The Dead Sea Temple Scroll

Jacob Milgrom

Jacob Milgrom, “The Dead Sea Temple Scroll,” in Scriptures for the Modern World, ed. Paul R. Cheesman and C. Wilfred Griggs (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1984), 61–74.

There are conflicting accounts of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I would like to begin with one of them, that by the well-known American “archaeologist” Woody Allen. He writes as follows:

Scholars will recall that several years ago a shepherd wandering in the Gulf of Aqaba stumbled upon a cave containing several large clay jars and also two tickets to the ice show. Inside the jars were discovered six parchment scrolls with ancient, incomprehensible writing which the shepherd, in his ignorance, sold to the museum for $750,000 apiece. Two years later the jars turned up in a pawnshop in Philadelphia. One year later the shepherd turned up in a pawnshop in Philadelphia and neither was claimed.

Archaeologists originally set the date of the scrolls at 4000 B.C., or just after the massacre of the Israelites by their benefactors. The writing is a mixture of Sumerian, Aramaic, and Babylonian and seems to have been done by either one man over a long period of time, or several men who shared the same suit. The authenticity of the scrolls is currently in great doubt, particularly since the word “Oldsmobile” appears several times in the text. . . . Still, excavationist A. H. Bauer has noted that even though the fragments seem totally fraudulent, this is probably the greatest archaeological find in history with the exception of the recovery of his cuff links from a tomb in Jerusalem. [1]

I begin with Woody Allen because, when I tell you the real story, you will find it hardly more credible. In this case, the truth is not only stranger than fiction but far more exciting. The story begins in the spring of 1947, when three shepherd youths of the Ta’amira Bedouin, watering their flock at the spring of Ein Fesh-kha, near the northern part of the Dead Sea, scampered after their goats up the steep bordering cliffs. One youth began throwing rocks into the mouths of caves. Suddenly, what echoed back was the resounding crash of broken pottery. Thus were discovered the first of the jars containing the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The scrolls, gathered up by members of the tribe, were turned over to an Arab dealer who then sold them to his religious leader, the Metropolitan Samuel of the Syrian Orthodox Church, for the sum of 24 sterling, or what was then approximately $97.00. Then began a tale which can only be characterized “cloak and dagger.” The date explains it all: the fall and winter of 1947–1948, the time of the establishment of the state of Israel. Jerusalem became a divided city. Jewish scholars, on the other side of the battle line, had no access to the scrolls. The Metropolitan finally brought them to the American School of Oriental Research, where they were photographed. Copies were sent to the doyen of archaeologists, William Foxwell Albright at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and their authenticity was verified. Shortly thereafter, the Metropolitan took the scrolls on tour throughout the United States. His purpose was to sell them; but since both Jordan and Israel claimed them, no museum or respectable institution would touch them. Furthermore, the authenticity of the scrolls came under attack. On June 1, 1954, an ad appeared in the Wall Street Journal under the heading: “Miscellaneous for Sale: Four Dead Sea Scrolls.” A New York banker purchased the scrolls for a quarter of a million dollars. A few months later, the government of Israel announced that the scrolls were in its possession. [2]

What had happened? It seems that at the time the ad appeared, the Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin was in the United States. The ad was brought to his attention and he arranged for the banker to be his agent in the purchase of the scrolls. It was a happy, perhaps providential, coincidence because, of the seven known scrolls from this cave, three had already been purchased for Israel by E. L. Sukenik, Yadin’s father. Father and son were thus responsible for bringing all seven scrolls back to the land of their authors and into the hands of the authors’ biological descendants.

Subsequently, ten other Dead Sea caves yielded additional scrolls and hundreds of fragments. However, there was still another scroll. Yadin heard of it in 1960; but since it was in the hands of the Arab dealer who had acquired the first scrolls, and since he was on the other side of the “green line,” negotiations for its purchase proved fruitless. Israel finally bought it from him after the Six Day War in June 1967.

A word about the date and background of the Temple Scroll: The site of Qumran has been thoroughly excavated, and its numismatic finds fix the period of its occupation with precision. The coins range from the year 132 B.C.E. to 68 C.E., a period of exactly 200 years. The latest coin corresponds with Qumran’s destruction by the Roman legions, while the first coin dates back to Simon, the last of the Maccabee brothers, who liberated Israel from Syrian oppression. Thus, the inception of the Qumran community must be related to the Maccabean insurrection, although the sect itself, prior to its removal to Qumran, may have existed as early as the beginning of the second century B.C.E. Indeed, other scrolls speak of the “age of wrath” that can be identified with the Maccabean uprising against Antiochus IV of Syria, who tried to coerce his Jewish subjects into abandoning their religion. The scrolls also speak of the sect’s priestly founder, the Teacher of Righteousness, or more correctly rendered the Correct Teacher, who to this day has not been identified. We are better informed about his opponent, the Wicked Priest, possibly Jonathan the Maccabee, who usurped the high priesthood from the Zadokites in the year 152 B.C.E. One of the Zadokites, the Correct Teacher, may have openly fought this usurpation; and as a result, he and his followers either withdrew voluntarily or were forced to retreat to the shores of the Dead Sea, there to organize themselves into a community of “the sons of light” to engage their opponents, “the sons of darkness,” in a cosmic struggle. After their victory, they would reenter the destroyed Jerusalem to rebuild its temple according to the divine blueprint of the Temple Scroll and inaugurate a pure and correct ritual in accordance with its teachings.

blueprint of the Temple Scroll

A word about the scroll itself: Unrolled, it is about twenty-eight feet in length and consists of nineteen sheets, each ten inches high and an average of eighteen inches wide. There were sixty-seven columns of text, mostly of twenty-two lines, and some (columns 49–60) of twenty-eight lines. The reason for the past tense in the previous sentence is that nearly half the scroll was destroyed by humidity as it moldered for at least a decade under the Arab dealer’s shop floor.

top and bottom of scroll

The scroll begins with a description of the temple building and moves outward through the temple courts, pausing at key installations to cite related laws. Thus, the outer altar provides the basis for discussing the festivals and their sacrifices; the slaughterhouse is the logical springboard for discussing sacrificial procedures; the outer court requires a discussion of the second tithe, which is eaten in that court; and the concern for the temple’s sanctity mandates the itemization of the purity laws.

The outer wall (see fig.1) [3] is approximately 1,600 cubits long on each side, a distance of nearly one-half mile. Its dimension would nearly embrace the present Turkish walls of old Jerusalem.

Each of its twelve gates (fig. 2) is seventy by fifty cubits, or about thirty-five yards high and twenty-five yards wide. The gates are, in effect, towers. We now know from the excavation of the Temple Mount that the southwest corner of the Temple contained a tower. Presumably, so did the other corners. (Mormons should be well acquainted with this feature from their own temples; see, for example, Mosiah 11:12; 19:5.) The walls themselves, twenty-five yards in height, have built into their interiors three stories of chambers, on the roofs of which are tabernacles (sukhot) for the use of the twelve tribes of Israel when they made pilgrimage to the temple. The middle court (see fig. 1), also containing twelve gates, admits only males above the age of twenty.

It is the inner court, however, that holds our main interest (see fig. 3).

blueprint of inner court

The sanctuary (location 1 in fig. 3) follows the Solomonic model, but not its surrounding installation, without change. Seven cubits of the sanctuary house the winding staircase (3); the staircase leads to an upper chamber which connects with the temple attic. The house of the laver (4) for the priestly ablutions has three gates and gold-plated cubicles for depositing the priestly garments. The house of vessels (5) has two gates and “window” lockers for storing the altar vessels. The house of slaughter (7) consists of an unwalled roof supported by twelve columns; chains suspended from the roof contain rings for affixing the animals’ heads. The stoa (2) is a corral for certain sacrificial animals. The sacrificial altar (6) is made of stone and follows Ezekiel’s blueprint (see Ezekiel 43:13–17). A stoa surrounds the court (9), within which are tables and chairs for the priests (10). Two cooking installations are on either side of each gate (8). Priests alone have access to this inner court.

A large section of the Temple Scroll deals with the laws of purity for the temple city, or Jerusalem. Because these purity laws are so basic to the life and thought of the Dead Sea sectarians, I would like to focus on some of them as the main theme of my lecture. They rest on a single postulate: the city of Jerusalem, the city of the temple, is equivalent in holiness to the encampment of Israel at Mount Sinai. This equation should strike us immediately with its logic, for, according to scripture, God transferred his presence from Mount Sinai to the tabernacle. The tabernacle then became a portable Sinai that Israel carried through the wilderness into the promised land, where it found its permanent resting place in the temple of Jerusalem. But the sect went one step beyond the equation: temple equals Sinai. It deduced, again most logically, that those who live in the city of the temple are equivalent to the Israelites who encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai. Thus, whatever rules were incumbent upon the Sinai encampment must prevail also for Jerusalem. What were those rules? I read from Exodus 19:10–11, 14–15:

And the Lord said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them to day and to morrow [sanctify means to undergo ritual bathing, total immersion in fresh water], and let them wash their clothes,

And be ready against the third day: for the third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai. . . .

And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their clothes.

And he said unto the people, Be ready against the third day: come not at your wives [i.e., abstain from sexual relations].

What are the implications of these Sinaitic rules? They prescribe two requirements for the privilege of witnessing the revelation: first, to cleanse oneself of all ritual impurity through bathing and laundering; and second, to abstain from sex, a ritually defiling act. This latter stipulation needs a word of explanation. In the presence of God, as in the temple or at Mount Sinai, all ritual impurity is forbidden. A main source of ritual impurity is flow from the genital organs. Thus, sex is forbidden in any holy place.

Hence, the question that faced the sect was this: How do we maintain Jerusalem as a holy city so that it retains the holiness of the Mount Sinai encampment? First, the Temple Scroll proscribes all who are impure from living in Jerusalem. It then divides all impurity bearers into two categories. Those who are permanently disabled, such as the blind and lame, are banned forever from Jerusalem. The list of these imperfections is found in the book of Leviticus, chapter 21. However, this list applies only to priests and it forbids priests with these physical impairments from officiating in the temple, but not from residing in the temple city. The scroll, then, has applied this list not just to priests in the temple, but to all who wish to live in the city of Jerusalem. The second category comprises those whose physical impurity is of limited duration, and such persons need only absent themselves from the holy city until they purify themselves. Just as at Sinai, they require at least two days of purification; on the third day they may reenter Jerusalem. However, those who have more severe impurities, such as gonorrhea or leprosy, must remain outside until they are healed and undergo purification; only then may they be readmitted into Jerusalem. The scroll prescribes special buildings east of the city where these impurity bearers can reside and purify themselves.

In fact, the scroll is much more severe than the Torah itself in its purity regulations. For example, it makes human feces a source of impurity (probably based on Ezekiel 4:12–14), in opposition to the teaching of the early rabbis. The inference is clear: in the scroll’s Jerusalem, there are no toilets. Moreover, the scroll ordains that toilets may not even be seen from the city: they are to be constructed out of sight, at a distance of 3,000 cubits from the city walls—nearly a mile away. This is not the end of its extremism. The sect also held, in accordance with the teaching of the rabbis, that on the Sabbath one may walk no further than a distance of 2,000 cubits. The arithmetic is obvious: toilets were off limits on the Sabbath.

Lest anyone conclude from this bizarre law that the sect’s legislation was nothing but wild-eyed fantasy, let me state that on precisely this point we have historical verification. The historian Josephus, who lived in the first century C.E. while the temple still stood, reports that the Essenes of Jerusalem did not defecate on the Sabbath. Now, this is the first time I have used the term Essenes to describe Qumran. [4] Because of the Temple Scroll, we finally have the support of an outside source that the Qumran sect was indeed part of the Essene movement, for the law of Qumran was practiced by the Essenes of Jerusalem. Moreover, Josephus tells us that one of Jerusalem’s gates was called the Essene Gate. Heretofore it has never been identified. Josephus locates it near a place called Bethso. [5] That name, too, has never been identified. But thanks to the Temple Scroll, both problems have been solved. Bethso, it turns out, is not a place name. It is Hebrew beth so ah, or toilet. Thus, the Essene Gate was not a real gate, but an opening in the city wall at the point nearest to their toilets, a wicket through which members of the sect could squeeze one at a time.

I would like to give one more illustration of the severity of the purity regimen of Qumran. This regulation states that all food brought into the city of Jerusalem must not only be pure, that is, in accordance with the biblical dietary laws, but must be brought in skins of animals that were slaughtered in the temple. Thus, skins of impure animals or even skins of pure animals that were not sacrificed in the temple are forbidden in the city of Jerusalem. This regulation goes far beyond the demands of the Bible. Its severity would seem to preclude any possibility that it was practiced in real life, yet once again we find historical verification in the writings of Josephus that such a law was actually enforced in Jerusalem. Josephus tells us that when Antiochus III conquered Jerusalem in the year 198 B.C.E., he reaffirmed the holy status of Jerusalem, including the right to forbid the importation of impure skins. [6] This prohibition is unknown in rabbinic literature. It therefore antedates the rabbinic period and gives us an idea of the antiquity of the Temple Scroll, which was probably composed in the first half of the second century B.C.E.

What are the implications of these purity rules? First, blemishes that disqualify priests from officiating in the temple are the same that disqualify all Israelites from entering the city of Jerusalem. In effect, the scroll has extended the priestly rules to the entire people of Israel. The scroll takes the biblical injunction “You shall be holy” literally. In Jerusalem, at least, all of Israel is subject to the priestly regimen. The scroll, then, posits an egalitarian society, but it equalizes up, not down: all should aspire to the holy life of priests.

The second implication is that since Jerusalem is as holy as the temple, it cannot allow any ritual defilement. This means there is to be no sex in Jerusalem. That this is what the scroll implies is shown by the absence of any provisions in the city of Jerusalem for impure women. In other cities there are, for example, special installations for menstruants, but not in Jerusalem. This can only mean that the scroll does not permit women to reside in the city of Jerusalem. Thus, to live in the holy city, one has to be a celibate. At long last, we are able to explain the celibate tendencies in early Christianity that led to the establishment of monasticism. Only now are we able to view the negative attitude toward sex in this early literature in its proper perspective. Sex is not an evil, as some have alleged, but an impurity. And the impurity is not moral, but ritual—that is, it is an impurity that must be avoided only when one is in contact with the temple and its sancta. Otherwise, in the secular world, in ordinary, day-to-day existence, sex bears no taint. What Paul and some of the early Christians taught, as I understand it, is that life can be holy even without a temple; but instead of following the ideal that man should live in the temple, the temple must henceforth live in man. Thus, for the elite who aspire to a life of holiness—a life of the inner temple—celibacy is mandatory. Here is where Christianity went one step beyond the sect of Qumran. The latter had extended the purity rules of the temple to all of Jerusalem and made them incumbent, not only on priests, but on all males. Christianity, looking upon everyone as a potential embodiment of spiritual Jerusalem, declared that the aspirant to such a life must withdraw from society and from its impurity. It is, then, to the Dead Sea sect of Qumran that we must turn for the origins of monasticism and celibacy.

This brief glimpse of the Temple Scroll’s purity laws and their influence upon Christian doctrine confronts us with a gigantic paradox. Clearly, the scroll affirms the centrality of the temple and its sacrifices and rituals. It mandates laws of purity for the temple and the temple city, Jerusalem, which, as shown, are far in excess of biblical demands. In comparison with scripture, Qumran is not just legalistic but hyper-legalistic. Yet Christianity rejects the temple, its sacrifices, and its purity rules. In fact, it abolishes the very need, the raison d’etre, of the law. How, then, can Christianity be considered an heir to Qumran? This paradox, I submit, will give scholars a collective headache for many years to come.

The Temple Scroll provides a ray of light which may illumine our problem. It focuses on the chronology. Christianity came in contact with Qumran at the very end of the sect’s existence, after its members had lived there for nearly two hundred years. All this time the Qumranites had been preparing to occupy Jerusalem. From another of their documents, the War Scroll, we learn that they believed in an imminent cosmic war that would destroy all the wicked on the earth, leaving, by God’s grace, only themselves as survivors. This war would last forty years. During its seventh year, according to their reckoning, they would be restored to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and reconstitute the cult, not as it was, but in accordance with the teachings of the Temple Scroll. That day, however, did not come. The Qum-ranites waited patiently, confidently. In the meantime, they had no temple, no sacrifices, no holy city. Thus, the Temple Scroll and its purity rules had to be held in abeyance until that day, that tomorrow, when the sect would be restored to Jerusalem. Therefore, when Christianity came in contact with Qumran, the laws of the Temple Scroll had been suspended for nearly two hundred years. Perhaps what Qumran suspended temporarily, Christianity then made permanent.

The Jewish sect of Qumran was millennialist: it believed that Israel and the world were doomed. Jerusalem, in particular, had to be destroyed because the temple was polluted. (This postulate is not unfamiliar to Mormons, as Doctrine and Covenants 93:35 metaphorically suggests.) Jerusalem had the wrong high priesthood, the wrong calendar, the wrong laws. The universal purge was imminent, and so these dissidents withdrew to the wilderness of Qumran to live lives of purity and righteousness in the hope that, by the grace of God, they would be saved.

We may reject their extremism and be repelled by their fanaticism, yet we cannot but stand in awe before their faith and courage. Their faith in God and his law, as they conceived it, brooked no compromise, and none was ever made. And they manifested the courage to live in a wilderness of incredible hardships and dangers for two centuries. This, I submit, is a demonstration of faith and courage that is hard to match in the annals of history.

We can perhaps fault them on one point. They forgot the admonition of their great contemporary, Rabbi Hillel: “Do not separate yourself from the community.” [7] They thought that by insulating themselves at the Dead Sea they would escape the holocaust to come. They were wrong. When the Roman wave engulfed their land, it swept them away, too. This, perhaps, is the abiding lesson of the Dead Sea community. It is a warning to us today, lest we too insulate ourselves in our own ivory towers and spiritual ghettos, be they our campuses, clubs, synagogues, churches, or homes, deluding ourselves that therein we can escape the storms that rage outside.

Perhaps that is why, ultimately, we are so taken with the writings of this Jewish sect of Qumran: its Temple Scroll now offers us a new window through which we catch another glimpse of its life and thought, but at close range we find that it is also a mirror in which we see ourselves.


[1] “The Scrolls,” in Woody Allen, Without Feathers (New York: Random House, 1975), 21–22.

[2] As cited in The New Yorker, May 14, 1955, 129.

[3] The three figures in the text are reprinted from Jacob Milgrom, “The Temple Scroll,” Biblical Archeologist 41 (September 1978): 109–10, 112.

[4] Flavius Josephus, Josephus: Complete Works, trans. William Whiston (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1960), The Wars of the Jews, II.viii.9.

[5] Ibid., V.iv.2.

[6] Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, XII.iii.4.

[7] The Mishnah, Abot 2.5.