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Small texts, big questions...

By Norman Golb, Ludwig Rosenberger Professor in Jewish History and Civilization
Oriental Institute
University of Chicago


Among the manuscripts found in the scroll caves to the north and west of Khirbet Qumran were fragments of over thirty phylactery texts - brief passages from the Five Books of Moses that already in intertestamental times were put into capsules and worn by observant Jews in literal fulfillment of Moses's call in Deuteronomy to "bind [these words] ... as a sign upon your hands and as frontlets between your eyes." The surprise in this discovery was that the texts reflected several different understandings of what verses should be inscribed for this purpose - not a uniform understanding such as one might expect of a sect of single-minded purpose that, according to many traditional Qumranologists, inhabited Khirbet Qumran and was actually called the Yahad (i.e., Unity) group. While editors of the phylactery texts in the 1950s and 1960s generally shied away from dealing directly with this problem of non-uniformity (only one ventured to suggest that in this particular matter the Qumran sectarian leadership, for whatever reason, allowed each of the sect-members to go his own way), a scholar writing - as others mentioned above - in the 1990s, Dr. David Rothstein, undertook an exhaustive analysis of all of the published phylactery texts, concluding in his 1992 UCLA dissertation on the subject that "it appears probable that [the groups responsible for the phylacteries] ... constituted a broad spectrum of Palestinian (and diaspora) Jewry" (p. 181).

The doctrinal diversity reflected in the phylacteries is instructive with respect to the many biblical scrolls and scroll fragments discovered in the caves. In the view of traditional Qumranologists who specialize in the study of the biblical texts, the reason for such manuscripts containing the many divergent and even conflicting readings that have been found to inhere in them - rather than a uniform text of the biblical books - is that the claimed Qumran sect used Khirbet Qumran as a biblical study center, in which the sectarians could compare different texts in their quest for the true readings of the books that they considered to constitute holy writ. But the divergent phylactery texts, which could hardly have been used for such a purpose, and were yet found in some of the same caves as the biblical writings themselves, hint at a different explanation.

Josephus Flavius, writing only several years after the Roman siege and capture of Jerusalem in ad 70, indicates that two streams of refugees from the city were formed during its final hours - one that moved, as is today well understood, in the direction of the Forest of Jardes and, ultimately, Masada, and the other (far less discussed today) that moved eastward and whose ultimate destination was Machaerus, and death there at Roman hands. This latter was a great mountain fortress, today in Jordanian territory, that was built by the Palestinian Jews during the greatest expansion of the Hasmonaean state (middle of the second century bc onward). The flight eastward towards Machaerus would have had to proceed by way of the wadis descending towards the Dead Sea and through the northern reaches of the Judaean Wilderness - precisely that region that harbored the scroll caves (see map). The battle between Roman forces and Jewish defenders that, as archaeologists have shown, took place at Khirbet Qumran, probably occurred as part of that flight eastward, when many refugees, seeking temporary shelter on the way to Machaerus, would have been packed within its walls. It is a reasonable surmise that the same and other refugees, all fleeing eastward towards the trans-Jordanian territories, would have seized whatever opportunities they could to hide away any texts of holy writ they had with them, with the one purpose in mind of preventing those texts from desecration at the hands of the Roman troops. On balance, the reason that the biblical texts and phylactery fragments discovered in the caves are so diverse in textual content from one another is that they were apparently deposited in the caves by doctrinally diverse groups of Jews who all came together as a great stream of humanity forced to flee the city they had once believed to be invincible.


Note to travelers: Those venturing a visit to Machaerus today (it is still being excavated) will face a steep climb, fortunately by a path, to the top - but once there they will behold the awesome expanse of the entire Dead Sea from north to south, with the landmarks of the western shore clearly visible on a sunny day.

Revised: April 28, 2011

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