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As one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Damascus Document throws light on the different groups that existed in ancient Judaism.
The manuscript was copied in the 11th or 12th century. It is in the form of a codex. Note how well-written the book is, with neat straight lines and occasional spaces to mark paragraph breaks.
The letters are elegant, and you can see some rising up high above the line as the scribe has written it with some style. The letters are to similar to those found in other documents and are a major reason for dating the manuscript to the 11th century or 12th century.
Someone cared for this text and wrote it very carefully. If you study it carefully you might be able to see occasional dots above or below the letters. Hebrew was written without vowels, but to make the reading it easier, these dots were placed to mark vowels in ambiguous cases. This might suggest it was intended to be read aloud.
The community that wrote the text lived 1000 years before this copy of the text was made, but people still copied it over the centuries. Perhaps its tale of conflicts and purity regulations suited the ideas of another group in the middle ages.
While we know from Jewish writers such as Josephus, and from the New Testament about scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees, this document hints at how many more groups there were in ancient times.
The original text was produced in the second century BCE and other copies of it have now been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (ancient Jewish manuscripts found in the desert of Judah).
It tells the story of the founding of a community in the desert. The author of the manuscript describes how his community was formed, and then lays out various laws to be followed by its members. According to this account, the members left Jerusalem following a religious dispute with the authorities there, and moved first to Damascus, and then to the wilderness of Judea. That is why the name Damascus has been given to the document. It is an important story about the founding of the community recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is a tale of religious disagreement, written by a conservative movement wishing to keep Jewish practice pure.
A second question, is how this ancient manuscript came to be preserved in this particular copy from the 11th century CE. The community that wrote the text had not existed for 1000 years, but someone still copied it over the centuries.
Perhaps its tale of conflicts and purity regulations suited the ideas of another group in the middle ages. It might also reflect how much of Jewish literature from antiquity has been lost, and yet some was preserved by small groups unknown to us. Writings by minority groups have miraculously survived in the Cairo Genizah.
Are there links to current religious practices or a modern equivalent?
As this manuscript deals with a specific religious group in antiquity, there are no modern equivalents. However, the language used in the manuscript of separation from others, concerns about maintaining purity, and attacks against opponents, are common themes in many religious traditions. Not all take it to the extremes of moving to the wilderness, but seclusion or living in the wilderness has been a common practice in many traditions. It shows how religious groups can identify themselves through opposition to others.
As one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Damascus Document throws light on the different groups that existed in ancient Judaism, that we did not know about before. It shows the extent of rivalry, especially among priests at the time, and the issues about which they disagreed. While we know from Jewish writers, such as Josephus, and from the New Testament, about scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees, this document hints at how many more such groups there were in ancient times.
Its preservation in a medieval synagogue also shows that such differences continued for centuries and while there was only one official stream of Judaism, other streams must have existed to have preserved documents such as this. The document uses strong language to highlight differences, but in reality the groups had much in common and disagreed only on technical matters.
More information, images and introduction
Translation of the text.