Ian C. Werrett, Ritual Purity and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
(STDJ 72; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007). Pp. ix+349, Hardcover. US$170.00, ISBN 9789004156234
Reviewed by Casey A. Toews.
The University of British Columbia

In Ritual Purity and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Ian C. Werrett argues for a “new approach” to understanding the interrelationship of ritual purity traditions in the Scrolls, demonstrated in his analysis of a controlled selection of manuscripts chosen from among those discovered in the caves situated near Qumran. The current “systemic” approach the author intends to correct reads the purity texts as components of a coherent system, as though a singular authorship and singular theological perspective produced them. In contrast, Werrett is attracted to the diverse nature of the DSS and their internal inconsistencies, and is dissatisfied with a method which predominantly favors elements of uniformity and consistency. He targets a key proponent of this method, Hannah K. Harrrington, who for the author epitomizes the systemic approach in her hypothesis that the similarities among the Scrolls are far more striking then their differences. Werrett counters with his own hypothesis, that the Scrolls internally exhibit just as much disagreement as they do agreement. And so, the author sets out to demonstrate disunity among select purity texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In his Chapter 1 introduction, Werrett begins with a consideration of the pivotal work of Jacob Neusner, perhaps as a way to explain the origin of the systemic approach which has come to dominate current methodology. Neusner’s reading of available Qumran documents in the 1970s, conducted in light of the Qumran-Essene hypothesis, lead him to formulate notions of a “system” of purity evident in the documents. Werrett points out that problems of authorship, genre, and synchronic dissonance can severely complicate this kind of systemic approach, and are thus often ignored by those who employ it. The author points to Lawrence Schiffman and Harrington as examples of those who have followed Neusner by similarly articulating, though in their own permeations, notions of essential uniformity among the scrolls and their authorship. In place of this dominant methodology, Werrett argues for an independent analysis of the Scrolls in isolation, allowing each document to dictate its own ideas and identity, and hence, to dictate its relationship to each of the other documents. Stepping out of the shadow of the Qumran-Essene hypothesis, Werrett seeks a new approach that accounts for the internal variations and inconsistencies among the Dead Sea Scrolls as they regard ritual purity.

As a control for his analysis, Werrett uses common categories of ritual impurity discernible in the Hebrew bible: (i) diseases, (ii) clean/unclean animals, (iii) corpses and (iv) bodily discharges, along with one moral category, (v) sexual misdeeds, explained by the author’s adoption of Jonathan Klawans’ hypothesis that in the Scrolls, moral impurity combines with ritual impurity to form a single conception of defilement. Werrett selects his text base with this control in mind, only choosing documents which contain ritual purity traditions relevant to most or all of the five categories. Each document is then exposed, in turn, to a chapter-length examination in isolation of the relevant ritual impurity material, subdivided according to the five established categories. Chapters 2–5 are dedicated to this examination, organized as follows: Chapter Two—The Damascus Document (contains all five categories); Chapter Three—The Temple Scroll (contains all five categories); Chapter Four—4QMMT (contains all categories except bodily discharges); and Chapter Five—Other Cave 4 Manuscripts (contains various materials on all categories). Appendices listing parallels between the DSS and the Bible, one for each of Chapters 2–5 are provided. Werrett dedicates Chapter 6 to a comparative analysis of his findings in order to establish points of explicit internal agreement and disagreement among his text base of Scrolls. Finally, in Chapter 7 the author concludes that there is nearly as much disagreement among these documents on matters of ritual purity as there is agreement. Located in the back matter of the book, the reader will find, along with the aforementioned appendices, a topical bibliography, and indexes of modern authors and ancient sources; a subject index is not provided.

In Chapter 2 Werrett focuses upon the composite nature of the Damascus Document and the diversity in its ritual purity regulations, concluding with a view that it should not be read as a unified whole, since it does not exhibit consistent tendencies. As he notes, there is evidence of leniency as regards skin disease, where in comparison to the biblical material, the process of examination is streamlined, and the force of impurity that could be contracted from an individual undergoing examination and the constraints placed upon that individual are significantly reduced. Conversely, there is a predilection to stringency in the other categories: regarding clean/unclean animals, the biblical requirement of ritual slaughter (that blood must be drained in the butchering process in order to prevent blood consumption) is applied to fish; regarding corpses, all inanimate objects located in the room of a corpse are defiled and not just unsealed containers as stipulated in the Bible; regarding bodily discharges, a nursing mother is able to transmit impurity to her child and thus a ritually pure wet nurse should be used in the mother’s place in order to avoid contamination to the newborn child; and regarding sexual misdeeds, sex in the city of the Temple is forbidden.

In Chapter 3 Werrett focuses upon the well-known inclination in the Temple Scroll to place higher purity demands upon the space of the temple city. He provides examples such as: those with skin diseases should reside in quarantine camps located outside the walls of the city to the east; unclean animal skins should not be brought into the city; and those who have had sexual intercourse are not permitted to enter the city for three days. Regarding the latter ruling, the author embarks upon a comparative analysis with the Damascus Document. Werrett points out that the Temple Scroll is more stringent than the Damascus Document on this matter, and theorizes that this distinction may be explained by the Damascus Document’s focus upon a realized temple compared to the Temple Scroll’s focus upon an idealized, utopian counter-temple. This comparative analysis occurs in the final section of the chapter sub-titled, “Significance,” a section the author provides at the conclusion of each of chapters 2–5 as a synthesis of each chapter’s findings. Notably, Werrett’s comparison of the Damascus Document and the Temple Scroll is unexpected at this juncture since his stated plan was to analyze each document in isolation prior to an eventual, comparative analysis of his findings in Chapter 6.

In Chapter 4 Werrett considers relevant materials in 4QMMT. Once again, a comparative emphasis is evident. The author notes that 4QMMT’s legislation, which distinguishes between intentional and unintentional contact with sacred food by one who is unclean from skin disease, is at odds with the Temple Scroll, which would not even allow for such a scenario, since it prohibits the unclean from entering the city of the Temple where the sacred food is located in the first place. But perhaps the predominant focus of Chapter 4 is Werrett’s constant challenge towards Elisha Qimron’s (DJD X) reconstruction of 4QMMT since Qimron elected to rely extensively upon the Temple Scroll in his reading of 4QMMT, the very type of integrated approach Werrett opposes. For example, Qimron reconstructs the fragmentary 4Q396 1–2 i 2–4 of MMT by appealing to a parallel between its extant portions—“the mother and its child” and “on the same day”—and a prohibition in the Temple Scroll against sacrificing a pregnant animal. But as Werrett argues, 4Q396 may simply be a recitation of the biblical prohibition against the slaughter of a mother and her young on the same day (Lev 22:28). However, what is of greatest importance to Werrett here is the manner in which fragmentary texts are reconstructed and how their evidence is established. He cautions against a reconstruction of a fragment based on sparse parallels to other documents, since this has the potential to distort the unique witness of the fragment. The author prefers a conservative approach which establishes the legal position of a document only on extant material within that document. The author defends his admittedly minimalist approach on the basis that it is damaging to conjecturally reconstruct points of agreement between documents when they may very well be points of disagreement.

In Chapter 5 Werrett introduces eleven Cave 4 manuscripts which have relevant purity material (4Q159; 4Q249; 4Q251; 4Q265; 4Q274–278; 4Q284; 4Q414; 4Q472a; 4Q512; 4Q513; 4Q514), and provides an investigation that, for practical reasons, groups the texts together around the five biblical categories of impurity. He is careful to point out that such an approach is not intended to suggest that these texts have a common authorship or are part of a collective composition, as he provides a consideration of each text in isolation. Nevertheless, in the final “Significance” section of the chapter, the author turns (once again) to a comparison of his findings, highlighting some of the shared commonalities among the Cave 4 documents, such as their frequent expansions on the Red Heifer rite and their shared prohibition against sprinkling the water of impurity on the Sabbath. He also considers matters of explicit disagreement between the Cave 4 manuscripts and both 4QMMT and the Damascus Document merely require a clean man. As in his previous chapter discussions, Werrett adopts a very cautious approach to the fragmentary condition of the texts, and questions some of the reconstructions offered in the DJD publications, such as 4Q249 and 4Q472a. In the case of 4Q472a, the author, working together with the text’s initial publishing editor, Torleif Elgvin, produced a new reconstruction based on infrared images of the manuscript and has since concluded that the text is not dealing with purity matters at all and should thus be reclassified. The author’s analysis of these various Cave 4 texts demonstrates their seemingly eclectic nature in the broad assortment of topics they cover. In some cases a large variety of rulings are encompassed in a single manuscript, such as 4Q251, 4Q265 and the 4QToharot texts (4Q274–278).

In Chapter 6 the author turns his full attention to the anticipated comparison of his Chapter 2–5 findings, organizing his summary discussion around the five impurity categories of his taxonomy. Since the author already pointed out several comparative observations in the main body of his work, the more focused discussion here in Chapter 6 is somewhat redundant and anti-climactic. The author’s goal at this point is to quantify cases of explicit agreement and disagreement among the documents analyzed. Regarding the first two categories, skin diseases and clean and unclean animals, the author reports that no explicit parallels of agreement or disagreement are identifiable among the documents. However, Werrett indicates that the three other categories—corpses, bodily discharges and sexual misdeeds—each contain cases of explicit agreement and disagreement among the texts analyzed, and thus form the nucleus of evidence it relates to his hypothesis. After the remainder of his Chapter 6 review of each of the cases, the author turns to his Chapter 7 conclusion. There, the author provides a chart organized according to the five categories of impurity, listing a description of each case along with citation of relevant texts. One column contains cases of agreement, and another column contains cases of disagreement. This provides both a quantitative and graphic representation of the balance between the unity and diversity among the texts. The quantitative measure of Werrett’s results can be represented as follows:

Category of Impurity

Explicit Agreement

Explicit Disagreement










Bodily Discharges



Sexual Misdeeds






As one can observe, the instances of explicit agreement (9 cases) and explicit disagreement (8 cases) are nearly equal. Werrett’s independent analysis of select documents has supported his hypothesis that contrary to the dominant view espoused by Harrington, the similarities of the concepts of purity are not more striking then their differences since there is a significant amount of disagreement as well.

As a final, notable feature in the conclusion of his work, Werrett considers the implications of his findings for the diachronic hypothesis proposed by Jonathan Klawans in his now well known Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). Klawans suggests that purity legislation in the Scrolls falls into three primary chronological periods: (i) protosectarian—the earliest period where ritual and moral impurity are distinct; (ii) sectarian—the latest period where ritual and moral impurity are integrated; and (iii) composite—the transitional period between the first two periods where both distinct and integrated approaches to ritual and moral purity are displayed (several of Werrett’s references to Klawans’ work cite the title “Ritual and Moral Impurity in Ancient Jewish Literature” which is actually the subheading of Part II of Klawans’ book). Werrett claims that his findings are supportive of Klawans’ diachronic theory since six of his eight indentified cases of explicit disagreement occur between texts belonging to different periods in Klawans’ paradigm. This proposed correlation inclines the author to view the notion of diachronic development as a suitable explanation for the diversity he has identified.

What is at stake here for Werrett—and his hypothesis of diversity—in adopting a diachronic model as an explanation for his findings? The cases of explicit disagreement which could otherwise (synchronically) suggest an eclectic and variegated origin to the Scrolls are configured into a ‘systemic’ reading that assumes a coherent, albeit developing and emerging, sectarian group as author and custodian of the literary collection. While sectarian notions of communal identity and systems of purity occupy important places in current discussion regarding purity in the Dead Sea Scrolls, as articulated by Klawans and others, one hopes that a dedication to isolated analysis as proposed and displayed by Werrett will bring into better light the variegated nature of the Scrolls, eventually yielding more nuanced descriptions of the unique theological and exegetical diversities of the Scrolls than current, system-oriented theories can offer.

Ritual Purity and the Dead Sea Scrolls is an important methodological correction for how one should read the Dead Sea Scrolls as a so-called corpus. This reviewer looks forward to further publication by the author that considers broader matters of impurity such as the possible relationship of these texts to the material evidence of Kirhbet Qumran, an analysis of other categories of impurity that do not find counterparts in the biblical taxonomy, and theories of origin that account for diverse authorships. As it stands, Werrett’s brand of analysis is a “new approach” that exposes the overly fixed and narrow shortcomings of many current, ‘systemic’ approaches.