|What Do the Scrolls Contain?
The scrolls found at Qumran form a significant body of religious literature. Chief among them are many biblical manuscripts, along with a number of what could be called parabiblical manuscripts, texts that were circulating at the time but were not considered part of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). In addition, because they appear to describe the religious beliefs and practices of a specific religious communitypresumably the one centered at Qumranmany of the Dead Sea Scrolls can best be described as sectarian in nature.
Scholars date most of these scrolls from the midSecond Temple Period, around 166164 B.C., to possibly as late as the first century of the Common Era. Some of the scrolls may be as old as the third century B.C. Most of the scrolls consist of leather parchment, some of papyrus, and the text of one scroll is engraved on copper.
The importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls becomes evident when their contents are described.
Biblical Manuscripts. About a fourth of the scrolls are copies, in whole or in part, of every book in the Old Testament except the book of Esther.1 An example is 1QIsaa The Great Isaiah Scroll, a scroll more than twenty-four feet long containing the entire text of the book of Isaiah. Among the documents found at Qumran are several copies of the same books of scripture, some of which were copied in ancient paleo-Hebrew, not the Hebrew script of the time.
Some of the biblical texts from Qumran differ significantly from conventional wording and even among themselves. And there is evidence of additions and deletions in some texts, suggesting that in some instances scribes felt free to alter the texts they were working on. No list was found in this collection that would indicate which texts the community considered part of the Bible. Indeed, the evidence suggests that those at Qumran may not have had a clear notion of what constituted an authoritative collection of sacred books.2
However, other biblical manuscripts are very close to the text found in the Hebrew Bible, known as the Masoretic text, which was composed by Jewish authorities centuries later, between A.D. 600 and the middle of the tenth century. This consistency is remarkable because these manuscript copies are at least a thousand years older than previously known biblical manuscripts and even predate the canonization of the Hebrew Bible!
This range of fidelity to the Hebrew Bible illustrates the fact that at this time several versions of the same biblical texts were in circulation and that views differed about which versions were more authoritative. Needless to say, it would be difficult to overestimate the value that some of these scrolls have had in present-day biblical studies.
Parabiblical Manuscripts. This category includes copies of (1) apocryphal writings, or texts of questionable authorship or authenticity, and (2) pseudepigraphical texts, so designated because they have been determined to be spurious writings, falsely attributed to biblical figures or times.
Sectarian Manuscripts. Writings in this category fall into three groups: those that describe what could be called the rules and regulations governing community life, those that are distinctive biblical commentaries, and those that are apocalyptic and liturgical works. The first group is represented by fragments from a work known as the Damascus Document (medieval copies of which were also discovered in Cairo in the last century and have now been identified with the Qumran community), 1QS Rule of the Community, and the Halakhic Letter (several copies of which were found, all containing, among other things, mention of twenty-two religious laws applying to this community).
The second group includes commentaries on the teachings of the biblical prophets Habakkuk, Nahum, and Hosea. These commentaries differ from modern reflections on scripture because their interpretations of scripture reveal aspects of the group's history and future, along with its dealings with its leaders and adversaries, in a manner believed to be properly understood only by members of the community.
Apocalyptic writings foretelling the ultimate triumph of good over evil are represented by such manuscripts as the War Scroll (technically The War of the Sons of Light with the Sons of Darkness), while liturgical works, along with hymns and psalms, illustrate the central importance of prayer and worship within the community.
The Qumran collection of scrolls also includes miscellaneous material such as legal texts, contracts, and lists of names.
1. Some scholars contend that certain scrolls may reflect an early version of the book of Esther.
2. According to David R. Seely, a member of the international team of scholars working on the Dead Sea Scrolls, "Biblical texts were found [at Qumran] that demonstrated many significant textual variants from individual books" ("The Masada Fragments, the Qumran Scrolls, and the New Testament," BYU Studies 36/3 [1996-7]: 291). Geza Vermes makes the same point and adds that at Qumran "the concept 'Bible' was still a hazy and open-ended one" ("The War over the Scrolls," New York Review of Books 41/14 : 12).