Commentary Magazine


The Study of Man: More Light from Judean Caves

The finding of the ancient Hebrew scrolls near the Dead Sea is revealing itself as one of the greatest events in Biblical archeology since we have had such a field of study. Here H. L. Ginsberg, who already gave us a first report on the significance of the finds in “The Cave Scrolls and the Jewish Sects” in our July 1953 number, brings us up to date on the results of scholarly work on the manuscripts since then.

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Both Israel and Jordan have displayed a commendable zeal in seeking, preserving, and publishing the archeological remains within their respective borders. The most sensational finds of recent years, however, have been made in the northern half of the Wilderness of Judah; actually, the decade that began in the spring of 1947 may come to be known in the history of archeological discovery in the Holy Land as the “Decade of the Wilderness of Judah.” The Wilderness itself is a narrow strip of very steep, broken, and arid land running between the Dead Sea and the watershed of the hill country of Judah.

In the northern half of the Wilderness, which lies inside the Kingdom of Jordan, manuscripts dating from antiquity came to light at or near Khirbet Qumran, in 1947-52, and Wadi Murabba’at, in 1951-52. At Khirbet Mird, in 1952-53, old manuscripts were recovered in the ruins of an ancient monastery but, being medieval, they do not concern us here. Those at the other two sites were found in caves, and I shall here anticipate my conclusions to the extent of noting that the Khirbet Qumran manuscripts were abandoned in the year 68 C.E., during the First Jewish Revolt (against Rome), and the Wadi Murabba’at ones—at least the most important of them—more than sixty-five years later, in 134-5 C.E, during the Second Jewish Revolt. At Khirbet Qumran, only one manuscript cave was known from 1947 through 1951, but five more were discovered in 1952. At Wadi Murabba’at, there are two “literate” grottoes.

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Wadi Murabba’at

Wadi Murabba’at is a wild ravine extremely difficult of access. Both its two “literate” and its two “illiterate” grottoes contained abundant anepigraphic relics (remains without writing) of human occupation over a period of more than four thousand years—from the 4th millennium B.C.E. until well into the Arab period. The extreme dryness of the climate had preserved not only pottery but wooden utensils and cloth and, along with these, such perishable writing materials as papyrus and crude leather.

The period of most intensive human occupation had evidently been the Roman, which was represented by the most artifacts. These include coins of the 1st and 2nd centuries C.E. and writings in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin; some of these mention persons, and some actual dates, of the 2nd century C.E. One very notable event of that century was the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome, which lasted from 132 to 135. Its leader’s given name, Simeon, was formerly known only from coins he had minted, while his surname was not really known at all. It is indeed given as Ben Kozeba or Bar Kozeba (Son of the Disappointer), in rabbinic literature, and as Kocheba (the Star) or Bar Kocheba (Son of the Star) in the early Christian sources. But scholars have always realized that these were mere nicknames—-the Christian writings preserving an earlier name from the time when the Jews had pinned great hopes on Simeon, and the rabbinic ones reflecting their disappointment. Only now do we know that his actual, official surname was Ben Kosbah. For at Wadi Murabba’at were found preserved from the time of the Second Revolt the following items: nine coins dating from that period; some Aramaic deeds dated in “the Year Three of Israel’s Freedom” (134 C.E.); several fragmentary Hebrew documents dated by “the deliverance of Israel through Simeon ben Kosbah, Prince of Israel”; two letters addressed by “Simeon ben Kosbah, Prince of Israel” to one “Jeshua ben Galgola and the men of the fort” and another letter from a different quarter addressed to the same “Jeshua ben Galgola, commander of the camp.” It would seem that this Jeshua commanded a military guard which Simeon kept stationed in this desert fastness, even as the aforementioned Latin text shows that the Romans kept one stationed there subsequently—probably to keep watch over one of the roads leading to En-gedi.

The Wadi Murabba’at grottoes have further yielded some fragments of the Bible: of Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah. (Latest reports tell of the recovery of a defective copy of the Minor Prophets.) That they are so fragmentary is not an accident. One of the pieces of scroll has a tear which runs across three columns. The war against Ben Kosbah, as we ought now to call him, was one of the bitterest the Romans ever had to fight, and these particular grottoes in the midst of a desolate waste must have cost them heavy casualties. The pagan soldiers therefore tore the Torah scrolls and other sacred writings to shreds. Probably because of their inconspicuousness, a couple of phylacteries survived intact.

The Biblical texts found at Wadi Murabba’at (at least apart from the aforementioned unpublished scroll of the Minor Prophets) agree exactly, even to the spelling, with the Masoretic Text (our present Hebrew text), while the phylacteries contain exactly the Pentateuch sections prescribed by the Rabbis. No apocryphal texts were found and, of course, no heretical writings.

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Khirbet Qumran

Readers of COMMENTARY (July 1953, p. 77-81) already know a good deal about these, the original, “cave scrolls.” But abundant new data have become available in the past two years, and a certain amount of recapitulation is desirable and even unavoidable.

Whereas in our last article we were able to speak of only some forty distinct manuscripts identified with certainty and the prospect of their number being raised to seventy, we can now speak of hundreds of books dating partly from the 1st (some probably from the 2nd) century B.C.E., and partly from the 1st century C.E. The evidence for this dating—which, it is credibly rumored, has just been sensationally augmented in a manner which may soon be divulged—is at present as follows:

1. The script of the dated Wadi Murabba’at manuscripts of the year 134 C.E., which I have just mentioned, furnishes one most important piece of evidence. Next to it, even the latest scripts of Khirbet Qumran look archaic.

2. The great bulk of the inscribed material is crude leather, though there is one specimen of parchment (finely prepared skin), and also a little papyrus and three sheets of copper. There is further an ostracon (inscribed potsherd), which was not found in one of the caves but in a nearby spot of which more will be said below. The important thing to remember is the negative feature that in all this vast quantity of material there is not a single piece of paper.

3. The soft materials—leather and papyrus—all constitute scrolls. Thus far there is no evidence for there having been any codices (bundles of leaves, like our modern books). And there is not, in all this mass, a single trace of vowel signs.

To be sure, some papyrus was still used in the Middle Ages, and some scrolls are used even today; e.g., our Sifrei Torah, megillot, tefillin, mezuzot, and—diplomas. But a library of hundreds of books comprising only scrolls, and none of paper but only of crude leather or papyrus (except for one item of parchment), is not seriously conceivable after the 3rd century C.E., if that late. And the following further observations go to show that the manuscripts were in fact stowed away in the caves as early as the 1st century C.E.

4. The manuscripts of Cave One were wrapped in linen. The age of the linen has been determined by a carbon-14 test as 33 C.E., with a margin of possible error of two centuries upward as well as downward.

5. The manuscripts of Cave One were stored in jars of a type found nowhere else except in neighboring caves (where they were used for more prosaic purposes than the storage of books) and in Level II of the nearby site of settlement known as Khirbet Qumran. Obviously, therefore, the manuscripts in question were placed in the jars and cached in the cave not later than the time when the said level of occupation of the nearby settlement was destroyed. And that date can be fixed very exactly. The latest of the many coins found in Level II is of the Year Two of the First Jewish Revolt, i.e. the year 67-68 C.E.; and we know from Josephus that Vespasian, the Roman general who was soon to be acclaimed emperor, occupied Jericho in June of the year 68. Khirbet Qumran is only eight miles south of Jericho and—unlike Wadi Murabba’at—can be reached with comparative ease; moreover, Josephus actually tells of Vespasian reaching the Dead Sea. Clearly, therefore, this was the occasion when the Romans captured and destroyed Level II of Khirbet Qumran; and it must have been in the preceding weeks or months, and in anticipation of Vespasian’s coming, that the manuscripts were hidden away.

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But the unusual jars are not the only objects recovered from Level II of Khirbet Qumran that bear directly upon the manuscripts in the caves of the vicinity. The settlement consisted of a single large public building of two stories. The debris of the upper story was found to include what may have been a washstand and also three tables and two inkwells, and there were benches along its walls. This was evidently the scriptorium, the room in which scribes sat and copied books for the community’s use.

The building also had facilities for cooking and for communal meals and/or deliberations. To the east of it was a large cemetery of about eleven hundred graves, the building and the cemetery occupying between them a sort of plateau in the cliffside. A number of caves in the vicinity contained pottery but no manuscripts and evidently served as dwellings, or as storerooms for people who dwelt in tents close by. Now, it is at least a remarkable coincidence that a notable feature of Essene practice, as described in our sources, was the communal repast. The famous Roman naturalist Pliny—who accompanied Vespasian on his Judean campaign—describes the location of a colony of Essenes by the Dead Sea in terms which fit Khirbet Qumran remarkably well. The owners of the Khirbet Qumran scrolls are shown by the content of some of the scrolls to have been certainly a community of sectarians; and probably those sectarians were Essenes.

It would be too good to be true if the entire library of this community had remained intact until the recent discoveries. Khirbet Qumran is not inaccessible like Wadi Murabba’at; and although Cave One is off the beaten track, in the side of a cliff, most of its original contents were already gone when chance led a Bedouin into it in the spring of 1947. There has long been known a letter of circa 800 C.E. which mentions a discovery of Hebrew manuscripts in a cave in the vicinity of Jericho, and Karaite and Moslem writers after 900 also know of sectarian writings which were discovered in a cave. From the contents which these writers attribute to those ancient screeds it is almost certain that they belonged to the same sect as the Khirbet Qumran ones, and the cave in question may even be precisely our Cave One. But, in any case, the remains which have been salvaged from these grottoes in the last few years are epoch-making.

Here we have writings embodying the principles, regulations, liturgy, and interpretations of Scripture of a vanished Jewish sect. Here we have parts of the lost Hebrew and Aramaic originals of those remarkable works known as the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha. We have even the Aramaic original of a pseudepigraphon (the Book of Lamech) whose existence was previously known only from an old book list, but of which no copy was extant in any language. And here we have the remains of an entire library of Hebrew Bible manuscripts which are centuries older than any previously known.

Of the sect’s own writings and doctrines, as also of its possession of some of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha and their influence upon its writings and doctrines, I have spoken in my previous article. I would here merely add that we now know that the Khirbet Qumran library possessed, along with extra-canonical scriptures otherwise unknown, more than one copy each of the Book of Jubilees and First Enoch in the original Hebrew, as well as both a Hebrew and an Aramaic text of the Book of Tobit.

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The State & Uses of the Bible in Greco-Roman Times

As is well known, the Rabbis of the Roman Age made little effort to imitate the language of the Bible in the Mishnah, Tosephta, Baraitot, and Midrashim, but employed what is called Mishnaic or Talmudic Hebrew; by means of which they achieved precision, conciseness, and picturesqueness. Only in the set prayers which they prescribed—in the sections preceding and following the Shema, and especially in the Amidah—was there an obvious attempt to “talk Biblically.” And even then there was no attempt to show off how many more or less apposite Biblical phrases they could think of and combine but, on the contrary, a beautiful simplicity and dignity—at least in those rabbinic prayers which ended by being adopted permanently. The sectarian Hebrew of the Khirbet Qumran manuscripts is much more “Biblical.” Yet I do not think it is bias that makes me pronounce it notably inferior to the Hebrew of the Rabbis. Even the non-liturgical texts of these people read like mosaics of Biblical phrases, with a good deal of prolixity for the sake of getting in more Biblical flourishes; while their liturgies carry this tendency to monstrous extremes, with the result that the thread of thought is sometimes lost in the mass of verbiage. At the same time, the post-Biblical words with which their compositions are interspersed show that the living Hebrew of the time was actually very much like that which the Rabbis employed as a matter of course.

In other respects, however, the sectarians’ use of the Bible was very similar to that of the Rabbis. Thus in two of their books, known as the “Damascus Covenant” and the “Manual of Discipline,” they bolster their arguments with quotations from the Bible which they interpret midrashically; and—this was indeed a surprise—Cave One yielded a practically complete midrash on the Book of Habakkuk and fragments of midrashim on Micah and Zephaniah, while Cave Four yielded parts of one or more on Isaiah. Three different caves seem to have yielded parts of one or more “commentaries” on Psalms. Some scholars have insisted that these are not midrashim but commentaries in our sense of the word. Well, the one, or the ones, on Isaiah have not been published; but the others, at any rate, are completely lacking in those things which are the very stuff of Bible commentaries in our sense of the term, and which are by no means entirely neglected even in our rabbinic midrashim: namely, grammatical, etymological, stylistic, and antiquarian notes; and any number of exegetical puzzles are not even tackled. Instead, only those verses are selected for exposition which lend themselves to a completely arbitrary interpretation as allusions to current history. Take the Book of Habakkuk, for example. It is remarkable enough according to its plain sense. A prophet here actually reproaches his God for remaining passive while the ungodly Chaldeans are having the upper hand over other, innocent nations (the prophet does not single out the wrongs done to his own Jewish people!) and then waits for and receives a reply to his reproach. (“Reproach” is the word he himself uses.) But according to the sectarian interpreter, all the prophet is concerned about is the wrong which the Teacher of Righteousness, the founder or hero of the sect, is destined to suffer half a millennium later at the hands of Hasmonean priest-princes; his reproach is directed not to God but to some human party who will be in a position to protest against the maltreatment of the Teacher of Righteousness; and the Chaldeans are none other than the Romans, whose suzerainty over Judea since 63 B.C. is represented as a punishment for the persecution of the Teacher of Righteousness and his companions.

Very similar applications of ancient oracles to their own times can be cited from the Rabbis, but by them they are meant to be understood more as jeux d’esprit than as insights into the actual intentions of the ancient texts. Thus, although it is true that in the Hebrew text of the oracle which announced to our mother Rebekah that “Two nations are in thy womb” the word for “nations” is spelled in such a way that it could also be read as “magnates,” no Jew would be considered a heretic for doubting whether this was really meant to allude to the wealthy compiler of the Mishnah (who was of course descended from Jacob) and to the Roman emperor (supposedly descended from Esau) whose friendship the former is said to have enjoyed. On the other hand, it is well known that such “actualizations” of ancient prophecy are basic to Christianity. It is natural to surmise that this agreement between the Khirbet Qumran group and the early Christians in making every possible ancient text refer to their own times is due to the fact that both the Khirbet Qumran sect and the early Christians were persecuted and believed that they were living at “the end of the days” the former expecting the early rise of “a Messiah from Aaron and Israel,” and the latter awaiting an imminent Second Advent. For it is a fact that in an even earlier age, when Judaism was subjected to such a persecution that its early disappearance seemed inevitable barring a miracle, it produced just such “eschatological midrashim,” and these were embodied in the Bible itself.

The crisis to which I refer was the outlawing of Judaism by Antiochus Epiphanes in the years 167-4 B.C.E., and the midrashim which discovered that both this crisis and the dire end of Antiochus and the dawn of a new age had all been foretold in the ancient Scriptures are embodied in the Book of Daniel. Here (Daniel 9) we are told in so many words that the seventy years of subjection to Babylon foretold by Jeremiah were not seventy years but seventy hebdomads (weeks of years), or four hundred ninety years in all, and that they would witness many vicissitudes ending with the outlawing of the Jewish religion for half a hebdomad (three and a half years) and would be followed by the dawn of a new age. And I have shown elsewhere how a much more elaborate midrash which, among other things, turned the Assyria of Isaiah’s oracles into the Syria of the 2nd century B.C.E. and the haughty king of Assyria whom Isaiah denounces into Antiochus Epiphanes, has been incorporated in Daniel 11. It is safe to say that next to Halachic midrash (see COMMENTARY, September 1950, p. 283), Eschatological midrash, as exemplified by the sectarian midrashim on Habakkuk and Micah and by the even earlier midrash of Daniel 11, on Isaiah, is the oldest type of midrash there is.

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These sectarians, then, were steeped in the Bible, they imitated its phraseology and meditated upon its meaning. In what form did they read it? I have already mentioned that no codices (books of leaves, like ours) were found at Khirbet Qumran, but only scrolls. It follows that these people could not possibly have possessed complete one-volume Bibles. We all know how bulky and heavy even the Pentateuch (the Torah) alone is in scroll form. But they probably did possess copies of all of the separate books in the Hebrew canon, with the possible exception of Esther. To date, fragments have been found of every book except Esther. It may well be that these sectarians did not recognize either the Book of Esther—in all probability a product of the Hasmonean Age—or the Festival of Purim, whose observance that Book enjoins. It is also far from certain that they observed Chanukah, a festival instituted by the Hasmoneans, whom they detested.

Interestingly enough, a few of the Bible scrolls are in the Old Hebrew script, which today must be familiar even to the layman from the reproductions of ancient Jewish coins on Israeli postage stamps. Even the legends on the coins of the Second Revolt minted by Simeon ben Kosbah are in the Old Hebrew script. The Mishnah does not permit the use of scrolls in this script for reading from in the synagogue, but this prohibition itself reflects the existence of such scrolls among Jews of the Mishnaic period. As is well known, the Samaritans to this day use this script alone. Because of its venerable age, it was actually often regarded as more sacred than our square Hebrew letters, so that some of the sectarian documents which are otherwise executed in the square script use the Old Hebrew script for writing the name of God. Similarly, in his Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, Aquila (a contemporary of Simeon ben Kosbah) neither translated nor even transcribed the Tetragrammaton but copied it out—in the Old Hebrew script.

The sectarians’ most popular book of the Bible outside the Pentateuch was the Book of Isaiah. Khirbet Qumran has yielded one complete scroll of it, one defective one, a fragment of a third and, as we have already mentioned, parts of at least one midrash on it. In this the sectarians were by no means unique. The only books of the Bible outside the Pentateuch of which a remnant was found at Wadi Murabba’at were Isaiah and—according to latest reports—the Minor Prophets. That Daniel 11 embodies a whole midrash on Isaiah was mentioned above. Readers of the New Testament are familiar with two further instances: there is the story (Luke 4:16-22) of how Jesus went into the synagogue of Capernaum on a Sabbath, stood up to read, and was handed a scroll of Isaiah, which he opened and in which he read and interpreted a passage; and there is the other (Acts 8:26 ff.) about how the apostle Philip came upon an Ethiopian eunuch reading the prophet Isaiah and entered into a discussion with him. The reason for this popularity is not far to seek. Of the three major prophets, the Rabbis observe that Jeremiah is all calamity, Ezekiel part calamity and part consolation, and Isaiah (especially what the moderns call Second Isaiah) all consolation (Baba Batra 14b)—and, we may add, consolation in language of unforgettable beauty.

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But readers will doubtless be most interested to know what light these texts shed upon higher, or literary, criticism and upon lower, or textual, criticism. Upon higher criticism, they shed no light at all. The complete Isaiah scroll, which is nearly the oldest manuscript of the lot, does not date from much before 100 B.C.E., and nobody who deserves to be taken seriously imagines that anything was added to the Book of Isaiah after that date. But for lower criticism these texts are very important. For some of them agree with our Masoretic Text in a high degree (so the first of the incomplete Isaiah scrolls) while others (notably the complete Isaiah scroll) diverge notably in spelling and grammar, and not infrequently in wording. By the way, the divergences in spelling and grammar are nearly always in the direction of later usage—just as in the Samaritan Pentateuch and in unscholarly manuscripts of the classics.

It is of course the wording of the cave Bible scrolls that interests us in particular, and it is very interesting to find that it frequently agrees with the Septuagint, the most famous of the Greek versions, and at other points disagrees with both the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint. In one case where the Septuagint rendering reflects a different Hebrew reading from ours, that divergent Hebrew reading turns up in a Khirbet Qumram scroll and proves to be definitely superior to that of the received, or masoretic, text. In Deuteronomy 29:1, Moses summons the Israelites for a farewell address which runs to the end of Chapter 30. This is followed by some brief instructions and dispositions. In the received text, the transition from the “ethical will” to the instructions and dispositions reads as follows (Deuteronomy 31:1-2): “Now, when Moses had gone and spoken [wylk msh wydbr] these words to all of Israel, he said to them . . . .” Obviously more correct, however, is the reading of a Khirbet Qumran scroll, which is also that which the Septuagint translator had before him: “Now, when Moses had finished speaking [wykl msh Idbr] these words to all of Israel, he said to them . . . .” For since Moses had summoned the Israelites to him, he had not gone to them.

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The Masoretic Text & Its Rivals in Orthodox Judaism

But in most cases where the Khirbet Qumran Bible texts diverge from ours, the readings are inferior to ours. What I wish to stress here is merely the fact that they contain at certain points considerable divergences both from our text and among themselves. This relative fluidity of text is just what we find in ancient manuscripts of the classics, and is presupposed by the rabbinic legislation and tradition. For the rule itself that a scroll not conforming to the standard text must not be read from in the synagogue presupposes that divergent texts are in circulation for private study; and the remarkable variants reported from Rabbi Meir’s copies (middle of the 2nd century C.E.) show that when he copied for the private study of himself or his customers he didn’t bother to adhere to the standard text of the Rabbis. (On all this and more, Saul Lieberman’s Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, Chapter One, may profitably be consulted.) It is therefore by no means unlikely that, if the Biblical remains recovered from Wadi Murabba’at were not so scanty, they would be found not to accord with the Masoretic Text so perfectly as we have noted.

There is a famous tradition in the rabbinic sources (Sifre II 356 and parallels), about how three scrolls in the Temple forecourt were compared and the reading of the majority adopted as standard wherever two scrolls agreed against one. This tradition shows that the Jewish authorities, like the Greek philologians, realized that all readings were not equally good, and set out to recover the original text by adopting the readings of a majority of superior manuscripts. The result is our Masoretic Text, which is superior to all its rivals on the whole, but certainly can be corrected by the readings of one or another off them in a number of passages. Eventually this Standard Text superseded all others even for private study, but there still survive traces of the time when it had not yet won out even in the most official religious circles. The instances of non-masoretic Bible readings that occur in the Babylonian Talmud are listed in Rabbi Akiba Eger’s Gilyon hash-Shas on Shabbat 55b; but the most notable one occurs in the Passover Haggadah. One of the passages in the Torah upon which the rabbinic requirement that the Haggadah be recited is based, comprises two verses which in our Standard (Masoretic) Text read as follows (Deut. 6:20-21): “When your son asks you in time to come saying, What mean the testimonies, the statutes, and the ordinances which the Lord our God has commanded you? you shall say to your son, We were bondmen unto Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” The Septuagint, however, reads not “which the Lord our God has commanded you” but “which the Lord our God has commanded us,” and not “out of Egypt” but “out of there,” and not simply “with a mighty hand” but “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” Incredible as it may sound, our Haggadah agrees in every one of these respects with the Septuagint. Modern Occidental Haggadahs, to be sure, have corrected the son’s question into “commanded you” so as to make it agree with the Masoretic Text, but early and Oriental Haggadahs still have the Septuagint reading (“commanded us”) even here, and all Haggadahs have retained the Septuagint wording of the father’s reply. In these two verses, therefore, the Rabbis obviously had before them the same Hebrew text as was used by the Septuagint translator.

In the daily liturgy, on the other hand, they have followed, at least at one point, a reading which disagrees with those both of the Masoretic Text and of the Septuagint, but agrees with that of the (complete) Isaiah cave scroll. The Amidah with which we are all familiar includes the sentence “And may our eyes behold how Thou returnest unto Zion in mercy.” It is true that the old Palestinian Amidah lacked this sentence. But the Rabbis who introduced it—whether Palestinian or Babylonianmust have been inspired by a non-Masoretic text of that grand book of consolation, Isaiah. (As was noted above, the Rabbis did try to “talk Biblically” in the prayers which they composed, and Isaiah was everybody’s favorite comforter.) To be sure, the main clause, “And may our eyes behold,” was inspired by the Masoretic Text of Isaiah 33:17a, “Thine eyes shall behold a king in his beauty,” and not by the divergent reading which is common to the Septuagint and the Cave Scroll. But as for the rest of the sentence in the Amidah, that can only derive from the Cave Scroll text of Isaiah 52:8b. For the Masoretic Text has here merely “Yea, eye to eye they shall see how the Lord returns unto Zion,” without the addition of “in mercy.” The Septuagint, on the other hand, has the “mercy” without the “returning,” since it substitutes “takes pity on” for “returns unto.” Only in the Cave Scroll do we find precisely what is presupposed by the wording of the Amidah: “Yea, eye to eye they shall see how the Lord returns unto Zion in mercy.” To which we may add: Amen.

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