Judean Desert Texts: What is their significance?

This group includes the legal documents of Jews who fled to caves along the shore of the Dead Sea during the Bar-Kochba Revolt.

Fragments of the ancient texts found in the Cave of Horror  (photo credit: SHAI HALEVI / ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)
Fragments of the ancient texts found in the Cave of Horror
(photo credit: SHAI HALEVI / ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been called the largest jigsaw puzzle in the world. But it’s not just a regular jigsaw puzzle of some 80,000 pieces. Rather, imagine opening a box with a real jigsaw puzzle inside, throwing away the majority of the pieces, and then trying to put the puzzle together. That’s the task that scholars have been working on since the initial discoveries of manuscripts at Qumran and other sites in the Judean Desert. Imagine, therefore, the thrill of Dead Sea Scrolls scholars when new pieces of the puzzle are discovered that can be put into their rightful place in a document some 2,000 years old. This, indeed, is why the latest manuscript discovery has been so widely celebrated. Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists, engaged in a systematic re-exploration of all of the Judean Desert caves, have reported finding additional fragments, filling in gaps in a manuscript containing a Greek translation of the Twelve Prophets.
The latest Dead Sea Scrolls fragments to be discovered do not come from Qumran where most scholars believe the Essenes, or a closely related sect lived in the Second Temple period, but rather from Judean Desert caves to which Jews living around the southern end of the Dead Sea, in the provinces of Judea and Arabia, fled toward the end of the Bar-Kochba Revolt that took place in 132-5 CE. From 1952 until the present, these caves have yielded a string of discoveries of enormous importance for the study of Jewish history, law and the biblical text.
This group of texts is loosely termed “the Bar-Kochba texts,” but the more correct designation is the Judean Desert Texts. This group includes the legal documents of Jews who fled to caves along the shore of the Dead Sea during the Bar-Kochba Revolt, as well as military dispatches sent by Bar-Kochba himself to his officials at Ein Gedi and other nearby sites. It is from these documents that we learn that his real name was Shimon bar Kosiba. The numerous legal documents, covering marriage and divorce, land sales, rentals, deeds of gift, and other matters have illuminated enormously the life a community of Jews living around the southern half of the Dead Sea and in parts of Judea, as well as the realities of everyday life behind much of what we read in the Mishnah. At the same time, we see how those very same people, living in the Roman provinces of Judea and Arabia, interacted with the legal system imposed by the Romans and the culture of the Eastern Roman Empire. We also see the amazing linguistic mix in which Jews functioned in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Nabatean Aramaic, the latter dialect highly influenced by Arabic.
Judean Desert manuscripts of this kind were first discovered by Bedouin at Wadi Murabba’at (Nahal Dargah) in 1951 in what was then Jordan. These manuscripts were initially brought to the Palestine Archaeological Museum. Archaeological excavations followed that revealed even more texts and these were published in 1960 by members of the International Team charged with the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The newly discovered manuscripts were found in a cave known as the Cave of the Horror (Me’arat ha-Eimah), because when it was excavated in 1961 by Israeli archaeologist Yohanan Aharoni, skeletons of over forty men, women and children were found there. They had been starved to death by the Romans who blocked their escape from the cave. That excavation was part of a project organized with the support of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s then-prime minister, after it became very clear that manuscripts discovered in the caves of Nahal Hever, in Israel, were being smuggled by Bedouin into Jordan where they were being sold to the Palestine Archaeological Museum under the false claim that they had come from a Jordanian site. In essence, then, the new fragments were recovered at an already excavated cave. 
Bedouin entered this cave in 1952 and sold to archaeologists in Jordan the remnants of a scroll that constituted a Greek manuscript of most of the Twelve Prophets. A preliminary edition and study were published by Dominique Barthélemy in 1963 and a full scholarly edition of this manuscript was published by Prof. Emanuel Tov of the Hebrew University in 1998. This was soon after the widening of the International Team to include Jewish scholars. Tov was appointed to head the International Team in 1991, reorganized the publication plan for the Dead Sea Scrolls, and brought about the full publication of these important texts. It had not been definitely established that the Greek Twelve Prophets had come from Nachal Hever until Aharoni’s excavation of 1961. In his excavation, some additional small fragments of this manuscript, overlooked by the Bedouin when they robbed the cave, were discovered, proving the scroll’s provenance – its place of origin.
This is not the only Twelve Prophets manuscript that emerged from the Bar-Kochba caves. At about the same time as the Bedouin were looting the caves in Israel, on the Jordanian side of what was then the armistice, Bedouin located and explored caves located along Wadi Murabba’at (Nahal Dargah). Among the scroll fragments they recovered there were extensive remnants of a Hebrew Twelve Prophets Scroll. 
This manuscript was brought by the Bedouin to the antiquities dealer Kando in Bethlehem and was sold by him to the Palestine Archaeological Museum. This text represented essentially the proto-Masoretic Text, the traditional biblical text without the vowels and cantillation marks that were added by the Masoretes in the 5-8th centuries. Although this manuscript was also not complete, it contains sufficient text for us to realize that what are termed the Twelve Minor (=smaller) Prophets were indeed written in Antiquity on one scroll that was approximately the same size as the scrolls that were required for writing each of the larger Latter Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) tells us that the twelve were written as one manuscript, because otherwise they might be lost because of their small size. 
What is so important about the Greek Twelve Prophets manuscript, numbered in our academic catalogs as, “eighth cave at Nachal Hever, Twelve Prophets, Greek?” First of all, it is interesting to note that in this Greek manuscript, the four-letter divine name is written in the ancient Hebrew script, similar to that of the Canaanites, not in the Aramaic square script that became the norm after the return from the Babylonian Exile. A similar practice is in evidence in some of the Hebrew manuscripts scrolls among the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran. Although according to Jewish law (Maimonides, Hilkhot Tefillin, 1:19) writing biblical texts, let alone divine names, in this script renders them unsanctified, it seems that some sectarian Jews at this time thought the opposite, seeing the use of this kind of lettering for the divine name, even in a Greek text, as indicating greater sanctity. Use of Hebrew divine names in Greek biblical texts is also known from later manuscripts. 
But that is not all that this manuscript has to tell us. The Talmud (Megillah 9a) recounts how Ptolemy, ruler of Egypt, after the division of the empire of Alexander the Great in 311 BCE, arranged for 72 scholars to translate the Torah into Greek. This translation is known as the Septuagint, a term deriving from the number 70 in Latin. The third or second-century BCE Greek text entitled Letter of Aristeas contains a parallel to this account that identifies the king as Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-47 BCE) and allows us to date the translation to the third century BCE. However, these accounts refer only to the Torah. The rest of the books were translated in the second and first centuries BCE. A small number of fragments of Greek biblical texts were also found at Qumran, indicating that some of the sectarians needed to use Greek translations to understand the Bible. Apparently, this was the case with some of those who took refuge in the caves along the shore of the Dead Sea during the Bar-Kochba Revolt. We should not be surprised at this in light of the fact that some of the legal documents they brought with them to the caves had been written in Greek.
However, the translations found in this manuscript, when compared to the Greek text of the Septuagint as it has been passed down by the Christian monks who copied its manuscripts in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, show a very interesting tendency. The manuscript from Nachal Hever has a variety of translations that are clearly revisions of the Greek text in order to bring the previously existing Greek translation into harmony with a Hebrew text much closer to the Masoretic Text, indeed one very much like the Hebrew Twelve Prophets found at Wadi Murabba’at. Apparently, this tendency shows that somebody was using the translation to study along with the Hebrew text, or to follow a synagogue Torah reading, and that whoever created this Greek revision sought to provide such a reader with a helpful guide to understanding the Hebrew.
Since the very first Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, there has been a constant race between Bedouin antiquities hunters and archaeologists. This time the archaeologists won. And the prize was well worth the effort. In about 2002, there started to appear on the antiquities market numerous Dead Sea Scrolls fragments. Although we now know that these were all forged, it was believed then that some of them were being pillaged by Bedouin from caves in the Judean Desert. There had been a thorough search, conducted by Israeli archaeologists, soldiers and (yes!) Bedouin, of much of the Judean Desert and the area around Jericho before the Oslo Accords went into effect in 1995. That search had turned up some documents left in a cave near Jericho by refugees during the Bar-Kochba Revolt. In 2017, stimulated by the fragments on the market, in order to prevent the pillaging of antiquities, another operation was launched by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) to survey all the caves in the Judean Desert and to excavate (or re-excavate) those that held promise for the recovery of antiquities. Indeed, besides the newly discovered scroll fragments, the current project turned up a variety of other finds including a 10,000 year-old completely intact basket, the oldest ever found, as well as the body of a young girl buried some 5000 years ago, and various small finds. 
Even before the start of the IAA project, in 2003, a group of archaeologists and scholars had partially re-excavated another Naḥal Ḥever cave known as the Cave of the Letters (Me’arat ha-Igrot). As part of the Israeli exploration of the caves, Yigael Yadin had led excavations there in 1961. This cave had been entered by Bedouin and robbed of much important materials in 1953. Yadin and his team discovered unbelievable treasures there, including a cache of all the legal documents of a woman named Babata, including her Ketubah. But re-excavation of this cave, however, had yielded very little. 
Of course, when the excavators returned to the Cave of the Letters it was hoped that they would find documents, perhaps even biblical scrolls. But that was not to be. Happily, such disappointment did not await those who re-excavated the Cave of the Horror. They unearthed some 80 fragments of parchment, 40 of which bear written material. These fragments allow a few more pieces of the massive jigsaw puzzle to be placed. Specifically, they found fragments of Nahum and Zechariah. These fragments can be placed in the lacunae (gaps in the manuscript) in their correct columns, and so we eagerly await the publication of these texts as deciphered and reconstructed. Nahum 1:5-6 speaks of God’s ultimate destruction of evil. Indeed, the text from Zechariah comes to us at a time when its message is sorely needed. The manuscript preserves Zechariah 8:16-17: “These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates. And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate – declares the Lord.”
The writer is Judge Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and Director of the Global Network for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies at New York University