Dead Sea Scrolls

Ancient documents give a glimpse into Second Temple life.

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Another document, Thanksgiving Psalms, or Hodayot, has roughly 25 hymns each beginning with "odekha adonai" (thank you my Lord). Scholars believe these hymns were the community's prayers and songs of praise appointed to certain days and time of the week. According to Qumran prayer scholar Esther Chazon, the authors of some of the Hodayot even claimed to be among the angels themselves and included prayers like the Kedushah, which echoes biblical narratives of angels' worship.

Biblical embellishments took on two forms at Qumran. Those in pseudepigraphical style claimed to be authored by biblical characters. Genesis Apocryphon, for example, is told from the perspective of Lamech, Noah's father. It retells the stories of Noah and Abraham with enhanced details, and like Enoch was written in Aramaic. The Qumran copy is the only version of this text that has been found.

Pesharim were another sort of biblical addition unknown until discovered at Qumran. In this genre, texts from the book of Prophets are rewritten and each verse is followed by an interpretation relating to the day and age of the Qumran community.  For example a pesher relates Habbakuk's "arrogant man" (Habbakuk 2:5) to an contemporary adversary: the Romans (Kittim).

The Community at Qumran

When the Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered, most scholars believed the Qumran community was connected to the Essenes, a group described by first century writers Josephus, Philo, and Pliny the Elder. As Josephus describes in Wars, the Essenes were religious, communal, ascetic, celibate, and held apocalyptic beliefs. This seemed to resemble to Qumran community.

Today, after the publication of all 930 scrolls, scholars no longer believe the Qumran sect was the same group described by Josephus. The scrolls use terms like "female elders," "mothers," "sisters" and "daughters"--but there were no women leaders in Essene communities.  

Furthermore, the term "Essene," is never mentioned in the scrolls, and instead the group refers to itself as the Yachad or B'nei Zadok. The former term was probably a name used for the entire congregation whereas the latter expression was specific for the governing group of the sect, namely the priests.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest Jewish documents we have today, confirm to historians the longevity of the Jewish religion. But they also attest to the array of sacred texts within the ancient Jewish world before rabbinic canonization. Studies in the scrolls are still at a very young stage.

In 2004 two fragments of Leviticus 23 and 24 were discovered at Qumran. More recently, in September 2007, a tunnel leading from Jerusalem to the area of Qumran was found, suggesting that some of the scrolls and other treasures from the Temple were brought to the area to hide from Roman destruction. Radiocarbon dating and DNA testing are being used to find a more exact date for the scrolls. Today, the scrolls reside in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem's Israel Museum.

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Hannah Wortzman

Hannah Wortzman is a PhD candidate in the Department of Jewish Thought at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Scholion Interdisciplinary Research Center for Jewish Studies. She is also a research assistant at the Orion Centre for the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature.