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Damascus Document

Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls What is This? Explores the history, relevance, and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Damascus Document

First published in 1910 by Solomon Schechter under the title Fragments of a Zadokite Work, the Cairo Damascus Document (CD), as it came to be known, has since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls been recognized as one of the foundational works of the Qumran Community. Of the two medieval manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah, manuscript A (tenth century) has sixteen columns, while manuscript B (twelfth century) has two long columns. These still contain the largest continuous portions of the text. However, Qumran Cave 4 has yielded eight ancient manuscripts with not only substantial parallels to the Genizah texts, but major supplements, including the beginning and end of the work. The following is a list of the known Qumran manuscripts:

  • Eight manuscripts from Qumran Cave 4 have been identified by J. T. Milik:
    • • Damascus Documenta (4Q266) is written in a semi-cursive Hasmonean hand of the first half of the first century BCE. The eleven plates of facsimiles embrace the opening and end of the work, as well as substantial additions to the corpus of laws.
    • • Damascus Documentb (4Q267) is written in an early Herodian formal hand from about the end of the first century BCE. The two plates of photos include parallels to the parenetic as well as the organizational portions of CD.
    • • Damascus Documentc (4Q268) is written in a calligraphic Herodian bookhand from the early first century CE. The single plate parallels the opening of the Genizah text.
    • • Damascus Documentd (4Q269) is written in an early Herodian formal hand from the late first century BCE. The relatively small fragments extant contain rules of purity and communal discipline.
    • • Damascus Documente (4Q270) is written in a Herodian formal hand from the first century CE with guidelines. The five plates include various Qumran legal norms, a list of the sins of transgressors apparently among contemporaries, as well as the end of the concluding column of the work.
    • • Damascus Documentf (4Q271), written in an early Herodian bookhand, contains a variety of legal rulings, including substantial parallels to the Sabbath code of CD.
    • • Damascus Documentg (4Q272), written in an early Herodian formal hand, deals with the biblical laws of skin disease and fluxes.
    • • Damascus Documenth (4Q273), written on papyrus in a formal Herodian script, is very poorly preserved. Extant are halakhic rules, some with parallels in the other manuscripts.

  • Damascus Document (5Q12) is a small fragment from Cave 5, which corresponds to CD ix.7–10.
  • Damascus Document (6Q15) from Cave 6 consists of five fragments, four of which correspond to passages from the Admonition of CD, while one has a few words of laws concerning forbidden sexual relations found also in Damascus Documente.

Summary of Contents.

(Segments found only at Qumran are marked with an asterisk.)

The admonition

  • *1. The work begins with a teacher's first person call to the Sons of Light to separate from transgressors.
  • 2. Based on the concept of preordained periods of wrath and redemption, a historical discourse on the emergence of a penitent remnant 390 years after the Babylonian destruction of the Temple.
  • 3. A second discourse on the lessons of biblical history.
  • 4. The Three Nets of Belial: fornication, wealth, pollution of the sanctuary. Fornication is exemplified by the sins of polygamy and uncle-niece marriages. The sanctuary is defiled by those who have intercourse with women during their menstrual impurity.
  • 5. The Community of the Renewed Covenant and the future punishment of backsliders.

The laws.

(The placement of some of the Qumran pericopes is tentative.)

  • *6. A catalogue of transgressors of various kinds ending with an appeal to those who know how to choose between the paths of life and perdition.
  • *7. The Zadokite priests and their communal role; rules about priestly disqualification.
  • *8. Diagnosis (by the priests) of skin diseases; menstruant and parturient women.
  • *9. Harvest laws: gleanings, fruits of the fourth year, measures, and tithes.
  • *10. Impurity of idolaters' metals; corpse impurity; disqualification of minors to sprinkle the purification water.
  • *11. The Soṭah (wife suspected of adultery) ordeal.
  • *12. Integrity in commercial dealings and arrangement of marriage.
  • 13. The oath of those entering the covenant; exclusion of the mentally and physically incompetent.
  • 14. Laws about oaths, vows, and bans.
  • 15. Law about a “ban” of destruction against a person.
  • 16. Laws about judicial procedures.
  • 17. “Concerning purification in water.”
  • 18. “Concerning the Sabbath,” an extended pericope of Sabbath rules.
  • 19. The purity of the Temple and the Temple City.
  • 20. Treatment of blasphemers and gentiles.
  • 21. Dietary and purity rules. End of the rule for “cities of Israel.”

Communal rules

  • 22. Priests, Levites as legal deciders for communal cells.
  • 23. The function of the Overseer.
  • *24. The penal code.
  • *25. Ritual for the expulsion of offenders at the annual renewal of the covenant. Conclusion of the work.

The Laws.

It is apparent from the above outline that the corpus of laws, augmented by the now available Qumran fragments, constitutes the central body of the Damascus Document. This is indicated not merely by the preponderance of space allotted to the laws, but by the summation formula found at the end of the work: “This is the explanation of the laws to be followed during the entire period of visitation. … Behold it is all in accordance with the final interpretation of the Law” (Damascus Documenta [4Q266] xi.18–21). Hartmut Stegemann (1993) suggests that Final Interpretation of the Law was the actual title of the Damascus Document. This term, however, occurs elsewhere within the legal corpus (4Q266 5.i.16) and may merely indicate that the explanation of the laws is in conformance with the latest insights granted to the sect's legists. In any case, it is noteworthy that the legal corpus, which some scholars were disinclined to consider as an integral part of the Damascus Document, now emerges as its central core. The Admonition on the other hand appears to serve primarily as a hortatory preface to the nomistic pronouncements of the Qumran teachers.

The laws themselves may be broadly divided into two categories: (a) interpretations of religious law and general halakhah and (b) communal regulations. Among the religious laws there are a number with similarities to rabbinic tradition, that which the Talmud later called Oral Law. Thus, in the Sabbath code the cessation from work on the eve of the Sabbath begins well before sundown, the limit (teḥum) of walking more than two thousand cubits outside the city is applied to pasturing animals, and the ban on handling working implements is strictly followed. Such similarities led Louis Ginzberg in 1922 to identify CD as a Pharisaic work, although he was able to maintain this conclusion only by dismissing the allusion in CD xvi.2–4 to the solar calendar of Jubilees as a later interpolation. He also had to recognize the prohibition of polygamy and uncle-niece marriages as departures from the norms of what became rabbinic halakhah. In the light of the Qumran findings Ginzberg's thesis can no longer be maintained.

The Cave 4 supplements to the legal corpus supply significant new illustrations of the sect's opposition to contemporary Pharisaic practices. Thus, in preparing the waters mixed with the ashes of the red cow and in sprinkling them for purification, it was customary in Temple times to use young boys who had never been ritually defiled, as recorded in M. Para. 3.2. The Qumran ruling, referred to above, that a minor below twenty is ineligible to perform the sprinkling, was ostensibly directed against this practice. Only mature priests were held eligible to do the rites of purification.

With regard to the fourth-year fruit of newly planted trees, which rabbinic halakhah treated like second tithe belonging to the farmer, the Qumran legists held it to be like firstfruits given to the priests. In the case of ḥallah, the priestly portion of the dough, which rabbinic practice required to be separated from every kneading, Qumran deemed it to be a like a first-fruit offering brought “once a year.”

The Qumran view of fetal life differed from that prevailing in rabbinic halakhah. This view emerges from two transgressions listed in the catalog of sins found in Damascus Documente. The first is the slaughter of pregnant animals, which Qumran saw as violating the biblical ban on slaying the parent with the young (Lv. 22.28, Dt. 22.6). Implicitly, the fetal animal was regarded as a distinct creature. The second transgression, in accordance with a probable restoration, is intercourse with a pregnant woman. The reason given is somewhat obscure, “he causes blood to stir (?)” (meqits dam), which may refer to possible harm to the fetus or causing bleeding through coital pressure, thus making intercourse illicit. Normative talmudic halakhah did not forbid marital relations during pregnancy.

The wide range of biblical law treated in the legal corpus of Damascus Document thus comprises both similarities and contrasts with the Pharisaic-rabbinic system. Methodologically, it is noteworthy that some of the laws are accompanied by exegetical references, such as the biblical citations used to support the sectarian polemic against polygamy and uncle-niece marriages. However, the bulk of the rules found in Damascus Documentd are formulated apodictically, without scriptural proof. This is likewise characteristic of the Mishnah. Of special interest are the topical rubrics used to introduce particular subjects: “Concerning one who is purifying himself in water” (CD x.10), “Concerning the Sabbath” (x.14), “Concerning the oath of a woman” (xvi.10). Here we have the first post-biblical collections of legal rulings by subject categories, a process which later in rabbinic tradition culminated in the six major orders of Rabbi Judah's Mishnah.

Since the study of scripture and the exposition of law were the perpetual activities to which the sect was devoted (Rule of the Community, 1QS vi.6), we may presume that some of the religious laws were academic in nature and do not necessarily reflect the community's own experience. The communal regulations, on the other hand, are indubitably the product of the sect's organizational development. The Damascus Document and the Community Rule have in common the references to one of the important communal institutions, the annual renewal of the covenant. In the former this is found at the end of the work after the description of the ritual for the expulsion of sinners: “All the inhabitants of the camps shall congregate in the third month and curse those who turn right or left from the Law.” The date derives from Exodus 19.1, where the preparations for the Sinaitic covenant are detailed, and similarly lacks specification as to which day of the third month. Milik places the annual renewal of the covenant on Pentecost, the fifteenth of the month, but it may be that the ceremony was intended as preparatory for Pentecost.

Many scholars have pointed out the differences in communal lifestyle between the Rule of the Community and the Damascus Document. The Rule appears to stem from a community of men living in a close-knit order (yaḥad), sharing their goods and a discipline in accordance with a strict penal code. The Damascus Document, by contrast, presupposes men and women living a normal family life, with private property, and a discipline consisting primarily of adherence to the laws of the Torah. As far as the Genizah manuscripts are concerned, this depiction was adequate, although it failed to account for a vestige of the penal code (CD xvi.20–21) that deals with the offense of deliberately lying about property. The same offense is found in the Rule (1QS vi.24–25). We now have in the 4Q manuscripts an extensive pericope from the penal code that closely parallels that of the Rule in substance and in wording. However, the penalty of a reduction in the food ration (1QS vi.25) is absent in Damascus Document, which suggests that it was applicable only to men living together in the yaḥad. On the other hand, the penal code of Damascus Document includes offenses such as “fornication” with one's wife, apparently involving violation of some sexual ban, and murmuring against the Fathers and Mothers of the community. These offenses presuppose conventional family life. Another difference from the Rule is the consistent pattern of dual punishment in the penal code of Damascus Document, suspension of access to purities and another penalty, each for a specified period of time.

The plurality of social practices has also been inferred from CD vii.6–7, which distinguishes between members of the sect who walk in “holy perfection” and those who dwell in camps in the manner of the land, marrying and bearing children, while following the Torah. This may reflect a bifurcation in social patterns, celibate and family oriented, within the Covenant community, not unlike what Josephus records about the Essenes (The Jewish War 2.160–161).


The Damascus Document does not contain any explicit formulation of the sect's theological beliefs comparable with that found in the Rule. Yet, it is clear that its author/s shared the deterministic and dualistic Qumran view of the world and of man. Neophytes are ranked according to their “inheritance in the lot of light” (CD xiii.12). In the now available opening passage the sage addresses his instruction to the “Sons of Light,” warning them about the “fixed time of visitation” against the “spirit of iniquity.” This is elaborated in a characteristically predestinarian fashion, “for they can neither come before or after their appointed times.”

This determinism is also applied to the contrasting destiny of Israel and the nations. The expulsion ceremony at the end of Damascus Document opens with a blessing, which acclaims the universal creator who “established peoples according to their families and tongues for their nations, but made them go astray in a trackless void,” while “our ancestors you did choose and to their descendants you gave your truthful statutes” (Damascus Documenta [4Q266 1.xi.1]). Here the nations are baldly depicted as being led astray by divine decree.

The messianic references in the Damascus Document to “the Messiah of Aaron and Israel” have been the subject of much debate between those who take them as designations for a single Messiah with priestly and royal functions, and those who interpret them in conformity with the Two Messiahs doctrine of the Community Rule. In CD xiv.19 the reference to the Messiah of Aaron and Israel is followed by the phrase “and he will atone their sin” (wa-yekhapper ῾avonam), which could be taken to mean that the Messiah has the power of forgiveness for sin. In Mark 2.7–10 the claim of such authority by Jesus is considered blasphemy in the eyes of the scribes.


One of the valuable aspects of the Damascus Document is the account of how the Qumran sect viewed its own history. According to the first historical discourse the community began with a nucleus of penitents who realized the errors of their ways “in the period of wrath,” 390 years after the Babylonian conquest. After a twenty-year period of blind groping the Teacher of Righteousness became their guide. Among his antagonists was a figure called the Man of Mockery, whose followers “sought smooth things,” a pejorative epithet applied elsewhere in Qumran writings to the Pharisees. This and other nicknames, such as “removers of the bounds” and “builders of the wall,” are metaphors for religious laxity in matters of law. The Teacher of Righteousness and his faithful went into exile in “the land of Damascus” and entered into a “new covenant.” The Damascus Document, in its present form, was composed after the death of the Teacher, whose “gathering in” is referred to in CD xx.14.

The utilization of this account for historical purposes is complicated by a number of factors. The number “three hundred and ninety” may be derived from Ezekiel 4.5. Moreover, we don't know whether the Qumran writers had any realistic knowledge of biblical chronology. “The land of Damascus” is ostensibly influenced by Amos 5.26–27, which refers to an exile “beyond Damascus.” Many scholars have therefore argued that it does not refer to Syria, but to the sect's exile at Qumran. The author/s characteristic use of sobriquets for the protagonists in the sect's conflicts makes their individual identification little better than conjecture. Nevertheless, one can with greater confidence infer that the sect's image of its own history was that of a reformist group intent on disassociating itself from the religious and moral errors of its age. This would tend to support S. Talmon's characterization of the Covenanters as a millenarian movement with an antitraditional, though hypernomistic posture.

Time and Sources.

Of the Qumran manuscripts of the Damascus Document, the oldest copy is estimated to come from the beginning of the first century BCE. One may presume that the work in substantially its present form was in existence earlier. A terminus post quem is provided by the allusion to the death of the Teacher of Righteousness, which some scholars hypothesize occurred circa 110 bce. However, these estimated parameters do not necessarily apply to each of the varied components that constitute the work. Thus, there are grounds for believing that the penal code of the Damascus Document represents an earlier system of penalties than that of the Rule, to which it is closely related.

Scholars have long attempted to apply source-critical techniques to the Admonition, but there has been little agreement in delimiting the literary segments and their chronological provenance. Murphy-O'Connor proposed four independent sources prior to the Essene occupation of Qumran: the missionary exhortation (ii.14–vi.1), the memorandum (vi.11–viii.3), the critiques of the princes of Judah (viii.3–18), and the call to faithfulness (xix.33–xx.34). P. R. Davies (1983) sees a different fourfold structure of the Admonition: a historical description of the community's origin (i.1–iv.12a), a demonstration of the validity of the sect's stringent laws (iv.12b–vii.9), a secondary midrashic expansion added to reinforce the sectarian claims (vii.5–viii.19), and a supplement stemming from the “new covenant” Qumran group led by the Teacher (xix.33–xx.34). Both of the aforementioned writers are inclined to accept S. Iwry's thesis that the sect originated from a nucleus of returnees (shavei yisra᾽el) from the Babylonian exile. However, most other proposed reconstructions of Qumran history are based on the premise of a Judean background for the community.


The importance of the Damascus Document in the Qumran library can be gauged by the number of manuscripts that are extant. The work is, as far as we know and as we would expect, nowhere referred to in rabbinic literature. However, it was very likely of great interest to the early Karaites as an ancient antecedent for their rejection of rabbinic tradition. Schechter already noted in his introduction to Fragments of a Zadokite Work that the tenth-century Karaite scholar Al-Qirqisani refers in his history of Jewish sects to Zadok, the reputed founder of the Zadokites, as “the first to expose the errors of the Rabbanites.” He reports that Zadok produced no proof for anything that he claimed “except for one thing, namely, the prohibition of marrying one's niece, which he deduced from her being analogous to the paternal and maternal aunt.” This fits very well with the exposition in CD v.8–11. Of the legal doctrines of the Zadokites, Al-Qirqisani records that they prohibit divorce, although it is permissible according to scripture. No explicit prohibition of divorce is found in the Damascus Document, although some have inferred this from the ban on “taking two wives in their lives” (CD iv.20–21). Concerning the Zadokite calendar, he states that “they make all months of thirty days; perhaps they rely in regard to this upon the story of Noah.” Schechter suggested plausibly that this alludes to the 150 days (Gn. 8.3; cf. Jub. 5.27) reckoned for the five-month duration of the flood. Interestingly, the writer of a Qumran text (Commentary on Genesis A [4Q252]) tried to harmonize this with the solar calendar, in which the third month of each quarter has thirty-one days, by interpolating two additional days between the end of the flood and the coming to rest of the ark.

The possibility that the medieval manuscripts of the Damascus Document were copied by Karaite scribes from an ancient Vorlage, which perhaps became available through an earlier scroll discovery, seems worthy of further consideration. It would account for the surprisingly close textual correspondence between the portions of Damascus Document preserved in the Genizah manuscripts and their ancient counterparts from Qumran Cave 4, despite the chronological gap of over a millennium, which separates them.


  • Baumgarten, J. The Damascus Document, 4Q266–4Q273. Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, 18. Oxford, 1996.
    Based on the transcriptions of J. T. Milik
  • Baumgarten, J. M., and D. R. Schwartz. The Dead Sea Scrolls, vol. 2, Damascus Document, edited by J. M. Charlesworth. Tübingen, 1995.
  • Broshi, M., ed. The Damascus Document Reconsidered. Jerusalem, 1992.
    The best available facsimiles of the Genizah texts, with textual notes by E. Qimron, an essay on the laws by J. Baumgarten, and a bibliography of studies, 1970–1989, by F. García Martínez
  • Davies, P. R. The Damascus Document. Sheffield, 1983.
    Valuable for literary-historical analyses of the Admonition, although the author largely ignored the legal corpus
  • Ginzberg, L. An Unknown Jewish Sect. New York, 1976.
    Translation of Ginzberg's German commentary (1911–1914) with detailed evaluation of the laws from the perspective of rabbinic halakhah
  • Rabin, C. The Zadokite Documents. Oxford, 1954.
    A widely used edition of the Hebrew text with concise, erudite commentary
  • Schechter, Solomon. Documents of Jewish Sectaries, vol. 1 (Reprint, New York, 1970).
    With J. A. Fitzmyer's prolegomenon and bibliography
  • Schiffman, L. H. The Halakhah at Qumran. Leiden, 1975.
    With a detailed commentary on the Sabbath code
  • Schiffman, L. Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls. Philadelphia, 1994.
    See Chapter 17, “The Law of the Sect.”
  • Stegemann, H. Die Essener, Qumran, Johannes der Täufer und Jesus, p. 165. Freiburg, 1993.

Joseph M. Baumgarten

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