BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Scribes in the Dead Sea Scrolls

Looking at scribal figures at Qumran

jeremiah-or-ezra-dead-sea-scroll-med

Biblical Scribe. The scribal figure depicted here, which comes from a third-century fresco at the site of Dura-Europos, is superimposed over an image of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The figure represents either Ezra or Jeremiah. What’s in the Dead Sea Scrolls about scribes? Not very much.

What’s in the Dead Sea Scrolls? The scrolls, which date from the third century B.C.E. to the first century C.E., mostly contain Jewish religious texts. About 40 percent of the manuscript fragments consist of texts from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).

Pseudepigraphal texts—that is, religious texts that did not make it into the Hebrew Bible—from the Second Temple period (c. 530 B.C.E.–70 C.E.) comprise another 30 percent. The final 30 percent consists of texts written by a sectarian group, whom many associate with the Essenes, an ancient Jewish religious sect; these texts talk about the group’s beliefs and rules.

What’s in the Dead Sea Scrolls about writing and scribes? Not as much as one might expect from a community that clearly valued scribal activity, as evidenced by their abundance of scrolls. In her Biblical Views column “Where Are the Scribes in the Dead Sea Scrolls?” published in the July/August 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Charlotte Hempel examines the paucity of scribal figures in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The majority of scribal figures we see in the Dead Sea Scrolls are renowned Biblical figures of the past, such as Enoch, David, and Ezra. However, there are a few characters who would have been contemporary to the writing of the scrolls. Charlotte Hempel, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism at the University of Birmingham, UK, analyzes two of them in her column: the Overseer (Hebrew: Mebaqqer) and the Sage (Maskil).


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The Overseer “records misdemeanors reported to him” and “was also responsible for keeping a log of members’ possessions and the collection of monthly donations for those in need.” Thus, he functioned similarly to a bookkeeper.

The Sage was a complex figure with many responsibilities. Charlotte Hempel explains:

An impressive multitasker is the Maskil, often rendered in English as “the sage.” Most references to the figure of the Maskil refer to a particular office-holder. We get some rare glimpses of some of his (less likely her) job description as a spiritual leader in the Community Rule, where he is tasked with teaching the children of light about the children of humanity with regard to all the varieties of their spirits. Several compositions employ Maskil in headings, suggesting an affiliation of this office with the final editing or performance of compositions. … [His duties include] … causing fright in demons and other harmful spirits and creatures by enunciating God’s splendid glory. … The skillset of this enlightened figure and those responsible for the literature from Qumran reflects a broad spectrum of knowledge and scholarship.

Even though there are not very many references to scribal activity in the Dead Sea Scrolls, it appears that writing was admired by the community responsible for the scrolls. Learn more about scribes and writing within the scrolls in “Where Are the Scribes in the Dead Sea Scrolls?” by Charlotte Hempel in the July/August 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full column “Where Are the Scribes in the Dead Sea Scrolls?” by Charlotte Hempel in the July/August 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

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1 Responses

  1. Rob Palmer says:

    Does anyone else feel like a scribe when entering comments upon material reflecting poor reasoning on the internet? That is where classic scribes would be today, trying to counter the efforts at inane liberal politics, trying to set them straight.

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