The Bible and the NonBiblical Scrolls

            The most significant category of “nonbiblical scrolls” is the sectarian scrolls, discussed below. These works share certain features with the texts that we discuss first, but also contain clearly identifiable sectarian language and ideas. Other texts found in the Qumran caves probably circulated more widely among literate Jews in the Second Temple period. Prominent among these texts were compositions that interpreted or reworked biblical narratives and legal traditions.

ReWritten Bible: Narrative and Law
            Some of the nonbiblical works found at Qumran retell portions of the Hebrew Bible, with omissions, expansions, and variations. Some of these works were known in modern time prior to the Qumran discoveries, generally through translated versions preserved by ancient Christian communities. Scholars have classified such texts under the umbrella term “Pseudepigrapha,” that is, writings that circulate under pseudonyms (usually the names of biblical characters). For example, the book of Jubilees, presented as a revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai, retells the narrative of the book of Genesis and beginning of Exodus. This book had previously been known to scholars only in a translation into Ethiopic; 14 or 15 copies of this work in the original Hebrew have now been found at Qumran.            

            One of the first seven scrolls found in cave 1 was the so-called Genesis Apocryphon. This Aramaic text, which also retells Genesis stories, is not known from any source other than the copy from Qumran Cave 1. Other examples of “rewritten” narrative in the Dead Sea Scrolls include retellings of traditions pertaining to Moses (works that have been given such names as “Apocryphon of Moses” or “Pseudo-Moses,” including 4Q375–77; 4Q385, and parts of 4Q387–4Q390), and texts evoking the biblical prophets, such as “Apocryphon of Jeremiah A–E,” or the “Pseudo-Ezekiel” texts. Other works that expand upon biblical traditions, in forms other than “rewritten Bible,” include 1 Enoch (one of the previously known works labeled Pseudepigrapha) and the Aramaic Levi Document (this seems to have served as one source for a later Christian work, the Testament of Levi, which is a section of the pseudepigraphic work called the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs).            

            Not only were narrative portions of the Bible reworked by ancient authors, but also legal material. The most significant example of rewritten law found at Qumran is the Temple Scroll, preserved in 2 copies from Cave 11, and probably in three copies from Cave 4 (11Q19, which measures 26 feet [8 meters] is the longest of the scrolls found at Qumran). Most of the scroll is a close paraphrase of Deuteronomy, chapters 12–22, incorporating changes that reflect the author’s halakhic positions. There is no consensus as to whether this scroll was a product of the Qumran Community, or even how authoritative it might have been. Scholars range in their assessment, from viewing the Temple Scroll as a non-Qumranic work to positing that it was the central authoritative legal text of the Community, intended to replace Deuteronomy.


            The term Apocrypha, meaning “hidden,” has been used in a number of ways by scholars of ancient Judaism and early Christianity. As a technical term, it is a label for the “extra” biblical books found in the Catholic but not the Protestant Christian canon. Some of these books have been found at Qumran. As noted above, the presence of a composition at Qumran does not give a clear indication of its canonical status, but it is noteworthy that the Dead Sea Scrolls include copies of the books of Ben Sira and Tobit, as well as the non-canonical Psalm 151, and, in Cave 7, a Greek fragment of the “Letter of Jeremiah.” Prior to the Qumran discovery, the book of Tobit was known only in Greek; at Qumran, the work is preserved in four Aramaic manuscripts and one Hebrew manuscript.

Prayers and Liturgical Texts

            In addition to the biblical psalms found at Qumran, there are over two hundred other psalms, hymns, and prayers among the Dead Sea Scrolls, many of them modeled on biblical examples. Esther Chazon has classified these compositions in seven categories: liturgies for fixed prayer times, ceremonial liturgies, eschatological prayers, Psalms-type collections, magical incantations, Hodayot (thanksgiving) hymns, and prayers embedded in narratives.            

            It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between sectarian and nonsectarian prayers. One of the important compositions that has caused scholars to rethink these categories is the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (4Q400-407, 11Q17). This is a liturgy for the first thirteen Sabbaths of the calendar year. Its description of angelic prayer, heavenly sacrifices, and perhaps a communion of human and angelic worshippers, as well as its presumption of a solar calendar year, are in keeping with views associated with the Qumran Community, as well as with the Essenes. The composition was thus initially presumed to be a sectarian text. When a copy of this work turned up at the fortress of Masada, scholars had to reevaluate this assessment. They either had to account for the presence of a “Qumran sectarian” work at Masada (e.g., by suggesting that a Qumran refugee brought the text with him), or to view the text as having had wider distribution beyond the Qumran community. It is now more common to view the Songs as a nonsectarian work.

Wisdom Texts

            Biblical wisdom texts (“sapiential texts”) tend to focus upon pragmatic concerns, encouraging the pursuit of knowledge in order to attain necessary life skills for success. Common literary forms for wisdom texts are “instructions” in which a sage imparts advice, and poetic praises of wisdom, including personifications of Lady Wisdom. These forms continue in a number of compositions found at Qumran, often showing developments beyond the biblical wisdom texts. Thus, the praise of Wisdom in 11Q5 and 4Q185 expands upon the depiction of Lady Wisdom in ch. 8 of Proverbs, and 4Q184 uses the related traditions concerning Lady Folly in warning against the “Wiles of the Wicked Woman.” One of the interesting developments in the “instruction” compositions found at Qumran is the overtly religious tone of the texts, most evident in the combination of apocalyptic elements with standard earthly wisdom concerns. Instructions are not addressed solely to the “wise,” but also to “the righteous,” and one of the objects of the pursuit of wisdom is to achieve knowledge of the raz nihiyeh (“the mystery of being” or “of what is to be.”) This interest in esoteric and transcendent knowledge aligns with similar concerns in some of the sectarian texts of the Community (Hodayot, Community Rule). But the Qumran wisdom texts do not feature most of the distinctive terminology typical of the sectarian texts, and are believed to derive from broader circles.

Sectarian Texts:

            This corpus includes rules and regulations for community life, pesharim (commentaries on biblical books), and many other works from different literary genres. The documents share distinctive terminology and ideas that mark them as having been written by members of the same community. Common features of the sectarian texts include references to the Community (the Yahad), and the self-designation “Sons of Light,” set in contrast to opponents who are viewed as the “Sons of Darkness.” Chief among the opponents are members of the Jerusalem establishment—the “Seekers-After-Smooth-Things” (Dorshe Hahalakhot), the “Wicked Priest” (Kohen Harasha), the “Spouter of Lies.” Sobriquets such as these, often drawn from biblical phrases, refer to specific historical figures and groups. Scholars have used these veiled references, in conjunction with the archaeological evidence, to try to piece together the history of the Qumran sect (see The Scrolls, the Sect, and Qumran.)

The most important sectarian documents are:
            1) The Rule of the Community (1QS)
            2) The Damascus Document (CD)
            3) The War Scroll (1QM)
            4) The Thanksgiving Hymns, or Hodayot (1QH)
            5) The Halakhic Letter (4QMMT)
            6) Pesharim (commentaries) on various biblical books