Alternative Scriptures: The First Discovery of Qumran

As I remarked, the early twentieth century was a thrilling time for anyone interested in the Bible or early Christianity, and especially for “lost” alternative versions of the faith. New textual discoveries were appearing, and were having an enormous popular impact. much less well known is the strictly parallel developments that were occurring in the study of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible in exactly these years. And as in the case of alternative gospels, we might be startled to realize just how daring and indeed prophetic were some of the ideas and theories circulating at this time.

In the history of modern scholarship, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 is a critical moment. That find revolutionized our knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, and had many implications for Christian origins. Among the serious scholarship, some writers inevitably went to outrageous extremes, positing all sort of bizarre theories about the Scrolls’ impact on Jesus and his contemporaries. But we might be startled to know just how early this process started, and how commonplace such speculations were a full generation before the discoveries at Qumran. So much of the radical new thinking of the post-1970s period was in fact standard stuff around the time of the First World War.

How could this be? The story involves the so-called Cairo Genizah, one of the most exciting textual finds in modern history. Briefly, a synagogue needs a special storage room for obsolete or damaged manuscripts that contain the sacred Name of God. As it would be blasphemous to destroy these texts, they are stored, indefinitely, in a genizah. In the late nineteenth century, scholars were astonished to discover the texts preserved in one such storage place in the Ben Ezra synagogue of Fostat, Old Cairo. The documents have since been examined and published at great length, and taken together, they provide invaluable information about long centuries of Jewish life in the Middle East and Mediterranean world, and Jewish interactions with Muslims and Christians. In its way, the Cairo Genizah is almost comparable in historical significance to Qumran or Nag Hammadi. The main researcher of the documents, and their great advocate, was rabbi Solomon Schechter. Schechter headed the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and was a critical figure in the development of Conservative Judaism.

Coincidentally, the first main discovery of the Genizah texts came in 1896, just months before the finding of the “Sayings of Jesus” (ie the Gospel of Thomas) elsewhere in Egypt, at Oxyrhynchus

Personal note: when I was a student at Cambridge in the 1970s, working in the university library, I often walked past a door with a sign announcing the Taylor-Schechter Cairo Genizah Project, of which at the time I knew nothing. So I made a special effort to find out! From that library, I then returned to the college’s student housing at which I then lived, which many years later I found to have been the old home of Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, the “Sisters of Sinai,” who first led Schechter into his key discoveries. (Cue music: The Circle of Life...)

The Genizah story made a media splash at its time, and the New York Times reported at length that “Curious Discovery Made by Hebrew Scholar Reveals the Inner Life of Judaism” (May 3, 1908). One aspect of the find attracted huge attention at the time. Schechter discovered some mysterious fragments which he perceptively (and correctly) attributed to a then unknown Jewish sectarian group, and in 1910 he published them in an academic book called Documents of Jewish Sectaries (Cambridge University Press, 1910). The first of this was entitled Fragments of a Zadokite Work. The Fragments received still wider attention when they were discussed the second volume of R. H. Charles’s collection, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English (Clarendon Press, 1913), ii, 785-834. They were also widely noted in periodical literature, in articles such as James A. Montgomery, “A Lost Jewish Sect,” The Biblical World 38(6) (Dec., 1911), 373-383.

The full significance of these writings only came to light with the later findings at Qumran. What Schechter had published was a substantial fragment of the Damascus Document or Community Rule, a foundational text of the Qumran community: a fuller version was found among the Scrolls. Even in 1910, that fragment gave enough information to reconstruct the main outlines of the sect, and its foundation story. That involved a prophetic religious leader called the Teacher of Righteousness, who was in mortal conflict with another cleric called the Wicked Priest, with his “scoffing” followers. The Teacher’s persecuted followers followed him quite literally into the wilderness, where (as we later discovered) they founded the Qumran community.

Schechter could have known nothing of Qumran, but his deductions from the text as he had it were brilliant. He was very anxious to avoid going beyond his evidence, and to invent “sects from texts,” as the modern phrase has it. But reading his 1910 book, you often have to look back to the copyright date to check that you have not accidentally picked up a work from the 1980s. So much of what Schechter deduced about the Qumran sect was exactly right. To take one example from many, he described the intellectual and scriptural universe in which the sect lived, and the alternative texts on which they drew so heavily:

But besides the collection of the Books forming the Canon of the Old Testament, the Sect seems also to have considered as sacred certain “external writings,” forming a part of the Pseudepigrapha. This can be said with certainty of the Book of Jubilees, which is once quoted by its full name as the Book of the Divisions of the Seasons …. but to which reference is more frequently made without giving the name … The same may also be maintained with fair certainty of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, to a portion of which, the Testament of Levi … at least, we have a fairly distinct reference, whilst there are also other allusions to it. Besides these books still extant, though not exactly in the same shape as they have come down to us, the Sect must have also been in possession of some Pseudepigrapha now lost.

To which all we can say today is: yes indeed, at every point.

Schechter also made some smart – although incorrect – deductions about who the sect might actually have been. Focusing on the “Zadokite” language, he explored links with the Sadducees, but much of his reconstruction involved a shadowy sect called the Dositheans. That was anything but a foolish surmise, as the Dositheans recorded in early Christian and Muslim texts do indeed  have many points of resemblance with the Qumran movement. What makes that connection particularly tempting is that Christian writers linked the Dositheans to the origins of Gnosticism, and the work of heresiarchs like Simon Magus. If only the Qumran community had really been Dositheans rather than Essenes! That would fit wonderfully into what we know about the many parallels between the Dead Sea Scrolls and Gnosticism.

There is an irony in this debate, namely the non-discussion of the Essenes. As I have posted previously, the idea that John the Baptist and Jesus were Essenes was very commonplace in speculation about Christian origins from the Enlightenment onward, and was very popular in the late nineteenth century. It is curious, then that Schechter did not take account of this theorizing, which presumably he regarded as sensationalist, ill founded, and what we might today call New Agey. If he had pursued that line, though, and linked his “sectaries” to the Essene movement, he would have come very close indeed to an accurate reconstruction of his fragments, and their source.

Let it just be said that, although wrong in detail, all of Schechter’s deductions were logical and well supported.

Other scholars, however, went much further in what they thought they could draw from the “Zadokite Work,” and I will pursue that topic in my next post.



Mark Glickman, Sacred Treasure (Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights, 2011).

Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, Sacred Trash (Schocken Books, 2011).

Raphael Levy, “First “Dead Sea Scroll” Found in Egypt Fifty Years Before Qumran Discoveries,” Biblical Archaeology Review, Sep-Oct 1982.

S. C. Reif, “Cairo Genizah,” in L. H. Schiffman and J. C. VanderKam, eds., The Encyclopaedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Oxford and New York, 1998).

Janet Soskice, The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels (Vintage 2009).



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