Brian W. Davidson

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For the most recent answer to this question and an argument for exactly how the members of the Qumran community employed the Greek language, see the latest issue of the journal  Dead Sea Discoveries. Matthew Richey, “The Use of Greek at Qumran: Manuscript and Epigraphic Evidence for a Marginalized Language,” Dead Sea Discoveries 19, no. 2 (2012): 177–197.

Richey’s article is clearly written and provides a helpful summary of the available evidence. I hope the following sketch of the article’s salient points will send you looking for a copy of the full article. In “The Use of Greek at Qumran,” Richey argues,

The Covenanters employed the Greek language in a clearly defined context, namely, that of economic transactions, both intramural and extramural. (178)

To support this thesis he looks at two texts (4Q350 and 3Q15, the Copper Scroll) and the epigraphic evidence recently published by André Lemaire (see below). This material is especially significant because it represents writing original to the Qumran community and the content of these writings reflects day-to-day affairs.

4Q350 (4QAccount gr)

This is the only unambiguously documentary (as opposed to literary) manuscript among the relatively small percentage of Greek fragments found at Qumran (178). Richey states,

On the whole, 4Q350 is, unlike all of the other Greek texts uncovered at Qumran, a text that participates in common Hellenistic conventions for registering quantities of goods. (183)

Some would argue that the unique nature of 4Q350 argues for a provenance outside Qumran. Richey, leaning partially on the work of Catherine M. Murphy (Wealth in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in the Qumran Community [STDJ 40; Leiden: Brill, 2002]), argues that the evidence suggests 4Q350 should be considered a genuine Qumran fragment.


Summarizing the significance of Lemaire’s work on Qumran epigraphy (“Inscriptions du Khirbet, des grottes et de ʿAïn Feshka II,” in Khirbet Qumran et Aïn Feshkha, II. Etudes d’anthropologie, de physique et de chimie [ed. Jean-Baptiste Humbert and Jan Gunneweg; Fribourg: Acodemic Press, 2003], 341-88), Richey writes,

On the whole, Lemaire’s epigraphic work has demonstrated that the use of Greek at Qumran, while not widespread in comparison to nearby first century sites, must be taken into account in any characterization of language use at the site. (188)

Richey cites Lemaire, “The use of Greek… seems rather greater in the documents of practical life than in the literary manuscripts,” (Lemaire, 381, as quoted by Richey, 188-189) and adds,

I would claim, furthermore, that our evidence suggests Greek usage at Qumran to have been connected with prospective economic dealings; some of these may have involved outsiders, many of whom would have spoken Greek as a first or second language. (189)

3Q15 (Copper Scroll)

The mysterious Greek letters at the end of certain lines of the Copper Scroll have long been noted, but there is no consensus as to what they mean. Richey summarizes the two most plausible explanations of this apparent shorthand writing. The Greek letters represent either numbers or names. He eliminates the numbers option by pointing to the work of Judah K. Lefkovits (The Copper Scroll 3Q15: A Reevaluation, a New Reading, Translation, and Commentary [STDJ 24; Leiden: Brill, 2000]), and concludes,

The inferences to draw from all of these possibilities is that some of the Covenanters spoke Greek, or they could reasonably expect one of their number to have both the opportunity and desire to learn Greek in the near future… The most intriguing correspondence between the Copper Scroll and the epigraphic material is the use of Greek for onomastic inscriptions. This manuscript usage might provide support for the conjecture that Greek was used, at least in profane contexts, to preserve the non-Semitic names of initiates. (195)


Richey concludes,

Taken together, these pieces of evidence suggest that Greek was used by the sect when they engaged in both affairs releated to trade and treasure hiding and seeking, a closely related activity. That a greater number of both Greek and Semitic documentary texts has not survived is likely the result of the conditions that prompted the Covenanters to hide their manuscripts in the first place; it is unlikely that, in the face of imminent danger, the Covenanters would deem most papyri detailing ephemeral transactions to be worthy of preservation. (197)

On top of writing very clearly about a complex topic, I think Richey makes a persuasive case. Any thoughts?

4 responses to “Was Greek Spoken at Qumran?”

  1. […] Brian Davidson, Was Greek Spoken at Qumran?  […]

  2. Doug in CO

    I think the above indicates that while Greek was known to them, it certainly wasn’t the lingua franca of the region. As additional evidence, remember that Josephus wrote in “our language” and then subsequently hired someone to help him translate “The Wars of the Jews” into Greek (after having failed to satisfactorily learn Greek himself). I’d suggest looking at Hebrew or Aramaic as the common language of the region and the original copies of NT scripture:

    Click to access 49_aramaic_nt.pdf

  3. Doug, you are correct. Despite the fact that Greek was the dominant language of the day, the everyday language at Qumran seems to have been Semitic. Nevertheless, there were Greek manuscripts discovered at Qumran, and that raises the question of what role the Greek language played among the Covenanters. This is where Richey comes in. His article suggests that Greek might have been used in the context of financial affairs. This would mean that Greek might have played a slightly more “everyday” role than we usually think.
    However, I do not find persuasive the idea that the NT was written in Aramaic. NT Greek is not like the “translation Greek” of the LXX.

  4. Doug in CO

    Actually, I’d suggest that the evidence indicates that Greek had a less prominent role in the time of Christ than is usually assumed. The standard narrative is that illiterate fisherman and assassins spoke Greek fluently enough to correspond through religious writings with other Semitic peoples (some of whom lived even farther on the outskirts of Roman and Greek influence than they did). But, in the case cited above, the religious writings are in Aramaic or Hebrew. Those ignorant Jesus followers knew Greek, but an educated religious leader of the day (Josephus) didn’t? The majority of the Disciples moved east where Greek was not widely known. And, the Church of the East (the largest church of the day by numbers and land mass), where Aramaic was the dominant language, had theological writings in circulation within the first generation. But, they didn’t have a copy of the New Testament in their own language for 400 years? There is something drastically wrong with the standard western paradigm in NT languages. The Church of the East claims that the NT was originally written in Aramaic and that their version of it was considered authoritative by the first generation of Christians. It seems to me that the DSS evidence supports their claim.