An Old Problem Gets More Interesting: Resurrection in the Dead Sea Scrolls

By: C.D. Elledge

Jewish hope in resurrection of the dead plays an important role in the history of Western religions.  It was principally during the Second Temple Period that Jews developed increasing innovation in the varied forms in which they envisioned a blessed afterlife – including hope in resurrection of the dead, the belief that God would actively raise humans from the realm of the dead and restore them to a renewed form of life.  While beliefs about resurrection remained diverse, Jews of the Second Temple Period left behind to the rabbinic age, the early church, and even later to Islam, the predominant idiom in which they would express their eschatological hopes.

An old problem in the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been the question of whether or not resurrection had gained any traction among the Jews of Qumran.  While early assessments of the Scrolls remained somewhat divided on the question, a decisive tilting of the scales seemed to favor the view that the Qumran community did not take an active interest in the resurrection hope.  Especially in the early 1970s, George W.E. Nickelsburg and Martin Hengel forcefully expressed this view:  “The published Scrolls of Qumran are remarkable in that they contain not a single passage that can be interpreted with absolute certainty as a reference to resurrection or immortality”;[1] “…the idea of physical resurrection retreated so far into the background that we must ask whether this concept is still appropriate in their case.”[2]

Instead of the kind of future resurrection featured in Dan 12:1-3 and other apocalyptic texts, Qumran seemed to emphasize present communion with angelic beings and the current realization of everlasting life in the cultic context of their pure worship.  From this point of view, resurrection was hardly necessary, since the life of the eschatological age was already present within the cultic context of the community.[3]  This assessment was especially based upon the so-called ‘sectarian’ Dead Sea Scrolls that were composed and/or edited by the Qumran community (e.g., Rule of the Community, Damascus Document, Pesharim, War Scroll, etc.).  In such writings that seemed to express the essence of Qumran’s sectarian ideology, resurrection held a position of no apparent prominence whatsoever.

This view, however, has been challenged by the expanding number of writings that allude to resurrection over the last two decades.  Paramount among these was Èmile Puech’s edition of 4Q521, the so-called Messianic Apocalypse, which repeatedly celebrates the hope that God will ‘revive the dead’ (fragments 2+4 II 1-12; frag­ments 7+5):

For the heav]ens and the earth shall hearken unto his messiah,
and all th]at is in them will not depart from the commandments of the holy ones.
Strengthen yourselves in his service, you who seek the Lord.         vacat
Will you not find the Lord in this, all those who hope in their heart?
For the Lord will attend to the pious, and the righteous he will call by name.
And upon the poor, his spirit will hover; and the faithful he shall renew in his strength.
For he shall glorify the pious upon a throne of kingship forever,
liberating prisoners, restoring sight to the blind, comforting the down[trodden.
And f[or]ever will I cleave with those [who] hope and in his faithfulness y[
and the frui[t of] a good [wor]k will not be delayed to a person.
And wondrous things which have not existed, the Lord will do, even as he s[aid.
For he will heal the slain, and the dead he will cause to live, to the poor he will bring glad tidings,
and the [low]ly he will satis[fy], he will lead forth the exiles, and the hungry he will enrich … (4Q521 frgs. 2 II + 4 1-13)[4]

Alongside this clear attestation, other writings soon emerged as additional support for a positive reception of the resurrection hope at Qumran. The writing known as Pseudo-Ezekiel (4Q385 fragment 2 lines 1-10), for example, creatively rewrites the scriptural prophet’s vision of the ‘valley of dry bones’ into a hope for the physical resurrection of the righteous (ch. 37):

And they shall know that I am the lord,] the redeemer of my people, who gives them the covenant.  vacat   [And I said:  ‘lord,] I have seen many in Israel who have loved your name and have walked in the ways [of righteousness.  But] when shall [th]ese things be?  And how will they be rewarded for their piety?”  And the lord said to me, “I myself shall cause the sons of Israel to see, and they shall know that I am the lord.  vacat   [And he said,] “Son of man, prophesy unto the bones and say, ‘Let bone join together with bone, and joint [to joint.’”  And it wa]s s[o].  And he said a second time, “Prophesy, that the tendons may come upon them and that skin may cover [them.”  And it was so.]  And he said, “Prophesy yet again to the four winds of heaven, that the wind may breathe [into them and they shall live.”  And it was so.]  And a great host of men came to life and blessed the lord of Hosts, wh[o caused them to live.  (4Q385 frg. 2, lines 1-10)[5]

Although Ezekiel’s vision in the Hebrew Bible utilized the language of re-creation as a symbol for national restoration, Pseudo-Ezekiel ventured a step further.  In Pseudo-Ezekiel, there is no interpretation of the vision as a symbol.  Instead, this adaptation of the prophetic text seems to envision a literal hope of physical resurrection.[6]

Finally in addition to these two clear specimens of resurrection hope, Puech has additionally suggested that a wisdom Instruction from Qumran (4Q418 = 4QInstructiond) also alludes to a resurrection (fragment 69 II + 60 lines 1-15, esp. lines 7-8) in which the just will ‘awaken’/‘be awakened’ from the dead to judge the wicked at the end of the age:[7]

And now, O you foolish-minded ones, what is good to a man who has not [been created?  And what] is tranquility to a man who has not come into activity?  And what is judgment to a man who has not been established?  And what lament shall the dead make over th[eir own dea]th?  You were fashioned [by the power of G]od, but to the everlasting pit shall your return be.  For it shall awaken [to condemn] you[r] sin, [And the creatures of] its dark places [ ] shall cry out against your pleading.  And all those who will endure forever, those who seek the truth, shall awaken to judge y[ou.  And then] will all the foolish-minded be destroyed, and the children of iniquity shall not be found anymore, [and a]ll those who hold fast to wickedness shall wither [away.  (4Q418 frg. 69 II 4-8)[8]

In this case, the verdict is less certain as to whether the Instruction truly expects a resurrection of the righteous dead.  It has been argued, for instance, that its authors envisioned the awakening of angelic beings to execute judgment, rather than the righteous dead.[9]  Even so, there is still a good case to be made that a resurrection may be envisioned here.  Elsewhere in the Instruction, “those who pursue the truth” is an expression referring to righteous humans, rather than angelic beings or avenging spirits.[10]  Equally, the verb “to pursue” / “study” (Xrd) is one of the principle injunctions that the writing offers to its human audience in the pursuit of wisdom.[11]  Moreover, the imagery of “awakening” from “sleep” is attested as a reference for resurrection in other writings.[12]  While certainty proves elusive in this case, there is at least a very good possibility that the passage represents yet another case in which the Scrolls reference resurrection.

While these writings have not numbered among the quintessential ‘sectarian’ writings of the Qumran community, they have provided an increasingly formi­dable column of evidence that resurrection was somehow positively received at Qumran.  More recent assessments have taken account.[13]  Nickelsburg, too, has acknowledged this point in the updated edition (2006) of his classic study (1972):  “Thus, to judge from the broader range of Scrolls that were either brought to or copied at Qumran, some people there believed in a resurrection from the dead.”[14]  The latter point is only further underscored when one recognizes the popularity of both Daniel and the Book of Watchers (1 En. 1-36) at Qumran, writings in which resurrection played a significant role.  For a movement that did not feature resurrection in its most sectarian texts, Qumran certainly did not reject resurrection.  It was a popular hope in multiple writings incorporated into the Qumran library.  In the case of Daniel and 1 Enoch, resurrection played a prominent role within two of the apocalyptic traditions that functioned as “authoritative literature” for the community.[15]

Studying this question today, therefore, demands that we account for two crucial factors:  (1) Explicit reference to resurrection did not take a prominent role in the sectarian ideology featured in many quintessential Qumran writings; moreover, clear references to resurrection occur only in a very small percentage of the content of all the Scrolls.  (2) Even so, resurrection was positively received within the literary corpus that the community adopted.  What might a proper realization of these dual factors teach us about the kind of reception that resurrection received within the Qumran movement in the first and second centuries B.C.E.?

One possibility is to view resurrection as an idea that was emerging in a more dynamic and gradual process of reception at Qumran.  Rather than a community that either accepted or rejected resurrection in static terms, the Scrolls actually seem to portray a movement in which resurrection was beginning to play a role among the diverse range of hopes that constituted its eschatology.  The absence of an undoubted reference to resurrection within classic Qumran sectarian ideology may suggest that resurrection was a popular hope from broader sectors of Judaism, which the Community was still in the process of gradually assimilating into its ideology in a rather slow and cautious manner. Precisely this situation seems very appropriate, in fact, to a religious movement that flourished in the late second to first centuries B.C.E., the very generations after Daniel and portions of 1 Enoch had already begun to feature resurrection within their own eschatologies.

The presence of resurrection within the Scrolls is not only an important recognition for understanding the Qumran community; it also more fully illumines the status of the resurrection hope within Judaism more generally in the centuries prior to the Common Era.

First, the Qumran literature suggests that resurrection was still developing and emerging in popularity within multiple sectors of Judaism in the later second century B.C.E.  The palaeographical dates of the Messianic Apocalypse (early first century B.C.E.), Pseudo-Ezekiel (middle first century B.C.E.), and 4QInstruction (late first century B.C.E.) indicate the growth of the resurrection hope in multiple sectors of Judaism—including Qumran—in the generations following our earliest literary evidence in 1 Enoch and Daniel.  Its appeal at Qumran was positive; yet it was also limited and rather slow.  While it is of paramount significance in the Messianic Apocalypse and Pseudo-Ezekiel, it is equally missing from most of the community’s literature.  If Qumran is any indication, one should not imagine an instant popularity for resurrection that made it a predominant Jewish belief during the era of the Qumran community.  Instead, the Scrolls seem to exhibit a positive, yet limited and slowly developing reception for a belief that remained both popular and controversial in ancient times.

Second, resurrection was understood in very diverse ways in Judaism; and the Scrolls seem to exhibit the same mixed and inconsis­tent conceptualization of resurrection that one encounters in contemporary Judaism as a whole.  In the Messianic Apocalypse, for example, the dead seem to be raised to a cosmic and celestial locale; yet a literal reading of Pseudo-Ezekiel would suggested that the dead are restored to an emphatically physical life on earth.  Thus, the Qumran community’s gradual acceptance of resurrection never seems to have taken the shape of an exclusive anthropological understanding; and that would only make it entirely consistent with the diverse forms of resurrection attested within the larger Jewish culture of its time.

Third, as in the case of Daniel 12:1-3, the authors of the Scrolls prefer to frame the controversial resurrection hope in authoritative scriptural language.  It has long been recognized that Daniel’s prophecy incorporates the language of Isaiah 26:19 and 66:24 into its description of the resurrection.  The daring claim that those who dwell in the dust of the earth are soon to awaken is, thus, presented as a hope in utmost continuity with earlier scriptural prophecy.  Likewise, the Messianic Apocalypse also frames its repeated claims that God will raise the dead within the familiar language of prophecies from Isa 51, 61, and Ps 146.  Pseudo-Ezekiel, too, weaves its literal resurrection prophecy into its artful rewriting of Ezekiel 37.  Thus, the Scrolls mentioning resurrection from Qumran more fully illumine a tendency also found in Daniel:  Jews who trumpeted their hope in the resurrection were also cautious to do so upon the precedent of earlier scriptural prophecies found in authoritative literature.

These are only a few of the ways in which Qumran has shed considerable light upon the status of Jewish hope in resurrection during the late Second Temple Period.  While there may be nothing new under the sun, at least old problems sometimes get more interesting with age.

C.D. Elledge is Associate Professor of Religion at Gustavus Adolphus College.  He is the author of Life after Death in Early Judaism:  The Evidence of Josephus (Mohr Siebeck, 2006).


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[1]George W.E. Nickelsburg, Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism (HTS, 26; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 179.

[2]Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism:  Studies in their Encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic Period (trans. J. Bowden; Philadelphia:  Fortress, 1974), 1:198.

[3]John J. Collins, Apocalypticism and the Dead Sea Scrolls (London and New York:  Routledge, 1997), 118:  “This may explain why passages like the Instruction on the Two Spirits do not use the language of resurrection, and why death does not appear as a problem in these texts.  The members of the council of the community believed that they had made the transition to angelic, eternal life while still living in this life.”

[4]Translation follows the Hebrew transcription and French translation of Èmile Puech, Qumran Cave 4.XVIII (DJD XXV; Oxford:  Clarendon, 1998), 10-11.

[5]Translation follows the transcription of Puech, La croyance des esséniens en la vie future: immortalité, resurrection, vie éternelle?: histoire d’une croyance dans le judaïsme ancien (2 vols.; Etudes bibliques, 21-22; Paris: Gabalda, 1993), 2:609.

[6]The interpretation of Ezekiel 37:1-14 as a prophecy about the resurrection is also featured in later Jewish and Christian writings (Lives of the Prophets 3.11-12; Genesis Rabbah 14.5; Leviticus Rabbah 14.9; Tertullian, Resurrection 29-30; cf. 4 Macc. 18.17).

[7]Puech, “Apports des manuscrits de Qoumrân à la croyance à la resurrection dans le judaïsme ancient,” in Qoumrân et le Judaïsme du Tournant de notre Ère (ed. S. Mimouni and G. Nahon; Paris:  Peeters, 2006), 81-110.

[8]Translation follows John Strugnell, Daniel J. Harrington, Torleif Elgvin, with Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Qumran Cave 4.XXIV:  4QInstruction (DJD XXXIV; Oxford:  Clarendon, 1999), 283, with revision.

[9]John J. Collins, “The Mysteries of God:  Creation and Eschatology in 4QInstruction and the Wisdom of Solomon,” in Wisdom and Apocalypticism in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in the Biblical Tradition (ed. F. García Martínez; BETL 168; Leuven, 200), 287-305, esp. p. 295.; Matt J. Goff, The Worldly and Heavenly Wisdom of 4QInstruction (STDJ L; Leiden:  Brill, 2003), 177-179.

[10]Still another possibility is that the “seekers” are human, yet the description in this passage only refers to their “rousing themselves” to participate in the judgment, rather than literally “awakening” from the dead in a resurrection; see Eibert J.C. Tigchelaar, To Increase Learning for the Understanding Ones:  Reading and Reconstructing the Fragmentary Early Jewish Sapiential Text 4QInstruction (STDJ XLIV; Leiden:  Brill, 2001), 211-213.

[11]4Q416 frg. 2 II 19; III 9, 13-14; 4Q417 frg. 1 I 6, 14; II 13; frg. 28 line 1; 4Q418 frg. 9a-c line 8, 13; frg. 69 II 7; frg. 70 line 4; frg. 81-81a line 7, 18; frg. 96 line 2; frg. 102a-b line 4; frg. 126 II 4, 11-12; frg. 127 line 4; frg. 158 line 3; 4Q423 frg. 9 line 2.

[12]Dan 12:1-3.  See further John F.A. Sawyer, “Hebrew Words for the Resurrection of the Dead,” VT 23 (1973):  223-225.

[13]See C.D. Elledge, “Future Resurrection in Early Judaism:  Social Dynamics, Contested Evidence,” CBR 9 (2011):  394-421.

[14]Nickelsburg, Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism and Early Christianity (HTS, 56; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006 [1972]), 12.

[15]Here, I follow the terminology of James VanderKam, “Authoritative Literature in the Dead Sea Scrolls,” DSD 5 (1998): 389-396.

5 thoughts on “An Old Problem Gets More Interesting: Resurrection in the Dead Sea Scrolls

  1. McGrath pointed me to this particular entry in your blog on the fascinating topic of pre-Christian ideas of resurrection. I recall reading about a verse in Isaiah that is echoed in Matthew 11:5 “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” But in Isaiah the words, “the dead are raised” are not found, so they were added by the Christian writer. I also recall reading that in a Dead Sea Scroll there’s this same verse from Isaiah and that the Dead Sea Scroll writers also had added the words, “the dead are raised,” and that the addition of those words was probably earlier than the Christian usage seen in Matthew. Is that the case so far as you’ve read?

  2. Also, does the acknowledgement that resurrection played a more prominent role in DSS writing mean that N.T. Wright overplayed his hand in his enormous book on The Resurrection? Any thoughts you’d care to add concerning N.T. Wright’s views of the resurrection, or even his apparently certainty as revealed in a later work of his that we’ll all be physically resurrected and live together on a new earth?

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  4. Ed, you are exactly right on that point and it is surely quite significant. What we have is the Q source (Luke 7/Matt 11) functioning as a kind of midrash on the tradition reflected in this earlier Qumran fragment. Michael Wise and I published this point before the official text came out. It first appeared in BAR magazine, then subsequently in a special Charlesworth edited edition of the Journal of the Pseudipigrapha. See the cities and links here:

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