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The “Other” Bible from Qumran

Qumran Cave 4
Qumran Cave 4

Where did the Bible come from? The Hebrew Bible, or Christian Old Testament, did not exist in the canonical form we know prior to the early second century C.E. Before that, certain books had become authoritative in the Jewish community, but the status of other books, which eventually did become part of the Hebrew Bible, was questionable. All Jews everywhere, since at least the fourth century B.C.E., accepted the authority of the Torah of Moses, the first five books of the Bible (also called the Pentateuch): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Most Jews also accepted the books of the Prophets, including the Former Prophets or historical books (Joshua through Kings), as authoritative. The Samaritan community only accepted the Pentateuch as authoritative, and the Pentateuch remains their Bible today. Some parts of the Jewish community accepted the books found in the Writings as authoritative, but not all Jews accepted all of those books. The Jewish community that lived at Qumran and stored their manuscripts in the nearby caves, for example, do not seem to have accepted Esther as authoritative. We know this because no trace of Esther has been found in the Qumran caves, and the Qumran community did not celebrate the festival of Purim.

However, the Qumran community did accept other Jewish religious texts as authoritative scripture. The books of Enoch, Aramaic documents that date from around 300 B.C.E. to 70 C.E., were found in multiple copies in the Qumran caves, although the Parables of Enoch have not been found there. These books, which give more detail about the story of the patriarch Enoch mentioned in Gen 5:21-24, advocate a calendar based on the 365-day rotation of the sun, a calendar the Qumranites may also have embraced (as opposed to the lunar calendar used in the Jerusalem temple). Other works found at Qumran, such as the Genesis Apocryphon, also mention Enoch or the story of the Watchers found in his books, so it is likely that the Qumran community thought of the books of Enoch as authoritative scripture. Interestingly, Enoch is quoted as scripture in the New Testament, in Jude 1:14-15.

The book of Jubilees, a second-century B.C.E. work, was also found in multiple copies in the Qumran caves. Jubilees is an example of rewritten Scripture retelling the story found in Genesis 1-Exodus 15. It claims Mosaic authority, since it presents itself as a revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai by an angel of the Presence. Jubilees, like Enoch, advocates a solar calendar. Jubilees is quoted by name in the Qumran sectarian Damascus Document, indicating the same degree of authority as the Torah. It too was probably part of the “Bible” of the Qumran community.

Other Jewish books may have obtained scriptural status in different Jewish communities. The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira (Hebrew; second century B.C.E.) was translated into Greek and became part of the Septuagint, the scripture of the Jewish community in Alexandria. It was found in Hebrew at Qumran and Masada, and also in the Cairo Genizah, which belonged to the Karaites, a medieval Jewish sect. Although ben Sira was eventually rejected from the Jewish (rabbinic) canon because of its late date, it probably was part of the “Bible” of certain Jewish groups.

  • Sidnie White Crawford

    Sidnie White Crawford is Willa Cather Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A member of the international team that published the Cave 4 manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, she has written extensively on the Dead Sea Scrolls, questions of canon and text, and the origins and identity of the Qumran community. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation and is the chair of the Board of Trustees of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.