Discovery and Inventory
During the last fifty years, the Judean Desert on the western shore of the Dead Sea has yielded a wealth of textual material from many locations, evidence that has illuminated our understanding of the history of Israel and Judaism in the two centuries preceding and the two centuries following Christ.All of these manuscripts are properly referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In the years 1947–56, eleven caves in the vicinity of the ruins at Qumran produced over eight hundred documents. Yigael Yadin, who would eventually excavate Masada, was closely connected with the discovery of the Qumran Scrolls. His father, Elazar Sukenik, was the Israeli scholar who secured three of the seven scrolls from Cave 1. Yadin himself was instrumental in obtaining the other four scrolls after seeing them advertised for sale in the Wall Street Journal.And later, in 1967, it was Yadin who secured and eventually published the Temple Scroll.
Following the dramatic finds at Qumran, Israeli scholars organized in 1960 a systematic search in the caves to the south of Qumran, looking for any further manuscripts. The team led by Yadin excavated the caves in Nahal Hever, where they discovered the Cave of Letters, which contained letters written by Simon Bar-Kokhba, fragments of a Psalms scroll, and an entire archive of legal documents of a woman named Babata.We can imagine Yadin’s anticipation as he prepared in 1962 to excavate the site of Masada. Yadin wrote:
Before starting the excavations at Masada, we dreamed of the possibility of finding scrolls there. I say “dreamed” because the hope that we would could not be very bright. Hitherto, all the scrolls which had been found in the vicinity of the Dead Sea had been discovered only in caves, where they had been hidden intentionally, and where the only damage they suffered—comparatively slight—had been damage by nature, such as mild dampness, or by the nibbling of small animals. Now, as we approached Masada, we asked ourselves: “Had the Zealots hidden their writings before committing suicide? And if they had, would any of them still be preserved? And would we find them?”
Fortunately, Yadin did discover written material at Masada. Most important of his discoveries are fragments of sixteen parchment Hebrew scrolls,of which six were biblical scrolls and the rest were categorized as apocryphal and pseudepigraphical texts or fragments too small to identify. These manuscripts, together with the hundreds of other texts found near the Dead Sea, give us vivid and detailed evidence of the history of Judaism in the period just before and after the ministry of Christ. While none of the documents mention Jesus or allude to Christianity, they help us to better understand and appreciate a myriad of contemporary religious beliefs and practices reflected in the various books of the New Testament. In this short study, we will describe the written evidence found at Masada, compare it with the texts found at Qumran, and identify and discuss some of the interesting issues relevant to the New Testament.
The scrolls were found in various locations at Masada. For example, in a small room constructed in the casemate wall (room 1039),under six feet of debris, excavators found fragments from the book of Psalms, the book of Leviticus, and a text known at Qumran as Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. In addition, they found small fragments of a text tentatively identified as an apocryphal book of Joshua, a fragment of a text written in paleo-Hebrew, and a text in Aramaic—both too fragmentary to identify or classify. Most of the fragments found at Masada appear to have been cut and torn intentionally, a fact that led Yadin to speculate they were deliberately destroyed by Romans soldiers garrisoned at Masada after its fall.
In another casemate wall near the gate leading to the “Snake Path,” excavators found another fragment of white leather containing the last chapter of the book of Psalms, Psalm 150. In casemate room 1109, they found a fragment of the apocryphal text called Ben Sira, and in a wall tower west of the Western Palace, under almost nine feet of debris, excavators found a small fragment of a text many scholars believe to be the book of Jubilees, a book widely attested in Jewish and Christian traditions. In a heap of debris outside the walls, they found another copy of Leviticus. And in a building Yadin designated as a synagogue, in a pit dug beneath the floor, the excavators found parchment fragments of Ezekiel and Deuteronomy.
Most scholars believe the place of discovery of these two scrolls was an ancient genizah—a special burial place for worn-out scrolls written in the holy language of Hebrew and containing the sacred name of God. In antiquity, scrolls were buried in a genizah because they were damaged or worn out or because they contained mistakes.
In addition to the scrolls, the catalogues list 951 items (excluding coins) that preserve written evidence.These items include remains of writing on parchment, papyri, pottery, and wood. Items numbered 1–720 consist of ostraca (inscribed fragments of pottery) containing, in Hebrew and Aramaic writing, single letters or names that identify the owners of the pottery vessels, designations of type or amount of the contents of the vessels, some short letters, lists of names, inscriptions designating priestly shares, and a series of twelve pieces of pottery with names written on them identified by Yadin as “lots.”
Items numbered 721–951 are papyrus documents and ostraca written in Latin and Greek. These include papyrus fragments of a passage from Virgil’s Aeneid, legionary pay records, letters and military documents in Latin, one piece of a Greek wooden writing tablet, ostraca written in Greek and Latin, graffiti, and amphora stamps in Latin.
The written remains from Qumran and Masada are significant for many reasons. Even from very fragmentary texts and ostraca containing only single letters, names, or words, scholars can learn much about ancient writing methods and materials. Most of the writing from the ancient world was done by trained scribes, and it is clear that writing conventions—in particular the shapes and forms of the letters—changed and developed in a relatively orderly manner through the centuries. Scholars have established typologies of letter forms by which they have been able to date documents to within fifty years of composition or copying.
The dates assigned to these texts were originally determined from a few documents that bear internal dates and have been confirmed by various forms of scientific testing such as carbon-14 dating. The texts from Masada are of particular significance because we know the date of the destruction of Masada; thus we can be certain that all of the Hebrew and Aramaic writing found there can be dated before A.D. 73. Therefore they can be used to verify and alter the paleographic typologies.
The sixteen parchment texts found at Masada represent the same three categories of texts found at Qumran: biblical, apocryphal and pseudepigraphical, and sectarian(composed by the sect at Qumran believed by most to be the Essenes). We will utilize these categories in discussing the texts.
Partial copies on parchment of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Ezekiel were found at Masada. Some of these books are the same as the most frequently attested books at Qumran, where Psalms is represented with the most copies (36), followed by Deuteronomy (29) and Isaiah (21). It is not surprising that these books are the three Old Testament books quoted most frequently in the New Testament.
Before the discovery of the scrolls at Qumran in 1947, scholars were not sure what an ancient biblical manuscript would look like. The earliest Old Testament manuscripts containing more than a fragment of text were the medieval Masoretic manuscripts from the tenth century A.D. Many ancient translations of biblical books into Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Syriac, and other languages preserved manuscript traditions that were significantly different from the Masoretic tradition. Scholars had long debated whether these differences were caused by the translation process or whether they represented ancient variants in earlier Hebrew manuscripts. In addition, scholars had no ancient texts to verify the accuracy of the transmission of the manuscripts of the Masoretic tradition.
The discoveries at Qumran changed everything. On the one hand, biblical texts were found that demonstrated many significant textual variants in the ancient Hebrew manuscripts, including significant additions to and deletions from individual books. Some of these textual variants were apparently the source of many of the variations found in the ancient translations. On the other hand, texts were found that closely match the Masoretic text—the text type that has become standard from the ninth century A.D. onward—which, along with the Septuagint, was the basis for the King James Version of the Bible. Such texts are called Proto-Masoretic since they antedate the work of the Masoretes and yet represent essentially the same textual tradition.
The texts found at Masada closely match the Masoretic text. Apart from very small details, they are virtually identical. The only differences are to be found in some of the spelling practices, such as whether a scribe wrote vowel letters to render vowel sounds or left them out. In terms of spelling, the Masada texts are distinct from those at Qumran. Many Qumran works are noted for their plene, or full spellings (using the vowel letters for vowels), while the scrolls at Masada are much more defective (without the vowel letters). Many scholars argue that the general uniformity of these texts, as opposed to the diversity found at Qumran, is evidence of the standardization of the Proto-Masoretic text that occurred in this period.
The Psalms scrolls are of particular interest. The fragment designated Psª (1039–160) contains Psalms 81:6–85:6. The text is written in two columns and divided into poetic lines. The order of the psalms, the division of the chapters, and the headings appearing before each psalm are identical to the Masoretic text. Likewise Psb (1103–1742), which contains Psalm 150:1–6, is also divided into poetic lines and is identical with the Masoretic text.
One of the texts found in the genizah of the synagogue consisted of the fragments of Ezekiel (1043–2220) preserving the passage at the beginning of chapter 37 recounting Ezekiel’s vision of bringing the dry bones to life. The passage is a prophecy that the house of Israel will be revived and restored to their land. Latter-day Saints usually understand this passage as also an allusion to resurrection. This piece raises a very important issue from the time of the New Testament. How would the different groups of Jews in the first century have read and understood this passage in light of the doctrine of resurrection? While there is no evidence from Masada how those who buried this manuscript would have understood this doctrine, a review of the ancient evidence will give us some insight into the world at the time it was buried.
The references to the Resurrection in the Old Testament were variously understood by the different sects of Judaism at the time of the New Testament. Josephus recounts that the Pharisees believed in resurrection of the just (as do Jews today), the Sadducees did not, and the Essenes believed in the immortality of the soul, though Josephus states that they did not believe in the resurrection of the body.However, texts recently published from Qumran suggest that the Essenes did believe in resurrection from the dead. The gospels record that the dispute over resurrection was ongoing between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Of course, Jesus taught and demonstrated the literal resurrection of the body.
Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphical Texts
Fragments of several apocryphal and pseudepigraphical books were found at Masada, among them Ben Sira (a book of the Apocrypha), the pseudepigraphical book of Jubilees, and several small fragments of texts that are variously described as apocryphal or pseudepigraphical writings similar to Jubilees, Joshua, and Esther. While the terms “apocryphal” and “pseudepigraphical” are often used interchangeably, more precisely there is a difference between the Apocrypha and the pseudepigrapha. The Apocrypha are a specific collection of books, many of which have Jewish origins, that formed part of the Christian, but not the Jewish, canon.
In the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther designated these books as “deuterocanonical,” and eventually they dropped out of the Protestant canon. The Apocrypha were bound into the King James Bible that Joseph Smith used for the Joseph Smith Translation. While he was working on the JST, Joseph Smith asked the Lord whether the books of the Apocrypha should be included. The Lord’s response is found in Doctrine and Covenants 91, where he revealed that there are many things contained in the Apocrypha that are true and many things that are not true; therefore the Apocrypha should not be translated but should be read and understood through the Spirit.
Pseudepigraphical works include a host of other books from antiquity, many of them written under the pseudonym of a biblical figure, hence the designation pseudepigrapha—a book written under the name of another. There were probably hundreds of such books in antiquity. One modern collection of pseudepigrapha contains sixty-three texts.
Copies of four texts from the Apocrypha were found at Qumran: Ben Sira, Tobit, the Letter of Jeremiah, and Psalm 151. Fragments of only three texts previously known as pseudepigrapha were found at Qumran: Jubilees, Enoch, and the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. However, fragments were found of numerous texts that had not been previously attested from antiquity. Most famous of these is the Genesis Apocryphon, an Aramaic retelling of the stories in Genesis. Many other texts would fit into this category, works that have survived only in small fragments—writings about Noah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Esther.
We will discuss the only two identifiable nonbiblical texts found at Masada: Ben Sira (1109–1357), a book from the Apocrypha, and Jubilees (1039–317), a pseudepigraphical work.
The Wisdom of Ben Sira, also called Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, is a poetic book of wisdom similar to the book of Proverbs, teaching one how to live a good life and how to find success through proper speech and behavior, honesty, diligence, and patience. Unlike the writers of the biblical books, the author of this work signed his name—“Jesus, son of Eleazar son of Sirach of Jerusalem” (50:27). The book was written by Ben Sira before 180 B.C. in Hebrew and later translated by his grandson into Greek.
While the Greek translation of this work survived first in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and then in the Christian canon, the Hebrew text of this work was lost to the western world from A.D. 400 to 1900. For many years, scholars had debated whether the text was originally written in Hebrew or Greek. At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, various Hebrew fragments of the text were discovered in the famous Cairo Genizah. Since then fragments of this text in Hebrew have been found at Qumran and Masada that are virtually identical to the medieval copies from Cairo. These fragments have confirmed that the text was originally composed in Hebrew.
Ben Sira was a widely read book in antiquity and was a work incorporated into the Septuagint (often abbreviated as LXX), which formed the basis of the early Christian canon. Although the book Ben Sira was known in early Jewish communities and discussed in rabbinic writings, it never became part of the Jewish canon, probably because it was not written by a prophet. Fragments of at least two Ben Sira manuscripts were found at Qumran, but it is not quoted or alluded to by any of the sectarian works from Qumran.
Many passages of Ben Sira are similar to those found in the New Testament, leading some scholars to believe that the authors of the New Testament were familiar with the text. For instance, many theological concepts are phrased in language similar to that of the New Testament. Further, some of the teachings of Jesus reflect the same principles taught in Ben Sira. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned about vain repetitions in prayer: “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions” (Matt. 6:7). Ben Sira has the same advice: “Do not babble in the assembly of the elders, and do not repeat yourself when you pray” (Ben Sira 7:14). Jesus’ teaching “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) is paralleled by “Do not let your hand be stretched out to receive and closed when it is time to give” (Ben Sira 4:31).
The parable of the rich man has a very interesting parallel. Luke records this parable of a man who had more wealth in his crops than his barns would hold so he planned to build more barns and to say to himself, “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall these things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16–21). One finds a similar sentiment in Ben Sira: “One becomes rich through diligence and self-denial, and the reward allotted to him is this: when he says, ‘I have found rest, and now I shall feast on my goods!’ he does not know how long it will be until he leaves them to others and dies” (Ben Sira 11:18–19).
Paul taught that one of the obligation of Christians is to “rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep” (Rom. 12:15), while Ben Sira taught, “Do not avoid those who weep, but mourn with those who mourn. Do not hesitate to visit the sick, because for such deeds you will be loved” (Ben Sira 7:34–35). Both of these passages resonate with a passage from the Book of Mormon explaining the covenant made at baptism: “Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). Perhaps Ben Sira has preserved here an ancient phrase, “mourn with those who mourn,” that was known already by the Book of Mormon peoples before they left Jerusalem.
Whether there is a direct connection between Ben Sira and the New Testament text or not, the teachings of Ben Sira show us that much that is taught in the New Testament was already known in Judaism.
For many years, scholars have shown the book of Jubilees (1039–317) to be among the fragments found at Masada and have identified another fragment as a work similar to Jubilees (1276–1786). Some have recently argued that the fragment 1039–317 is a not from Jubilees after all but is a fragment of a Genesis scroll.In either case, a discussion of Jubilees can give a sense of the nature of the pseudepigraphical traditions read by those who lived at Qumran and Masada.
Jubilees purports to be an account of the revelation given to Moses on Sinai, recounting the history of the world from Genesis 1 through Exodus 20. Most scholars believe the text was written by a priest since it expresses interest in priests and priestly things.Jubilees is a form of pseudepigrapha called by scholars “rewritten Bible” in that the text follows the biblical narrative, occasionally adding nonbiblical episodes and details and occasionally deleting portions of the biblical narrative. On its part, Jubilees divides the history of the world from Adam to Moses into fifty units of forty-nine years, each following the biblical injunction to celebrate jubilees after every forty-ninth year.
The book of Jubilees was a widely read book in ancient Judaism and Christianity and yet was never included in the canon. It circulated anciently in Greek, Syriac, Latin, and Ethiopic translations, but like Ben Sira, the original Hebrew texts as well as the Greek translations were lost anciently. The only complete copy of the text survived in Ethiopic in the Abyssinian church, in which it is considered canonical. The copies of this text found at Qumran confirm that the original was written in Hebrew.
Jubilees is one of the most important of the pseudepigraphical texts found at Qumran. It is attested in fifteen or sixteen different manuscripts, making it the fifth most attested book after Psalms, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Genesis. On several points, Jubilees reflects Essene theology known at Qumran. For example, the Qumran calendar and the calendar in Jubilees both calculate their festivals according to a solar calendar of 364 days—a number of days divisible by seven—allowing for each festival mandated by the Bible to fall on the same day of the week each year. This was a very different calendar than the solar-lunar calendar used by the other sects of Judaism at the time.
It is clear that some of these books were considered authoritative since they are attested in multiple copies and are quoted as authoritative by other books. The various rule books of the Qumran community such as the Damascus Document, the Rule of the Community, and the War Rule were certainly viewed as having a status tantamount to scripture. They identify themselves as revelations from the Lord that were binding on the community. These works quote extensively from biblical books, and in addition, they quote extensively from the books of Jubilees and the books of Enoch. For example, in the Damascus Document, the members of the community were advised “to return to the Torah of Moses, for in it everything is specified. And the explication of their times, when Israel was blind to all these; behold, it is specified in the Book of the Divisions of the Times in their Jubilees and in their Weeks” (Damascus Document 16.1–4). If the people of Qumran accepted books in addition to the biblical books as authoritative, Jubilees was likely one of them.
Like Ben Sira, Jubilees offers us a valuable look at the theology as well as the formulations of religious ideas found in the world of the New Testament. One of the most prominent of the editors of the Ethiopic texts, R. H. Charles, wrote a commentary on Jubilees in which he pointed out the influence that this text had on other works. Of the influence of Jubilees on the New Testament, he wrote, “It appeals to the New Testament scholar, as furnishing the first literary embodiment of beliefs which subsequently obtained an entrance into the New Testament, and as having in all probability formed part of the library of some of the apostolic writers.”Some of the similarities with New Testament passages are quite interesting. Whether they bear a direct relationship or they derive from a common source we may never know, but let us consider the following.
Several examples demonstrate the close relationship between concepts and phraseology in the New Testament and concepts and phraseology in the book of Jubilees. The first occurrence of the term “son of perdition” in the Bible is found in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, but the phrase is already found in Jubilees 10:3. The first biblical text to note that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years” is found in 2 Peter 3:8, but it is already attested in Jubilees 4:30: “For one thousand years are as one day in the testimony of the heavens and therefore was it written concerning the tree of knowledge: ‘On the day that ye eat thereof ye shall die.’”
Some of the additions and changes are of interest for Latter-day Saints. Jubilees, for example, shows a developed theology of Satan, called Mastema, and his demons, which were cast out of heaven and which led many of the children of men astray. In the Exodus story, Mastema assists the Egyptian sorcerers in the contest against Moses and Aaron, and it is Mastema, rather than the Lord, who hardens the hearts of Pharaoh and the Egyptians (Jubilees 48:12, 16–17).
The most surprising text discovered at Masada was a fragment of Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (1039–200)—a text that is known from eight fragmentary copies at Qumran.Whether the text originated with the Qumran Essenes or not is unclear, but the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice reflects distinctive sectarian beliefs and appears to have influenced other sectarian texts found at Qumran. In addition, several other small fragments found at Masada preserve distinctive vocabulary, phrases, and spelling of other Qumran texts, leading Talmon, who has been assigned to edit them, to suggest the possibility that they were, along with Songs of the Sabbath, also imported to Masada from Qumran.
The question is how these sectarian texts came to Masada. Although Josephus named John the Essene as a general in the revolt against Rome,there was no evidence that the Qumran community participated with the Jewish rebels in the revolt. Yadin hypothesized the presence of these texts at Masada to be evidence that Essenes had joined with the rebels in the revolt against Rome at Masada. Most scholars simply conclude that some of the Essenes fled from the Roman destruction of Qumran in 68 and came to Masada for refuge, bringing some of their texts with them. Other scholars believe the presence of sectarian texts at Qumran illustrates that the texts were not unique to Qumran but were circulated widely in Palestine.
The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice originally contained a cycle of thirteen songs—one for each of the first thirteen Sabbaths of the year (the first quarter of a solar year). These songs contain descriptions of the seven archangels and their angelic praises, the heavenly temple, and the heavenly throne.The imagery is reminiscent of Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot throne (Ezek. 1, 10) and his vision of the future temple (Ezek. 40–48).
There are several points which remind us of the New Testament. The concept of the kingdom of heaven, so prevalent in the Gospels, is found in the Qumran texts only in Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice: “And they will recount the splendour of his kingdom, according to their knowledge, and they will extol [his glory in all] the heavens of his kingdom” (Frag. 2:3–4).The descriptions of the heavenly temple are similar to those found in the book of Revelation.
The written documents found at Masada, mirroring the imagery of Ezekiel 37, breathe life into the dry bones of the archaeological remains at Masada. The Hebrew and Aramaic ostraca give us the names of those who lived on the solitary rock and bring to life the transactions of storing and drawing on the supplies of food and drink stored in pottery vessels in that remote place. They attest to the observance of the priestly tithe and perhaps to the final human drama of drawing the lots of death described by Josephus. The Latin texts attest to the presence of the Roman military garrison that burned the fortress and stayed at Masada, where they drew their military pay, attended to their military matters, and were entertained by a text of Virgil in this place far away from home. The Greek texts remind us of the Byzantine monks who occupied the ruined site centuries later.
Biblical scrolls witness to the devotion to the law of those who lived at Masada and worshipped at the synagogue, purified themselves in the ritual baths, and finally perished there. In addition, the uniformity of these texts suggests the developing supremacy of the Masoretic text as compared to the textual diversity at Qumran. Apocryphal and pseudepigraphical books remind us of the richness of literary traditions surrounding the Bible, some of which have been preserved in the Apocrypha and in the extant pseudepigraphical works, but most of which have disappeared forever. The sectarian scrolls were likely brought to Masada by a group of Essenes fleeing from Qumran, seeking refuge and deliverance from the Romans, anticipating the final battle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness and awaiting the divine intervention which would deliver them from their enemies. They instead witnessed the victory of the sons of darkness and died beside the defenders of Masada.