The Dead Sea Scrolls



In 1947, young Bedouin  shepherds,  searching for  a  stray goat in the  Judean
Desert, entered  a  long-untouched  cave and  found  jars  filled with  ancient
scrolls.  That  initial  discovery by  the Bedouins  yielded seven scrolls  and
began a search that lasted nearly a decade and eventually produced thousands of
scroll fragments from  eleven caves.  During  those same  years, archaeologists
searching for a   habitation close to the caves   that might help identify  the
people  who deposited the  scrolls,  excavated the Qumran   ruin, a  complex of
structures located on  a barren terrace between the  cliffs where the caves are
found and  the Dead Sea.   Within  a fairly  short time after  their discovery,
historical, paleographic, and linguistic evidence, as well as carbon-14 dating,
established that the scrolls  and the Qumran  ruin dated from the third century
B.C.E.  to  68 C.E.  They were   indeed ancient!  Coming  from  the late Second
Temple Period,  a time when  Jesus of Nazareth  lived, they are older  than any
other surviving biblical manuscripts by almost one thousand years.

Since their discovery  nearly half a century ago,  the scrolls and the identity
of the  nearby settlement have  been the object  of  great scholarly and public
interest,  as well as   heated debate and  controversy.  Why  were  the scrolls
hidden in the caves?   Who placed them there?   Who lived in Qumran?   Were its
inhabitants responsible for the scrolls  and their presence  in the caves?   Of
what significance are the scrolls to Judaism and Christianity?

The Dead Sea
The Dead   Sea  is located in  Israel  and  Jordan,   about 15  miles   east of
Jerusalem.  (A map of the Dead Sea Region  is available).  It is extremely deep
(averaging about 1,000  feet), salty (some  parts containing the highest amount
of salts possible), and the lowest body of water in the world.  The Dead Sea is
supplied by a number of smaller streams, springs, and the Jordan River.

Because of its low elevation and  its position in a deep  basin, the climate of
the Dead Sea area is  unusual.  Its very  high evaporation does produce a  haze
yet its  atmospheric humidity is  low.  Adjacent areas to it  are very arid and
favorable for the preservation of materials like the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Bible's description,  in Genesis 19, of a  destructive earthquake near  the
Dead  Sea area during the  time of Abraham  is borne  out by archaeological and
historic investigation.   While no evidence remains of  the  five cities of the
plain (Zeboim, Admah,   Bela or Zoar,   Sodom,  and Gomorrah)  their  sites are
believed to be beneath the waters at the southern end of the sea.

The Qumran Library
The scrolls  and scroll fragments recovered  in the Qumran environs represent a
voluminous body of Jewish  documents,  a veritable  "library", dating from  the
third century B.C.E.  to 68  C.E.  Unquestionably, the  "library," which is the
greatest manuscript   find  of the twentieth    century, demonstrates  the rich
literary  activity  of Second  Temple  Period  Jewry   and  sheds insight  into
centuries pivotal to both Judaism  and Christianity.  The library contains some
books or works  in a large  number of copies, yet  others  are represented only
fragmentarily  by mere  scraps of parchment.   There  are tens of  thousands of
scroll  fragments.  The number  of different compositions represented is almost
one thousand,  and  they are   written  in three different  languages:  Hebrew,
Aramaic, and Greek.

There is  less agreement on the specifics  of what the Qumran library contains.
According to many scholars, the chief categories represented among the Dead Sea
Scrolls are:

   Those works  contained in the  Hebrew Bible.  All of  the books of the
   Bible are represented in the Dead Sea Scroll collection except Esther.

Apocryphal or pseudepigraphical
   Those works which  are omitted from  various canons  of the Bible  and
   included  in   others [The Coptic   canonical Bible  includes  some of
   these works].

   Those scrolls  related to a pietistic  commune and include ordinances,
   biblical  commentaries,   apocalyptic visions,  and  liturgical works.

While the group producing the  sectarian scrolls is believed  by many to be the
Essenes, there are other scholars  who state that  there is too little evidence
to support the view   that one sect  produced all  of the sectarian   material.
Also,  there  are scholars who  believe  there is a   fourth category of scroll
materials  which is  neither biblical,  apocryphal, nor   "sectarian." In their
view, such  scrolls, which may  include "Songs of   the the Sabbath Sacrifice",
should be designated simply as contemporary Jewish writing.

The Qumran Community
Like the scrolls themselves,  the nature of the  Qumran settlement  has aroused
much debate and differing  opinions.  Located on a  barren terrace  between the
limestone cliffs of the Judean desert and the maritime  bed along the Dead Sea,
the  Qumran site was excavated by  Pere Roland de Vaux,  a French Dominican, as
part of his effort to find the habitation of those who deposited the scrolls in
the nearby caves.   The excavations uncovered a complex  of structures,  262 by
328  feet which de  Vaux suggested were communal in  nature.  In de Vaux's view
the site was the wilderness retreat of the Essenes, a separatist Jewish sect of
the Second Temple  Period, a  portion of  whom  had formed an ascetic  monastic
community.   According to  de    Vaux,  the sectarians  inhabited   neighboring
locations, most likely caves, tents, and solid structures,  but depended on the
center for communal facilities such as stores of food and water.

Following de Vaux's interpretation and citing ancient historians as well as the
nature of  some  scroll texts  for  substantiation, many   scholars believe the
Essene community wrote,     copied, or collected   the scrolls   at  Qumran and
deposited  them  in the   caves of the   adjacent  hills.  Others  dispute this
interpretation, claiming either  that the scroll  sect was Sadducean in nature;
that the site was no monastery  but rather a Roman  fortress or a winter villa;
that the Qumran site has little if anything to do with the scrolls; or that the
evidence available does not support a single definitive answer.

Whatever the  nature of the  habitation, archaeological and historical evidence
indicates that  the excavated settlement was founded  in the second half of the
second  century B.C.E.,  during the time   of the Maccabees, a  priestly Jewish
family which ruled Judea in the second and first  centuries B.C.E.  A hiatus in
the occupation of the site is linked to evidence  of a huge earthquake.  Qumran
was abandoned about  the time  of  the Roman incursion of   68 C.E., two  years
before the collapse of  Jewish self-government in  Judea and the destruction of
the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

Today - 2,000 Years Later
About two thousand years elapsed between the time the scrolls were deposited in
the caves of the barren  hills surrounding the Dead Sea  and their discovery in
1947.  The fact that  they survived for  twenty centuries, that they were found
accidentally by Bedouin shepherds, that they are the largest and oldest body of
manuscripts  relating to the Bible  and to the  time  of Jesus of Nazareth make
them a truly remarkable archaeological find.

Since their discovery, the   Dead Sea Scrolls have  been  the subject of  great
scholarly and public   interest.  For  scholars  they represent   an invaluable
source for exploring the nature of post- biblical times and probing the sources
of two of the world's  great religions.  For the  public, they are artifacts of
great significance, mystery, and drama.

Interest in  the scrolls has, if anything,  intensified in recent years.  Media
coverage   has given prominence  to scholarly  debates  over the meaning of the
scrolls,   the Qumran ruin,  as  well as   particular scroll fragments, raising
questions destined to  increase attention  and heighten  the Dead Sea   Scrolls
mystery.  Did the scrolls come  from the library of the  Second Temple or other
libraries and were they hidden to prevent their destruction by the Romans?  Was
the Qumran site a winter villa for a wealthy Jerusalem family or was it a Roman
fortress?  Was it a monastery  not for Essenes but  for a Sadducean sect?  Does
this mean we  need to revise  our view of  Jewish religious beliefs during  the
last centuries of the Second Temple?  Do the  Dead Sea Scrolls provide clues to
hidden treasures?

Since the late 1980s, no controversy has been more heated than that surrounding
access to the  scrolls and the movement to  accelerate their publication.   The
push by scholars  to gain what  the "Biblical Archaeology Review" characterized
as "intellectual freedom and the right to scholarly access" has had significant
results.   In  1988,  the   administration  for  scroll  research,   the Israel
Antiquities Authority,  began to expand  the number of  scroll assignments.  By
1992, they  included more than  fifty scholars.  In  1991, a computer-generated
version as well  as  a  two-volume  edition of   the scroll photographs    were
published by the  Biblical  Archaeology Society.  Late  in  the same  year, the
Huntington   Library of California   made    available  to all scholars     the
photographic security copies of the scrolls  on deposit in  its vault.  Closing
the  circle, the Israel  Antiquities Authority announced that   it too would be
issuing an authorized microfiche edition, complete with detailed indices.

Judaism and Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls include a range of contemporary documents  that serve as a
window   on a turbulent  and critical  period  in the history   of Judaism.  In
addition to the three groups identified  by Josephus (Pharisees, Sadducees, and
Essenes),  Judaism  was  further  divided  into   numerous religious  sects and
political parties.  With the destruction of  the Temple and the commonwealth in
70 C.E., all that came to an end.   Only the Judaism of the Pharisees--Rabbinic
Judaism--survived.  Reflected in Qumran literature is  a Judaism in transition:
moving from the religion of Israel as described in the Bible  to the Judaism of
the rabbis as expounded  in the Mishnah  (a third-century compilation of Jewish
laws and customs which forms the basis of modern Jewish practice).

The  Dead Sea Scrolls,   which date back  to the  events  described in  the New
Testament,  have  added  to  our  understanding of  the  Jewish  background  of
Christianity.  Scholars  have   pointed  to similarities  between  beliefs  and
practices outlined  in the  Qumran literature  and those of   early Christians.
These parallels  include  comparable rituals of   baptism,  communal meals, and
property.   Most interesting  is  the parallel  organizational  structures: the
sectarians divided themselves into twelve tribes  led by twelve chiefs, similar
to  the structure of the  early Church, with twelve  apostles who, according to
Jesus, would  to sit on twelve  thrones to judge the   twelve tribes of Israel.
Many   scholars believe that both  the   literature  of Qumran   and the  early
Christian teachings stem from a common stream within Judaism and do not reflect
a direct link between the Qumran community and the early Christians.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been the  subject of avid  interest and curiosity for
nearly fifty  years.  Today, scholars  agree on their significance but disagree
on who produced them.  They debate  specific passages of individual scrolls and
are still  assessing their     impact  on the   foundations of    Judaism   and
Christianity.  For the public  in this country   and throughout the  world, the
scrolls  have  an aura   of reverence   and  intrigue which   is  reinvigorated
periodically by the media--journalists  who report serious disagreements  among
well-known  scholars,  as well  as tabloids  which  claim  that the scrolls can
predict the future or answer life's mysteries.

Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?  How did the Qumran library come  to be?  Whose
scrolls were they?  Why were they hidden in the caves?  Today, with specialists
and scholars throughout the world poring  over the newly released scroll texts,
solutions to these mysteries undoubtedly will be proposed.  But these solutions
will  themselves  raise    questions--fueling continuing public   interest  and
scholarly debate.