The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of just under 900 documents, including texts from the Hebrew Bible, discovered between 1947 and 1956 in eleven caves in and around the ruins of the ancient settlement of Khirbet Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea in Israel.
The texts are of great religious and historical significance, as they include the oldest known surviving copies of Biblical and extra-biblical documents and preserve evidence of great diversity in late Second Temple Judaism. They are written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, mostly on parchment, but with some written on papyrus. These manuscripts generally date between 150 BCE and 70 CE.
The scrolls are traditionally identified with the ancient Jewish sect called the Essenes, though some recent interpretations have challenged this association and argue that the scrolls were penned by priests, Zadokites, or other unknown Jewish groups.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are traditionally divided into three groups: “Biblical” manuscripts (copies of texts from the Hebrew Bible), which comprise roughly 40% of the identified scrolls; “Apocryphal” or “Pseudepigraphical” manuscripts (known documents from the Second Temple Period like Enoch, Jubilees, Tobit, Sirach, non-canonical psalms, etc., that were not ultimately canonized in the Hebrew Bible), which comprise roughly 30% of the identified scrolls; and “Sectarian” manuscripts (previously unknown documents that speak to the rules and beliefs of a particular group or groups within greater Judaism) like the Community Rule, War Scroll, Pesher.
Table of Contents (this page):
- Date and Contents
- Quamran Plateau
- Other Artifacts
- Vatican Conspiracy Theory
- In the News
1. Date and Contents
According to carbon dating, textual analysis, and handwriting 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 BC-AD 61.
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.
While some of the scrolls were written on papyrus, a good portion were written on a brownish animal hide that appears to be gevil.
The scrolls were written with feathers from a bird and the ink used was made from carbon black and white pigments.
One scroll, appropriately named the Copper Scroll, consisted of thin copper sheets that were incised with text and then joined together.
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 the Book of Esther and the Book of Nehemiah (Abegg et al 2002). About 25% are traditional Israelite religious texts that are not in the canonical Hebrew Bible, such as the Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, and the Testament of Levi.
Another 30% contain Biblical commentaries or other texts such as the Community Rule (1QS/4QSa-j, also known as “Discipline Scroll” or “Manual of Discipline”) and the War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness (1QM, also known as the “War Scroll”) related to the beliefs, regulations, and membership requirements of a small Jewish sect, which many researchers believe lived in the Qumran area.
The rest (about 15%) of the fragments are yet unidentified.
Most of the scrolls are written in one of two dialects of Hebrew, Biblical Hebrew or Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew (on which see Hoffman 2004 or Qimron 1986).
Biblical Hebrew dominates in the Biblical documents, and DSS Hebrew in the documents composed in Qumran. Some scrolls are also written in Aramaic and a few in Greek.
Only a few of the biblical scrolls were written at Qumran, the majority being copied before the Qumran period and coming into the ownership of the Qumran community (Abegg et al 2002).
There is no evidence that the Qumran community altered the biblical texts that they did copy to reflect their own theology (Abegg et al 2002). It is thought that the Qumran community would have viewed the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees as divinely inspired scripture (Abegg et al 2002).
The biblical texts cited most often in the non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls are the Psalms, followed by the Book of Isaiah and the Book of Deuteronomy (Abegg et al 2002).
Important texts include the Isaiah Scroll (discovered in 1947), a Commentary on the Habakkuk (1947); the Community Rule (1QS/4QSa-j), 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, scrolls, and weapons, is probably the most notorious.
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. This is known as the Essene Hypothesis. Jews revolted against the Romans in AD 66. Before they were massacred by Roman troops, the Essenes hid their scriptures in caves, not to be discovered until 1947. The opinion that the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls were Essenes is the most prevalent view among scholars (Abegg et al 2002 ).
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 Sadducee principles for the dating of certain festival days.
Additional evidence is found in 4QMMT which agrees with the Sadduceean position that held streams of liquid were ritually unclean contrary to Pharisee belief. Most scholars feel that despite the similarities in purity laws, some pretty large unbridged theological issues make this unlikely. For example, Josephus says that the Sadducees and the Essenes held opposing views of predestination, with the Essenes attributing everything to fate, while the Sadducees denied fate altogether. Similarly, many scrolls show evidence that the scroll authors believed the soul survived beyond death (and this belief included resurrection) which was contrary to the Sadducess who argued that there is no resurrection, no angel or spirit.
In 1963 Karl Heinrich Rengstorf of the University of Munster 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.
Spanish Jesuit Jose 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 AD 30 and 60. Opponents consider that the fragment is tiny and requires so much reconstruction (the only complete word in Greek is “and”) that it could have come from a text other than Mark.
Robert Eisenman advanced the theory that some scrolls actually describe the early Christian community, characterized as more fundamentalist and rigid than the one portrayed by the New Testament. Eisenman also attempted to relate the career of James the Just and Paul of Tarsus to some of these documents.
Some of the scrolls may actually be the lost books mentioned in the Bible. 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 related to the Book of Enoch. Other theories with more support among scholars include Qumran as a military fortress or a winter resort (Abegg et al 2002).
2. Quamran Plateau
The settlement of Qumran is 1 km inland from the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. The scrolls were found in eleven caves nearby, between 125m (Cave 4) and 1 km (Cave 1) away. None were found within the settlement, unless it originally encompassed the caves. In the winter of 1946-47, Palestinian Muhammed edh-Dhib and his cousin discovered the caves, and soon afterwards the scrolls.
John C. Trever reconstructed the story of the scrolls from several interviews with the Bedouin. edh-Dhib’s cousin noticed the caves, but edh-Dhib himself was the first to actually fall into one. He retrieved a handful of scrolls, which Trever identifies as the Isaiah Scroll, Habakkuk Commentary, and the Community Rule (originally known as “Manual of Discipline”), and took them back to the camp to show to his family.
None of the scrolls were destroyed in this process, despite popular rumor. The Bedouin kept the scrolls hanging on a tent pole while they figured out what to do with them, periodically taking them out to show people. At some point during this time, the Community Rule was split in two.
The Bedouin first took the scrolls to a dealer named Ibrahim ‘Ijha in Bethlehem. ‘Ijha returned them, saying they were worthless, after being warned that they may have been stolen from a synagogue. Undaunted, the Bedouin went to a nearby market, where a Syrian Christian offered to buy them.
A sheikh joined their conversation and suggested they take the scrolls to Khalil Eskander Shahin, “Kando”, a cobbler and part-time antiques dealer. The Bedouin and the dealers returned to the site, leaving one scroll with Kando and selling three others to a dealer for $29 in 2003 US dollars.
Arrangements with the Bedouin left the scrolls in the hands of a third party until a profitable sale of them could be negotiated. That third party, George Isha’ya, was a member of the Syrian Orthodox Church, who soon contacted St. Mark’s Monastery in the hope of getting an appraisal of the nature of the texts. News of the find then reached Metropolitan Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, better known as Mar Samuel.
After examining the scrolls and suspecting their antiquity, Mar Samuel expressed an interest in purchasing them. Four scrolls found their way into his hands: the now famous Isaiah Scroll (1QIsa), the Community Rule, the Habakkuk Pesher (a commentary on the book of Habakkuk), and the Genesis Apocryphon.
More scrolls soon surfaced in the antiquities market, and Professor Eleazer Sukenik and Professor Benjamin Mazar, Israeli archaeologists at Hebrew University, soon found themselves in possession of three, The War Scroll, Thanksgiving Hymns, and another, more fragmented, Isaiah scroll.
By the end of 1947, Sukenik and Mazar received word of the scrolls in Mar Samuel’s possession and attempted to purchase them. No deal was reached, and instead the scrolls caught the attention of Dr. John C. Trever, of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), who compared the script in the scrolls to that of The Nash Papyrus, the oldest biblical manuscript then known, and found similarities between them.
Dr. Trever, a keen amateur photographer, met with Mar Samuel on February 21, 1948, when he photographed the scrolls. The quality of his photographs often exceeded the visibility of the scrolls themselves over the years, as the ink of the texts quickly deteriorated after they were removed from their linen wrappings.
The scrolls were analyzed using a cyclotron at the University of California, Davis where it was found that the black ink used was iron-gall ink. The red ink on the scrolls was cinnabar (HgS, mercury sulfide).
In March, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War prompted the removal of the scrolls for safekeeping, from Israel to Beirut, Lebanon.
Early in September, 1948, Mar brought Professor Ovid R. Sellers, the new Director of ASOR, some additional scroll fragments that he had acquired. By the end of 1948, nearly two years after their discovery, scholars had yet to locate the cave where the fragments had been found. With unrest in the country at that time, no large-scale search could be undertaken. Sellers attempted to get the Syrians to help him locate the cave, but they demanded more money than he could offer. Finally, Cave 1 was discovered, on January 28, 1949, by a United Nations observer.
The Dead Sea Scrolls went up for sale eventually, in an advertisement in the June 1, 1954 Wall Street Journal. On July 1, the scrolls, after delicate negotiations and accompanied by three people including the Metropolitan, arrived at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. They were purchased by Prof. Mazar and the son of Prof. Sukenik, Yigael Yadin, for US$250,000 and brought back to East Jerusalem, where they were on display at the Palestine Archaeological Museum then, after the Six-Day War, to West Jerusalem at the Shrine of the Book.
The caves surrounding Qumran are numbered based upon the order of their discovery and their production of scrolls and scroll fragments. Thus, caves 7-9 and 4 are very close to the settlement at Qumran, while caves 1, 3, and 11 are farther away. Likewise, there are hundreds of other caves surrounding Qumran discovered both before and after the 11 scroll caves that did not produce scrolls and are therefore not numbered as scroll caves.
Below is a summary of each of the Qumran Caves.
Cave 1 was discovered in the winter or spring of 1947 by a local bedouin. It was first excavated by Gerald Lankester Harding and Roland de Vaux from February 15 – March 5, 1949. In addition to the original seven scrolls, Cave 1 produced jars and bowls, whose chemical composition and shape matched vessels discovered at the settlement at Qumran, pieces of cloth, and additional fragments that matched portions of the original scrolls, thereby confirming that the original scrolls came from Cave 1.
Cave 2 was discovered by the same bedouin in February, 1952. It yielded 300 fragments from 33 manuscripts, including Jubilees and the Book of Sirach in the original Hebrew.
Cave 3 was discovered on March 14, 1952. The cave yielded 14 manuscripts including Jubilees and the curious Copper Scroll, which lists 67 hiding places, mostly underground, throughout the ancient Roman province of Judea (now Israel and Palestine). According to the scroll, the secret caches held astonishing amounts of gold, silver, copper, aromatics, and manuscripts.
Cave four was discovered in August, 1952, and was excavated from September 22 to 29, 1952 by Gerald Lankester Harding, Roland de Vaux, and J—zef Milik. Cave four is actually two, hand-cut caves (4a and 4b), but since the fragments were mixed, they are labeled as 4Q.
Cave 4 is the most famous of Qumran caves both because of its visibility from the Qumran plateau and its productivity. It is visible from the plateau to the south of the Qumran settlement. It is by far the most productive of all Qumran caves, producing ninety percent of the Dead Sea Scrolls and scroll fragments (approx. 15,000 fragments from 500 different texts), including 9-10 copies of Jubilees, along with 21 tefillin and 7 mezuzot.
Cave 5 produced approximately 25 manuscripts.
Cave 6 contained fragments of about 31 manuscripts. Most of these were papyrus rather than the leather that predominated in the other caves.Mar Samuel, meanwhile, had made his way to America. Here he tried in vain to sell the texts in his possession, even displaying them once at the Library of Congress. Finally a now famous advertisement was taken out in the Wall Street Journal. On June 1, 1954, a Wall Street Journal ad proclaimed, “The Four Dead Sea Scrolls: Biblical Manuscripts dating back to at least 200 BC, are for sale. This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group.” This ad was brought to the attention of Yigael Yadin, who, working through an intermediary, managed to purchase the scrolls for the sum of $250,000.
Caves 7 – 9
Caves 7-9 are unique in that they are the only caves that are accessible only by passing through the settlement at Qumran. Carved into the southern end of the Qumran plateau, archaeologists excavated caves 7-9 in 1957, but did not find many fragments perhaps due to high levels of erosion that left only the shallow bottoms of the caves.
Cave 7 yielded fewer than 20 fragments of Greek documents, including 7Q2 (the “Letter of Jeremiah” = Baruch 6), 7Q5 (which became the subject of much speculation in later decades), and a Greek copy of a scroll of Enoch. Cave 7 also produced several inscribed potsherds and jars.
Cave 8 produced five fragments: Genesis (8QGen), Psalms (8QPs), a tefillin fragment (8QPhyl), a mezuzah (8QMez), and a hymn (8QHymn). Cave 8 also produced several tefillin cases, a box of leather objects, lamps, jars, and the sole of a leather shoe.
Cave 9 produced only small, unidentifiable fragments.
Caves 8 and 9 also yielded several date pits similar to those discovered by Magen and Peleg to the west of Locus 75 during their “Operation Scroll” excavations.
An Ostracon was discovered which is pottery (or stone), usually broken off from a vase or other earthenware vessel.
Cave 11 was discovered in 1956 and yielded 21 texts, some of which were quite lengthy. The Temple Scroll, so called because more than half of it pertains to the construction of the Temple of Jerusalem, was found in Cave 11, and is by far the longest scroll. It is now 26.7 feet (8.15m) long. Its original length may have been over 28 feet (8.75m). The Temple Scroll was regarded by Yigael Yadin as “The Torah According to the Essenes.” On the other hand, Hartmut Stegemann, a contemporary and friend of Yadin, believed the scroll was not to be regarded as such, but was a document without exceptional significance. Stegemann notes that it is not mentioned or cited in any known Essene writing.
Also in Cave 11, an eschatological fragment about the biblical figure Melchizedek (11Q13) was found. Cave 11 also produced a copy of Jubilees.
According to former chief editor of the DSS editorial team, John Strugnell, there are at least four privately owned scrolls from Cave 11, that has not yet been made available for scholars. Among them is a complete Aramaic manuscript of the Book of Enoch.
4. Other Artifacts
The Qumran caves preserved artifacts from many periods; most artifacts were from c.200 B.C. to 68 A.D.
These 31 artifacts are the entire contents of a cave from the same period and location as the 11 Qumran caves that contained scrolls (with the exception of the 3 ceramic containers which date from Iron Age II). All are typical of Jerusalem and its environs. The light green hue of most of the glass is due to the metal oxides in the material from the area. This cave or tomb dates to the 1st century B.C. (the date of the major manuscript “The Rule of the Community.”)
3 Ceramic Containers
Iron Age II
9 Ceramic Oil Lamps
2 Ceramic Containers
1st century B.C.
Ceramic Oil Lamp
4 Glass Containers
2nd-1st century B.C.
3 Glass Containers with Handle
2nd-1st century B.C.
Glass Container (Broken)
2nd-1st century B.C.
4 Glass “Tear Drop” Bottles
2nd-1st century B.C.
Unguentarium Glass Container
2nd-1st century B.C.
2 Hand Blown Glass Containers
2nd-1st century B.C.
These Ceramic Containers from Iron Age II date to a period significantly earlier than the time period of the cave in which they were found. Other scholarship on the period and region suggest that vessels such as this may have been kept as precious antiques.
Those at Qumran would need a way to determine the day on which the sun rose due east. Many ancient cultures did that by erecting a pillar or marker to align with a mountain peak or other horizon feature. Stonehenge in England is a classic example, but it aligned with the summer solstice rather than the spring equinox.
A limestone sundial has been discovered at Qumran showing physical evidence at Qumran that they people were interested in determining the day of the vernal equinox It was designed to measure the sun during the year rather than during the day. After studying it, two researchers concluded — it could have been used to handle the discrepancy between 365.25 days and a calendar year of 364 days. It allows the determination of the cardinal points and fixing a calendar whose seasons are as near as possible to the signs of sun, moon and stars. There is strong supporting evidence that the Qumran calendar was indeed intercalated with a method involving actually measuring when the sun arose in the east, as directed by the Book of Enoch. (Reference)
Some of the documents were published in a 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 was 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 control the completion of the work.
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 judgments.
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, by the discovery and publication of a complete set of photographs of the Cave 4 materials at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, that were 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.
6. Vatican Conspiracy Theory
Allegations that the Vatican suppressed the publication of the scrolls were published in the 1990s. Notably, Michael Baigent’s and Richard Leigh’s book The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception claim that several key scrolls were deliberately kept under wraps for decades to suppress unwelcome theories about the early history of Christianity; in particular, Eisenman’s speculation 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.
The complete publication and dissemination of translations and photographic records of the works in the late 1990s and early 2000s – particularly the publication of all of the “biblical” scrolls – has greatly lessened the credibility of their argument among mainstream scholarship. Today most scholars, both secular and religious, feel the documents are distinctly Jewish, rather than Christian. Dr. Trevor himself, in his book about the Dead Sea Scrolls, made the assertion that the scrolls have a deep archeological and historical significance, but asserts that they are the writings of another sect of Jews living out in the desert and nothing more.
The significance of the scrolls is still somewhat impaired by the uncertainty about their date and origin.
In spite of these limitations, the scrolls have already been quite valuable to text critics. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible were Masoretic texts dating to 9th century.
The biblical manuscripts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls push that date back to the 2nd century BC, and until that happened the oldest Greek manuscripts such as Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus were the earliest extant versions of biblical manuscripts.
Although some of the biblical manuscripts found at Qumran differ significantly from the Masoretic text, most do not.
The scrolls thus provide new variants and the ability to be more confident of those readings where the Dead Sea manuscripts agree with the Masoretic text or with the early Greek manuscripts.
Further, the sectarian texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, most of which were previously unknown, offer new light on one form of Judaism practiced in the Second Temple period.
8. In the News…
New Texts Found in Caves That Yielded Dead Sea Scrolls Live Science – March 3, 2014
An archaeologist says he discovered nine tiny scrolls with biblical text from the Qumran caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed, according to news reports. The newfound scrolls, which date back to about 2,000 years ago, were hidden inside three leather tefillin cases, also known as phylacteries, traditionally carried by observant Jewish men, Italian news agency Ansa Mediterranean reported. These cases were first pulled out of the caves in the 1950s, but their contents apparently were not examined until now. Starting in the 1940s, the remains of more than 900 manuscripts were found in 11 caves near the site of Qumran in the West Bank. This collection Hebrew Bible texts, which came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, included copies of Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Kings and Deuteronomy.
Sales stir up a modern-day fuss over fragments from Dead Sea Scrolls MSNBC – May 29, 2013
For years, fragments from the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls have been sold quietly to evangelical Christian collectors and institutions in the United States – even though Israel regards those sales as illegal. Now the transactions, and the frictions associated with them, have come under an international spotlight. One big reason is that the scraps are so valuable, in financial as well as archaeological terms. The reported price tags for the fragments range up to $35 million or more. All those texts could shed new light on the origins of Jewish scriptures, ranging from Genesis and other books of the Bible to the messianic rules that were laid down by the mysterious community behind the scrolls.
Pictures: Dead Sea Scrolls Being Digitized for Web National Geographic – October 20, 2010
The Dead Sea Scrolls – the oldest known surviving biblical and extra-biblical texts in the world – are slated to be scanned with high-resolution multispectral imaging equipment and shared online, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and Google announced Tuesday, when this picture was taken in an IAA lab. Discovered in caves near the Dead Sea in the 1940s and 1950s, the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek scrolls date to between 150 B.C. and A.D. 70. They include copies of nearly every book in the Old Testament as well as others that are not part of the traditional canon, such as the Gospel of Judas (time line of early Christianity).