The Dead Sea
In 1947, young Bedouin shepherds, searching for a stray goat in the
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
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
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
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