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The Dead Sea Scrolls: Contours of Religious Belief

There are many aspects of the Scrolls that, having appeared to be solved in the decades after their discovery, have more recently become controversial. Rather than engaging in these unresolved debates, I will restrict myself to some of the major religious ideas that these manuscripts embrace—which are surprisingly, even challengingly, broad.

The Scrolls’ Discovery
The site of the manuscript discoveries lies at the northwestern corner of the Dead Sea, where there is a narrow shoreline bounded by cliffs which, over a stretch of a few miles, contain several hundred caves. Sometime in early 1947 two Beduin shepherds entered one of these and saw inside number of jars, their lids sealed with wax, containing, as it turned out, tightly rolled scrolls made of animal skin (parchment). The scrolls were shown to dealers in Bethlehem and eventually disposed of in two batches. One batch was acquired by the Metropolitan of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Mar Samuel, who brought them for identification to the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, where they were carefully photographed by a young man called John Trever who was also able to identify one scroll as a copy of the book of Isaiah, in a script that after expert analysis identified the writing as 2000 years old.

The other batch came into the possession of a Jewish professor at the Hebrew University, Eliezer Sukenik, the father of the more famous Yigal Yadin, general, archaeologist and politician. This was a tricky process, because at this time Palestine was under British Mandate and there was hostility between Jews and Arabs. On 14 May 1948 the State of Israel declared itself in existence, leading to an Arab-Israeli war, whose resolution left the cave beyond the reach of the new Israeli state until 1967, when Israel invaded the West Bank. Because of the war, Mar Samuel smuggled his scrolls to the USA, where they were advertised in the Wall Street Journal of 1 June 1954, and bought, anonymously, for the State of Israel, where they were added to Sukenik’s batch. The scrolls from this first cave, and subsequently those from other caves, which had been housed in Arab Jerusalem, are now at a specially built museum in West Jerusalem.

Advert in Wall Street Journal June 1954

After the Arab-Israel war ended, a search was organized by the Jordan Department of Antiquities to find the cave, with the help of a UN officer and members of the French archaeological school in Jerusalem. The cave was located, and this time attention was drawn to nearby ruins, which at first were not investigated. But when further scrolls began to turn up, what was known as Khirbet Qumran became a focus of attention. It was excavated between 1951–56 by the French archaeological school, which concluded that these buildings housed a Jewish sectarian group, probably to be identified with the Essenes, known from several ancient sources as a Jewish party alongside Pharisees and Sadducees, and who composed the scrolls at this site. But it is now thought that only a few of the scrolls may have been composed or copied here, while new suggestions are also being made about the purpose of the site and the identity of its inhabitants.

The site is, at any rate, almost certainly connected to the scrolls. During the excavations, ten more scroll caves were identified, some very close indeed to the ruins, such as Cave 4. This had been artificially enlarged to hold scrolls on shelves, and its contents, not being preserved in jars, suffered a lot of damage. Fragments of hundreds of manuscripts were scattered everywhere, and putting them back together took several decades of work. Hence it took many years for the all texts from these other caves to reach the public. About a quarter were copies of books from the Old Testament, some more were Jewish writings already known, but many were new compositions. The Jordanians set up an international team of editors (no Jews included) to reassemble and publish these, and long delays gave rise to accusations of conspiracies and cover-ups. But the fragments were in a mess, the money to pay for the work dried up and the editors had to find jobs elsewhere. One editor, the British representative, John Allegro, did nevertheless publish his assignments quickly. He was a colourful character who quickly became convinced that the Scrolls proved Christianity to be not at all original: the gospel story had all happened before. (He later achieved notoriety with his book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross). In fact, much early interest in the Scrolls arose from a desire to find something within Judaism that would explain Christianity. But the range of ideas these texts exhibit is wider than orthodox Christianity and Judaism together would express.

Religious and Historical Background
Knowledge of the historical background of the Scrolls may help to explain such diversity. After centuries of living fairly peacefully under a succession of empires—Babylonia, Persia, then, after the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Greek kingdoms of Egypt, then Syria, the Syrian king Antiochus IV, faced with a civil war in Judah, tried to abolish the Jewish cult in Jerusalem, and a successful rebellion under Judas the Maccabee led to an independent Judean kingdom that lasted for about a century. At its peak it incorporated most of Palestine, bringing within its borders the populations of Idumea, (Edom) Galilee and parts of Transjordan. After the kingdom broke up, Judea continued for a while as a semi-independent kingdom under Herod the Great and his successors, but Judea itself finally became a Roman province. Continuing unrest led to a war against Rome, in which the Judeans were defeated, and the temple destroyed in 70 CE.

The religion of Judea during these times was focused on the Temple and the laws of Moses, but each of these institutions attracted disagreement and even hostility among different parties. The existence of Greek cities in Palestine and the new populations of the kingdom brought customs and beliefs alien to Judean traditions. It is impossible, therefore, to speak of a ‘normative Judaism’ at this time. The Qumran scrolls represent nearly a thousand manuscripts, probably comprising the remains of a library or libraries. As the only contemporary writings preserved in Hebrew from the lifetimes of John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul, the Scrolls can illuminate the religious culture of their times like no other source. And between about 200 BCE and 100 CE, when the Scrolls were written, this culture was far from static or settled. It was boisterous, contentious, fragmented and highly politicized. Some of the religious beliefs that these writings reflect were widely shared, others were confined to particular parties and sects.

The Contours of ‘Qumran Religion’
‘Qumran religion’ does not describe the doctrine or system of belief of any one group. But the Scrolls exhibit a few common features. The most obvious of these is adherence to a particular calendar. The calendar has theological and religious implications, and calendrical differences are evident even in the Bible.

Calendars are either basically lunar or solar. In a purely lunar calendar, such as Muslims observe, the year contains twelve lunar cycles, or about 354 days, so that the months (and noticeably the fast month of Ramadan) moves back through the seasons. The Jewish calendar that has been normative for at least 2000 years also adopts lunar months, but intercalates an extra month at the spring equinox whenever a thirteenth new moon appears before it, every 3 years or so (and hence Passover and Easter can move by up to a month). The Qumran calendar is solar, having 12 months of 30 days, plus four quarter days, giving a total of 364 days.

Why should the calendar be a religious issue? One reason is that if the festivals are not celebrated at the right time, they do not fulfil the law and are invalid. It follows also that adherents of different calendars celebrate the festivals separately. But more important is the theological problem. For if God made the sun and the moon, but they are uncoordinated, there appears to be something wrong with creation. In Genesis 1 the issue is bypassed by saying that God creates the sun to rule the day and the moon the night, disconnecting both from the calendar. But according to Genesis 1 God created the world perfect, and the independence of the two great heavenly bodies suggests cosmic disorder.

So the calendar brings us to another, related characteristic of Qumran religion, namely the origin of evil. Again, two views were prevalent among Jews, both reflected in the Bible. One is that evil and sin are due to human disobedience, beginning in the Garden of Eden. The other view, which we find in the nonbiblical books of Enoch, dating from the fourth or third century BCE onwards and found also among the Scrolls, is that evil began with the descent of rebellious angels to earth, who corrupted humans, and although the great Flood wiped them out, their spirits remain on the earth, causing evil and tempting humans into sin. Jewish and Christian mythology (related in Paradise Lost) have since combined these two myths, so that Satan/Lucifer is said to have fallen to earth and then, as the snake in the garden, corrupted Eve and Adam. But originally the two stories represented rival doctrines. The New Testament strongly reflects the story of the angelic fall, making reference to Lucifer, Satan’s tempting of Jesus, and the existence of evil spirits, and more weakly the disobedience of Adam and Eve.

Now, the alternation of light and dark, daily and seasonally, is a powerful symbol within the Scrolls of the struggle between good and evil. Humanity is also divided between the righteous and the wicked, or, in a variation, we all partake of both: good and evil fight within us. In either case good and evil are represented by angelic beings, a Prince of Darkness and a Prince of Light. There is a cosmic struggle between good and evil, light and dark, and it’s hard to deny the influence of Zoroastrianism. Indeed, during the first century BCE, Zoroastrians were living on the other side of the Dead Sea. But having ranged from calendar dualism, I will now explain how, according to the Scrolls, humans can be good in the world.

Sectarianism Begins
The answer seems to draw on the other myth of evil, for it insists on obedience to the divine law revealed to Moses. The scriptural promises to Israel would be fulfilled only when Israel obeyed the law to the letter. And here the writers of at least some of the Scrolls were extremely particular, believing the leaders of the people to be in error. One of the Scrolls is in the form of a letter addressed to a Jewish king, laying out various matters of dispute over Jewish law, and urging the king to change his habits. According to many scholars, this document points us to the beginnings of a sectarian process that the Scrolls illustrate. For disagreement about the law and the calendar caused the writers or their successors to boycott the Temple cult. As well, they set up ‘camps’ in which they lived according to their own laws. Furthermore, they expected that they would soon be vindicated when God finally intervened in the near future.

We have a description of the life in their camps, their laws and their theology from a document found in Qumran Cave 4 and called the ‘Damascus Document’. What is interesting about this document is that copies dating from about the ninth century CE were found just over a century ago in a Cairo synagogue. How did a copy of a Dead Sea Scroll turn up much later in Cairo? Did the movement survive? Or did someone else discover the scroll and copy it? (This is, by the way, the only Scroll in the UK, and can be found in the University Library, Cambridge).

But once religious communities split off, splits tend to keep happening. As I interpret the Scrolls, a figure claiming to be the messianic bringer of the endtime was accepted by some and rejected by others, leading to a new movement, more isolated socially and ideologically. This saw itself as forming a human temple and offering ‘sacrifices of holiness’. One text contains hymns for a liturgical cycle of 13 sabbaths conducted by angels in the heavenly temple, and may imply the writers substituted the heavenly cult for the earthly one. The organization and teachings of this group are set out in another Scroll known as the ‘Community Rule’, and it is this text that contains the most explicit dualistic doctrine. It also prescribes a rite of entry by baptism, signifying cleansing by the Holy Spirit and echoing the words and deeds of John the Baptist, who, it has now and then been suggested, might form a bridge between the Scrolls and Christianity. But as far as we know, there is no overt allusion in the New Testament to either the Scrolls or their authors.

However, another aspect that ‘Qumran religion’ shares with the New Testament is the belief that contemporary events fulfil scriptural prophecy. Among the Scrolls are commentaries on various books in which verses are interpreted as reflecting the life and deeds of the sect and its founder, the messianic figure referred to a little earlier, known as the ‘Teacher of Righteousness’. Likewise, the gospel of Matthew has Jesus being taken to and from Egypt or going to Nazareth as fulfillment of scriptural texts. The point of such interpretation in both cases is to reinforce the idea that the believers themselves are part of the divine plan revealed in the Bible.

There is no single messianic belief in the Scrolls, however. Yet another such figure, the heavenly high priest Melchizedek (Genesis 14) is expected to deliver a final atonement for Israel’s sins. He is also mentioned in the Epistle to the Hebrews as the priestly prototype of Jesus, and the Melchizedek Scroll contains the same scriptural words read by Jesus in the synagogue in Luke 4: 18-19 concerning the liberation of Israel. This, along with a few other similarities, continues to encourage some scholars to see a direct connection between the Scrolls and Jesus. But we must remember that what is appearing in these Scrolls has many standard Jewish features: adherence to the Law of Moses, devotion to the Temple, a belief that the end of the world was coming, a hope for some messiah or other. Some items of agreement must only be expected.

A Great Cosmic Battle
We can end this review by returning to good and evil, light and darkness, and a manuscript that describes the end of the world, calling itself ‘The Rule of the War of the Children of Darkness against the Children of Light’. It relates an elaborate battle between the forces of good and evil, and mentions a great enemy called the ‘Kittim’, which seems to mean the Roman Empire. So, is this a dream or does it betray a real commitment to the war that the Jews did fight in 66 CE? ‘Qumran religion’ imagines this as a great cosmic battle—not unlike what we find in the book of Revelation—between the forces of good and evil, light and dark.

We can get a fuller account of this doctrine with the help of some other texts. First, a section from the ‘Community Rule’ which first divides the human race into two, those who are light and those who are dark, like the War Scroll. But then it goes on to explain that all humans are some shade of grey. This is turn is explained further in some fragments of horoscopic texts, in which the individual’s zodiacal sign, physiognomy and degree of virtue are all correlated in a way that emphasize the predestinarian aspect of this doctrine: we are made the way we are and cannot escape our nature or our fate. Yet we also find members of the ‘Community’ in question being obliged to take an oath to observe the Law of Moses. Do we assume that only those who had the right profile were admitted into its ranks?

A more telling question is the extent to which this kind of doctrine can be called ‘Jewish’, without any regard for a chosen people or a covenant. We might reflect on the modern phenomenon of sects such as Christian Science or Mormons or any number of others that embrace doctrines greatly at variance with the orthodoxy of their parent religion. We might also reflect on how far religious people are capable of believing quite contradictory things at the same time. At a Christian funeral the soul of the departed is often believed to have gone to heaven. But this is not the Christian doctrine. The body will remain, being eaten by worms, in the ground until the last trumpet. Then we shall be raised and judged, some blessed but most damned. This is the point of the doctrine of resurrection. Many Christians are also superstitious, believing in luck, horoscopes, or Fate or vampires or ghosts. Religions may organize our beliefs but they cannot dictate them entirely.

The Modern Relevance of the Qumran Scrolls
But let me give a few reasons why the Scrolls might be relevant to our own time. We can, of course, look from the perspective of existential questions facing humans at all times. How do we reconcile predetermined behaviour (whether by God or genes) and free will? What do we mean by ‘evil’? Should one engage with what we regard as evil, or a world we regard as evil, or should we seclude ourselves from it? Can human activity change the world, or are there forces at work that we cannot really understand, let alone affect?

We can also justify reading the Scrolls on historical and religious grounds. These writings express the beliefs, practices and the imagination of people whose society was about to witness the end of Judaism as it was previously known and the birth of a new form: the rise of a new Jewish movement that would become a world religion. Having abandoned the temple, the Jews who wrote and read the Scrolls had to find other ways of securing atonement for their sins, salvation and access to God. They had to consider what the future held for them and for the rest of Israel in the days to come. Some of their responses open the way for Christianity, others anticipate rabbinic Judaism.

Finally, even when it is calculated that less than 10% of the material originally deposited here has survived, there is an astonishing range of religious ideas. Can we really, as I have done, speak of ‘Qumran religion’? Not in terms of sects, practices or doctrines. But ‘religion’ can encompass much more than a creed, and include whatever a human being may believe about himself or herself, about the nature of the world, what happens after death, what is good and what is bad. And since there are no correct answers, or no certain knowledge of answers, is it not reasonable to entertain more than one option? And does it matter what people believe and imagine? Well, the Judeans fought with Rome and lost their temple and later their land—not because of economic or political necessity, but because they believed God would give them victory, and acted accordingly. They were wrong, but human life is not lived only by what we know but what we believe—or do not believe.






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