Congregational Singing and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Southwestern Seminary is hosting this semester an exhibition of rare Dead Sea scroll fragments, twelve of which have never been seen by the public. It’s really a remarkable source of research and information about the time when Jesus lived and the early church was formed.

The scrolls were discovered in the mid-1900s, opening a window into a small sect of Judaism that settled at Qumran, near the Dead Sea in southern Palestine, during the early first century and before. This sect had separated itself from the rest of Judaism and in some ways developed their own unique beliefs and practices; nevertheless, insomuch as this group remained faithful to biblical Judaism, study of the scrolls presents enlightening insight into the traditions of first-century Jews, practices that in some ways formed early Christian custom.1

One of the areas of interest in the scrolls, among many others, is worship. The scrolls contain hymns, prayers, and other texts that shed light on first-century Jewish worship, an area before largely unknown except for relatively few statements in the New Testament.2

In particular, the issue of singing within the Jewish community was an unclear matter prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. Certainly the Levite musicians performed music at the temple, but there is no evidence in Scripture that singing was a regular part of synagogue worship or Jewish daily life.

In the Dead Sea scrolls, however, we find a clear tradition of corporate singing similar to that which developed in the early church.

For example, several scroll fragments reveal a series of thirteen songs to be sung on each of the first thirteen Sabbaths of the new year, known now as the “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice.” These songs depict worship of angelic beings around the throne of God in heaven including what they sing, their duties, details of the throne room itself, and the praise they offer.3

Also interesting are the so-called Hodayot Hymns, songs beginning with the formula “I thank you, Lord.” Some of these hymns, known as “Hymns of the Teacher,” are personal and use the first person pronoun, such as this passage:

The wicked of the people rush against me with their afflictions,
And all the day long they crush my soul.
But You, O my God, turn the tempest to a whisper,
And the life of the distressed You have brought to safety
As a bird from the snare and as prey from the power of lions.4

Others, known as “Hymns of the Community,” use third person pronouns (“we,” “us”) and avoid more individualistic subjects, changing the opening formula to “Blessed are you, Lord.”5

These hymns in many ways resemble inscripturated Psalms, although they themselves are clearly human-composed, such as this psalm-like hymn found in a collection called the “Community Rule”:

I will sing with knowledge and all my music
Shall be for the glory of God.
My lyre and my harp shall sound
For his holy order
And I will tune the pipe of my lips
To his right measure.6

Among the benefits of these discoveries is the revelation of an apparent tradition of both individual and corporate hymn singing outside regular temple practice in at least one first-century Jewish community. While there is no certainty regarding a direct connection between the Qumran sect and early Christians,7, we have at least some evidence of the context in which the church may have nurtured its own congregational singing, a tradition that flourished in the early centuries of the church and was most greatly cultivated in the post-Reformation evangelical stream.

Scott Aniol is an Instructor of Worship at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Follow Scott on Twitter.

  1. Although this is the most prevalent view concerning the origin of the Scrolls, debate does exist on this point. See Haim Watzman, “Qumran ControversyArcheology, 1997. []
  2. For a thorough discussion of research into the hymns found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, see Esther G. Chazon, “Hymns and Prayers in the Dead Sea Scrolls” in Peter W. Flint and James C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls After Fifty Years (Brill Academic Publishers, 1999). []
  3. James R. Davila, Liturgical Works, Eerdmans Commentaries on the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 83-167). []
  4. Wise, Michael O., Martin G. Abegg Jr. and Edward M. Cook. The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 98. []
  5. E. Schuller, “The Cave Four Hodayot Manuscripts: A Preliminary Description” JQR 85 (1994), 137-50. []
  6. Geza Vermes, trans. The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (London: Pelican Books, 1962), The Community Rule 10:9. []
  7. Some have argued that the Scrolls actual describe an early Christian community, such as Robert H. Eisenman, James, the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Viking, 1997), but this is highly debated. []
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