Baptism Part 2: Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls…

For those who have never even heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, they’re pretty fascinating manuscripts. Discovered near the Qumran ruins in 1947 (roughly), these ancient scrolls have stirred much conversation amongst scholars and a little controversy amongst the lay readers. They’ve changed the way one views Second Temple Judaism and even early Christianity. Some of the manuscripts found in the 11 caves surrounding Qumran are the oldest Biblical manuscripts that we have today – they’ve even been used to correct some of the modern-day manuscripts used as sources in modern-day Bibles (compare 1 Samuel 10:27b-11:1 of the Harper-Collins NRSV Study Bible with any other Bible and you’ll see what I mean. Right after “But he held his peace,” there isn’t anything in the ESV. But thanks to a manuscript from Qumran, there’s been a paragraph added in).

How these manuscripts came to be discovered exactly is uncertain, but the story goes as a Bedouin shepherd named Muhammed edh-Dhib was out tending his flock with two of his friends. One of them started throwing rocks at cave openings in the cliffs near Qumran for entertainment (apparently there wasn’t much to do in Israel in 1947), when they heard something shatter inside. None of them went to check it out until sometime later when Muhammed separated from his friends, found the cave, and went inside. What he found were ten jars roughly two-feet high each; but only two of which had manuscripts in them. These first few were determined to be a copy of Isaiah, the Community Rule, and a commentary on the prophecy of Habakkuk. Four other scrolls were found a little later; the Hodayot (Thanksgiving Hymns), a partial copy of Isaiah, the War Scroll and the Genesis Apocryphon (which are, as James VanderKam notes, “stories based on some narratives in Genesis”). Since there is a ton of information on each of these texts, I’ll only briefly discuss the main manuscripts we covered in my class with Dr. Falk.

Damascus Document

Unlike the Community Rule or the War Scroll, this manuscript is not unique to Qumran; a copy of this was discovered much earlier than the Dead Sea Scrolls in Cairo, Egypt. Comparing the two copies, scholars have noticed that the Qumran copy has introductory material before the first column and that both copies have their columns arranged differently. In the early studies of the first copy at Cairo, scholars did not conclude that the community described in the text was a sectarian group, necessarily. They were separate from the other groups, but there is no indication in the text that the community had exiled themselves to the desert (at such a location like Qumran). VanderKam notes that passages such as “the assembly of the camps,” (12:23) indicates that whoever this group was, they had various settlements throughout ancient Judea (here is where many believe this is the Essene group – separate from the Sadducees and Pharisees. This suggestion has much in support of it, but isn’t concretely proven).

Community Rule

This is the primary text we studied from or referred to throughout the term. We studied this one more closely than the others simply because it’s very similar to the Damascus Document, but contains a lot of unique material to the Qumran sectarian group; there aren’t any other manuscripts outside the Qumran caves with this kind of material. There are also indications within the text itself that the Community was a group separated off from anyone else (i.e. Jerusalem). As I mentioned in the introductory post, this group took “into the wilderness” part of Isaiah 40:3 very literally. Some of the major components to this manuscript that I found are as follows: timing, purity, and knowledge.

a.      Timing

Part of my research for the ritual purification ceremonies at Qumran required learning about the initiation ceremony. And while I had focused on the immersion ritual involved, there is also a strong motif of proper timing. In order to become a member within the community, there was a very arduous procedure requiring much diligence and patience. One would apply for admittance to the “Guardian” or the “Overseer” (6:14), who would then examine his conduct and understanding of the Torah.

It isn’t clear how long he took to decide if an applicant was worthy, but once he did, there was another undetermined length of time before the initiate would be examined again, but this time by the whole council of the Community. The text does not say if this would be at the annual renewal ceremony (which is also a major part of my research for the ritual immersions practiced there); it simply says the initiate would be brought before the council again. If he was admitted into the Community, it was still a limited access. He would be allowed to partake in the sacred meal, but not the sacred drink. This whole process was the first year of probation.

His second year would be a deeper instruction into the ways of the Torah, but additionally the ways of their specific community (which had added many other teachings beyond the Torah – even two more sources of impurity. But I’ll discuss those in another post). After this probation was up (whenever this was), he would once again be brought before the council and they would discern whether or not if it was “his destiny” to be admitted. All throughout the Community’s discernment process was the motif of timing; if it was the right time to admit him into the next stage of discipline, etc. If the council decided it was not the right time at any stage, the initiate would be cast out or his probation period would be extended for however long the Community decided. In total, it could take as few as three years, but as long as 6 or 7 years, usually.

b.      Purity

This is at the heart of my research, so I’ll save most of the material for later posts. But just to set the tone for what’s to come, I’ll simply quote Hannah K. Harrington in saying that, “The biblical prescriptions for purity are often increased and impurity is regarded as a more potent force [in this Community] than it is by any other ancient Jewish group in antiquity,” (Purity Texts, 12). A couple noteworthy features to this increasing of the biblical purity prescriptions specifically within the Community rule are the two major ceremonies: Initiation and Communal Renewal. As already discussed, the initiation ceremony was a long and arduous process and once one was fully admitted, he was baptized for the sake of purity. One of the two additional sources of impurity (as Harrington notes) was contact with outsiders. Any new member would be considered as an outsider of sorts until he was fully admitted into the Community and immersed in water.

The annual renewal ceremony took place near the end of the third month in the Jewish calendar. It was a ceremony unlike any other for the entire Community would be immersed into the water nearly at the same time. The miqva’ot (immersion baths) had two sets a stairs with a partition down the middle separating the impure from the newly purified. On one side (lower stairs) each member would file into the pool and then come up the other side (higher stairs). It’s as if your entire congregation got into one big line and simply filed through the pool like a human conveyor belt. Beyond all that, though, was a major emphasis on repentance. There’s even a strong probability that certain purity hymns were recited during the whole ritual. It wasn’t just a mundane practice that you would go through; it was an act in worship, honor, and repentance to God all in one.

c.       Knowledge

As was already suggested above, learning and remembering the Torah as well as the specific teachings and principles of the Community was a major part of life at Qumran. One of their teachings regards the conduct of the Community during a gathering. First and foremost, you were brought into the gathering place according to your rank. Secondly, you were required to speak during the meetings, but not out of turn. If you did so out of turn, you would be cast out of the Community for a certain probationary period and only readmitted if the council decided so. Here is a small resemblance to Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 14 about members speaking in tongues and prophesying. Speech requirements and yet regulations were a major practice in early Christianity, but I would argue much more so at Qumran.

Temple Scroll

Like the Damascus Document, this probably wasn’t a unique text to the Community at Qumran. Nevertheless there are still major themes within that do reflect similar sentiments found in the uniquely-Qumran texts. For one example, since it was a part of my research, the additional impurity source of excrement can be deduced when one combines the Temple Scroll’s limitation on how close the latrines could be from the Community (to Harrington’s estimation, roughly 4500 feet) with the limitations on far one could walk on a Sabbath (roughly 3500 feet). Basically, you couldn’t do your business on a Saturday because it was considered impure. Yeah, I wouldn’t join the group at Qumran either.

After it’s all said and done, I must re-emphasize that this is a brief introduction to the material from Qumran. If you want to learn more, we studied from James C. VanderKam’s The Dead Sea Scrolls Today in class as well as Carol Newsom’s The Self as Symbolic Space: Constructing Identity and Community at Qumran. Newsom’s is a much more in-depth look at the scrolls and requires a slow read to really understand what she’s saying. But nonetheless it’s a great read. VanderKam’s covers most of the major points of the scrolls’ history – including some of the controversial moments in the publication of the Scrolls. If you love religious literature, the Scrolls themselves are very interesting reads. We used Geza Vermes’ (pronounced “Ver-mesh”) translation in the Penguin Classic edition (2004); it includes most of the important texts, but some of the minor fragments aren’t included.

Hopefully one thing was clear throughout this introduction: the sectarian group at Qumran were extremely pious Jews. Their beliefs about how God would enter the world to renew and resurrect everyone of “the light” influenced their conduct within their own Community and their involvement with the surrounding cultures (Gentiles and non-sectarian Jews). Imbedded within this is their beliefs in and practices with purity rituals; the subject of my papers this last term.


Published by


“Do not mistake me for a conjuror of cheap tricks.”

3 thoughts on “Baptism Part 2: Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls…”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s