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Dead Sea scrolls

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Fragments of the scrolls on display at the Archeological Museum, Amman
Fragments of the scrolls on display at the Archeological Museum, Amman

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of about 850 documents, including texts from the Hebrew Bible, which were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in eleven caves near Qumran, a fortress northwest of the Dead Sea in Israel (in historical times part of Judea). They were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, sometime between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD. The texts are important as being practically the only Jewish Biblical documents from that period, and because of what they can tell about the political and religious context.


Date and contents

According to carbon dating and textual analysis, the documents were written at various times between the middle of the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD. At least one document has a carbon date range of 21 BC61 AD. The Nash Papyrus from Egypt, containing a copy of the Ten Commandments, is the only other Hebrew document of comparable antiquity. Similar written materials have been recovered from nearby sites, including the fortress of Masada. There was even a new finding that another of the scrolls have been found deep in the caves of Athens, Greece. These show that the Hebrew religion might have actually reached Europe before Constantine.

The fragments span at least 800 texts, that represent many diverse viewpoints ranging from the beliefs of the Essenes to those of other sects. About 30% are fragments from the Hebrew Bible, from all the books except Book of Esther. About 25% are traditional Jewish religious texts that are not in the canonical Hebrew Bible, such as the Book of Enoch and the Testament of Levi . Another 30% contain Biblical commentaries or other texts related to the beliefs, regulations, and membership requirements of a small Jewish sect, which is believed to have lived in the Qumran area. The rest (about 15%) of the fragments are yet unidentified. Most of them are written in Hebrew, but also some written in Aramaic, and a few in Greek.

Important texts include the Isaiah (discovered in 1947), a Commentary on the Habakkuk (1947), the Community Rule (1QS), which gives much information on the structure and theology of the sect, and the earliest version of the Damascus Document . The so-called Copper Scroll (1952), which lists hidden caches of gold and weapons, is probably the most widely known but is of relatively little academic importance.


According to a view almost universally held until the 1990s, the documents were written and hidden by a community of Essenes who lived in the Qumran area.

Another theory, which has been gaining popularity, is that the community was led by Zadokite priests (Sadducees). The most important document in support of this view is the "Miqsat Ma'ase haTorah" (MMT, 4Q394-), which states purity laws identical to those attributed in rabbinic writings to the Sadducees (such as concerning the transfer of impurities). This document also reproduces a festival calendar which follows Saduccee principles for the dating of certain festival days.

A Spanish Jesuit, José O'Callaghan, has argued that one fragment (7Q5) is a New Testament text from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 6, verses 52-53. In recent years this controversial assertion has been taken up again by German scholar Carsten Peter Thiede. A successful identification of this fragment as a passage from Mark would make it the earliest extant New Testament document, dating somewhere between 30 and 60 CE. Opponents consider that the fragment is tiny, and requires so much reconstruction (the only complete word is Greek 'kai' = 'and'), that it could be plausibly argued to have come from any text whatsoever.

In 1963 Karl Heinrich Rengstorf of the University of Münster put forth the theory that the Dead Sea scrolls originated at the library of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. This theory was rejected by most scholars during the 1960s, who maintained that the scrolls were written at Qumran rather than transported from another location (a position supported by de Vaux's identification of a probable scriptorium within the ruins of Qumran). However, the theory was revived by Norman Golb and other scholars during the 1990s, who added that the scrolls probably also originated from several other libraries in addition to the Temple library.

Allegations that the Vatican suppressed the publication of the scrolls were published in the 1990s, notably by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh , whose book The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception contains a popularized version of speculations by Robert Eisenman that some scrolls actually describe the early Christian community, characterized as more fundamentalist and rigid than the one portrayed by the New Testament, and that the life of Jesus was deliberately mythicized by Paul, possibly a Roman agent who faked his "conversion" from Saul in order to undermine the influence of anti-Roman messianic cults in the region. (Eisenman's own theories, themselves not always convincing, merely attempt to relate the career of James the Just and Paul to some of these documents.) Baigent and Leigh allege that several key scrolls were deliberately kept under wraps for decades to prevent the rise of alternative theories to the prevailing "consensus" that the scrolls had nothing to do with Christianity.

Because they are frequently described as important to the history of the Bible, the scrolls are surrounded by a wide range of conspiracy theories: one example is the claim that they were entirely fabricated or planted by extra-terrestrials. There is also writing about the Nephilim. Some call these an extinct race of giants, and others argue that this is evidence of aliens in the Bible, interpreting the "sons of God" (who mated with "the daughters of men") as space aliens creating a mixed breed.


The scrolls were discovered by a young shepherd, Muhammed edh-Dhib, who had thrown a stone into a cave in an attempt to coerce a goat out of it. His stone struck one of the many pieces of pottery that had contained the scrolls for approximately two millennia. Later archeological excavation, as well as searches by the local Bedouin residents, identified and recovered material from the 11 caves. Israel obtained 4 of the 7 major Dead Sea scrolls on February 13, 1955.


Most of the documents were published in a surprisingly prompt manner: all of the writing found in Cave 1 appeared in print between 1950 and 1956; the finds from 8 different caves were released in a single volume in 1963; and 1965 saw the publication of the Psalms Scroll from Cave 11. Translation of these materials quickly followed.

The exception to this speed were the documents from Cave 4, which represented 40% of the total material. The publication of these materials had been entrusted to an international team led by Father Roland de Vaux , a member of the Dominican Order in Jerusalem. This group published the first volume of the materials entrusted to them in 1968, but spent much of their energies defending their theories of the material instead of publishing it. Geza Vermes , who had been involved from the start in the editing and publication of these materials, blamed the delay – and eventual failure – on de Vaux's selection of a team unsuited to the quality of work he had planned, as well as relying "on his personal, quasi-patriarchal authority" to ensure the work was promptly done.

As a result, the finds from Cave 4 were not made public for many years. Access to the scrolls was governed by a "secrecy rule" that allowed only the original International Team – or their designates – to view the original materials. After de Vaux's death in 1971, his successors repeatedly refused to even allow the publication of photographs of these materials so that other scholars could at least make their judgements. This rule was eventually broken: first by the publication in the fall of 1991, of 17 documents reconstructed from a concordance that had been made in 1988 and had come into the hands of scholars outside of the International Team; next, that same month, of the discovery – and publication – of a complete set of photographs of the Cave 4 materials at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California that was not covered by the "secrecy rule". After some delays, these photographs were published by Robert Eisenman and James Robinson (A Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, two volumes, Washington, D.C., 1991). as a result, the "secrecy rule" was lifted, and publication of the Cave 4 documents soon commenced, with five volumes in print by 1995.

See also


  • Edward M. Cook , , Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994
  • Frank Moore Cross , The Ancient Library of Qumran , 3rd ed., Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995. ISBN 0800628071
  • Norman Golb , Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? The Search for the Secret of Qumran , New York: Scribner, 1995

External links

  • Basic Facts Regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls
  • Timetable of the Discovery and Debate about the Dead Sea Scrolls
  • Dead Sea Scrolls & Qumran
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls (FARMS)
  • Some of the scrolls can be seen inside the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem

Last updated: 02-07-2005 19:36:28
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55