The Dead Sea Scrolls of Medieval Cairo

Written on September 8, 2022 – 12:46 pm | by dave |

Among the Dead Sea Scrolls found, one was actually found in medieval Cairo, Egypt. In the 1890’s, an ancient storeroom was found in Cairo that contained scrolls of unknown origin. This was almost 50 years before the first Dead Sea Scrolls are discovered in the Qumran caves.

One of the items it contained was a previously unknown scroll known as the “Damascus Document” which was then studied by Solomon Schechter and Loius Ginzberg. Later, fragments of the Damascus Document were found in Qumran Cave 4. Jewish scholars were not permitted to simply throw away historic documents but instead, they were to either be buried or stored in a geniza (storeroom). So these documents were referred to as the “Cairo Geniza Documents”.

The Discovery of the Damascus Fragments at Qumran prove:

  • Schechter and Ginzburg were correct – it belonged to an ancient text
  • Jews continued to read, copy, and transmit this ancient text for over one thousand years.

The Cairo Genizah Documents

  • Date to the Middle Ages and provide an extremely detailed picture of the life of the medieval Jewish community in Cairo.
  • This find contained over 200,000 documents compared to only 930 documents in the Dead Sea Scrolls
  • This finding was split and sold to Cambridge, the New York Museum, and a museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
  • Scholars of the Middle Ages have, at their disposal, a treasure trove of documentation with time frames dating back to the 1100’s.
  • Some of the findings in the Genizah include:
    • A copy of the Mishna and the two Talmudim
    • The Hebrew original of the book of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus or Sirach)
    • New texts of Targum – Aramaic renderings of the Bible
    • Autographed letters and other texts signed by Maimonides (the greatest sage of the Middle Ages)
    • A commentary by Saint Augustine on the Sermon on the Mount – the original was erased and it was written over by Hebrew scholars
    • Two copies of the Damascus Document which were translated and released by Solomon Schechter as “Documents of Jewish sectaries, edited from Hebrew MSS. in the Cairo Genizah collection, now in the possession of the University Library, Cambridge, vol. 1: Fragments of a Zadokite work.”
  • The works that were found in the Cairo Genizah have now been abbreviated (in Dead Sea Scrolls literature) as CD (Cairo Damascus). This is based off the sect’s banishment to Damascus according to Amos 5:27 but may be a metaphor for the banishment from Jerusalem to Qumran

The Damascus Document

  • One part The Exhortation (CD MS A, cols. 1-14) begins describing the founding of the community approximately 390 years after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem which would be approximately 196 B.C.E.
    • Mentions a Teacher of Righteousness (moreh-zedeq), he appears in other scrolls and is often considered the leader of the sect
    • Contains a completely reinterpreted version of Amos 5:27 (CD 7:15-20) … the original considers being banished to Damascus as a punishment for sin, but the new version considers it a praiseworthy action and a promise for salvation
    • Replaces the word for constellations to star (kokhav) which then is explained as being the doresh ha-torah ha-ba’ dameseq – the one who interprets Torah, who comes to Damascus (likely the Qumran village).
    • Contains new interpretations of the rules of polygamy: “They are caught in two: fornication, in taking two wives in their lifetime, though the principle of creation is: male and female, he created them.” (citing Gen. 1:27 and Gen. 7:9)
    • How does the author approve David taking multiple wives (and various other polygamists): “But David had not read the sealed Book of the Torah, which was in the Ark; for it was not opened in Israel from the day of the death of Eleazar and Joshua and the elders who served the goddess Ashtoret. They buried it [the Torah]; it was revealed only when Zadok arose.”
    • It goes on to discuss David’s personage: “The deeds of David were all excellent, except for the murder of Uriah for which God forgave him. They also defile the sanctuary for they do not separate pure from impure according to the Torah, and they lie with one who sees her flowing blood.”
    • There is an additional passage that opposes the Jewish belief of uncle-niece marriage: “And they marry, each man the daughter of his brother and the daughter of his sister, although Moses said, “Unto the sister of your mother you shall not draw near, she is the flesh of your mother”. But the law of incest is written for males and applies also to females.” (this agrees with 1 Corinthians 7:2, Timothy 3:2, and Mark 10:11)
    • One important note is that a text only means what its later interpreters would have it mean.
  • The second section or The Statutes has some more specific instructions on what the community must adhere to. Some specific importance is placed on stricter Jewish law for the Sabbath:
    • Rabbis permitted one to walk 2,000 cubits (roughly 3,000 ft.) on the Sabbath but the Qumran community imposed a 1,000 cubit (1,500 ft.) limit.
    • Rabbis permitted the opening of vessels to remove food on the Sabbath but the Qumran community required all food to be prepared the day before the Sabbath.
    • Rabbis allow for non-Jewish people to do work for a Jew on the Sabbath but the Damascus Document prohibits this action.
  • Some other statutes that were different than those of Rabbinic teachings include:
    • Rabbis did not require fish to be ritually slaughtered as part of the temple sacrifices (such as land mammals and birds) but the Qumran required even fish to be ritually slaughtered.
    • Rabbis also agreed that although sex in the temple would never be permitted, it could be performed in Jerusalem. The Qumran people believed all of Jerusalem was holy ground and therefore did not agree with any sexual activity in Jerusalem.
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