The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hebrew Bible by Shani Tzoref

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, "Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hebrew Bible", n.p. [cited 27 Sep 2022]. Online:


Shani Tzoref

Shani Tzoref
Lecturer, Geiger College

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.

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A person who abstains from worldly pleasures, usually for religious reasons.

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Relating to the Masoretes, a group of medieval scribes who preserved and transmitted the written Hebrew text of the Bible. Or, the Masoretic Text itself, an authoritative Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible.

The authoritative Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible, containing both the consonants and the vowels (unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have no vowels). The earliest existing copies of the Masoretic Text date to the 10th century C.E.

A recurring element or symbolism in artwork, literature, and other forms of expression.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

An inspired message related by a prophet; also, the process whereby a prophet relates inspired messages to others.

Another name for the biblical book of Psalms or for a copy of this book bound separately from the rest of the Bible.

Works that claim to be written by authors that scholars have determined did not write them.

An archaeological site on the western shore of the Dead Sea, in modern Israel, where a small group of Jews lived in the last centuries B.C.E. The site was destroyed by the Romans around 70 C.E. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near the site and are believed by most scholars to have belonged to the people living at Qumran.

A religious subgroup.

Related to a particular religious subgroup, or sect; often used in reference to the variety of Jewish sects in existence in the Roman period in Judea and Samaria.

A mysterious figure mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls who is commonly believed to have been the founder of the community (Yahad) at Qumran.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

1Sam 11

Saul Defeats the Ammonites
1About a month later, Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead; and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treat ... View more

Exod 15:21

21And Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”

Joel 2:23

23O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
... View more

Hos 10:12

12Sow for yourselves righteousness;
reap steadfast love;
break up your fallow ground;
for it is time to seek the Lord,
that he may come and rain righteousness u ... View more

Isa 30:10

10who say to the seers, “Do not see”;
and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things,
prophesy illusions,

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