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The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hebrew Bible

Qumran Cave 4
Qumran Cave 4

Scholars have identified Hebrew fragments from about two hundred Dead Sea Scrolls as remnants of works that are currently part of the Hebrew Bible. These are invaluable as physical artifacts, as our earliest “witnesses” to the biblical text.

With respect to content, the biblical material from Qumran is especially useful for text criticism—the study of the transmission of the text, primarily through examination of variants and translations. Some textual differences arose through scribal error, but others reflect deliberate intervention, which is often a form of interpretation.

For example, 4QSama, a copy of the book of Samuel, contains some text that is not preserved in the Masoretic Text of Samuel or other biblical versions. The beginning of 1Sam 11 describes how the Ammonite king Nahash set brutal terms of surrender upon the men of Jabesh Gilead—demanding that the right eye of every man be gouged out. The Qumran manuscript provides some context for this demand, with an account of Nahash’s prior suppression of a rebellion by the tribes of Reuben and Gad, in which he gouged the eyes of the rebels as punishment. Though some scholars view the lack of this account in the Masoretic Text as a copyist’s mistake, others have explained the extra material in 4QSama as an ancient interpretive expansion.

In some cases of extensive revision or rearrangement of the biblical text, scholars have debated whether to even consider certain compositions to be scriptural works. For instance, the Psalms Scroll from cave 11 (11Q5) contains 41 psalms that are found in the masoretic Psalter but in a different order, as well as an additional seven psalms and a prose passage about King David’s prodigious poetic output—according to this passage, David composed not only the psalms now in the Bible but also more than four thousand other ones! 4Q365 (Rewritten Pentateuchc) preserves, in a regrettably fragmentary state, seven lines of a Song of Miriam—filling out the otherwise compressed line in Exod 15:21.

One striking type of biblical interpretation attested at Qumran is the use of pseudepigraphy—writing as if in the first person, in the name of a biblical figure. This technique is used for elaborating on biblical prophecy, narrative, or law. Some pseudepigrapha try to harmonize contradictory biblical texts. For example, the Temple Scroll presents itself as the words of God to Moses at Sinai, in a sort of anticipation of Moses’s discourse in Deuteronomy. It adjusts the formulations of laws in Deuteronomy to parallel legal passages in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.

Although Qumran scholars have moved beyond the initial consensus that identified the corpus as the library of the ascetic Essene sect, a core group of texts do share distinctive language and motifs and emphasize an Essene-type separatism. These writings present their community, or communities, as the true Israel, the “Sons of Light” who are the direct heirs of God’s elect people, through whom the divine teaching is—and will be—fulfilled. The most prominent examples of this type of sectarian biblical interpretation are the pesharim, the earliest known commentaries on biblical texts, which apply biblical prophecy to the community’s experience.

The sectarians at Qumran applied biblical nicknames to people and events in their times. Thus, the name Teacher of Righteousness, which comes from Joel 2:23 and Hos 10:12, was applied to a community leader. The label “seekers after smooth things” (from Isa 30:10) became the epithet for their opponents. Other sectarian works are patterned on biblical texts in form, content, and language: the exhortations in the Damascus Document and the Community Rule are patterned on Moses’s speeches in Deuteronomy, and the religious legal material and sectarian rules in these works are rooted in biblical law. The Thanksgiving Scroll (Hodayot) contains psalms of thanksgiving like those found in the biblical Psalter but with sectarian themes and language particular to the community at Qumran.

  • Shani Tzoref

    Shani Tzoref is a lecturer in Bible and biblical exegesis at Geiger College and the University of Potsdam and a fellow at the Qumran Institute in Göttingen. She led the research team for the launching of the Israel Antiquity Authority’s Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.