The Dead Sea Scrolls

Updated September 9, 2022 | Infoplease Staff

The first of the Dead Sea Scroll discoveries occurred in 1947 in Qumran, a village situated about twenty miles east of Jerusalem on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. A young Bedouin shepherd, following a goat that had gone astray, tossed a rock into one of the caves along the seacliffs and heard a cracking sound: the rock had hit a ceramic pot containing leather and papyrus scrolls that were later determined to be nearly twenty centuries old. Ten years and many searches later, eleven caves around the Dead Sea were found to contain tens of thousands of scroll fragments dating from the third century B.C. to A.D. 68 and representing an estimated eight hundred separate works.

The Dead Sea Scrolls comprise a vast collection of Jewish documents written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and encompassing many subjects and literary styles. They include manuscripts or fragments of every book in the Hebrew Bible except the Book of Esther, all of them created nearly one thousand years earlier than any previously known biblical manuscripts. The scrolls also contain the earliest existing biblical commentary, on the Book of Habakkuk, and many other writings, among them religious works pertaining to Jewish sects of the time.

The Controversy Begins

The shepherd who made the discovery at Qumran brought the seven intact scrolls he found there to an antique dealer. Three were sold to a scholar at Hebrew University and four were sold to the Archbishop of Syria, who tried for years to place them with a reputable academic institution and ultimately sold them in 1954 through a classified ad in The Wall Street Journal. The ad was answered by Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, who donated these scrolls to the state of Israel and established a museum for them, The Shrine of the Book, at Hebrew University.

Control of the remaining tens of thousands of scroll fragments, however, was not soon resolved. One year after the discovery at Qumran, the United Nations partitioned Palestine and war began. Meanwhile, a U.N.-appointed, Jesuit-trained official had summoned Roland de Vaux, director of the Ecole Biblique, a French Catholic Theological School in Arab East Jerusalem, to oversee research on the scrolls. The slow pace of publication and the extreme secrecy of de Vaux's almost entirely Catholic group fueled the theory that the Vatican wished to suppress information in the scrolls.

Then, in 1967, Zionists seized East Jerusalem and the Israel Antiquities Authority took control of the scrolls. Access, however, was merely transferred to yet another small group that seemed determined to hide them from the rest of the world. Israeli officials told prominent visiting scholars that they “would not see the scrolls in [their] lifetimes.” The building media frenzy was furthered by the 1990 dismissal of the project's editor-in-chief, Harvard Divinity School professor Dr. John Strugnell, after he publicly criticized Judaism and the Israeli state. A breakthrough came in September 1990, when the Huntington Library in California made available unauthorized photographs of the scrolls. The following year, text and translations of fifty scrolls were published in book form.

Judaism, Christianity, and the Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls offer unprecedented information about Jewish religious and political life in Palestine during the turbulent late Second Temple Period (200 B.C. to A.D. 70), a time of great corruption and conflict under Roman rule in Palestine. Scholars estimate that the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden in A.D. 68, when Roman legions reached the Dead Sea during the emperor Vespasian's campaign to Jericho. The discovery of the scrolls established that Jewish culture was far richer and more diverse at this time than scholars had previously believed. Three main groups of Jews were prominent during the late Second Temple Period: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. Many other sects and political parties also flourished. This pluralism ended in A.D. 70 when, six years after the start of the First Jewish Rebellion, the Romans sieged Jerusalem, killing or enslaving half the Jewish population and destroying Herod's Temple. The capitol fell to the Romans, and only the Judaism of the dominant Pharisees survived.

The scrolls also shed light on the time when Jesus and John the Baptist lived and early Christians began to organize. Specifically, they offer evidence that early Christian beliefs and practices had precedents in the Jewish sects of the time. Sectarian scrolls tell of people who, like the early Christians, did not believe in the Temple worship of the Pharisees, people who had their own literature, their own rituals—including baptism—and their own beliefs, most significantly beliefs in a messiah, a divine judgment, and an apocalypse. Three different scrolls depict a sacred meal of bread and wine. These similarities as well as parallels between the literary style of certain scrolls and that of the New Testament have led some scholars to claim that Jesus and John the Baptist were either part of or strongly influenced by a sect at the Dead Sea. But no direct link has been established, and it is likely that similarities can be attributed to each being derived from a like strain of Judaism. Still, this debate has furthered speculation about the historical Jesus, such as the claim that he was a Zealot rather than a pacifist, a theory that does not fit with New Testament tradition but does fit with the history of this period. And one of the most important discoveries in the scrolls has been the use of the name Son of God to refer to someone other than Jesus, implying a cultural use of the term that was not itself synonymous with God.

Who Hid the Scrolls?

Debate continues about who actually wrote, copied, and stored the scrolls. The most prevalent theory is that this was done by an ascetic group of Essenes who had retreated to the desert to await a Messiah, and who lived at Qumran in a community guided by the Manual of Discipline, or Community Rule, a scroll detailing the beliefs and practices of a messianic sect. In the 1950s, Roland de Vaux excavated a site between the Qumran caves and the Dead Sea that he claimed was a monastic library where Essenes had copied the scrolls. Recent archaeologists, however, think that what de Vaux believed to be the remains of desks and ink bottles are in fact remains of dining tables and perfume bottles, suggesting that the site was a Roman-style villa whose occupants were engaged in the lucrative perfume trade. Furthermore, not a single manuscript fragment has ever been found on this site. Some scholars believe that Sadducees lived at the Qumran site. Others believe that the scrolls were kept not by a religious sect but by a militant, nationalistic group, and that the Qumran site was in fact a fortress. It has been argued also that the people who lived at the Qumran site were not the same people who hid the scrolls in the caves. Still other scholars reject the idea that the scrolls can be identified with a single group, suggesting instead that the scrolls describe the beliefs and rituals of the many Jewish sects of the time. These scholars propose that the scrolls are copies of manuscripts from libraries throughout Jerusalem that Jews sought to preserve as the Romans encroached upon the capitol. One scroll, called the Copper Scroll, offers a detailed description of efforts to hide documents.

The Scrolls Today

More than fifty years after their discovery, no one can claim to know the absolute truth about the Dead Sea Scrolls, although academics and amateurs alike generate ever more intriguing theories, wild claims, and media attention. It is a complicating factor that almost all the scrolls are copies of other manuscripts—some perhaps historical, others certainly fictitious, and all together, transcribed over the course of nearly three hundred years. It will probably never be possible to know for sure what among the scrolls is fact, when exactly it was recorded, and why: their origins, scribes, keepers, and meanings will likely remain a mystery.
—Holly Hartman

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