Qumran caves: The discoveries of 1947-56 have provided scholars of the Bible in the age of Jesus with material for endless debate
The Jewish religion is based on a book that is surrounded, complemented and interpreted by tradition. The Hebrew Scripture includes the Law (Torah), followed by the Prophets (Neviim, the historical books and the works of the prophets), and finishing with the Writings (Ketuvim, Psalms, Wisdom books, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles).
According to biblical tradition the principal part of the Law, the Decalogue was chiselled on two stone tablets by God himself. He even re-engraved them after Moses had smashed the first set of tablets to pieces on witnessing the Jews worshipping the golden calf. The rest of the Torah, the five scrolls of Pentateuch, was spoken by God to Moses, who recorded the divine revelation in the Book of the Law, referred to later as the Law of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). This Law was kept in the Temple before its destruction in 586 BCE. It was taken to exile in Babylonia by the priests and brought back to Jerusalem by Ezra the Scribe in the fifth century BCE. He promulgated it to the people and the Levites read it out and followed up the reading by an interpretation (Nehemiah 8:1-8).
As far as the Prophets are concerned, thanks to chapter 36 of the Book of Jeremiah, we learn details regarding the production of a prophetic book. Jeremiah, having received the divine message, dictated its words to his scribe Baruch, who wrote them down with ink on a leather scroll. The prophet presented this scroll to King Jehoiakim but the monarch disliked the message critical of Jerusalem, when it was read to him by one of his courtiers. He cut the scroll to pieces and threw them in the fireplace. Jeremiah repeated the prophecies to Baruch who prepared a new scroll.
A further important detail about the preservation of the Bible in antiquity is mentioned in the Talmud, which reports that three master copies of the Torah were deposited in the Temple for consultation in case of doubt about a reading. This implies that the ancient rabbis were aware of the existence of variants in the biblical manuscripts.
The oldest documents that include a scriptural citation are two silver amulets with minor variations of the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24-26. They are dated from c. 600 BCE and were found in a tomb at Ketef Hinnom, southwest of Jerusalem in 1979. The earlier discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 11 caves in the region of Qumran yielded a substantial amount of Old Testament remains. The most ancient leather fragment belongs to the Book of Samuel and is dated from the middle of the third century BCE. Another manuscript of the same book originates from 100-75 BCE. The complete Isaiah scroll comes from 50-25 BCE. On the whole, the 225 Qumran biblical documents surviving as scrolls and fragments, range from the middle of the third century BCE to 68 CE when, following the Roman conquest, sectarian life and scribal activity came to an end on the Qumran site. All the books of the Old Testament with the exception of Esther are attested in the 11 caves. There are four scrolls (Leviticus, two Isaiah and Psalms) and thousands of fragments. Some of the biblical books existed at Qumran in several copies. We have 36 manuscripts of the Psalms, 35 of Deuteronomy, 23 of Genesis, 21 of Isaiah.
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