By: Daniel A. Machiela

When most people think of the Dead Sea Scrolls, they likely (and understandably) envision either a devoted band of Jewish sectarians sequestered away in the harsh Judean wilderness, or a stunning cache of biblical manuscripts centuries older than we possessed before the late 1940’s. These two groups of texts – the Sectarian and the Biblical Scrolls – remain, for good reason, at the center of current museum exhibits and our popular imagination, though many important complexities have been introduced into discussions surrounding each group in recent decades. Yet there are a good many manuscripts from among the Scrolls that do not fit neatly into these two categories, some of which have been the subject increasingly scholarly focus with important results for our understanding of Judaism during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Included among these are the approximately 130-150 manuscripts written in Aramaic, which, aside from some portions of Daniel and Ezra, are not ‘biblical,’ and which most would agree are also non-Sectarian.[1] It is widely agreed that most of these texts were composed in the 3rd-2nd centuries BCE, and therefore generally date to a period slightly earlier than the Sectarian texts. What more can we say about the Aramaic texts from Qumran, and what fresh insights might they yield for our reconstructions of second temple period Judaism?

The Aramaic Scrolls: A coherent textual cluster, or an unrelated assortment?

Cave 4 at Qumran

The first matter to address regarding the Aramaic Scrolls is the extent to which we may even speak of them a ‘group’ or ‘corpus.’ Are there factors that hold all of these texts together aside from their language of composition? And concerning language, is even this a coherent enough dialect to be used as a criterion for grouping these texts? The simple answer to both of these questions is ‘no,’ since there are some Aramaic works from the Qumran caves that quite obviously distance themselves from others by their genre, their language, or both. We might include here the Aramaic translation of Job from Cave 11 (11Q10), the Aramaic documentary texts (deeds, bills of sale, etc.) allegedly found in Cave 4,[2] and a handful of other texts from that cave dealing with magical, physiognomic, and zodiacal matters (4Q560, 4Q561, and 4Q318).[3]

Despite these relatively few outliers, however, I would like to suggest that a considerable number of the Aramaic Scrolls – writings like 1 Enoch, the Book of Giants, Tobit, Daniel, the Genesis Apocryphon, the Aramaic Levi Document, the Visions of Amram, the Words of Michael, and Jews in the Persian Court – do indeed exhibit the traits of a loosely interrelated group or cluster. To be sure, this cluster bears the marks of development over more than a century, and comprises some distinctive sub-groupings with themes and concerns of their own. We may also discern some diversity in the audiences addressed or the presumed purposes for writing various works. Nevertheless, most of the Aramaic texts from Qumran appear to have been written in highly-learned circles associated with or respectful of the levitical priesthood, concerned primarily with producing didactic, paraenetic, and often entertaining Jewish literature. The fact that this literature was written in Aramaic and sometimes depicts neutral or positive interaction with foreigners may indicate that it was intended to be read or heard by a wide spectrum of Jews (perhaps even some non-Jews) living inside and outside of the Land of Israel during the Hellenistic period. By reading or listening to these engaging accounts, Jews would have been instructed in various facets of Jewish wisdom, practice, and morality; in short, they learned what it meant to be a Jew living in a predominantly foreign setting that was regularly characterized as ungodly and impious.

The case for an interrelated cluster of texts

The paragraph above is really nothing more than an unsubstantiated theory, and any such theory requires extensive substantiation from a wide array of texts. So how do we see these loosely related goals and compositional settings surface in the Aramaic texts? A full accounting would take far more space than is feasible in this blogpost, and is currently the subject of a multi-year project extending from my earlier work on the Genesis Apocryphon. Here I will simply outline a few of the more important ways in which we see interconnections within our cluster of texts.

The Genesis Apocryphon before unrolling (Photo by Helena Biberkraut)

1. Literary approach/Genre

A large number of the Aramaic texts exhibit a degree of coherence in basic literary approach, or genre. Most are presented as narratives associated with either the pre-Sinai patriarchal period or the Babylonian-Persian exile (e.g., 1 Enoch, Book of Giants, Genesis Apocryphon, Aramaic Levi Document, Tobit, Daniel, Pseudo-Daniel, Prayer of Nabonidus, and Jews in the Persian Court). These often have a strong didactic, paraenetic, and moral tone, with exemplary figures modeling a life of righteousness or foreign kings acknowledging the power of Israel’s God. A large number of the Aramaic texts are framed, to a greater or lesser extent, in a first-person, pseudepigraphic voice. Despite the frequent use of narrative frameworks, other genre-blocks are commonly found incorporated into the Aramaic texts; most notably we find apocalyptic revelation through dream-visions, sections of wisdom instruction, and “scientific” excurses on astronomy, calendar, cultic matters, or geography. Some of these are written in an elevated prose or poetry. Dream visions are almost always followed by prayers or expressions of praise, where the relevant text is extant. In stark contrast to the Hebrew Sectarian texts from Qumran, among the Aramaic Scrolls we do not find legal texts, liturgical texts, rule texts, or commentary texts. Conversely, the Hebrew material has very little that fits the preceding description of the Aramaic texts.

2. Thematic connections

There is also a distinctive configuration of themes and concerns in the Aramaic Scrolls. Any one of these may not be spread across a high percentage of the texts, but are regularly shared by three or four of them in a variety of interlinking patterns. These themes and concerns include: 1.) an intense interest in apocalyptic revelation, divine mysteries, heavenly books or tablets, and writing in general, all of which lend a certain authority to this literature; 2.) an accompanying interest in “scientific” topics such as astronomy, calendrical computation, and geography; 3.) the prominent presence of angels and demons; 4.) the divine election and exalted status of the levitical priesthood, which was pre-elected before Levi’s time; 5.) a serious concern over marriage and endogamy; 6.) a heightened interest in women’s names and roles when compared with earlier texts from the Hebrew Bible, often employed in support of the marriage theme; 7.) a dualistic worldview that relies heavily on language of two paths, light and darkness, and righteousness and wickedness; and 8.) the fidelity of righteous Israelites or their ancestors to the wise paths of God in corrupt, foreign situations. This last theme may account for the special focus of the Aramaic texts on the periods of Israel’s patriarchs and matriarchs and the Babylonian-Persian exile. It is also worth noting the surprisingly accommodating attitude toward foreign rulers and their governments in some of these works, an outlook which fits best the early Hellenistic period, and is no longer present, for example, in the Book of Jubilees, 1 Maccabees, and the Sectarian literature from Qumran.

The Genesis Apocryphon during unrolling (Photo by Helena Bieberkraut)

3. Language

Finally, a good deal of interconnection may be seen in the language of the Aramaic Scrolls. On a broad level, we may note the generally homogeneous Aramaic dialect used across the core cluster, which includes occasional Hebraisms based on influence from the Hebrew Bible. Despite the early claims of Kutscher and others that a clear, chronological distinction may be made between the Aramaic of Daniel and the Genesis Apocryphon, most would now agree that the dialect used across the Aramaic Scrolls (including Daniel) varies rather slightly, with much of the variation falling within the normal range of individual scribal preferences. In addition, a wide array of more specific affinities emerges from a close, comparative reading of the corpus. These include extended idioms, short phrases, and distinctive items of vocabulary which, like the themes and concerns noted above, link a given text to the broader corpus in varied ways. A nice example is the shared use of a distinctive, formulaic idiom for waking up from a vision in three different texts: the Genesis Apocryphon, the Aramaic Levi Document, and the Visions of Amram:

“And I woke up in the night from my sleep.” (ואתעירת בליליא מן שנתי; in 1QapGen 19:17)

“I woke up from my sleep.” (אנה אתעירת מן שנתי; in 4Q213b [Levic] 3:2)

“And I woke up from my sleep of my eyes.” (ואנה אתעירת מן שנת עיני; in 4Q547 [Amrame] 9:8)

We should also include here a shared preference for certain divine names and epithets, such as עליון and מרה עלמא. It should be stressed that a number of these linguistic connections do not appear to depend on borrowings from the Hebrew Bible or other authoritative Jewish literature, though in some cases they were likely adopted from the wider world of Aramaic literature (e.g., Aramaic Ahiqar) with which our scribes were undoubtedly acquainted.

A new cluster of (Aramaic) Jewish literature

What does this interrelated cluster of Aramaic texts offer those interested in second temple Jewish culture? Before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, we possessed the Aramaic portions of Daniel in their original language, as well as Tobit, 1 Enoch, and parts of the Aramaic Levi Document in translation (though with no certainty over their original languages of composition). With the Aramaic literature found in the vicinity of Qumran we have taken a huge leap forward in how we understand these works, now seeing them as individual parts of a Jewish literary movement broader and richer than we could previously have guessed at, and to which we now have fuller knowledge and access. Among the Aramaic Scrolls we find a literature geared not toward an Essene sect, but significantly wider in its focus, most likely part of a large-scale initiative led by priestly groups, intended to educate and inspire Jews living in the Hellenistic age. (It should be noted that some texts or sections of texts, such as the Astronomical Book of 1 Enoch or parts of the Aramaic Levi Document, may have been written primarily to educate priests and Levites in particular, as Henryk Drawnel and others have suggested.) It is to our great benefit that pieces of this literature made their way to the humble, austere environs of Qumran, quite probably in the hands of some who joined the sect. In coming years we can look forward to learning more about these fascinating “other Dead Sea Scrolls.”

Daniel A. Machiela is Assistant Professor of Early Judaism at McMaster University.  He is the author of The Dead Sea Genesis Apocryphon : a new text and translation with introduction and special treatment of columns 13-17 (Brill, 2009).


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[1]The number of manuscripts depends to a certain extent on the combination of certain groups of fragments and, more significantly, whether one includes the Aramaic (or Hebrew-Aramaic) documentary texts that were at one time assigned to Cave 4, but are now disputed. On this question see the comments and bibliography of H. Cotton and A. Yardeni in DJD XXVII (1-8, 283-84), and H. Cotton and E. Larson, “4Q460/4Q350 and Tampering with Qumran Texts in Antiquity,” in Emanuel: Studies in Hebrew Bible, Septuagint, and Dead Sea Scrolls in honor of Emanuel Tov (ed. S. M. Paul et al.; VTSup 94; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 113-25 (esp. 117-21).

[2]See note 1, above.

[3]I would also add the List of False Prophets (4Q339), and perhaps some very fragmentary poetic or sapiential texts (4Q563, 4Q569).


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  2. “It is to our great benefit that pieces of this literature made their way to the humble, austere environs of Qumran, quite probably in the hands of some who joined the sect.”

    Machiela continues the myth that there was a sect resident at Qumran! So just how did Aramaic literature, that Machiela says originated in the 3rd to 2nd centuries BC, get to Qumran?

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