The Incredible Story of the Dead Sea Scrolls

A view of the Dead Sea with salt buildups on the shore

Near Eastern scholar William F. Albright called the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls the "greatest manuscript discovery of modern times.”
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On September 22, 1991, the Dead Sea Scrolls were made public for the first time when the Huntington Library of California released them on microfilm. This gave independent researchers and scholars, as well as the general public, the opportunity to study the treasure trove of incredibly important ancient manuscripts. Prior to their release, only a small group of scholars had access to the Dead Sea Scrolls. But what exactly are the Dead Sea Scrolls, and what makes them so important?

An Accident that Changed History

The story of the discovery of Dead Sea Scrolls begins with a lost goat, a remote cave, and a shepherd. Sometime in the Spring of 1947, some Bedouin were shepherding their flocks of sheep and goats near the north shore of the Dead Sea, in an area known as Qumran. One of the goats strayed from the flock and hid inside one of the region's natural caves. The shepherd began throwing stones into the cave in order to scare the goat, in the hopes that it would come back out. However, instead of hearing the typical "thud" sound the rock should have made upon hitting the inside floor of the cave, the rock made an unusual sound, as if it had hit some object inside the cave. Curious, the shepherd and his cousin climbed into the cave to investigate. Inside, the shepherds found earthenware jars containing ancient scrolls wrapped in linen, which will eventually be determined to be the first seven manuscripts of what are now called the Dead Sea Scrolls. This accidental discovery changed the way that we understand Judaism of the Second Temple period, early Christianity, and the roots of Western Civilization itself.

Between 1947 and 1948, the scrolls reached scholars in Jerusalem. The gravity of the discovery was recognized immediately, causing scholars and archaeologists to believe that perhaps there were even more scrolls just waiting to be discovered in the various caves surrounding the Dead Sea. Archaeologists then began to comb the local area and their intuition eventually proved correct--more ancient scrolls were found in ten other caves. From the 1950s to the 1970s, scholars continued to study and examine the scrolls. It wasn't until 2002--55 years after the date of their initial discovery--that scholars published all 930 documents from the Dead Sea cache. Despite rumors to the contrary, scholars claim that all material from the Dead Sea Scrolls is now available to the public and there was no conspiracy to keep silent certain texts that might have shaken the dogmatic beliefs of established religions.

Material Contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain 930 documents which scholars believe originate from the periods of 250 BCE through 50 CE. Approximately 25% of the scrolls are copies of the books of the Hebrew Bible (except the Book of Esther); 27% were common Jewish texts (common Jewish texts represent documents that were common to various groups of Jews of the period); 38% of the documents were sectarian texts (sectarian texts represent the theology and beliefs specific to an unique Jewish sect); and finally, approximately 11% of the scrolls are unfortunately too fragmentary to be identified. The texts were written mostly in Hebrew. However, about 17% of the documents found were written in Aramaic, and about 3% were written in Greek.

At this point, it might be helpful to define a few terms in order to get some context as to what kind of literature makes up the Dead Sea Scrolls. A 'canon' represents a group of texts that a religious community has determined to be authoritative scripture. Canonical books, therefore, are viewed by the community as being divinely inspired. It is currently believed that the Hebrew canon (also known as the Old Testament) was settled upon by Jews in Israel in the first century CE, right around the time that some of the Dead Sea texts originate from. The Jewish biblical canon of the Old Testament is the TaNaKh, which is a word that combines Torah (the teachings attributed to Moses), Nevi'im (the prophetic books), and the Ketuvim (the poetic and other books). Christians have used the word Pentateuch to describe the Torah, which in Greek, means the five scrolls. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, the Hebrew bible was translated into Greek, and this translation is called the Septuagint, so-named because it was created by seventy-two translators, six for each tribe of Israel. By order of Pope Damasius in the fifth century CE, St. Jerome again translated the Hebrew bible into Latin, called the Vulgate. The Latin Vulgate translation is the official text for the Catholic bible.

A stack of pages from an ancient documents in book form

The Dead Sea Scrolls, which represents a treasure trove of over 900 ancient documents shines unprecedented light on the time of Jesus, the Second Temple, and the emergence of Christianity from Judaism.
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As stated previously, copies of the entire Hebrew canon (except the Book of Esther) are found within the Dead Sea Scrolls. In addition, the Dead Sea Scrolls contain texts which can be considered to be apocryphal, and far more are considered to be pseudepigraphal. Apocryphal works are usually those considered to have an unknown origin or author. The word 'apocrypha' typically refers to the fact that the work is hidden, obscure or non-canonical. Pseudepigrapha, on the other hand, means that the work has a false author or is claimed to be the work of some figure from the past. To add further complexity to the issue, the deuterocanonical works are texts considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be canonical parts of the Christian Old Testament, but are not part of the canon of the modern Hebrew Bible. In 1594 CE, the Council of Trent decided to consider the deuterocanonical works as divinely inspired writings within the scope of Roman Catholicism.

An Extraordinary Library

Some have suggested that certain groups of pre-Christian Judaism, such as the Essenes in Judea and the Therapeutae in Egypt, possessed a secret literature that would commonly be referred to today as the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. Although not all scholars agree on this point, many scholars believe that the Dead Sea Scrolls represent the treasured library of the Essenes, who were described by Pliny the Elder, Josephus Flavius, and Philo of Alexandria. While the books may have been in possession of the Essenes, it's important to note that ownership of the books doesn't necessarily mean that the sect considered the literature to be a works of divinely inspired canon.

Regardless of what these works may have meant in terms of religious belief to the people who possessed them, the Dead Sea Scrolls were preserved at a crucial turning point in religious history. Since these texts originate from the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, the life of Jesus, and the bifurcation of Judaism and Christianity, the discovery of these manuscripts represented an unprecedented opportunity to view two major religious traditions within the context of an historically critical period in time.