Why Did the Qumran Community Write in Hebrew?

By Weitzman, Steve | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Why Did the Qumran Community Write in Hebrew?


Weitzman, Steve, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


The discovery of Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Nabatean texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls is often cited as evidence that the Qumran sect was multilingual.(1) There is even more impressive evidence, however, that the sect preferred Hebrew as its principal literary language. The vast majority of the manuscripts found at Qumran, 438 non-biblical manuscripts, are in Hebrew, as against 104 in Aramaic, 18 in Greek, and 2 in Nabatean.[2] More tellingly, Hebrew is the language of virtually every text believed to have been written within the Qumran sect itself - The Rule of the Community, the War Scroll, the Thanksgiving Hymns, and so on.(3) Although other languages may have been read or spoken by the sect, it consistently chose Hebrew for literary expression.

At first glance, there is nothing particularly puzzling about this choice. Hebrew had been the native language of Israel in the First Temple period, and it survived as a written language - probably as a spoken language also - well into the Hellenistic Roman era.(4) For many historians of Hebrew the use of this language at Qumran seems a straightforward example of linguistic maintenance, the perpetuation into the Second Temple period of the native language of Palestinian Jews.(5) In multilingual societies such as Hellenistic-Roman Palestine, however, where there can be powerful pressure to communicate in the languages of more pervasive speech communities, adhering to one's ancestral tongue can be a much more complex phenomenon than it seems. As sociolinguists have pointed out, a community's social organization and belief system, its relation to other speech communities, and other factors can all affect whether the community seeks to maintain a native language or adopt the language of others.(6) Thus, even if we grant that in its use of Hebrew the Qumran sect was simply perpetuating a choice of language it had inherited from earlier generations of Palestinian Jews, the sect's use of Hebrew still raises many questions. Why did the sect consistently avoid using the other languages of Hellenistic-Roman Palestine in its own writing? What did using Hebrew mean to this community? And was the sect's use of Hebrew related in any way to its organization, ideology, or relation to other speech communities?

The answers we seek require us to consider how Hebrew was used and perceived in the larger social world of which the Qumran sect was part. Many scholars believe that there was a conscious revival of Hebrew in the second century B.C.E., a linguistic development tied to the upsurge in religious nationalism during the Maccabean Revolt.(7) Hebrew, written in paleo-Hebrew script, appears in the legends of Hasmonean coins, and it is the language of pro-Hasmonean works like Daniel 8-12 and probably 1 Maccabees (the latter now appears in Greek but is originally thought to have been written in Hebrew).(8) The Qumran sect, also emerging some time in the Hasmonean period, exhibited many of the same linguistic behaviors: it wrote in Hebrew; it often used biblicizing style; there is even evidence that it copied some manuscripts, especially biblical texts, in a paleo-Hebrew script.(9) The parallels suggest that the use of Hebrew at Qumran has to be viewed as part of a larger sociolinguistic trend in Judea in the Hellenistic period, one probably tied to the increasingly central role of biblical literature in the formulation of Jewish identity.(10)

With all the factionalism and religious diversity of Hellenistic Roman Palestine, however, it should come as no surprise that for some Jews the type of Hebrew to use, and the precise connotations of using it, were guided by different ideological orientations and social affiliations.(11) Forty years ago, Chaim Rabin argued such a point, claiming that the Qumran sect developed its distinctive Hebrew, an archaizing dialect purged of colloquialisms, in conscious opposition to Mishnaic Hebrew, supposedly the dialect of the sect's Pharisaic opponents. …

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