Have you heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls? If you haven’t you may be suspiciously wondering about some long-lost ancient scrolls that were accidentally discovered in some caves somewhere. And, if that’s what you’re thinking, you’d be exactly right! Let’s learn more about the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and how they reinforced and transformed our understanding of the biblical world. We’ve adapted this content from the Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology.

What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of some 1,100 biblical texts written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Most were written on parchment (made from goat or sheep skins) and papyrus (an early form of paper). More than 230 of the total manuscripts represent copies of books in the Hebrew Bible. The rest are apocryphal and pseudepigraphical texts, commentaries on biblical texts, and sectarian documents.

The scrolls were discovered hidden in caves in or in the vicinity of the Qumran settlement, located in the Judean desert on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea some 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem. These scrolls were found only in the caves around this site and not in the settlement itself. Similar texts, considered part of the documents from the Judean Desert, came from other sites along the Dead Sea. Based on datable artifacts found in the caves, calibrated carbon-14 dating, and paleographic and scribal dating, the Dead Sea Scrolls range from the third century BC to the first century AD. Many of the Judean desert scrolls coming from the region south of Qumran are dated to the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (AD 132–136).

How were the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered?

As the story of their initial discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has come to us, in 1946–1947 young shepherd boys of the Ta’amireh Bedouin tribe discovered a cave in which were stored cylindrical jars covered with bowl lids. Inside these jars were a collection of seven parchment (processed animal skin) scrolls (many wrapped in linen cloths) written in Hebrew and Aramaic. The seven scrolls included biblical manuscripts: two copies of Isaiah (Isaiah A and B), a commentary on Habakkuk, and sectarian scrolls including the Manual of Discipline, War Scroll, Thanksgiving Scroll, and the Genesis Apocryphon.

Once the discovery became public with the publication of the Isaiah Scroll and Habakkuk Commentary in 1950 and the scrolls were deemed valuable, the Bedouin (followed by the archaeologists) discovered additional caves, and more scrolls came to light. Once archaeologists began work at Cave 1 (the location of which was initially kept secret by the Bedouins), they discovered the remains of datable pottery such as oil lamps, which placed the earliest use of the cave in the Hasmonean period. The seven initial scrolls eventually found their way through the Bedouin to the antiquities market and were sold. In 1948 they were declared the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times. Eventually, the state of Israel acquired the seven scrolls and a museum known as the Shrine of the Book was constructed to exhibit them as part of the Israel National Museum in Jerusalem.

Notable Discoveries

Between 1947 and 1956 eleven scroll caves were identified, being numbered in the order of their discovery.

In March 2017, further excavation in Cave 11 revealed pieces of textiles connected with the scrolls. The cave of the Copper Scroll contained fragments of fourteen different documents, but the prize find was two copper plates (rolled up in scroll fashion) that were engraved with Hebrew characters (and some Greek ciphers). This unique document contains an inventory of immense treasure (material wealth and ritual items) hidden in sixty-four cryptic locations in and beyond the Judean desert. To date, none of its locations have been positively identified, nor have any of the items listed in the inventory been discovered, although several attempts have been made at Qumran, Hyrcania, and Jerusalem.

A large jar with a conical lid adorned with a small knob, still in the possession of the Kando family, was said to have come from Cave 11 and to have housed the Temple Scroll.

In January 2017, Oren Gutfeld and Randall Price working with the new Operation Scroll made the discovery of scroll Cave 53 southwest of the Qumran Plateau. The cave contained numerous scroll jars hidden in rock-cut niches on the east side and a tunnel at the rear of the cave. At the back of the cave iron picks were found dating to the Second Temple period, apparently used by those who originally hid the scrolls. Although the jars had been broken and robbed by looters in the past, they left behind in the jars scraps of leather, papyrus, linen wrappings, and ties that were once part of the scrolls themselves. This provided evidence that many scroll discoveries are still possible in the Judean desert.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and Biblical Studies

The Dead Sea Scrolls have great significance for biblical studies. Bringing a unique window on the Second Temple period, these documents provide some of our only information on the Jewish sects of the time, such as the Pharisees and Sadducees, who left no writings of their own, as well as the Essenes. They refer to Second Temple period rituals, religious views, and social customs, give geographic and topographic information, record historical and political events, reveal Jewish legal interpretations, and contain specialized vocabulary, in some cases paralleling the use in the New Testament such as the Gospel of John and the epistles of Paul.

In addition, before the discovery of the scrolls the extrabiblical Jewish literature, such as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, existed only in ancient translations (Greek, Syriac, and Coptic), but the scrolls provided Hebrew and Aramaic versions, allowing scholars for the first time to read these works in their original form. They also reveal that Judaism was hardly monolithic in the Second Temple period and that no one kind can necessarily be assumed as normative for the rest. This provides background for understanding the cultural conditions and conflicts that elicited Jesus’ parabolic method of teaching and his debates within first-century Judaism.

Textual Transmission and the Dead Sea Scrolls

However, their most important value to biblical studies is for the textual criticism of the Old Testament, helping scholars understand the state of the biblical text in the Second Temple period and its transmission from earlier times and how stable this transmission was until it was fixed with the MT (the traditional text) in the tenth century AD. The chart below reveals the significance of the span of time bridged by the Dead Sea biblical texts (such as that contained in the most complete text, the Great Isaiah Scroll) in relation to the MT (the oldest copy represented by the Leningrad Codex).

Biblical critics had previously believed that an incalculable number of variants must have entered into the biblical manuscripts during its transmission period until it took its final form with the MT. Taking for their point of comparison the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) dated ca.125 BC, the most complete of the biblical texts and one of the longest books in the Hebrew Bible, it was found that it had a 95 percent agreement with the MT. The 5 percent variation consisted primarily of obvious slips of the pen and spelling alterations. The scrolls testify to the exceptional scribal preservation of the biblical text through the centuries and validate the traditional text as the closest witness we have to the original.

This fact justifies confidence in the Bible’s textual transmission and in the modern translations of the Old Testament that are based upon it. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, every new translation of the Bible has taken into account the textual evidence it has provided.

Learn More with the Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology

The Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology is an excellent resource for anyone interested in biblical archeology. Plenty of photos, charts, maps, and articles are included in this resource. Visit our store today to purchase this resource and start learning more about archaeological discoveries from the biblical world.

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