The Context of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Qumran Library

The Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls comprise a new source of information for ancient Judaism from the fourth to first centuries BCE. These scrolls exhibit a number of characteristics that distinguish them from the Hebrew literature found in the Dead Sea Caves.

McMaster Researcher


Machiela, D. A. (2015). The Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls: Coherence and Context in the Library of Qumran. In S. White Crawford and C. Wassen (Eds), The Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran and the Concept of a Library (Vol. 116, Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah, pp. 244-258). NV, Leiden: Brill.

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What is this research about?

The researcher situates the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls within the broader collection of hundreds of texts discovered in the eleven caves around the ancient Jewish settlement of Qumran, occupied primarily from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE. This collection includes various books of the Hebrew Bible (or Christian Old Testament) and numerous non-biblical works written in Hebrew. Because they were generally published later than the Hebrew Dead Sea Scrolls, the Aramaic texts have tended to be studied individually, and are not well-integrated into broader analyses of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This article is part of a broader research project to better understand this Aramaic literature in the context the Dead Sea Scrolls and ancient Jewish society.

What did the researchers do?

The researcher presents descriptions and statistical information for the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls, including the number of scrolls identified as Aramaic, where these scrolls were specifically located (throughout the eleven Qumran caves), whether they can be paired with earlier biblical Hebrew literature, and physical differences as compared with the Hebrew literature from Qumran (such as in the use of specific media and techniques). The researcher then goes on to give a general description of some characteristics shared broadly by multiple texts in the Aramaic corpus.

What did the researchers find?

The body of Qumran scrolls identified as Aramaic resemble Hebrew manuscripts very closely in terms of physical materials, scribal traits, and manuscript dates. However, the author notes that some of the legal documents located in Cave 4 are different than the literary texts from that cave, indicating that they did not originate in Cave 4.
The author identifies and discusses a “core cluster” of the Aramaic writings, made up of interrelated texts written by highly educated Jewish scribes from, or connected to, priestly circles. This core cluster appears to be particularly coherent, often written in a narrative voice, with apparent instructional and moral messages highlighting a life of righteousness. The cluster of writings provides an ideal template for Jews living under foreign rule.
Eight primary themes were identified in the Aramaic texts:

  1. Apocalyptic revelation, divine mysteries, heavenly books/tablets, and writing
  2. “Scientific” topics such as astronomy and calendrical computations
  3. Angels and demons
  4. Divine election
  5. Proper marriage and endogamy
  6. Focus on women’s names and roles
  7. A dualistic worldview
  8. An accommodating attitude toward foreign rulers/governments

Differences between the Aramaic scrolls and a sub-group of distinctive sectarian literature discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which was written solely in Hebrew, are also discussed. The Aramaic literature should be understood as generally earlier than these Hebrew sectarian texts, and aimed at a much broader Jewish audience.

How can you use this research?

This research contributes to a wider effort to better understand ancient Judaism, and thus can be used to facilitate discussions of ancient Jewish cultures and religion. The research can also be connected to prevalent contemporary issues surrounding immigration and religion. This paper would be beneficial in classroom discussions exploring religion, ethnicity, immigration, anthropology, and archaeology.

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