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

Don Stewart

In Israel in 1947, a discovery of ancient manuscripts was made 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. They are known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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). While most copies were fragmentary a few (notably Isaiah) were complete.

Books Outside Of The Hebrew Scriptures Were Also Found

Also found among the Dead Sea Scrolls are portions of the Old Testament Apocrypha - the Book of Tobit, the Letter of Jeremiah, 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 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.

However a number of points can be made in response to this.

1. It Was A Library At Qumran

The fact that copies of certain non-canonical writings were found at Qumran does not necessarily mean 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 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.

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.

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.

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 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. The calendar used as Qumran was considered to be divinely ordained. This may account for no copies of the Book of Esther being found among the other writings.

4. 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 Hasmonean family. Those who lived at Qumran disapproved of the activities of the Hasmonean dynasty. This would account for the lack of a copy.

5. There Was No Celebration Of Purim By 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.

6. 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. Esther Was Probably Included A case can be made for the inclusion of Esther by those living at Qumran. 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. Summary 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.

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 is also the differences between the Qumran community had with the calendar used in Esther as well as their differences with the Hasmoneans. 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. 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.


The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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