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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Are the Right Books in the Old Testament?

Don Stewart :: What Was the Extent of the Old Testament Canon among the People Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

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What Was the Extent of the Old Testament Canon among the People Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Are the Correct Books in the Old Testament? – Question 14

One of the issues that may have some bearing on the extent of the Old Testament canon concerns ancient Hebrew manuscripts found in the mid-twentieth century in Israel. These manuscripts have come to be known as “the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

What Are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

In the year 1947, a discovery of ancient manuscripts was made in a cave at a site called Qumran—an area about five hundred yards northwest of the Dead Sea. Eventually, manuscripts were discovered in eleven different caves. These various written works were dated from 200 B.C. to A.D. 70.

Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

It is not certain who wrote the scrolls. There have been a number of suggestions. Most likely, it was a community of people who lived alongside the Dead Sea known as the Essenes. The Essenes lived at Qumran until A.D. 70. At that time, Jerusalem fell to the Romans and the Jews were taken out of their land.

There Were Copies of the Scriptures among the Texts

The Dead Sea Scrolls consist of about eight hundred texts. Among the texts discovered were over two hundred copies of all of the different books of the Hebrew Bible (with the exception of Esther and possibly the Book of Nehemiah). While most copies were fragmentary, a few (notably Isaiah) were complete.

Was There a Wider Canon of Scripture at Qumran?

Also found among the Dead Sea Scrolls are portions of the Old Testament Apocrypha – the Book of Tobit, the Letter of Jeremiah, and Sirach. There were also some other non-canonical books found among the Dead Sea Scrolls – The Book of Jubilees, and the Book of Enoch. Because all of these works were found with the canonical writings, it has been argued that they were included with the Hebrew Scriptures as being divinely authoritative. Consequently, it has been presumed that the Old Testament canon at that time was larger than the present thirty-nine books found in the Protestant Old Testament, or the same twenty-two in the Hebrew Scriptures.

There Is No Evidence They Had a Wider Canon of Scripture

However, a number of points can be made in response to this. They include the following observations:

1. It Was a Library at Qumran

The fact that copies of certain non-canonical writings were found at Qumran does not necessarily mean that the Essenes considered these works to be on the same level as the canonical books. The writings from Qumran were part of a library. They were not merely documents that this particular community held to be sacred.

2. There Were No Commentaries Found on the Books Outside of the Hebrew Canon

While copies of these non-canonical books have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, there is no evidence that the people of this community wrote commentaries on these disputed books. This is in contrast to the commentaries of certain biblical books that were found at Qumran. This may be an indication that the Essenes did not consider these books canonical.

Whatever the case may be, the lack of commentaries on these books is consistent with the idea that they did not recognize them as authoritative Scripture.

3. There Is No Direct Statement of the Extent of the Hebrew Canon

Those who lived at Qumran left no written statement as to the extent of the Hebrew canon. Any conclusion can only be based upon inference from the evidence.

Therefore, we have no clear statement, one way or another, as to which particular books those people accepted as Scripture.

4. The Essenes Were Not in the Mainstream of Judaism

Even if the people at Qumran did use a different canon than those who lived in Jerusalem, it does not prove very much. These people were a group that was outside of mainstream Judaism. Therefore, their beliefs could not be considered normative of first century Judaism.

5. The Books Were Hastily Hidden from the Roman Army

There is something else that has to be considered. The scrolls at Qumran seem to have been hastily hidden when the Roman army was advancing toward them. This could account for the sacred books being hidden together with the other writings of the community; there was no time to separate the sacred from the non-sacred.

Therefore, when all the facts are considered, any evidence we find from Qumran is not that helpful in determining the extent of the Hebrew canon.

Why Are There No Copies of Esther Found at Qumran?

If the community at Qumran had the same canon as did mainstream Judaism, then why wasn’t there any copy of the Book of Esther found among their writings?

There have been a number of suggestions as to why Esther was not included among the writings found at Qumran. They include the following theories:

1. Esther Was Not Considered Canonical by the Essenes

There has been the argument that, for some reason, those at Qumran did not accept the divine authority of Esther. It is possible that the lack of God’s name in this work caused them to reject it as being Holy Scripture. It may have been something else that caused them to reject its status. Whatever the reason, those at Qumran did not believe Esther was to be placed with the authoritative books.

2. There Was Doubt about the Status of Esther

Rather than outright rejection, there is also the possibility that there were some doubts that were held about the canonicity of Esther. Like some others in the early church, they may have been unsure as to Esther’s canonical status.

3. The Book of Esther Had a Different Calendar than the Essenes

Another possible reason that a copy of Esther has not been found may have to do with the Qumran calendar. The calendar at Qumran was different than the one found in the Book of Esther. This is important because the calendar used at Qumran was considered to be divinely ordained by the Essenes.

This may account for no copies of the Book of Esther being found among the other writings.

4. The Essenes May Have Had a Negative View of Women

It is possible that the Essenes did not keep a copy of the Book of Esther because of negative views they held toward women. This would be consistent with what we know about them. Since the Book of Ruth was attached to the Book of Judges, they would not have had the problem with it as they may have had with a book that bore the name of a woman. However, this is only speculation.

5. The Essenes Disapproved of the Hasmoneans

There is also the possibility that the events recorded in the Book of Esther were too complementary to the ruling Hasmonean family. Those who lived at Qumran disapproved of the activities of the Hasmonean dynasty. This would account for the lack of a copy.

6. There Was No Celebration of Purim by the Essenes

The Book of Esther also provides an explanation for the feast of Purim. While all the other feasts were mentioned and celebrated by the Essenes, Purim was not. As far as we know it is a feast that they never celebrated. This fact could have contributed to the omitting of Esther from their writings.

7. All Copies of Esther May Have Been Lost

It is possible that Esther was included in the canon by those who lived at Qumran. The fact that no copy of it was found does not necessarily mean that it was rejected or doubted by these people. Any copies that had been made could have been lost.

A case can be made that those living at Qumran included the Book of Esther as Scripture. While there has not been any fragment of Esther found among the writings of the Dead Sea community, this should not necessarily be understood as their rejection of Esther as a canonical work.

For one thing, they did not share the same view held by some other Rabbi’s about the canonicity of other disputed books such as Ezekiel, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Proverbs. Copies of these works were all found among their library. Therefore, it is possible that there was a copy of Esther at one time, which, for some reason, became lost.

Indeed, there are some non-canonical writings found among the Dead Sea Scrolls which may show some familiarity to the Book of Esther. We know this because there are a number of Hebrew words which are found in the Book of Esther that are contained nowhere else in the Old Testament. However, in these non-canonical writings found in Qumran, some of these unique words are used. This seems to show that the people of Qumran were familiar with Esther, seeing they used some of the vocabulary from this book.

8. Until Recently, There Is No Copy of the Text of Nehemiah among the Dead Sea Scrolls

Finally, Esther was not the only Old Testament book among the Dead Sea Scrolls where no fragment has been found. Nothing has been found from the text of the Book of Nehemiah until recently.

We know that the Book of Nehemiah was considered canonical by all. The fact that no fragment from Nehemiah had been found simply means that nothing had survived until this recent discovery. It certainly did not mean that this work was not placed in the canon of Scripture at this time.

Therefore, the Book of Esther may have suffered the same fate. It was considered canonical, and used at Qumran, but nothing of it has survived; or at least no copy of it has been found as of yet.

To sum up: we do not know exactly why there were no copies of the Book of Esther found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, this has no bearing on its canonicity or the extent of the canon at that time.

9. The Testimony of Second Maccabees

One more point should be mentioned. There is evidence that before the time the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, the Book of Esther was considered to be divinely authoritative Scripture. From the apocryphal book of Second Maccabees, we read the following:

And they all decreed by public vote never to let this day go unobserved, but to celebrate the thirteenth day of the twelfth month-- which is called Adar in the Aramaic language-- the day before Mordecai’s day. (2 Maccabees 15:36 NRSV)

This passage recognizes Mordecai, one of the main characters in the Book of Esther. Therefore, it is ancient testimony that his status, as given in the Book of Esther, was well-known.

Summary – Question 14
What Was the Extent of the Old Testament Canon among the People Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

It has been argued that those who lived at Qumran during the time of Christ, the Essenes, had a different canon of Scripture than those at Jerusalem. However, there is no convincing evidence of this. While those who lived at Qumran had copies of writings other than the Holy Scripture, they give us no list of their beliefs about the status of these books. There is no evidence of a different canon than that of normative Judaism at that time. Therefore, we cannot say for certain, one way or the other, about the extent of their canon.

Even if it is eventually proven that the people at Qumran used a different canon than those in Jerusalem, it would still not prove the canon was unsettled. These people were outside of normative Judaism in certain of their beliefs and practices. There is also the likelihood that the scrolls were quickly hidden because of the approach of the Roman army. This is why the sacred scrolls were next to non-sacred scrolls.

As far as Esther is concerned, there are a number of possible reasons as to why no copy was found. The book could have been rejected outright or doubted. There also were differences between the calendar of the Qumran community and the calendar used in Esther. Since the Essenes considered their calendar holy, this could have caused its lack of use of Esther. We also know that the Essenes had a negative view toward women. This could account for not keeping a writing that bore the name of a woman.

They also had their differences with the ruling Hasmonean dynasty. The events recorded in Esther could be seen as casting favorable light on the Hasmonean dynasty. Thus, the work was omitted. Add to this that the Essenes did not celebrate the feast of Purim—a feast that was established by the events recorded in the Book of Esther.

However, there is also the possibility that all of the copies of Esther were lost. There are no copies of the Book of Nehemiah among the Dead Sea Scrolls; a work everyone considered as canonical. Thus, it may have been only chance that copies of these two writings did not survive or have not yet been found.

We just do not know. There is some evidence that those who lived at Qumran did acknowledge Esther as a canonical work. Yet we cannot say for certain, one way or another, whether they considered Esther to be Holy Scripture. When all the evidence has been considered, we do not have to change our view of the Old Testament canon because of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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