The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient manuscripts that were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in eleven caves near Khirbet Qumran, on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea.
What Are The Dead Sea Scrolls
They are approximately two thousand years old, dating from the third century BCE to the first century CE. Most of the scrolls were written in Hebrew, with a smaller number in Aramaic or Greek. Most of them were written on parchment, with the exception of a few written on papyrus. The vast majority of the scrolls survived as fragments – only a handful were found intact. Nevertheless, scholars have managed to reconstruct from these fragments approximately 950 different manuscripts of various lengths.
The manuscripts fall into three major categories: biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian. The biblical manuscripts comprise some two hundred copies of books of the Hebrew Bible, representing the earliest evidence of the biblical text in the world. Among the apocryphal manuscripts (works that were not included in the Jewish biblical canon) are works that had previously been known only in translation, or that had not been known at all. The sectarian manuscripts reflect a wide variety of literary genres: biblical commentary, religious-legal writings, liturgical texts, and apocalyptic compositions. Most scholars believe that the scrolls formed the library of the sect that lived at Qumran. However, it appears that the members of this sect wrote only part of the scrolls themselves, the remainder having been composed or copied elsewhere.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls represents a turning point in the study of the history of the Jewish people in ancient times, for never before has a literary treasure of such magnitude come to light. Thanks to these remarkable finds, our knowledge of Jewish society in the Land of Israel during the Hellenistic and Roman periods as well as the origins of rabbinical Judaism and early Christianity has been greatly enriched.
Please note, that no photography is allowed in the Shrine of the Book
The Hebrew Bible is the cornerstone of the Jewish people and this fundamental text has left its imprint on Christianity and Islam.
The exhibition at the Shrine of the Book Complex represents a journey through time, which, adopting a scholarly-historical approach, traces the evolution of the Book of Books. The upper galleries take the visitor from the oldest extant biblical manuscripts, which were discovered in the Judean Desert, through the story of the sectarians living at Qumran, who attempted to translate the biblical ideals embodied in these texts into a way of life. The lower galleries tell the remarkable tale of the Aleppo Codex – the most accurate manuscript of the Masoretic text and the closest to the text of the printed Hebrew Bibles used today.
The Shrine of the Book was built as a repository for the first seven scrolls discovered at Qumran in 1947. The unique white dome embodies the lids of the jars in which the first scrolls were found. This symbolic building, a kind of sanctuary intended to express profound spiritual meaning, is considered an international landmark of modern architecture. Designed by American Jewish architects Armand P. Bartos and Frederic J. Kiesler, it was dedicated in an impressive ceremony on April 20, 1965. Its location next to official institutions of the State of Israel—the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), key government offices, and the Jewish National and University Library—is appropriate considering the degree of national importance that has been accorded the ancient texts and the building that preserves them.
The contrast between the white dome and the black wall alongside it alludes to the tension evident in the scrolls between the spiritual world of the “Sons of Light” (as the Judean Desert sectarians called themselves) and the “Sons of Darkness” (the sect’s enemies). The corridor leading into the Shrine resembles a cave, recalling the site where the ancient manuscripts were discovered.
Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls
The first seven Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by chance in 1947 by Bedouin, in a cave near Khirbet Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Three of the scrolls were immediately purchased by archaeologist E. L. Sukenik on behalf of the Hebrew University; the others were bought by the Metropolitan of the Syrian Orthodox Church in East Jerusalem, Mar Athanasius Samuel. In 1948 Samuel smuggled the four scrolls in his possession to the United States; it was only in 1954 that Sukenik’s son, Yigael Yadin, also an archaeologist, was able to bring them back to this country.
Over the next few years, from 1949 to 1956, additional fragments of some 950 different scrolls were discovered, both by Bedouins and by a joint archaeological expedition of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française and the Rockefeller Museum, under the direction of Professor Father Roland de Vaux. Since then, no further scrolls have come to light, though excavations have been carried out from time to time at the site and nearby.
“They display an extraordinary interest in the writings of the ancients, singling out, in particular, those which make for the welfare of soul and body” (Josephus, Jewish War II, viii, 6).
The sectarians attached supreme importance to the study of the Scriptures, biblical exegesis, the interpretation of the law (halakha), and prayer. The hundreds of scrolls discovered at the site and the rules of the Community preserved in them indicate that they took the biblical injunction, “Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night” (Joshua 1:8), quite literally. Their laws enjoined them to ensure that shifts of community members be engaged in study around the clock, in order to reveal the “divine mysteries” of the law, history, and the cosmos.
The sectarians’ scribal and literary activities apparently took place in several rooms in the communal centre at Khirbet Qumran, mainly in the “scriptorium” on the upper floor. Most of the scrolls were written on parchment, with a small number on papyrus. The scribes used styluses made from sharpened reed or metal, which were dipped into black ink – a mixture of soot, gum, oil, and water. Inscribed bits of leather and pottery shards found at the site attest to the fact that they practised before beginning the actual copying work.
Most of the Hebrew and Aramaic scrolls found at Qumran were written in “Jewish” or square script, common during the Second Temple period. A few scrolls, however, were written in ancient Hebrew script, a very small number in Greek, and fewer still in a kind of secret writing (cryptographic script) used for texts dealing with mysteries that the sectarians wished to conceal. Scholars believe that some of the scrolls were written by the community scribes, but others were written outside of Qumran.
“Being versed from their early years in the holy books [and] various forms of purification . . .” (Josephus, Jewish War II, viii, 12)
All the books of the Hebrew Bible, except for Nehemiah and Esther, were discovered at Qumran. In some cases, several copies of the same book were found (for instance, there were thirty copies of Deuteronomy), while in others, only one copy came to light (e.g., Ezra). Sometimes the text is almost identical to the Masoretic Text, which received its final form about one thousand years later in medieval codices; and sometimes it resembles other versions of the Bible (such as the Samaritan Pentateuch or the Greek translation known as the Septuagint). Scrolls bearing the Septuagint Greek translation (Exodus, Leviticus) and an Aramaic translation (Leviticus, Job) have survived as well.
The most outstanding of the Dead Sea Scrolls is undoubtedly the Isaiah Scroll (Manuscript A) – the only biblical scroll from Qumran that has been preserved in its entirety (it is 734 cm long). This scroll is also one of the oldest to have been preserved; scholars estimate that it was written around 100 BCE. In addition, among the scrolls are some twenty additional copies of Isaiah, as well as six pesharim (sectarian exegetical works) based on the book; Isaiah is also frequently quoted in other scrolls. The prominence of this particular book is consistent with the Community’s messianic beliefs since Isaiah (the Judean Kingdom, 8th century BCE) is known for his prophecies concerning the End of Days.
Apocrypha in the Scrolls
“Against them, my son, be warned! The making of many books is without limit” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)
Besides the biblical books, there are many other literary works of the Second Temple period which, for religious and other reasons, were forbidden to be read (in public?) and were therefore not preserved by the Jews. Ironically, many of these works were preserved by Christians. Apocryphal books such as Tobit and Judith were preserved in Greek in the Septuagint translation of the Bible, and in other languages based on this translation. Pseudepigraphical books (attributed to fictitious authors) were preserved as independent works in a variety of languages. The Book of Jubilees, for example, survived in Ge’ez (classical Ethiopic), and the Fourth Book of Ezra survived in Latin.
These apocryphal and pseudepigraphical books were cherished by the members of the Judean Desert sect. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of the books had been known only in translation (such as the book of Tobit and the Testament of Judah), while others were altogether unknown. Among these are rewritten versions of biblical works (such as the Genesis Apocryphon), prayers, and wisdom literature. In some cases, several manuscripts of the same work were discovered, indicating that the sectarians highly valued these compositions and even considered a few of them (such as the First Book of Enoch) as full-fledged “Holy Scriptures.”
Sectarian Scrolls: The Pesharim
“Being versed from their early years in . . . apophthegms of the prophets; and seldom if ever do they err in their predictions” (Josephus Jewish War II, viii, 12)
The Bible was the basis for the intellectual and spiritual experience of the members of the Qumran Community, and the purpose of its interpretation was in order “to do what is good and right before Him as He commanded by the hand of Moses and all His servants the prophets” (Community Rule 1:1–3). The exegetical works written by the sectarians deal with the interpretation of the laws of the Pentateuch (such as the Temple Scroll), of various biblical stories (such as the Testament of Levi), and, in particular, of the words of the Prophets.
The method of biblical interpretation known as pesher is unique to Qumran. The pesharim may be divided into two types: those dealing with a specific subject (such as 4QFlorilegium), and those written as running commentaries. In pesharim of the second type, the biblical text is copied passage by passage in the original order, and each passage is explained in turn. Most of the “running” pesharim, of which there are about seventeen, are based on books of the Prophets, such as Isaiah, Nahum, or Habakkuk; there is also one pesher on the book of Psalms, which the Community also regarded as a prophetic work. The interpretations themselves are prophetic in nature and allude to events related to the period in which the works were composed (hence their importance for historical research). With a few exceptions, the name has no historical personality, but employs such expressions as “Teacher of Righteousness,” “Priest of Wickedness,” or “Man of Falsehood.”
The Community Rule: The Sect’s Code
“They live together formed into clubs, bands of comradeship with common meals, and never cease to conduct all their affairs to serve the general weal” (Philo, Apologia pro-Iudaeis 11.5)
Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the only evidence of the Essenes’ way of life was provided by classical sources (Josephus Flavius, Philo, and Pliny the Elder) and by a few allusions in rabbinic literature. The discovery of the scrolls allowed a rare first-hand glimpse of the lives of those pietists, through the “Rule” literature that governed their lives. This literature, later to evolve in a Christian monastic context, is unknown in the Bible, and its discovery at Qumran represents the earliest testimony to its existence.
The work known as the “Community Rule” is considered a key to understanding the Community’s way of life, for it deals with such topics as the admittance of new members, rules of behaviour at communal meals, and even theological principles. The picture that emerges from the scroll is one of a community that functioned as a collective unit and pursued a severe ascetic lifestyle based on stringent rules. The scroll, written in Hebrew, was found in twelve copies; the copy displayed in the Shrine of the Book, which is almost complete, was discovered in 1947.
The Temple Scroll
“They shall not profane the city where I abide, for I, the Lord, abide amongst the children of Israel forever and ever” (Temple Scroll XLV: 13–14).
The Temple Scroll, which deals with the structural details of the Temple and its rituals, proposes a plan for a future imaginary Temple, remarkably sophisticated, and, above all, pure, which was to replace the existing Temple in Jerusalem. This plan is based on the plan of the Tabernacle and of Solomon and Ezekiel’s Temples, but it is also influenced by Hellenistic architecture.
The scroll is written in the style of the book of Deuteronomy, with God speaking as if in the first person. Some authorities consider it an alternative to the Mosaic Law; others, it a complementary legal interpretation (midrash halakha). This work combines the various laws relating to the Temple with a new version of the laws set out in Deuteronomy 12–23. Its author probably belonged to priestly circles and composed it at a time before the Community left Jerusalem for the desert, in the second half of the second century BCE. It was apparently written against the background of the controversy centring on the Temple in Jerusalem.
Prayers, Hymns, and Thanksgiving Psalms
The profoundly religious, reclusive community living at Qumran devoted all its energies to the worship of God. The sectarians believed that the angels were their companions and that their spiritual level elevated them to the border between the human and the divine. The atmosphere of sanctity that enveloped them is evident from the one hundred biblical psalms and more than two hundred extra-biblical prayers and hymns preserved in the scrolls. Most of the latter were previously unknown; they include prayers for different days (even the End of Days), magical spells, and so forth.
Among this abundance of literary texts is a unique genre of hymns called today or “Thanksgiving Hymns,” on the basis of their fixed opening formula, “I thank Thee, O Lord.” Scholars have divided the eight manuscripts of the Thanksgiving Hymns into two main types: “Hodayot of the Teacher,” in which an individual (the sect’s “Teacher of Righteousness”?) thanks God for rescuing him from Belial (Satan in the sect’s writings) and the forces of evil, and for granting him the intelligence to recount God’s greatness and justice; and “Hodayot of the Community,” hymns concerned with topics relevant to the community as a whole. Both types extensively employ such terms as “mystery,” “appointed time,” and “light” and express ideas characteristic of the Community’s beliefs, such as divine love and predestination.
The End of Days: The “War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness”
“This is the day appointed by Him for the defeat and overthrow of the Prince of the kingdom of wickedness” (War of the Sons and Light and the Sons of Darkness XVII:5–6)
The members of the Community of the yahad retired to the desert out of a profound conviction that they were living at the End of Days and that the final Day of Judgment was close at hand. They believed that all the stages of history were predetermined by God, and thus any attempt by the forces of the “Prince of Darkness” and “all the government of sons of injustice” to corrupt the “Sons of Righteousness” was destined to fail; salvation would ultimately arrive, as we read in Pesher Habakkuk (VII:13–14).
Origin of The Dead sea scrolls
There has been much debate about the origin of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The dominant theory remains that the scrolls were produced by the Essenes, a sect of Jews living at nearby Qumran, but this theory has come to be challenged by several modern scholars.
The view among scholars, almost universally held until the 1990s, is the “Qumran–Essene” hypothesis originally posited by Roland Guérin de Vaux and Józef Tadeusz Milik, though independently both Eliezer Sukenik and Butrus Sowmy of St Mark’s Monastery connected scrolls with the Essenes well before any excavations at Qumran. The Qumran–Essene theory holds that the scrolls were written by the Essenes, or by another Jewish sectarian group, residing at Khirbet Qumran. They composed the scrolls and ultimately hid them in the nearby caves during the Jewish Revolt sometime between 66 and 68 CE. The site of Qumran was destroyed and the scrolls were never recovered. Several arguments are used to support this theory.
There are striking similarities between the description of an initiation ceremony of new members in the Community Rule and descriptions of the Essene initiation ceremony mentioned in the works of Flavius Josephus – a Jewish–Roman historian of the Second Temple Period.
Josephus mentions the Essenes as sharing property among the members of the community, as does the Community Rule.
During the excavation of Khirbet Qumran, two inkwells and plastered elements thought to be table were found, offering evidence that some form of writing was done there. More inkwells were discovered nearby. De Vaux called this area the “scriptorium” based on this discovery.
Several Jewish ritual baths (Hebrew: mikvah = מקוה) were discovered at Qumran, offering evidence of an observant Jewish presence at the site.
Pliny the Elder (a geographer writing after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE) describes a group of Essenes living in a desert community on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea near the ruined town of ‘Ein Gedi.
Qumran–Sectarian theories are variations on the Qumran–Essene theory. The main point of departure from the Qumran–Essene theory is the hesitation to link the Dead Sea Scrolls specifically with the Essenes. Most proponents of the Qumran–Sectarian theory understand a group of Jews living in or near Qumran to be responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls but do not necessarily conclude that the sectarians are Essenes.
A specific variation on the Qumran–Sectarian theory that has gained much recent popularity is the work of Lawrence H. Schiffman, who proposes that the community was led by a group of Zadokite priests (Sadducees). The most important document in support of this view is the “Miqsat Ma’ase Ha-Torah” (4QMMT), which cites purity laws (such as the transfer of impurities) identical to those attributed in rabbinic writings to the Sadducees. 4QMMT also reproduces a festival calendar that follows Sadducee principles for the dating of certain festival days.
Christian origin theory
Spanish Jesuit José O’Callaghan Martínez argued in the 1960s that one fragment preserves a portion of text from the New Testament Gospel of Mark 6:52–53. This theory was scrutinized in the year 2000 by paleographic analysis of the particular fragment. However, this faced some contention, and O’Callaghan’s theory remains an area of great dispute. Later analyses in 2004 and 2018, have lent credence to O’Callaghan’s original assertion.
Robert Eisenman has advanced the theory that some scrolls describe the early Christian community. Eisenman also argued that the careers of James the Just and Paul the Apostle correspond to events recorded in some of these documents.
Jerusalem origin theory
Some scholars have argued that the scrolls were the product of Jews living in Jerusalem, who hid the scrolls in the caves near Qumran while fleeing from the Romans during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Karl Heinrich Rengstorf first proposed that the Dead Sea Scrolls originated at the library of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem Later, Norman Golb suggested that the scrolls were the product of multiple libraries in Jerusalem, and not necessarily the Jerusalem Temple library Proponents of the Jerusalem Origin theory point to the diversity of thought and handwriting among the scrolls as evidence against a Qumran origin of the scrolls. Several archaeologists have also accepted an origin of the scrolls other than Qumran, including Yizhar Hirschfeld and more recently Yizhak Magen and Yuval Peleg, who all understand the remains of Qumran to be those of a Hasmonean fort that was reused during later periods.
The Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls
Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible dated to the 10th century A.D. The Dead Sea Scrolls include over 225 copies of biblical books that date up to 1,200 years earlier.
These range from small fragments to a complete scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther and Nehemiah. They show that the books of the Jewish Bible were known and treated as sacred writings before the time of Jesus, with essentially the same content.
On the other hand, there was no “Bible” as such but a loose assortment of writings sacred to various Jews including numerous books not in the modern Jewish Bible.
Two men stand on the foundations of the ancient Khirbet Qumran ruins, which lie on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea in Jordan, in 1957. The ruins are above the caves in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947. AP Photo
Moreover, the Dead Sea Scrolls show that in the first century B.C. there were different versions of books that became part of the Hebrew canon, especially Exodus, Samuel, Jeremiah, Psalms, and Daniel.
This evidence has helped scholars understand how the Bible came to be, but it neither proves nor disproves its religious message.
Judaism and Christianity
The Dead Sea Scrolls are unique in representing a sort of library of a particular Jewish group that lived at Qumran from the first century B.C. to about 68 A.D. They probably belonged to the Essenes, a strict Jewish movement described by several writers from the first century A.D.
One of the Dead Sea Scrolls, inside a secured climate-controlled room in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Baz Ratner/Reuters
The scrolls provide a rich trove of Jewish religious texts previously unknown. Some of these were written by Essenes and give insights into their views, as well as their conflict with other Jews including the Pharisees.
The Dead Sea Scrolls contain nothing about Jesus or the early Christians, but indirectly they help to understand the Jewish world in which Jesus lived and why his message drew followers and opponents. Both the Essenes and the early Christians believed they were living at the time foretold by prophets when God would establish a kingdom of peace and that their teacher revealed the true meaning of Scripture.
Fame and forgeries
The fame of the Dead Sea Scrolls is what has encouraged both forgeries and the shadow market in antiquities. They are often called the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century because of their importance to understanding the Bible and the Jewish world at the time of Jesus.
Religious artefacts especially attract forgeries, because people want a physical connection to their faith. The so-called James Ossuary, a limestone box, that was claimed to be the burial box of the brother of Jesus, attracted much attention in 2002. A few years later, it was found that it was indeed an authentic burial box for a person named James from the first century A.D., but by adding “brother of Jesus” the forger made it seem priceless.
Scholars eager to publish and discuss new texts are partly responsible for this shady market.
The recent confirmation of forged scrolls at the Museum of Bible only confirms that artefacts should be viewed with the highest suspicion unless the source is fully known.
The doctrine of the Scrolls
The men of Qumran fervently believed in a doctrine of “last things.” They had fled to the desert and were readying themselves for the imminent judgment when their enemies would be vanquished and they, God’s elect, would be given final victory by the predictions of the prophets. It was in connection with these end-time events that one of the most fascinating teachings of the sect emerged. The messianic hope loomed large in the thought of the brotherhood. Evidence shows that they believed in three messiahs—one a prophet, another a priest, and the third a king or prince.
In the document mentioned earlier called the “Manual of Discipline” or the “Rule of the Community,” it is laid down that the faithful should continue to live under the rule “until the coming of a prophet and the anointed ones [messiahs] of Aaron and Israel” (column 9, line 11). These three figures would appear to usher in the age for which the community was making preparation.
In another document found in Cave Four and referred to as the “Testimonia,” several Old Testament passages are brought together which formed the basis for their messianic expectations. The first is the citation from Deuteronomy 18:18-19 where God says to Moses: “I will raise them a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee.” Next comes a quotation from Numbers 24:15-17, where Balaam foresees the rise of a princely conqueror: “a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab,” etc. The third passage is the blessing pronounced by Moses upon the tribe of Levi (the priestly tribe) in Deuteronomy 33:8-11. How these three quotations are brought together suggests that the writer looked forward to the advent of a great prophet, a great prince, and a great priest.
There were three individuals in the Old Testament writings that were referred to as “my anointed ones”—the prophet, the priest, and the king (refer to Ex. 29:29; 1 Sam. 16:13, 24:6; 1 Kg. 19:16; Ps. 105:15). Each of these was consecrated to his work by an anointing with oil. The Hebrew word for “anointed” is Mashiach, from which we get the word, Messiah.
The marvellous truth of the New Testament doctrine of the Messiah is that each of these three offices found fulfilment in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth! The people were amazed at His feeding of the multitude and said, “This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world” (Jn. 6:14; also Jn. 7:40; Acts 3:22, 7:37). Jesus also was a priest, not from the order of Levi but from the order of Melchizedek (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 7), who offered Himself as a sacrifice and appears for us in the presence of His Father (Heb. 9:24-26; 10:11-12). Also, Jesus was announced as the One who will receive “the throne of his father, David. And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom, there shall be no end” (Lk. 1:32-33). He will be acclaimed “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rev. 19:16).
Thus, we have found an interesting point of contact between Qumran and Christianity—a point of contact which is also a point of cleavage. The Qumran community and the early Christians agreed that in the days of the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies there would arise a great prophet, a great priest, and a great king. But these three figures remained distinct in Qumran’s expectation, whereas the New Testament saw them unified in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
One more manuscript that has come to light in recent years provides a fascinating background to the New Testament messianic hope. It has been reconstructed from twelve small fragments, furnishing less than two columns of writing; but this much can be ascertained from its brief contents. It is a prediction of the birth of a Wonderful Child, possibly drawing on Isaiah 9:6-7: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given… and his name shall be called Wonderful.” This child will bear special marks on His body and will be distinguished by wisdom and intelligence. He will be able to probe the secrets of all living creatures, and He will inaugurate the new age for which the faithful fervently awaited.
Is it not striking that soon after this manuscript was composed, a child was born who fulfilled the hopes of Israel and inaugurated a new age? Although the men of Qumran were mistaken in the details of their messiah, they did expect one whose general characteristics were strikingly illustrated by Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and Messiah. It is not known if some early Christians brought the message of Jesus to this wilderness community. We are left only to speculate on how they would have responded to the Wonderful Child born in Bethlehem who was the Prophet, Priest, and King of Israel.
Importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls
Renowned American archaeologist W. F. Albright described the Dead Sea Scrolls as “the greatest archaeological find of modern times.” But why are they so important? Perhaps the most significant reason they’re so important is that, in the words of contributing editor Ed Stetzer from a 2012 article in Christianity Today, the scrolls “affirm and enhance the Hebrew Bible used by scholars.” This is because the scrolls were written hundreds of years before the oldest copy of the Hebrew Bible known at the time. That one, called the Leningrad Codex, was from A.D. 1008, and the oldest scroll from the cave discovery was from 250 B.C.
The scrolls are remarkably similar to the texts of the Hebrew Bible in use today, giving confidence that these translations are close to the original manuscripts, or at least as confident as scholars can currently be. Also, the scrolls give support to or clarify some of the editorial choices that have been made in translating the Bible.
Aside from the light that has been shed on the accuracy of Bible translations, the Dead Sea Scrolls have also given insight into the life of first-century Jews, particularly the community believed to have produced the scrolls, the Essenes. This group was essentially desert monks. They followed a rule of life called the Manual of Discipline, which was found in the cache of scrolls. The Essenes separated themselves from the rest of their Jewish peers because they believed what was happening in the Temple was corrupt and contrary to God’s will as revealed through the Scriptures. They held out until the Romans came in and destroyed the Temple in A.D. 70.
The similarities between the concerns the Essenes had with the state of Temple worship at the time and the actions of Jesus, such as the cleansing of the Temple, recorded in all four Gospels, cause some scholars to wonder if Jesus and John the Baptist had some connection with that community. Of course, this kind of question could never be answered definitively.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, then, increase our confidence in the reliability of the Bible, that the texts we have now are faithful transmissions of the oldest known copies of the books. They also give a fascinating look at the diversity of the Jewish faith at the time of Jesus. On the whole, these discoveries are positive developments for people of faith.
The scrolls in context
The group at Qumrān has been identified with many Jewish sects of the time. Even though some scholars believe the community to have been a branch of the Sadducees or Zealots, most believe that they were Essenes. The group is believed to have fled or been driven out, to the Judaean wilderness as a result of a dispute with the priestly leaders in Jerusalem over the sacred calendar and matters of legal interpretation. At Qumrān this group not only preserved their beliefs but developed a worldview that rejected the rest of the Jewish people, espoused a highly dualistic view of the world (i.e., a world sharply divided between good and evil, light and darkness), and looked for an imminent divine judgment of the wicked. They also cultivated a communal life of extreme ritual purity, necessitated by their rejection of the Temple cult.
The history of the Qumrān community can be glimpsed, though darkly, through the scrolls. The “Union” was founded by a messianic figure called the “Teacher of Righteousness.” The group may have split off from a wider movement that lived in its settlements and urban quarters throughout Palestine. Whatever its origins may have been, the community offers a fascinating example of a Jewish messianic movement, and thus a sociological parallel to the early Christians. Other parallels between the two groups, such as the belief that Scripture foretold the history of their times, have sometimes been thought to indicate a direct connection, but such parallels can just as easily be explained by the Jewish background common to both groups.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are important not only because they offer insight into the community at Qumrān but because they provide a window to the wider spectrum of ancient Jewish beliefs and practices. A quarter of the texts are biblical manuscripts—to which can be added copies of works such as the books of Enoch, Jubilees, and Tobit, previously known and not thought to be sectarian. Thus, the scrolls shed light on more than merely the sect that possessed them. Indeed, it has been argued that the Qumrān scrolls actually represent the contents of libraries in Jerusalem, hurriedly hidden shortly before the Roman siege of the city during the First Jewish Revolt (66–73 CE), and thus reflect quite varied Jewish origins. This is not an improbable explanation for the concealment of the scrolls, but the diversity of these scrolls is not as wide as this account would suggest. Many scrolls originate from outside the sect, and this realization makes the importance of the scrolls to ancient Judaism even greater than if they were entirely sectarian.
Indeed, because the scrolls reflect the beliefs and practices of Jewish groups during a highly volatile period of Judaean history, this unique collection of sectarian and nonsectarian writings is the most important archive for understanding late Second Temple Judaism. By contrast, the New Testament was written by and for both Diaspora Jews and non-Jews; and rabbinic literature was composed at a later period and under quite different circumstances.
Above all else, the contents of the scrolls show the remarkable flexibility and variety of Jewish thought and practice and demolish any notion of a uniform “Judaism” at that time. They show that the notion of cultic holiness and sacrifice could be contemplated without the Temple, that different liturgical calendars (implying different times for festivals and different priestly rituals at the Temple) existed at the same time, and that the distinction between Israel and the Gentiles could be displaced by a notion of two predestined groups of saved and damned individuals, that the worship of the celestial Temple could be witnessed and described (foreshadowing a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and that good works could replace sacrifice. They also show a variety of beliefs that may have been shared by some or all of the Judaisms of the period, including the imminent culmination of history, the advent of a messianic figure, and the absolute necessity of complete obedience to the Law of Moses (however interpreted).
The Dead Sea Scrolls also testify to a period of theological creativity, of the social fissure, of intense expectation and passion within the wider perspective of Judaism and Christianity. The scrolls’ occasional contradictions betray tensions between the goals of personal holiness and national redemption; between human and heavenly redeemers; between faith and knowledge as the means of salvation; between free will and predestination; and between the anthropology of human holiness and anthropology of human depravity. They also exhibit typical features of a sectarian mentality: traces of a persecution complex and a corporate identity fortified by the official opposition. In this ferment can be seen, with hindsight, the matrix of the two great systems of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, which, though each took centuries to form, drew in different ways on the heritage that the Dead Sea Scrolls dramatically document.
Six Things You May Not Know About the Dead Sea Scrolls.
(From their accidental discovery to their sale in the classifieds).
1. Teenage shepherds accidentally stumbled upon the first set of Dead Sea Scrolls.
In late 1946 or early 1947, Bedouin teenagers were tending their goats and sheep near the ancient settlement of Qumran, located on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea in what is now known as the West Bank. One of the young shepherds tossed a rock into an opening on the side of a cliff and was surprised to hear a shattering sound. He and his companions later entered the cave and found a collection of large clay jars, seven of which contained leather and papyrus scrolls. An antiquities dealer bought the cache, which ultimately ended up in the hands of various scholars who estimated that the texts were upwards of 2,000 years old. The afterword of the discovery got out, and Bedouin treasure hunters and archaeologists unearthed tens of thousands of additional scroll fragments from 10 nearby caves; together they make up between 800 and 900 manuscripts.
2. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were sold in the classifieds section.
Athanasius Yeshua Samuel, a Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem, bought four of the original Dead Sea Scrolls from a cobbler who dabbled in antiquities, paying less than $100. When the Arab-Israeli War broke out in 1948, Samuel travelled to the United States and unsuccessfully offered them to a number of universities, including Yale. Finally, in 1954, he placed an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal—under the category “Miscellaneous Items for Sale”’—that read: “Biblical Manuscripts dating back to at least 200 B.C. are for sale. This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group.” Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, whose father had obtained the other three scrolls from the initial collection in 1947, secretly negotiated their purchase on behalf of the newly established State of Israel. Unfortunately for Samuel, much of the $250,000 he received went to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service since the bill of sale had not been properly drawn up.
3. Nobody knows for sure who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The origin of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written between 150 B.C. and 70 A.D., remains the subject of scholarly debate to this day. According to the prevailing theory, they are the work of a Jewish population that inhabited Qumran until Roman troops destroyed the settlement around 70 A.D. These Jews are thought to have belonged to a devout, ascetic and communal sect called the Essenes, one of four distinct Jewish groups living in Judaea before and during the Roman era. Proponents of this hypothesis note similarities between the traditions outlined in the Community Rule—a scroll detailing the laws of an unnamed Jewish sect—and the Roman historian Flavius Josephus’ description of Essene rituals. Archaeological evidence from Qumran, including the ruins of Jewish ritual baths, also suggests the site was once home to observant Jews. Some scholars have credited other groups with producing the scrolls, including early Christians and Jews from Jerusalem who passed through Qumran while fleeing the Romans.
4. Almost all of the Hebrew Bible is represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Dead Sea Scrolls include fragments from every book of the Old Testament except for the Book of Esther. Scholars have speculated that traces of this missing book, which recounts the story of the eponymous Jewish queen of Persia, either disintegrated over time or have yet to be uncovered. Others have proposed that Esther was not part of the Essenes’ canon or that the sect did not celebrate Purim, the festive holiday based on the book. The only complete book of the Hebrew Bible preserved among the manuscripts from Qumran is Isaiah; this copy, dated to the first century B.C., is considered the earliest Old Testament manuscript still in existence. Along with biblical texts, the scrolls include documents about sectarian regulations, such as the Community Rule, and religious writings that do not appear in the Old Testament.
5. Hebrew is not the only language of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Hebrew, with some fragments written in the ancient paleo-Hebrew alphabet thought to have fallen out of use in the fifth century B.C. But others are in Aramaic, the language spoken by many Jews—including, most likely, Jesus—between the sixth century B.C. and the siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In addition, several texts feature translations of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, which some Jews used instead of or in addition to Hebrew at the time of the scrolls’ creation.
6. The Dead Sea Scrolls include a guide to hidden treasure.
One of the most intriguing manuscripts from Qumran is the Copper Scroll, a sort of ancient treasure map that lists dozens of gold and silver caches. While the other texts are written in ink on parchment or animal skins, this curious document features Hebrew and Greek letters chiselled onto metal sheets—perhaps, as some have theorized, to better withstand the passage of time. Using an unconventional vocabulary and odd spelling, the Copper Scroll describes 64 underground hiding places around Israel that purportedly contain riches stashed for safekeeping. None of these hoards has been recovered, possibly because the Romans pillaged Judaea during the first century A.D. According to various hypotheses, the treasure belonged to local Essenes and was spirited out of the Second Temple before its destruction or never existed, to begin with.
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