Dead Sea Scrolls

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: The Bible


What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?


The Dead Sea Scrolls consist of roughly 900 writings that include Biblical and non-biblical texts. Fragments of every book of the Old Testament have been found except for the book of Esther. In addition, there are prophecies by notable prophets (Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Daniel) that are not found in the Hebrew Bible. The Isaiah scroll is about 1000 years older than any previously known copy. There are also additional Psalms by David. There are stories about prominent biblical characters (Enoch, Noah, Abraham) that had never been heard before. The non-biblical writings include everything from commentaries to liturgical texts to rules on war. The vast majority of the scrolls were written in Hebrew, others in Aramaic, and a few in Greek. The longest scroll measures over 26 feet in length. They were mostly written on animal skins, but a few are on papyrus and one is on copper. There is no punctuation and only an occasional paragraph notation. The words are written without spaces.

Authorship of these scrolls is a hotly contested subject. Whoever wrote them seems to have had some connection to the priesthood, but they definitely disapproved of the Jerusalem priesthood. They led a very strict and pious life and believed the end was near. Historically, scholars believed they were written by the Essenes, but that is far from certain. More recently, scholars think the scrolls might have been written by Jews throughout Jerusalem and that they were put in the caves when Jews were fleeing from the Romans in 70 CE. This theory accounts for the diversity in subject and handwriting found among the scrolls. Scholars do agree that the scrolls were written from about 200 BCE to 68/70 CE.

They were found in eleven caves around Qumran, which is located along the northwest side of the Dead Sea. None of these caves are actually located in the settlement.

As the story goes, a Bedouin goat/sheep herder stumbled across them early in 1947. Supposedly, he was out looking for a lost animal, when he threw a rock into the cave hoping to drive the animal out. He heard the sound of breaking pottery, which enticed him to explore what was inside. No doubt he expected to find some treasure. Instead, he found several jars filled with scrolls wrapped in linen. He took three of them to a Bethlehem antiquities dealer, who thought they had been stolen from a synagogue, so he returned them.

Some time later, however, he approached another antiquities dealer. Details are fuzzy, but at some point, seven scrolls were put up for sale. Four went to a scholar named Mar Samuel from St. Mark's Monastery in Old Jerusalem. Three were purchased by E. Sukenik, an archaeologist at Hebrew University. At one point, Sukenik tried to purchase the scrolls from Samuel, but they could not come to an agreement. That, however, brought it to the attention of American scholars at the American School of Oriental Research. Some early photographs were taken, which have proved invaluable since the texts themselves have eroded since being unwrapped. By that time, scholars were proclaiming it to be the greatest "archeological find of the twentieth century."

Unfortunately, that was also a time of great unrest, including the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. It was deemed too dangerous for scholars to search for the actual cave. The discovery of the first cave didn't happen until early in 1949 by a UN observer. It was simply known as Cave 1. It also revealed additional finds of pottery, cloth, and wood. Because of this, scholars were able to confirm the authenticity of the scrolls. That discovery led to further explorations, including excavations at Qumran. Of course, by that time, there was a feverish competition between the Bedouins and scholars. Ten more caves were discovered with, literally, thousands of fragments of scrolls.

Perhaps the most interesting anecdote relating to the scrolls involves another huge coincidence. In 1954, Samuel had been touring America, trying to sell the scrolls. He placed an ad in The Wall Street Journal offering "Four Dead Sea Scrolls." They would be "an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution." The ad included a post office box number. Amazingly, Sukenik was also in this country lecturing and he saw the ad in the paper. Through intermediaries, he was able to buy the scrolls for roughly $250,000. As it turned out, Samuel saw very little of that money. Most went to the US government for payment of taxes. The scrolls themselves are now housed in a museum in Jerusalem where they can be viewed. Photographs of the scrolls have been available to the public since 1991.

Because of these scrolls, scholars have learned a lot more about the transmission of the Bible. Some scrolls are almost identical to the Masoretic texts that date to the 9th century, which has led to an increased confidence in the accuracy of those writings. They also have provided a wealth of information from the first centuries BCE to CE. They truly have been one of the "greatest archeological finds of the twentieth century!"

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