The Genesis of Prayer

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the origins of modern worship

Parchment fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls have darkened over time--a natural reaction of aging leather. "They looked like burnt toast," says Penn State scholar Daniel Falk, who is tracing the origins of modern prayer in the ancient fragments. Credit: Courtesy of The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library; IAA, photo: Shai HaleviAll Rights Reserved.

The Hebrew Bible provides ten commandments about fundamental moral issues and more than 600 laws about almost every aspect of Jewish religious practice, from what may be eaten to caring for the poor.

But that long list of rules has a curious omission, says Penn State scholar Daniel Falk.

“There is not a single law about prayer,” he says. “No law governing what time you should pray or what you should pray.”

A few hundred years B.C., communal prayer was not part of regular Jewish observance. It’s not that people didn’t pray, says Falk. They prayed often, both alone and in groups, but mainly in response to specific situations. They cried out to God for help in times of distress and they offered prayers of thanksgiving in times of great joy. But to gather every day for prayer, as a regular practice, was probably not done. It was certainly not required by religious laws.    

By around A.D. 200, when the compilation of Jewish law known as the Mishnah appeared, that had changed. The first line of the Mishnah asks, “From what time in the evening must one recite the Shema?”

“It begins with a law about prayer!” says Falk. “Not only that you should pray, but that you should pray at a certain time and you should pray a certain prayer. If you jumped straight from the Hebrew Bible to that, you would wonder, ‘I didn’t even know I was required to pray.’ ”

The duty to pray fell on communities as well as on individuals. Sabbath services, which in earlier times featured prayers by religious leaders, now involved specific prayers by the entire congregation. No special circumstances were required: The community prayed together weekly and even daily as a matter of course, regardless of outside events.

“The obligation on the people—not on officials—but that the people as a whole have an obligation to honor God and to bring the community needs before God in a disciplined fashion, is really quite remarkable,” says Falk. “There’s been some massive religious revolution, and we know almost nothing about how or when that came about.”

Fragile findsFalk, a professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies, looks for insights into the development of Jewish prayer in the collection of ancient documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Written over a span of more than two hundred years, gathered and protected by a small community in a desert outpost in the kingdom of Judea, the scrolls are a window onto what was happening in the larger society at the time. They contain the earliest-known versions of many of the texts that later became standard parts of the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament). They also contain hymns, commentaries, and hundreds of prayers.

The scrolls were discovered in the late 1940s in caves near the ruins of a settlement called Qumran, along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Scholars estimate the total number of scrolls to be over 900, of which about 90 percent are parchment made of animal skins. The rest are made of papyrus. The scrolls range in size from about four inches high and a couple of feet long to what Falk calls “deluxe versions” about 18 inches high and 30 feet long.

"The bat excrement and urine and insects did a real number on them."

Photographs and paintings of the caves often show tall ceramic jars that were used to store the precious documents. Unfortunately, only about one percent of the scrolls were found, relatively intact, inside jars.

“The vast majority were just in tatters on the floors of the caves,” says Falk. “So they were in caves, which protected them, but some caves protected them better than others. There were bats in there, and wild animals, and the bat excrement and urine and insects and all this did a real number on them.”

By the time of their discovery, many of the scrolls had fallen apart. Many of those made of papyrus had disintegrated into fragments no bigger than a thumbnail. Tens of thousands of fragments were removed from the caves, mostly by resourceful Bedouin, and somehow survived their convoluted paths to museums and private collections. Today, most of the Dead Sea Scrolls reside at the Shrine of the Book, a museum and study center in Jerusalem.

Falk began studying the scrolls as a graduate student at Cambridge University in the early 1990s—just the right time, it turns out. In the decades since their discovery, access to the scrolls had been tightly controlled by a small committee of experts.

“There were scholars who had gone their whole career working on the scrolls, and never actually got to see them,” he says. By the late ’80s, pressure from academics and from a public fascinated with the ancient texts had begun to pry open the gates, giving access to a whole new generation of researchers.

Falk’s first project focused on two fragments of a skin scroll. The originals had turned dark—a natural reaction of aging leather—and “were almost totally useless,” says Falk. “They looked like burnt toast.”

To get a better look at what was written on the blackened scrolls, conservators photographed them under infrared light, which produces a black and white image that makes the writing much clearer. The images available to Falk at the time were grainy thumbnail copies of infrared photos. He enlarged and edited those, a process that involved translating, grappling with missing or unreadable chunks of text, and interpreting what they said.

When he presented his work to other researchers in the field, the leader of the Dead Sea Scrolls Publication Project invited him to join the project. He has been a member of the International Team of Editors of the Dead Sea Scrolls ever since.

Both sides nowToday Falk works primarily with papyrus scrolls. Papyrus doesn’t darken with age like leather, but it doesn’t hold together as well, either.

“A lot of the texts I’m very interested in are in really horrid shape, just hundreds and hundreds of little pieces,” he says. Not only that, but some of the papyrus fragments have writing on both sides. Such two-sided scrolls, called opisthographs, were found in significant numbers at Qumran, but are extremely rare elsewhere.

“I’ve talked with other papyrologists about this, and it’s almost unheard of,” says Falk. “You do find re-use, but in almost all other cases in the ancient world, it’s re-use of something which was deemed to be garbage.” With the Qumran documents, the religious texts on both sides were read and used during the same period. The two sides were usually written by different hands, in some cases as much as 100 years apart. “So someone has a scroll of prayers [recorded by someone else], but then chooses to copy another prayer on the back side,” he says. “I’ve hypothesized that this is a personal collection—someone’s making their own prayer scroll.”

He thinks many of the one-sided prayer scrolls might also have been personal books rather than community resources. They’re small enough to be carried in a pocket, and they have more corrections and less polished writing than the bigger, better-executed scriptural scrolls. Falk calls them “budget scrolls.”

The prayer scrolls reveal a religious group for whom prayer had become a required part of daily life.

Taken together, the prayer scrolls reveal a religious group for whom prayer had become a required part of daily life. While modern synagogue practice uses many of the same prayers every day, with something added for special occasions, the Qumran community had “an entirely different prayer for every single occasion, for every day of the week, for every month, for every festival,” says Falk.

The prayers include motifs common in synagogue prayer today, including pleas for the restoration of Israel and for God to remember the history of his dealings with Israel and have mercy on the people. The themes of sin, redemption, and God’s grace, often considered hallmarks of Christian worship, are also prominent. In his classes Falk sometimes presents writings from the Christian apostle Paul and the Dead Sea Scrolls side by side, with identifying words removed, and asks his students to choose which is which. They find it very hard to do.

“We think of Paul as talking about ‘grace’ over against ‘law,’ and that you can’t earn favor with God. You have exactly that language in these prayers,” he says. “Their approach to prayer is not ‘I’m entitled to this.’ They’re really overwhelmed with their human frailty before God, and they’re struck with awe that God would accept them. They say, ‘There’s nothing that we could do to earn favor with God; I am but a worm.’ They sound almost Lutheran.”

Who were the Qumranites?As Falk read more of the scrolls and understood more about the prescribed cycle of prayers at Qumran, he started asking broader questions about what that way of worship meant for the community.

“Why would this way of life appeal to people?” he says. “It must have meant something. It must have worked for them, made sense of the world. So then I wanted to get at: How did prayer fit in there?”

Even in its heyday, Qumran was not a large settlement—its water supply could have supported 200 people, at most. The site today includes the caves where the scrolls were found and the ruins of several stone buildings.

“There’s not a lot to see,” says Falk. “You have to really use your imagination as to what this looked like and what it was like to live in. They mostly lived in caves or tents. The buildings seem to be all communal space.”

Who these people were and how they fit into the larger society are still something of a mystery.

The residents kept livestock and tended crops, but their main activity was religious devotion. Active for about 200 years, from roughly 130 BC until AD 69, Qumran was not an all-male enclave, as it has sometimes been depicted in popular accounts. Its cemetery has about 2,000 graves, of which 50 or so have been excavated by archaeologists. Most, but not all, of the bodies laid to rest there were men.

Who these people were and how they fit into the larger society in Judea at the time are still something of a mystery. They’re often referred to as “Essenes,” a Greek term that Falk is not entirely comfortable with.

“We have no texts where a group calls themselves Essenes,” he says. In the scrolls, the people of Qumran call themselves the Sons of Light or the Children of the Renewed Covenant. Falk thinks they probably were related to the Essenes that were described by first-century Jewish historian Josephus and others, and that Qumran was either an offshoot of the larger movement or a sort of hub or retreat center where people whose primary home was elsewhere would come to stay briefly to fulfill a vow or other religious duty.

According to Josephus, Essenes were the most populous Jewish sect in Judea, numbering about 4,000. Their religious teachings were more strict than those of other Jewish groups, such as the Pharisees. The people at Qumran may have been even more legalistic in their interpretation of Jewish law, but were clearly related to the Essenes, Falk says.

“I have little doubt that if you could take Josephus by the hand and show him Qumran, and show him these texts, and ask, ‘Are these the type of people you’re talking about?’ he’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah, those guys!’ ”

Apocalypse thenJosephus didn’t say a lot about the Qumranites’ religious bel