The writings recovered in the environs of Qumran have restored to us a voluminous corpus of Jewish documents dating from the third century BCE to 68 CE, demonstrating the rich literary activity of Second Temple period Jewry. The collection comprises diverse texts, most of them of a distinct religious orientation. The chief categories represented are biblical, apocryphal or pseudepigraphical, and sectarian. In-depth study of these documents has shown that the boundaries between these categories are far from clear-cut.
The biblical manuscripts include what are undoubtedly the earliest copies of these texts to have come down to us. Most of the books of the Bible are represented in the collection. Some books are extant in numerous relatively well-preserved copies; others are represented by only a few scraps of parchment. The biblical texts display considerable similarity to the standard Masoretic (received) Text. This, however, is not always the case, and many texts diverge from the Masoretic Text.
The biblical scrolls in general have provided many new readings that facilitate the reconstruction of the textual history of the Old Testament. It is also significant that several of these Biblical manuscripts, for example the Leviticus Scroll, are inscribed not in the Jewish script dominant at the time but in the ancient paleo-Hebrew script.
A considerable number of apocryphal and pseudepigraphic texts are preserved at Qumran, where original Hebrew and Aramaic versions of these Jewish compositions were first encountered. These writings, which are not included in the canonical Jewish scriptures, were preserved by different Christian churches and transmitted in Greek, Ethiopic, Syriac, Armenian and other translations.
The most original group of writings from Qumran are the sectarian ones, which were practically unknown until their discovery in 1947. An exception is the Damascus Document, which lacked a definite identification before its discovery in the Dead Sea region. The widely varied sectarian literature reveals the beliefs and customs of a pietistic commune, probably centered at Qumran, and includes rules and ordinances, biblical commentaries, apocalyptic visions and liturgical works generally attributed to the last quarter of the second century BCE and onwards.