The Libraries of the Judean Wilderness in the Context of the Roman World

Written by Michael Moore

February 26, 2017

The Libraries, Archives, Genizas and Hiding Places of the Judean Wilderness in the Context of the Roman World

Of the numerous manuscript collections that have been found in the Judean Desert, not one has been found in its original library or archive room, with the exception of Caves 4Q and 5Q, which likely served as genizot for the community (see below). The contents of the libraries at Kh. Qumran were evacuated, perhaps on sundry occasions, as refugees fled with the manuscripts and hid them in caves for safekeeping. Due to the quality of the scrolls left behind and the manner in which they were deposited, it is safe to assume that the original intention was to leave them hidden until a safer moment presented itself for the owners to return and retrieve the precious manuscripts. In all of the cases where scrolls have been discovered, we can likewise assume that the original owners did not consider it safe or did not survive to return for them, likely due to the calamities and harsh reality of their own times.

This begs the question of just how in-use libraries would have been kept in the Judean Desert or elsewhere in the first century. To answer this question it would be helpful to survey the available information on other sundry but parallel collections of manuscripts that existed in the contemporary Roman world.

In-use libraries versus archives or genizas

At the outset, a distinction should be made between manuscripts found in caves and manuscripts kept in buildings. The scrolls found in the caves in the cliffs do not represent functional, working libraries. Rather, they held the contents of various libraries or archives that had been hidden, most likely to protect them from the threat of theft or destruction. In antiquity, as today, functional or ‘in-use’ libraries were generally stored on shelves in special rooms within a building, as the following survey indicates.

In-use manuscript collections


Public libraries. The most famous were the Brucheion Library (Alexandria), Hadrian’s Library (Athens), the Celsus Library (Ephesus), the library of Attalus I (Pergamon), and Augustus’ library on the Palatine Hill (Rome; which was enlarged by Tiberius and Caligula). Among its numerous holdings, Vespasian’s library in Rome, established in 76 CE, contained many volumes taken as booty from Jerusalem’s main library, including Hebrew Torah scrolls.

Institutional libraries. Galen’s Medical Library at Pergamon’s Asclepion. The hieratic library at Delphi.

Personal libraries. These represent personal collections, which range from a few scrolls to collections, in certain cases, of enormous size. The library of L. Calpurnius Piso (Julius Caesar’s father-in-law) at Herculaneum contained at least 1800 volumes. Certain personal libraries later became institutional (e.g., Galen’s Library) or public. The greatest library of Rome, built by Trajan in 114 CE, was based upon the personal library of a certain Epaphroditus of Cherlones.

Although no functional libraries were found in situ in the Judean wilderness, the actual contents of such libraries ostensibly were found in caves 1Q, 2Q, 3Q, 6Q, 11Q and Masada. Since their contents represent the collections of specific sects or interest groups, these apparently contain the remnants of institutional libraries. Caves 4Q and 5Q apparently hold the worn remains of a much larger and diverse institutional library.


Scroll and book storage

Public and institutional libraries normally stored the scrolls in tall wall niches, as at Celsus’s library in Ephesus, at Nessana in the Negev and apparently at Qumran. Scrolls would be labeled by either a tag fixed to the exposed end or by the title written on the outer sheet of the scroll toward one end.


Niches of Nessana Library (Photo S. Pfann)

Personal libraries were also often kept in wall niches, as in the Library of Lucullus (after 66 BCE) in Rome, Herod’s Library at Masada, but also in more diverse ways such as in wooden boxes at Herculaneum.


Niches of Herod’s Library in the Northern Palace of Masada (Masada III, Ill. 238)


Masada library niches (according to Y. Hirschfeld; Illustration: D. Porotsky)


Qumran loc. 1, niches in wall


Reconstruction of Qumran’s Library (illustration S. Pfann, Jr.)

Bibliography on Ancient Libraries:

Lionel Casson, Libraries of the Ancient World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001).

Y. Hirschfeld, “The Library of King Herod in the Northern Palace of Masada,” Scripta Classica Israelica 23 (2004), 69-80.

Elmer D. Johnson and Michael H. Harris, History of Libraries in the Western World (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1976).

James W. Thompson, Ancient Libraries (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1940).

For a thorough Bibliography on Ancient Libraries click here

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