry.


But I don't have a suitable person whom I can send. It is in my heart like fire, in my bones it burns and glows. Pray for me, I'm in bad shape! ... etc.

This is indeed a remarkable document. For in it we learn that scrolls were found long before the famous discovery that is the focus of our attnetion below. If we only had more information about this earlier find and if we only possessed those scrolls!

We can now return to a description of the modern discovery of those documents which came to be called the Dead Sea Scrolls. A Bedouin shepherd named Muhammad Ahmed el-Hamed, in 1947, was wandering along the Northwest coast of the Dead Sea looking for a lost sheep. He threw a rock into a cave and heard the sound of something breaking. He did not stop then to look at the cause of the sound; but he returned later and found a large clay jar. In the jar was an ancient scroll. He found two other scrolls and took them to an antiquities dealer named Khalil Ishkandar Shahin, in March 1947. Khalil was a member of the Syrian Orthodox Church; so he took the Scrolls to his priest, who kept them until 1948.

The priest eventually contacted a member of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, a man named John Trever. Trever arranged to have the Scrolls brought to Jerusalem for examination and photographs. The three scrolls found first at Qumran were a complete copy of Isaiah; the Essene Manual of Discipline; and a commentary on the book of Habakkuk (known as a Pesher). The American Schools of Oriental Research published copies of these three documents in 1950 and 1951. Already the Scrolls were suffering a great complacency on the part of their publishers.

Archeologists decided to investigate the caves around Qumran to see if they could find other artifacts. In 1949 the cave where the first three manuscripts were found was excavated and pieces of pottery, cloth and other artifacts were recovered. The archaeological community had long known of the ruins of Qumran (known in Arabic as Gumran and akin to the Biblical Gomorrah). They dismissed it as either a Roman era fort or the palace of a rich nobleman. When the Scrolls were found nearby in a cave, however, the connection was made that the site of Qumran must have served as the headquarters of whoever had copied and written the scrolls. Thus the archeologists conducted a full scale excavation of the buildings at Qumran.

In 1952 other caves in the vicinity of Qumran were discovered. Searches were conducted well into 1956 with the result being that ten other caves were found which contained scrolls or fragments of scrolls in the vicinity of Qumran; and the greatest archeological discovery of the 20th century had been made.

The next riddle the scholars had to solve was: "how old are these scrolls?" Using various scientific methods, the scholars concluded that the scrolls were written anywhere from 250 B.C. to 65 A.D. (Some were indeed written in other places and taken to Qumran for preservation and copying; while others were born at Qumran).

In sum, the Scrolls were brought to light after a period of haggling and political maneuvering. Yet their significance is only now being even partially comprehended.

ASSIGNMENT: read VanderKam chapter 2; Garcia-Martinez, pages 3-139.

Part 2

The Manuscripts

What was it that was found at Qumran? What exactly are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

These are the questions which we will presently entertain.

The eleven caves in which scrolls were found yielded approximately 800 manuscripts. The Biblical text (Old Testament, of course) represents approximately 1/4th of all the texts, showing that the Bible was the center of the community's life. Every book of the Bible is represented among the Scrolls except Nehemiah (unless one considers it a part of Ezra, as the editors of the standard Hebrew Bibles do- but did the Qumranites?) and Esther. These two books have not been found among the Qumran Scrolls. The largest number of Biblical texts are from the book of Psalms, followed by Deuteronomy and Isaiah (See Appendix A).

Other types of writings found at Qumran are Targums (translations of the Bible in Aramaic, a language similar to Hebrew); Tefillin (prayer texts); Mezuzoth (door post boxes with texts in them); Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphical writings; Biblical Commentaries (like Habakkuk and Nahum, as well as many others)(see Appendix B); Testimonia (which are verses from different books given together in a list); and legal texts (rules of the community)(see Appendix C).

These legal documents tell us a great deal about the community and its rules. The student has already been assigned the task of reading these documents in Garcia-Martinez's book. There are also texts from Qumran which describe the correct methods of worship and the appropriate calendar to follow to insure purity. These are known as Liturgical texts.

There are also texts which would have been used in worship; something like the modern hymnal or prayerbook. Finally, there are also, among the Dead Sea Scrolls, items called "Eschatological" texts. These texts portray the last days and the battle which will take place between the good and evil.

In short, the documents found at Qumran are of two major types: 1) Biblical texts and 2) community texts. The Biblical texts are VERY valuable to the Old Testament scholar. They represent a text that predates the oldest previously known Hebrew texts of the Old Testament by 1000 years. Thus they are invaluable for our understanding of the growth and transmission of the Old Testament.

The community texts are very important in that they tell us what the community believed and what it hoped. Thus, as has been said already, these documents are the most significant archeological finds in the 20th century.

ASSIGNMENT: Read VanderKam, chapter 3; and the remainder of Garcia-Martinez's book.

Part 3

Who Were the Inhabitants of Qumran?

The center of debate today regarding the Qumran texts is, "who lived at Qumran?" This question is stirring tremendous debate among scrolls scholars; to such an extent that sides have been taken and hostilities have broken out! (On paper, of course).

On one side are those who believe that the inhabitants of Qumran were the Essenes. In support of this view they cite Pliny the Elder, a Roman writer who lived from 23 to 79 A.D. In his book, "Natural History", Pliny speaks of a group of people who lived near the Dead Sea, known as Essenes. Since Pliny was a contemporary of the sect his identification of the group as Essene carries great weight for some.

Another reason that many suggest that the Essenes were the authors of the Qumran scrolls is that what we know of their theology from other sources is very similar to the theology reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls. For instance, the Essenes believed in divine determinism of every action; and the scrolls are filled with the idea. The Essenes believed in an afterlife, as did the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In spite of these similarities, some scholars have abandoned the identification of the Qumranites as Essenes. Some scholars suggest that the real inhabitants of Qumran were Sadducees who had abandoned Jerusalem during the Maccabean era. There they hoped to remain until the war which would overthrow their evil counterparts in Jerusalem and they would be restored to their rightful place of honor in oversight of the Temple.

Other researchers have suggested that the Essenes were not the authors of the scrolls and that in fact the scrolls represent essentially the library of Judaism kept at Qumran for safe keeping as the Roman war approached.

One scholar suggested that no one lived at Qumran but a wealthy family. He suggested that the scrolls found in the vicinity of Qumran were simply left there by travelers. (A remarkable theory in light of the amount of documents found!).

In sum, it can no longer be said that the inhabitants of Qumran were Essenes who lived a monastic life there in anticipation of the war of the last days. There are several reasons why this is the case: various of the practices of the Qumran sect are exactly the opposite of the practices of the Essenes. For instance; non use of oil; common property; the community meal; restriction of bodily functions (so that purity is maintained);

ASSIGNMENT: read VanderKam, chapter 5.

Part 4

The Scrolls and the Old Testament

One of the most exciting aspects of the discoveries at Qumran was the light they shed on the text of the Old Testament. The oldest known complete manuscript of the Bible is known as Codex Leningrad. This manuscript, known as the Masoretic text, was written in 1001 A.D. The fascinating thing about the Qumran Biblical texts is that they predate the Masoretic text by at least 1000 years! That means that in the Qumran texts, we have the oldest witnesses to the Hebrew text (see Appendix A).

Another ancient witness to the text of the Old Testament is known as the Septuagint. The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament made in Alexandria Egypt around 200 B.C. Though it does not make a direct contribution to the study of the Hebrew text, it does help us in our investigations of the Hebrew text since it pre-dates the Masoretic text by 1200 years. By trying to reconstruct the Hebrew text which underlies the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX), we can tell that it differs in some points from the Masoretic text. For example, the LXX has a longer version of Daniel than does the Masoretic text (abbreviated MT). Another example, which shows that the LXX is closer to the Qumran texts than to the MT is found in Exodus 1:5.

In Exodus 1:5, the Masoretic text says that there were 70 descendants of Jacob who lived in Egypt. The LXX says there were 75, and so does 4QExod(a) (N.B. Qumran documents are denoted by the cave in which they were found -- thus 4Q means cave 4 of Qumran; then the abbreviation of the Biblical name, followed by the copy, a,b,c, etc.).

Another example is the book of Jeremiah. It is 1/8th shorter in the LXX than it is in the MT; and this same degree of brevity is found in the Qumran manuscripts of Jeremiah, which means that Jeremiah (LXX) and Jeremiah (Qumran) reflect a shorter textual tradition than does MT Jeremiah.

Besides these variations, there are others which the student can find in VanderKam's book. The significance of these variants lies in the fact that the Qumran scrolls are very similar in heritage to the LXX; whereas the heritage of the Masoretic text is somewhat different (though it must be quickly said that the variations are minor in terms of the percentage of text affected). Still, the Qumran texts must be consulted if we are to correctly understand the history of the Old Testament Canon.

We must now briefly explore the idea of the canon of Scripture as it was represented at Qumran; or in other words, what did the Bible used at Qumran look like?

The easiest way to determine which Biblical books were viewed as authoritative among the Essenes is to investigate the sectarian documents and see which books of the Bible are quoted in them. When one quotes something, one views it as an authority. The following Biblical books are quoted in the sectarian documents of Qumran, and thus we are certain that they were viewed as authoritative for life and practice: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, 1-2 Samuel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, Micah, Zechariah, Malachi, Psalms, Proverbs, and Daniel. Though other books were valued, these seem to be the most significant to the Essenes. These books were their "Bible".

ASSIGNMENT: Read chapter 6 of VanderKam's book.

Part 5

The Scrolls and the New Testament

The inhabitants of Qumran were not Christians. It might seem unusual to say this, but not long ago many believed that the Qumran sect was a Christian group. This, however, is quite impossible for several reasons:

1) the Qumran sect was founded 200 years before Christ.
2) the inhabitants of Qumran were a sect of Judaism.
3) The sect was eliminated by the Romans a mere 30 years after the death of Jesus.

Nevertheless, the Qumran scrolls are very significant for the study of the New Testament, for they bear witness to many of the popular ideas which existed in the Judaism of the first century, the cradle of Christianity. Much of the imagery of the New Testament has parallels in the Qumran documents. The notion of some people being "children of darkness" while others are "children of light" is found both in Paul and John as well as in the Qumran scrolls.

Striking similarities between the Sermon on the Mount of Jesus and some of the Qumran texts exist. Compare:

Matt 5:3 with War Rule 14:7
Matt 5:33-39 with Manual of Discipline 10:17-18.

It has also been suggested by some for many years now that John the Baptist is very near to the description of an Essene. It seems reasonable, they argue, to assume that John had contact with the Qumranites. In fact, some suggest he was an Essene before he began his public ministry. His clothing, food, and message are very similar to the Essenes. His call to repentance, in fact, is very Essenic in character.

Finally, some of the practices and beliefs of the early church have similarities to the practices of the Essenes. The Essenes lived communally and shared all of their property; as did the early church in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 5). The Essenes shared a community meal, as did the early Church (which meal later came to be known as the Lord's Supper). The Essenes believed there would be two messiahs who would come -- a Davidic and an Aaronic; while the Church combined in Jesus both the Aaronic and Davidic Messiah. The Essenes believed that the end of the world was at hand, and so did the early Church.

In short, both the Church and the Community of Qumran were both merely sects of Judaism in the first century of the Common era.


The Dead Sea Scrolls were written and copied by a sect which lived at Qumran from 200 B.C. to 68 or so A.D. The manuscripts found at Qumran are biblical and sectarian. The biblical texts tell us a great deal about the history of the Bible, while the sectarian texts tell us a great deal about the Qumranites themselves.

But the significance of the Scrolls is not restricted to a study of the Hebrew Bible.

The New Testament is also enlightened by the texts of Qumran.


Copyright © 1996 by Dr. James E. West

All rights reserved. This material may not be reposted or recopied without the author's written permission

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