Dead Sea Scrolls – Book of Jubilees

Did you know that there is a “lost” book of the Old Testament which reveals what God really told to Moses during his forty day sojourn on Mount Sinai? That  Jacob and Esau never really reconciled and instead went to war against each others’ tribes? That God revealed to Moses the destruction of the First Temple and the scattering of the Jews among the nations? That Adam and Eve lived in Eden for EXACTLY seven years?

No? Well, you would know this if you happened to be one of the 45 million Christians today who belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, one of the oldest branches of Christianity in the world. Just as Roman Catholics and Protestants believe different books of the bible to be “true”, other Christian denominations that we know less of in the United States have their own separate lists of canonical books. But more interestingly, you probably would also have known this if you happened to a member of the sect at Qumran (some say the Essenes) where this book, the Book of Jubilees (also known as the Book of Divisions) was considered part of the scripture, more than 2000 years ago.

Oh, and did I mention that God is very clear that a year is exactly 364 days and we’ve been screwing up the calendar ever since? No? Well, read on for more about this fascinating book.


First a confession and an apology: the downside to my taking a class on the Dead Sea Scrolls is that when I have time to study the bible, I find myself studying for the class instead of the next chapter in the story of Genesis. I am nearly done with the next post on Abraham and Lot, but I hope you will bear with me for another digression.

I suspect everyone these days is aware of the Dead Sea Scrolls: large and small fragments of biblical (Old Testament) scrolls and other works found hidden in caves outside of Qumran, now in the West Bank. These scrolls are the oldest surviving copies of many of the books that we have in the bible today and have taught biblical scholars much about our received texts. Since the 1950s, when these works began to be publicized, they have even impacted our bibles by providing or improving readings from our texts. I won’t go into too much detail right now, and I know that some people find it disturbing, but the original Hebrew bible texts aren’t perfect and there are sections where translators way back since the Greeks in the late pre-Christian era just had to scratch their heads and guess. Sometimes it’s because it’s a valid word that no one knows what it means, sometimes it looks like someone dropped a letter or a word, and sometimes there are words that are spelled alike with very different meanings and different translators pick different ways to read the words. That isn’t to say that we’re likely to discover that the real commandment is “Thou Shall Commit Adultery” (though one version of the King James edition of the bible actually says this… really…), but it something that people (like myself) who can only read the bible in translation never really experience.

There are tons of amazing finds at the Dead Sea and maybe I’ll post about some more later. There are new legends featuring bible characters, there are books of psalms with new psalms included, there are new books on laws and community life, there are commentaries on the bible (mostly claiming that the End Is Near), and there are many copies of the bible itself. Of course, this was pre-Christian times (around 200 BC up to the very early years AD) and no New Testament books were discovered there, although there are a few tiny fragments which could be bits of the New Testament, but more likely are sources that the New Testament authors were quoting or common expressions. With the exception of the Book of Esther (the Qumran sect didn’t practice or believe in Purim, the holiday still observed by Jews that is introduced in that book), all other books of the bible are represented at Qumran.

The Book of Jubilees is special because all evidence points to it being considered part of the bible of the Qumran group. That doesn’t mean that they were the only Jews to believe it to be scripture, nor does it mean they weren’t, but it provides a seemingly direct link between the modern-day beliefs of Christians in Ethiopia (and elsewhere) back to ancient Jewry.

So, what is the Book of Jubilees? The Book of Jubilees is essentially a retelling of Genesis through approximately Exodus 12, but with new stories added, old stories removed, and textual details massaged. It begins with God calling Moses up onto Mount Sinai:

And it came to pass in the first year of the exodus of the children of Israel out of Egypt, in the third month, on the sixteenth day of the month, that God spake to Moses, saying: ‘Come up to Me on the Mount, and I will give thee two tables of stone of the law and of the commandment, which I have written, that thou mayst teach them.’ (Jubilees 1:1)

After a brief passage where God reveals some of the future to Moses (such as the destruction of the first temple), the narrative goes into more familiar territory:

And the angel of the presence spake to Moses according to the word of the Lord, saying: Write the complete history of the creation, how in six days the Lord God finished all His works and all that He created, and kept Sabbath on the seventh day and hallowed it for all ages, and appointed it as a sign for all His works. For on the first day He created the heavens which are above and the earth and the waters and all the spirits which serve before him – the angels of the presence, and the angels of sanctification, and the angels of the spirit of the winds, and the angels of the spirit of the clouds, and of darkness, and of snow and of hail and of hoar frost, and the angels of the voices and of the thunder and of the lightning, and the angels of the spirits of cold and of heat, and of winter and of spring and of autumn and of summer and of all the spirits of his creatures which are in the heavens and on the earth, the abysses and the darkness, eventide, and the light, dawn and day, which He hath prepared in the knowledge of his heart. And thereupon we saw His works, and praised Him, and lauded before Him on account of all His works; for seven great works did He create on the first day. And on the second day… (Jubilees 2:1-2:4)

Although the text (especially in this passage) is very different, the author begins a retelling from scratch of the book of Genesis and the first part of Exodus, from Adam to Moses. Even in this first bit, it’s clear that the writers are dealing with a somewhat different Judaism. The text feels compelled, for example, to recite a list of different types of angels created by God.

Why might the author have done that? Well, think back to our own Genesis 1:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Genesis 1:26)

This has been a difficult passage for Jews and Christians since antiquity because man is created in “our” image. Who exactly is God working with? Tradition states that he was working with his “heavenly court”. (Christians could also see here a foreshadowing of Jesus.) Jubilees knows Genesis and knows that passage to be a problem, but here we have a solution by showing the creation of angels. This is just one example, but the text does this repeatedly: finding and fixing little “problems” with the Genesis text.

Some of the other amazing aspects of Jubilees theology – and perhaps the reason it wasn’t kept – is that Jubilees preaches a very specific and unworkable calendar system. It is convinced that God created a perfect 364-day year where each festival date falls on a Wednesday and the Sabbath arrives like clockwork every week, but more importantly on the same dates each year. It then adds this calendar system to all of the old stories, providing a consistent and dated narrative from creation up to the time of Moses.

Here’s a bit from Jubilees 4, describing Cain’s children:

And Adam and his wife mourned for Abel four weeks of years, and in the fourth year of the fifth week they became joyful, and Adam knew his wife again, and she bare him a son, and he called his name Seth; for he said ‘God has raised up a second seed unto us on the earth instead of Abel; for Cain slew him.’ And in the sixth week he begat his daughter Azura. And Cain took Awan his sister to be his wife and she bare him Enoch at the close of the fourth jubilee. And in the first year of the first week of the fifth jubilee, houses were built on the earth, and Cain built a city, and called its name after the name of his son Enoch. (Jubilees 4:7-4:11)

You can see the pedantic approach to dates and it is possible to start from the beginning and work forward, dating each and every event of Genesis. The “fifth jubilee” here comes from the notion that the number seven was very special in this calendar: every 7 x 7 years was a jubilee.

The remainder of the book follows largely the same pattern where the stories that we are familiar with are repeated with some variations, some explanations, or just removed. For example, Satan (or a character like him, under a different name) appears just after the Tower of Babel:

And the chief of the spirits, Mastema, came and said: ‘Lord, Creator, let some of them remain before me, and let them harken to my voice, and do all that I shall say unto them; for if some of them are not left to me, I shall not be able to execute the power of my will on the sons of men; for these are for corruption and leading astray before my judgment, for great is the wickedness of the sons of men.’

In the text leading up to this, not in Genesis, it is revealed that unclean demons were roaming the Earth and were not destroyed in the flood. There are some references to exorcism and perhaps a type of early Jewish demonology, but that ultimately God decided to destroy the demons. But this “chief of the spirits” (not a demon, but an angel of some kind), Mastema, wants God to let him keep a few demons around so that he can control the evil sons of men. This view of Satan more closely mirrors the way Satan is presented in the Book of Job: not as an outcast to heaven so much as a “celestial prosecutor” who seeks out the wickedness in men’s hearts as part of the divine plan.

The text goes on from here in a number of fascinating ways and I hope you will take the time and dig deeper. What I find most fascinating about Jubilees is the window that it provides into a time long gone where perhaps the books of the bible as we know them today weren’t “written in stone”, so to speak, and where an alternate version like this could exist along our traditional texts. As scholars debate topics like the Documentary Hypothesis and discerning the origins of the bible as we know it today, Jubilees may show us a Torah-that-may-have-been. And how different is Jubilees from Deuteronomy, for example, which presents a retelling of parts of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers from the perspective of Moses giving a speech to the Israelites? Or is Jubilees a revisionist “fan fiction” of Genesis which was never intended to be sacred? (I’ve heard of 45 million Ethiopians that may beg to differ.)

If you’d like to read the Book of Jubilees, you can find an early translation online at http://wesley.nnu.edu/index.php?id=2127. This 1923 translation of the work pre-dates the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls or some other manuscripts. An improved translation can be found in Volume 2 of Charlesworth’s Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.

Up next: Who knows? In the Dead Sea Scrolls, the “Temple Scroll” is a bit like Jubilees II: it retells Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy  while removing all those pesky story parts. Or maybe I’ll finally join Lot for that dinner he’s been promising.

One thought on “Dead Sea Scrolls – Book of Jubilees”

  1. Hello, I have just began to read Jubilees. Quite fascinated with some of the detailed information given. I can understand the calendar debates, but the info. if truth, about Cains children and such, is great info. to have for any scholar. the age old questions of who did Cain marry? not to mention little details on the animals talking. I have just began, so I am sure I will discover other info. that I will be pondering about. MY main thoughts are, who decided this should not be our everyday reading material? Going back only to 1684, when we had 80 books, decisions were made. I just really am curious who got to make the decisions before then and why? I am reading the Pseudiopigrapha and will probably end up asking myself this over and over!! Thanks for your article 🙂 I will keep researching and reading ( and of course be in prayer)

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