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Ancient Document May Unfold Why Dead Sea Scrolls Were Found in Qumran Caves

A conservator of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) shows fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls at their laboratory in Jerusalem on June 2, 2020.  (Credits: AFP)

A conservator of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) shows fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls at their laboratory in Jerusalem on June 2, 2020. (Credits: AFP)

This Damascus Document, which gets its name from its numerous references to the city in Syria, was copied from an earlier Hebrew source.

There is a new theory that tries to untangle the mystery surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient Jewish and Hebrew religious manuscripts that were found in the Qumran Caves in the Judaean Desert. A document explains why the ancient manuscripts were stored away so far, near the Dead Sea, in present-day Israel, where no major human settlement existed at the time. The answer to this mystery was unlocked by another ancient Hebrew document created more than 1,000 years ago and stored in Egypt’s capital city Cairo.

According to a research published in the journal Religions, earlier in July this year, Daniel Vainstub, an archaeologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev suggested that Qumran may have been the place that hosted a large annual ceremony of the Essenes, the mystical Jewish sect, in which devotees gathered from cities and rural communities from all over Israel to observe a crucial ritual known as the Covenant of Renewal. The study further suggested that Qumran's unique construction also gives a glimpse of this ceremonial function and parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls also mention a similar festival gathering.

In a recent interview to Live Science, Vainstub said that the countrywide gathering, which was held in the third month of the Jewish calendar, called Sivan, and fell in May or June, was a large and well-organised event for which “clear and detailed rules were established.” Vainstub also mentioned in their study that Qumran was the location of this annual gathering which was based on a version of the rules of the religious community written in the Damascus Document or Damascus Covenant.

This Damascus Document, which gets its name from its numerous references to the city in Syria, was copied from an earlier Hebrew source in about the 10th century AD and was ultimately preserved in the Cairo Genizah, which was a storeroom next to a Jewish synagogue in the original Arabic capital of Egypt, Fustat. Since damaging any document that contained God’s name was forbidden, in Jewish religious law, and any documents from Cairo's Jewish community were stored in the genizah, writings accumulated at the location over many centuries.

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According to Vainstub’s research, Damascus Document from the genizah in Cairo provides more description of a ceremony referred to in the Dead Sea scroll fragments. The document found at Cairo Genizah shows that Qumran was the place where the annual gathering in the month of Sivan took place.

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first published:September 29, 2021, 12:44 IST