The Scrolls Library

The majority of the scholars strongly support the hypothesis that the Qumran scrolls once belonged to a library owned by the Community, characterized by its religious and sectarian content. Accordingly, some books seem to have been composed and copied by the community members themselves, but a large proportion of the scrolls (like the Genesis Apocryphon, and the Book of Jubilees) must have been brought in from outside by new members.

One unorthodox theory suggests, however, that all the scrolls discovered around Qumran, as well as those found in other parts of the Judean Desert (as Masada), were brought from libraries in Jerusalem. This argument implies that there is no connection between the inhabitants of Qumran and the scrolls found nearby, especially since no scroll (or even scroll fragment) has ever been found within the inhabited site of Khirbet Qumran. On the basis of these opposing theories, a new suggestion raised more recently argues that the scrolls discovered in some caves (1, 4, 5, and 6) could certainly have derived from lay and priestly Essene groups, while the writings of the rest of the caves could have been brought in by Jerusalem rebels (lay and priestly zealots, and sicarii), fleeing the Roman siege of the city.

Categories of Scrolls

Biblical scrolls

Passages from all the books of the Hebrew Bible 1 represented among the scrolls from the Qumran caves, with the exception of the books of Nehemiah and Esther. In a few cases, many partial copies of the same book were found (for example, thirty fragments from Deuteronomy). But in other cases, there was only one copy (as in the case of Ezra). Sometimes the text is extraordinarily close to the Masoretic reading, which was finalized some one thousand years later in medieval codices; in other cases it is closer to non-Masoretic texts (such as the Samaritan Pentateuch or the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint). Some scrolls were found of the Septuagint itself (passages from Exodus, Leviticus. Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and of Aramaic translations (Leviticus and Job).The jewel in the crown of the Qumran scrolls is the Isaiah Scroll (IQIsaa), since of all the 220 biblical scrolls, it is the only one that has survived in its entirety. Written around 100 BCE. scholars believe, the 7.34-meter- (or 24-foot-) long scroll is one of the oldest ever found. Some twenty additional, but fragmentary, copies of Isaiah were discovered, and the book was also the subject of six commentaries or pesharim ( pesher was the Qumranites' own term for such a specific style of biblical interpretation), and is frequently quoted in other scrolls. The prominence of the book is consistent with the Qumran community's messianic tendencies, since eschatology is a major feature of the prophecy of Isaiah, who lived in the kingdom of Judah in the 8th century BCE 2

Non-canonical scrolls

Besides the biblical books. many other books were written in the Second Temple period those known later as Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. For religious and other reasons, from as early as the 2nd century CE, it was forbidden to read these extrabiblical texts (in public?), and as a result they were not preserved by the Jews. They were part of Jewish literature before the destruction of the Temple, however, and were very highly regarded by this Judean Desert sect. It is fortunate that copies, in their original languages, were found among the scrolls (for example, the book of Tobit in Aramaic and Hebrew, the Testament of Levi in Aramaic, and the Wisdom of Ben Sira [Ecclesiasticus] and the Book of Jubilees in Hebrew) 3. Many other books , which had been quite unknown before the discovery of the scrolls, came to light as well. Some were "rewrites" of biblical books (such as the Genesis Apocryphon), or prayers, wisdom works, horoscopes, and so on. In some cases (such as the First Book of Enoch), several manuscripts of the same work were discovered, indicating that the sectarians considered them sacred books in every sense of the word.

Sectarian scrolls

Interpretive works

The sacred writings were the basis for the spiritual and intellectual experience of the Community members, and their interpretation was intended "to do what is good and right before Him as He commanded by the hand of Moses and all His servants, the Prophets" (Community Rule I, 1- 3). The sectarians wrote their exegetical works as interpretations of the laws of the Torah (such as the Temple Scroll), of biblical narratives and characters (such as the Testament of Levi), and, best known of all, of the words of prophetic literature. The scrolls present two kinds of biblical interpretation. One concerns specific subjects, combining verses from different books of the Hebrew Bible relevant to those subjects and elucidating them (such as 4Q Florilegium [4QI74] or 11Q Melchizedek [11QI3]). The other, constituting a genre known as pesharim (singular: pesher), presents a sequential commentary on a book of the Hebrew Bible (or on part of it). This genre is unique to the literature of the Qumran sect, though the exegetical techniques involved (such as word play or using synonyms) recall those used in Rabbinic Midrash. The most celebrated of the pesharim is undoubtedly the Commentary on Habakkuk , which has survived almost intact. It comprises thirteen columns , which interpret the first two chapters of the biblical book of Habakkuk The style of the script dates it to the end of the 1st. century BCE. As usual in the other pesharim, the verses are copied paragraph by paragraph, in their original order. Each paragraph is accompanied by an explanation generally alluding in prophetic terms to events relevant for the author's time (hence the importance of this genre in historical research). As in most of the pesharim, no historical personages are mentioned by name 4, but there are allusions to such individuals as "the Teacher of Righteousness," "the Wicked Priest," "the Man of Lies," and others, whose exact identities have yet to be established.


Another genre of sectarian scrolls is the so-called Rule literature. Before the Judean Desert scrolls were discovered, we had no direct information about Essene life, other than the evidence of classical sources (Flavius Josephus, Philo, and Pliny the Elder), and a few hints in Rabbinic literature. The discovery of the scrolls provided a rare opportunity to learn about the lives of those pious men, through their own Rule literature, This genre, which later developed as part of the Christian monastic tradition, is unknown in the Hebrew Bible, and its presence at Qumran is the earliest evidence of its existence in Western civilization.

The Damascus Document, the War Rule , and the Rule of the Congregation are among the Rule scrolls ; the one known as the Community Rule is regarded as crucial for an understanding of the Community's way of life, since it deals with such subjects as admission of new members, behavior at communal meals, and even theological principles. The picture that emerges from the scroll is one of a communal, ascetic life governed by rigorous rules. The scroll is written in Hebrew and was found in twelve copies; the one discovered among the seven first scrolls in Cave I (and apparently dating to the 1st century BCE) is the best preserved.

Halakhic works

The members of the community saw themselves as the "true Israel," and therefore were meticulous in their observance of Jewish law in its smallest detail. Evidence of this can be found in writings that deal with matters of law and jurisprudence, like Some Observances of the Law (4QMMT), and the Temple Scroll 5. The latter, one of the most important and impressive scrolls found at Qumran, deals in detail with matters relating to the construction of the Temple and the Temple service, and outlines a plan an imaginary Temple-highly intricate and, most important, pure. The Temple Scroll is written in the style of the biblical book of Deuteronomy with God speaking in the first person. Opinions differ as to whether it is a "halakhic midrash" (an interpretation of Jewish law) or in effect a "new Torah," incorporating the various laws relating to the Temple together with a new version of the laws of the Torah listed in chapters 12- 23 of Deuteronomy. The author was apparently of priestly origin, and wrote the work before the Community broke away from the Jerusalem priesthood and withdrew to the wilderness, in the second half of the 2nd century BCE. The background to its composition was apparently the dispute concerning the Temple in Jerusalem 6

Liturgical works

The separatist community that inhabited Qumran was imbued with a profound religious spirit, and directed all its energy to the service of God . The sectarians were convinced that angels accompanied them, and that their own spiritual elevation brought them close to the border between human and divine. The spiritual atmosphere of the community can be gauged by the texts preserved in the scrolls: some one hundred biblical psalms, and more than two hundred extra-biblical prayers and hymns, most previously unknown (prayers for various sacred occasions and even for the End of Days, magical spells, etc.).

Among this wealth of compositions is a unique genre that has been called Thanksgiving Hymns, because of their standard opening phrase, "I thank you, 0 Lord." Scholars have been able to identify two principal categories in the eight manuscripts of Thanksgiving Hymns: The "Hymns of the Teacher," which express the feelings of a certain person (perhaps the sect's "Teacher of Righteousness"), thanking God for giving him the wisdom to recount God's beneficence and for having saved him from "Belial" (as Satan is called in the scrolls) and the forces of evil; and the "Hymns of the Community," which are concerned with subjects of interest to the Community as a whole. Both categories make extensive use of fixed terminology (such as "sod" [secret], "ketz" , [age], and "or" [light], and of ideas (such as divine providence and predestination) characteristic of the faith of the Community.

Eschatological works

The members of the Community had turned to the desert in the profound belief that they were living at the end of time, before Judgment Day. Since all history, they believed, was predetermined by God, the attempts by the forces of darkness and "the whole government of the Sons of Injustice" to defeat the "Sons of Righteousness " would fail, and salvation, though delayed, would surely come: "For all the ages of God reach their appointed end as He determines for them in the mysteries of His wisdom" (Commentary on Habakkuk VII , 13- 14).The sectarians divided humankind into two: the good and blessed "Sons of Light" (themselves), and the evil and accursed "Sons of Darkness" (all others, Jews and non-Jews alike) . The two camps, they believed, would fight a war at the End of Days, as detailed in the eight manuscripts of the War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness (the War Rule) . This work deals in great detail with the mobilization of fighters, their division into units, the size of the units, weaponry and so on. In the decisive seventh round of battles, the forces of the "Sons of Righteousness," with divine assistance, would overcome the "armies of Belial." Thereupon, the members of the Community would be able to return to Jerusalem and conduct the divine service in the future Temple, as described, for instance. in the scroll known as The New Jerusalem.

The members of the Community lived in constant expectation of the imminent realization of their dream; accordingly, it is not inconceivable that they - or at least some of them - actively participated in the Jewish Revolt against the Romans, "the Sons of Darkness," that broke out in 66 CE.

It was probably in the summer of 68 CE, shortly before the Roman army destroyed the settlement at Qumran, that the sectarians decided to hide the scrolls in caves. Such action-saving sacred scriptures from desecration and destruction in times of distress would be repeated many times in Jewish history. It is our good fortune that the Dead Sea Scrolls were preserved. After them, we have virtually no other Hebrew copies of the Hebrew Bible until the manuscripts of the Middle Ages.


Pfan A., "Reassessing the Judean Desert Caves: Libraries, Archives, Geniza and Hidy Places," Bulletin of the Anglo - Israel Archaeological Society 25 (2007) 147 - 70.

Vanderkam J.and Flint P., The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2002) 87 - 308.

Vermes G., An Introduction to the Complete Dead Ssea Scrolls (Fortress Press, 1999) 32 - 93.

Link to DSS Digital Google Project (Israel Museum).


Zealots: A Jewish movement that supported open rebellion and rejected compromise with Rome in the Great Revolt (66-73 CE) in Jerusalem, Masada, and later on in the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE). One faction of the Zealots were the extremist Sicarii, who were characterized by hidden daggers - sica in Latin - from which they received their name.

Traditionally, the Hebrew Bible consists of 24 books: The five books of the Torah (Pentateuch): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; eight books of the Prophets, made up of the Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges. (First and Second) Samuel. (First and Second) Kings, the Latter Prophets : Isaiah , Jeremiah , Ezekiel , and the Twelve Minor Prophets taken as one (Hosea, Joel , Amos , Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk ,.Zephaniah , Haggai , Zechariah, and Malachi) and the eleven books of the Writings [sometimes referred to as the Hagiographa): Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and (First and Second ) Chronicles.

Like the Qumran Community, the early Christians considered the book of Isaiah a major source of proof texts for their faith (the latter case, for the Messiahship of Jesus), therefore treating it with particular respect.

Prior to the discovery of the scrolls, these books were known in secondary or tertiary translations by Christian translators. The Apocrypha (from a Greek word meaning "hidden") included works such as the Wisdom of Solomon and the book of Judith, and survived in Greek in the Septuagint or in translations based on the Septuagint. All the others, known as Pseudepigrapha (that is, works falsely ascribed to an ancient author), survived in other languages (such as 4 Ezra in Latin).

There are, however, pesharim in which well-known persons are mentioned by name, such as the Nahum Commentary, which refers to "Antiochus" (Antiochus IV) and "Demetrius" (Demetrius III Eukarios), both of the Syrian Seleucid dynasty.

This scroll (11 Q19), found in Cave 11 in 1956, contains 66 columns of text. At 8.148 meters (26.5 feet) long, it is the longest of the scrolls found. Four additional, but fragmentary, copies of the scroll were discovered as well.

The Temple Scroll, columns 41-44

It is not clear whether the Temple Scroll is or is not sectarian. On the one hand - it contains impressive parallels to other scrolls, such as the prohibition of polygamy or of marriage with one's niece. On the other hand, it contains no trace of various subjects mentioned in the sectarian scrolls, such as the characteristic hatred and aggressiveness, and the belief in dualism, predestination, messianism, and so on.


The Isaiah scroll

The Isaiah scroll
Photo © Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Genesis Apocryphon, col.20

Genesis Apocryphon, col.20
Photo © Israel Museum, Jerusalem

The Commentary of Habakkuk Scroll - written in Hebrew

The Commentary of Habakkuk Scroll - written in Hebrew
Photo © Israel Museum, Jerusalem

The 'Community Rule' Scroll - column 6

The "Community Rule" Scroll - column 6
Photo © Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light against the the Sons of Darkness - Columns 11-13

Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light against the the Sons of Darkness - Columns 11-13
Photo © Israel Museum, Jerusalem