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Time References in the Dead Sea Scrolls

Written by: Stewart, Allison    Posted on: 05/25/2004

Category: Misc.


by Allison Stewart


The people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) appear to have used a complex system of references to time, for what reason we do not know. They seem to have separated events temporally on several levels or categories, often with names that are unfamiliar to us because they are no longer used. To some extent this ambiguity can be clarified using the texts of the DSS themselves, beginning with the concepts of Jubilees and Sabbaticals, which I will examine first. These concepts, in turn, are helpful to explain the time references in the War Scroll.

Jubilees and Sabbaticals: The War Scroll

The concepts expressed in the apocryphal text of The Book of Jubilees seem to have impacted the Dead Sea Scrolls Community to a great extent. If we were only to look at the shear mass of copies of this text that were found, (fifteen to sixteen (Va nderKam, 153)), we would already be able to infer a great deal about its importance in the Community. However, there is more to the text of Jubilees than merely the number of copies preserved in the Qumran caves. The concept of jubilee appears in many t exts, including ones assumed to be authoritative rule books for the Community. Jubilee references also appear in parabiblical, liturgical, and calendrical texts known solely from the Qumran excavation.

The concept of a "jubilee" or "jubilees" appears in many of the authoritative texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In three fragments of the Damascus Document (Zadokite fragment), two from the Dead Sea and one from the Cairo Geniza, we find references to the B ook of Jubilees. The Damascus Document, when speaking of the man who pledges himself to return to the laws of Moses, says "[... the exact interpretation of their ages about the blindness of] Israel on all these matters, behold, [it is defined] in the boo k [<>] (GM 58, 4Q268, frag. 2, 2.5). This same reference appears in another Qumran document, (GM 64, 4Q270, frag. 10, 2.17) and also in the Cairo Geniza copy of the Damascus Docu ment (GM 39, CD-A, 16.3-4). The book referred to in these quotations is undoubtedly the Book of Jubilees, as the author of Jubilees himself refers to the book as "the account of the divisions of the days of the law and of the testimony, of the events of the years, according to their year-weeks and their jubilees" (Sparks, 10). But the appearance of such a reference in the Damascus Document may not conclusively prove that Jubilees received the reverence from the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls that it app ears to have merited in the Damascus Document. Due to the presence of the Damascus Document in other geographic locations (such as the Cairo Geniza), we cannot conclusively infer that the Book of Jubilees was a document the Scrolls Community followed or even found important. So, we must look elsewhere to discover the importance of the Jubilee concept to the Dead Sea Scrolls Community.

Luckily, a reference to the Jubilee concept is found in an authoritative document known exclusively from the Qumran excavation, the Rule of the Community. A reference found in the 4Q259 copy of The Rule of the Community (GM 29, 11) clearly refers to jubi lee, saying "...their Releases and about their jubilees." However, it should be noted that this copy of the Rule of the Community includes some passages not included in the larger copy (GM 3, 1QS) and has additional text at its end, including the text co ntaining the jubilee reference. These two documents are clearly not identical, although they reflect the same instructional tradition (Kraft). There may be some reason to suspect this jubilee reference due to its lack of inclusion in the 1QS copy of the Rule of the Community. This may lead to the same problem encountered with the Damascus Document references, as the question may arise as to whether or not the 4Q259 fragment was actively followed at by the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls as part of the R ule, or just kept "on file."

Although it may not be possible to arrive at a definitive answer regarding the presence of Jubilee references in the authoritative works of the Scrolls Community, other references to the jubilee concept abound in the Dead Sea Scrolls. One such instance occurs in the calendrical texts, which are likely to be isolated to the Dead Sea Scrolls Community since they employ a three hundred and sixty four day calendar, a calendar not widely in use at the time (VanderKam, 114-115). In 4QCalendrical Document A ( 4Q320, GM 452-453), there are two references to jubilee. One specifically refers to the second jubilee (frag. 2, 1.6), while the other mentions jubilee in the framework of "the days, the weeks, and the months, Blank the years, the Releases and the jubilees" (frag. 4, 2.10-13). The presence of such references in such sectarian documents implies that the terminology was at least present and in use in the Scrolls Community.

Jubilee references show up in parabiblical texts and texts with eschatological content from the Qumran excavation as well. In the text named Pseudo-Moses (4Q378a, GM 279), a time limit is set concerning instruction "in the service of the d eeds," of "ten jubilees of years." An apocalyptic use of the jubilee terminology is found in 4Q390 (GM 280, frag. 1, 7-9): "in the seventh jubilee of the devastation of the land, they will forget the law, the festival, the sabbath and the covenant; and t hey will disobey everything and will do what is evil in my eyes." The jubilee terminology shows up in historical time references in this group of texts as well, such as in the Psalms of Joshua (GM 283, 4Q379, frag. 12), where the texts refers to the Isra elites crossing the Jordan dryshod "in the [fi]rst month of the forty-first year of their departure from the land of Egypt; this was the year of the Jubilees from the start of their entry into the land of Canaan." Jubilee is mentioned in the 11QMelchized ek document (GM 139, 11Q13, 2.2-3) as well with a quote from Leviticus (25:13). This quote elucidates on the concept of Jubilee as the return of all property to its original owner. Further reference to Jubilee is found in 11QMelchizedek in lines six thro ugh eight when the date is set for freedom from iniquities for "the sons of [God]", the "men of the lot of Melchizedek," as the "first week of the jubilee which follows the ni[ne] jubilees." 

Related to this concept of Jubilee is the sabbatical year cycle. Since the Jubilee cycle, as put forth by the Book of Jubilees (both the present editions and the editions found during the Qumran excavation), consists of seven, seven year cycles of six yea rs followed by a sabbatical year, in which the land is let fallow, the terms are intimately related. This sabbatical year concept also shows up in several of the Dead Sea Scrolls unaffiliated specifically with jubilee. In the Rule of the Community (GM 1 5, 1QS, 10.7-8), there is mention of "seven-year periods." In the Liturgical text of 4Q286 (GM 434) there is a reference to "the sabbaths of the earth," and "the festivals of release" (frag. 1, 2.11). In Pseudo-Moses (1Q22) we find a command to leave th e land at rest every seven years, and that in this year, we should grant a release (GM 277, 3.1,4). The references to sabbatical years exist throughout the documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The relationship of the sabbatical years to the Jubilee concept is evident, and these references, together with the specific references to jubilee, form a basis for the assumption that the jubilee was a unit of time important and vital to the Dead Sea Scrolls Community.

Once the importance of the sabbatical year and Jubilee cycle is established in the Dead Sea Scrolls, we are able to understand other parts of the scrolls more fully. This is well evidenced by the War Scroll. The War Scroll precisely details the timing o f the war of the sons of light against the sons of darkness. The War Scroll presents a war of "thirty-five years of service" (GM 96, 1QM, 2.9). The War Scroll further states that during "the years of release" (2.8), or sabbatical years, the sons of ligh t shall not fight. Combining these two pieces of information, along with a Pesher on the Psalms which discusses the end of evil at the end of forty years (GM 203, 4Q171, 2.7-8), we come up with a forty year war of the sons of light verses the sons of dar kness. The only problem with this construction is the passage which immediately precedes it, which discusses the fact that certain things should be prepared during the year of release, and "the remaining thirty-three years of the war" (GM 96, 1QM, 2.6). How to reconcile this apparent inconsistency is unknown. Maybe both refer to the same amount of time, just in different ways. It is possible that the thirty-three year reference does not include sabbatical years, and the extra two years after the addit ion of the sabbatical years is required for some calendrical modification that we are unaware of. Perhaps there was simply a scribal error perpetuated over many copies, or perhaps there is some other temporal system in operation with the mention of the t hirty-three years of the war. It is interesting to note that neither time period of war fits neatly into the framework of the final warfare presented in the Biblical book of Daniel. In Daniel (9.24) seventy weeks are decreed "to finish the transgression , and to make an end to sins." This book further mentions that Jerusalem will be rebuilt over sixty-two weeks, and the anointed leader will appear seven weeks after the word to rebuild Jerusalem is issued. Neither a thirty-three, thirty-five, or a forty year war fits into the Daniel time scheme. The timing of the war described in the War Scroll will remain a mystery. Although we can force one reference to yield a familiar forty year war, we are unable to do the same with the other reference, and since both references clash with Biblical timing for final warfare, the length of the "war of all against all" described in the War Scroll will remain a mystery.

The jubilee concept, along with its sabbatical years, appears to have been a concept actively employed in the timing of the Dead Sea Scrolls Community. The references to jubilees and years of release appear throughout the documents of the community, impl ying some of the importance the concept may have had. This concept becomes important in interpreting some of the other documents appearing at Qumran, such as the War Scroll. Although the sabbatical cycle concept does not make timing evident for the mode rn reader, and sometimes even confuses us further, it must have made it all the more evident for the Qumran reader since the terminology is employed so frequently.

Temporal Consciousness of the Present and Personal

The temporal consciousness of the Dead Sea Scrolls people extended beyond the parsing of their past and future history into their own personal and present lives. The Scrolls Community's obsession with the exactness of time is further evidenced by the age requirements placed on their members for achievement of certain positions within the sect. These requirements start with the introduction of a youth into the Scrolls Community. In The Rule of the Congregation (GM 126, 1Q28a, 1), we learn the growth cyc le of a young inductee into the sect. "From his y[outh] [they shall edu]cate him in the book of HAGY, and according to his age, instruct him in the precepts of the covenant" (GM 126, 1Q28a, 1.7). This document tells us that during ten years the potentia l inductee will be counted among the boys, and in his twentieth year, he will become enrolled in the "holy community" (1.8-9). This account only allots for a youth starting at the age of ten years old, since after ten years as a "boy", only a ten year ol d will be twenty. The Rule of the Congregation continues to comment on the prohibition of intercourse with a woman until the age of twenty. At the age of twenty-five, a man is allowed "to perform the service of the congregation (1.12-13), and at thirty, he is allowed to "arbitrate in disputes and judgements, and to take his place among the chiefs of the thousand of Israel" (1.13-14).

Other Dead Sea Scrolls tell of the age requirements placed on people allowed to arbitrate disputes as well. Interestingly enough, these other instances of ages required to arbitrate disputes do not agree with the Rule of the Congregation's thirty year be nchmark, instead citing a minimum requirement of twenty-five years, along with the usual learned in the book of HAGY. These sources in addition place an upper limit of sixty years on their judges, citing man's sin as the reason man's days were shortened. Even more interesting is that these instances of inconsistency all occur in copies of the Damascus Document, both from Qumran as well as from the Cairo Geniza. The Damascus Document says of the rule of the judges of the congregation that they should be "[lea]rned in the book of HAGY and in the princi[ples of the covenant, between] twenty-five and sixty years" (GM 55, 4Q267, frag. 17, 2.4-5, see also GM 65, 4Q269, frag. 10, 4.17-19, and GM 41, CD-A, 10.6-8). This discrepancy may be reason to suspect th at one of these documents was not in active use in the Dead Sea Scrolls Community.

The people of the Dead Sea Scrolls put age limits on the leaders of their community as well. "The priest who [is na]med at the head of the M[any will be between] thirty and sixty [years old,] learned [in the book of] HAGY, and in all the regulations of t he law" (GM 62, 4Q269, frag. 11, 2.10-13). Likewise, the Inspector, who is over the camps, must also be between thirty and sixty years of age, and "master of every secr]et of me[n and in every language" (GM 62, 2.13).

In other areas of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we find other age requirements. In the Temple Scroll, there is a reference to all the children of Israel assembling, "from those more than twenty years old up to those of sixty years" (GM 174, 11Q19, 57.1-3). In t he War Scroll, we find special age restrictions in effect for the time of battle. Those governing the camps must be between fifty and sixty years old, and the supervisors shall be between forty and fifty years old (GM 100, 1QM, 7. 1-3). The fighters are made up of stallion-riding men between the ages of thirty and forty-five, while the "horsemen of the rule" are between forty and fifty years old (GM 100, 1QM, 6.13-14). The general trend in all this seems to be a higher age requirement as the importance of the task increases, with a minimum of twenty and a maximum of sixty years of age for participation in any sectarian activity. Regardless of the actual number of years required for any one position in the community, it is obvious that the age of the pa rticipants in the Scrolls community was of utmost importance to its members, exemplifying yet another aspect of the importance of time to the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Confusions and Clarifications

As precise and pedantic about time as the Scrolls Community was, there are several places in the documents where the meaning of their references are unclear, at least to the modern reader. Besides the previously discussed confusion in the War Scroll reg arding the timing of the war, we also finds confusion in the Temple Scroll. This confusion may be somewhat due to damage in the documents. In this document, as in Leviticus (23.5), Passover is clearly stated as the fourteenth day of the first month, fol lowed by the Feast of Leaven on days fifteen through twenty-one (GM 157, 11Q19, 17). The problem comes when we try to date the next holiday mentioned, the holiday of the new offering (GM 158, 11Q19, 18.11-13). The Temple Scroll says that "You shall coun t off seven complete sabbaths from the day on which you fetch the sheaf [from the wave-offering,] you shall count off until the day following the seventh sabbath, you shall count off [fifty] days, and you shall fetch a new offering to YHWH from your villa ges" (GM 158, 11Q19 8.11-13), which is, incidentally, almost exactly what is stated in the Biblical book of Leviticus (23.15-17). The question is, of course, when is the day when one fetches the sheaf. Leviticus says that "He [the priest] shall wave the 'omer before the Lord, to be accepted for you: on the morrow after the sabbath the priest shall wave it"(23.11). If one goes with conventional Judaism, this is the day after the Passover, that is, the new offering and Passover are separated by forty-nin e days. If one goes with this interpretation, then the New Wine festival is ninety-nine days after Passover (fifty days after the new offering, GM 158, 11Q19, 19. 12-14) and the New Oil festival is one hundred and forty-nine days after the Passover (fift y days after the New Wine festival, GM 159, 21.10-14). Exactly when these festivals take place is not entirely clear, and unfortunately, this confusion extends to further complicate other areas of confusing text, such as the calendrical documents.

In 4QCalendrical Document A (4Q320, GM 452) and 4QCalendrical Document B (4Q321, GM 454) there are references made to unknown calendrical divisions. The unfamiliar words presented in this document are: Yoyarib (and Yeoarib and Yeyarib, with possibly some inconsistent transliteration by GM), Yeda^cyah (and Yedaiah, with the same problem), Yarim, She^corim, Malkiyah, Miyyamim, Haqoz, Abiyah, Yeshu^ca, Shekanyah (and Shekaniah), Elyashib (and Eliashib), Yaqim, Juppa, Yeshabeb (and Yeshebab), Bilgah, Immer, Yazir (and Chazir, Jazir, and Jezir), Hapizez, Petayyah, Yehezkiel (and Ezekiel), Gamul, Delayah, Ma^caziyah (and Me^cozayah). These names occur in both documents in several of the fragments found. In each fragment, a different order of the names is fou nd, and the only consistency appears to be the period between two names. For example, in fragment four it says "[The 3rd of Ya]qim, the passover. The 1st [of Yesha]beb, the waving of the sheaf" (GM 454, 4Q320, frag. 4, 5.1-2), and later says "The 3rd of Yehezkiel, the passover. The 1st of Gamul, the waving of the sheaf" (GM 454, 4Q320, frag. 4, 6.5-6). From this, I assume that the time between any two named periods is the same; however, since it is impossible to say precisely when the sheaf is waved ( since the discussion in the Temple Scroll does not indisputably locate either the fetching of the sheaf or the new offering in time, regardless of which one the sheaf being waved refers to) there is no way of knowing how long that period may be.

These named periods of time seem to be related both to the familiar jubilees concept as well as to the lunar cycle. In two fragments of 4Q320 there are references to jubilee. In one, we get a summary of time divisions which includes jubilees, and a refe rence to the unfamiliar named divisions: "the days, the weeks, and the months, Blank the years, the Releases and the jubilees. The 4th of Shebat, son of Gamul" (GM 453, 4Q320, frag. 4, 2). In the other, we see "the 4th of Shebat" in line four nex t to the "year of the second jubilee" in the sixth line (GM 453, 4Q320, frag. 2, 1). These references imply a connection of these named divisions with the jubilee divisions that fits well with other sections containing these unknown names. For example, the first lines of 4Q320 (frag. 1, 1.1-5) discuss a "first year," and fragment four (3) states: "the first year. Its festivals." A connection with the cycle of the moon is similarly arrived at by noting the references to the moon's phases in connection w ith the named divisions in 4Q320 (GM 452, frag. 1, 1.1-2), and in 4Q321 (GM 454-455, frag.1, 1.1-8, frag.1, 2.1-8). For example, in 4Q321, "and the new moon enters the fifth of She^corim" (GM 454, frag. 1, 2.3). Thus, we can conclude that this cycle is intimately related to the lunar phases. Additionally, it seems that the cycle employed here begins with the period named Shebat. This conclusion is reached via several references which place Shebat in the beginning. For instance, in 4Q320, we find Sheba t, son of Gamul, in "the first month of the [fir]st year" (GM 452, frag. 1, 1.4). In fragment two of the same document, we find "the 4th of Shebat," juxtaposed with the "beginning of all the years" (GM 453, frag. 2, 1.4-5). These references, together, l ead me to believe that we are dealing with a cycle based on the phases on the moon, and associated with the jubilee cycle of forty-nine years. Perhaps this cycle is a cycle for the jubilee which uses the same names for each period in different orders dep ending on which sabbatical cycle of the jubilee it is. Therefore, there would be seven different orders of named divisions each with the same amount of named divisions, with one of the seven (the first sabbatical cycle in the jubilee cycle) beginning wit h the period of Shebat. Since the entirety of the text is not preserved, this would account for the reason that every order of unknown names given is different. It is at best difficult to guess what the order of those named divisions would be for each s abbatical cycle, except that Shebat would start the first sabbatical cycle, and be the first year of the first sabbatical cycle of every jubilee.

Additionally, we find a passage which may be related to these unidentified divisions in the Rule of the Community. In 4Q259 (GM 27-29, 5-8,9,11), we find reference to these strange names once again, especially to Shekaniah, Gamul, and Shebat. These thre e references, along with several others, do also appear in the calendrical texts, (despite some inconsistent transliteration by GM). In columns five through seven of 4Q259, the names Gamul and Shekaniah alternate in three year cycles, which unfortunately does not shed much light on the calendrical documents which do not employ the same three year rotation. However, in columns eight, nine, and eleven of 4Q259, some of the names found in the calendrical texts, such as Miyyamim, do appear juxtaposed with t he jubilee terminology. While this reference does not help to explain the use of these divisions of time, it is useful in that it allows us to infer that what we see in the Calendrical documents is not limited solely to these documents.

A consultation with the Biblical book of I Chronicles reveals that these names are not entirely unknown. In I Chronicles (24.7-18), twenty-four priestly courses are listed. The names pertaining to these courses almost exactly coincide with the names pre sented in 4QCalendrical Document A, 4QCalendrical Document B, and 4Q259, with a few minor differences. The priestly course of Jachin appears to have no counterpart in the Dead Sea document, and the word Shebat does not appear in I Chronicles. The materi al in I Chronicles does not clarify the juxtaposition of "Gamul" with "the sign of" that appears in 4Q259 (for example, 5.16). Additionally, since the priestly shift changed weekly, the discussion in 4Q259 does not follow as it describes a yearly cycle. Although the appearance of the names in the Dead Sea documents is made more significant by the appearance of these same names in Biblical sources, it does not fully explain the significance of these names in the scrolls.


The people of the Dead Sea Scrolls were obsessed with time. In order to fulfill themselves and their commitment to their religious ideals, an accurate concept of time was necessary. Their calendar was unusual in several ways, including its use of jubilee s and other unknown temporal divisions. They used the Jubilee period nomenclature to parse their Biblical history, defining the required minimum ages of their members and leaders, describing accurately and fully the movement of the moon and assigning nam es corresponding to the lunar cycle. The many specific references to the timing of an event, down to the moment it is or was observed, served to delineate time for the Scrolls Community. Time was very important to this community, for it was imperative th at "the holy days in their sequence" (Garcia-Martinez, 14, 1QS, 10.5) were undisturbed. The people of the Dead Sea Scrolls came up with many different ways to make sure time was accurately recorded, and these temporal structures are evident throughout th e texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Their lives were unusual in that there were strict age guidelines governing their own participation in the community. Through the documents that have survived to this day, we find numerous references to time and its passage and how the Dead Sea Scrolls p eople decided to record it.

In such ways the community responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls made its concept of time firm and immovable. The documents of a people have only a limited capacity to express their actual motivations, and judging from the documents of the pe ople of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the motivation to retain accurate measurements of time must have been enormous.


Garcia Martinez, Florentino. The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: E.J. Brill, 1992. Abbrev. GM.

Kraft, Robert A. Oral communication, Lectures of Religious Studies 225, University of Pennsylvania, Spring Term 1995. Abbrev. Kraft.

Sparks, H.F.D., ed. The Apocryphal Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984. Abbrev. AOT

VanderKam, James C. The Dead Sea Scrolls Today: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994. Abbrev. Vanderkam


Fisch, Harold, ed. The Jerusalem Bible. Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 1992.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A. Responses to 101 Questions on the Dead Sea Scrolls: Paulist Press, 1992.

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