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Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The manuscripts left behind by a mysterious ancient sect can tell us much about the world in which the early Church arose.

Jimmy Akin

The Dead Sea is a mysterious place. Its name invokes one of our greatest mysteries—death—and for good reason: its waters are almost ten times as salty as the ocean, preventing any life in it. It’s so salty you can float without needing to swim.

Located at the south end of the Jordan River Valley, the Dead Sea is 1,400 feet below sea level, the lowest point on any of Earth’s landmasses. It’s a valuable source of chemicals, including salt, potassium chloride, and asphalt. Because of the latter, it was known in the ancient world as Lake Asphaltites.

Several ancient sources, including Pliny the Elder, recorded that a mysterious Jewish sect known as the Essenes lived near the Dead Sea (see sidebar, p. 24).

The mystery unearthed

In the 1940s, the mystery surrounding the Dead Sea deepened when a teenage Bedouin shepherd named Muhammed edh-Dhib went in search of a lost goat. Details of exactly what happened are sketchy. It’s not even certain what year this happened—it was sometime between 1945 and 1947.

In later accounts, edh-Dhib said that he thought the lost goat was in a cave, and he threw in rocks, hoping to startle the goat into making a noise or coming out of the cave. Instead, he heard the sound of breaking pottery. So he entered the cave and discovered clay jars containing ancient scrolls.

Members of the local Bedouin tribes often supplemented their income by raiding archaeological sites, and the scrolls soon appeared in the local antiquities market. In 1947 word of the scrolls began to spread among scholars.

The scrolls remain under wraps

The Dead Sea Scrolls have had a tumultuous history. In the first phase of this history, the investigation of the scrolls was hampered by events surrounding the founding of Israel and the Arab-Israeli hostilities of the time.

This led to colorful, cloak-and-dagger episodes, such as when in late 1947 the Jewish scholar Eleazar Sukenik disguised himself as an Arab so he could travel safely from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to purchase some of the first scrolls, which were in the possession of a cobbler and part-time antiquities dealer nicknamed “Kando.”

In 1954, Sukenik’s son, the Israeli military general and scholar Yigael Yadin, employed a secret intermediary using the false name “Mr. Green” (later revealed to be the American Jewish scholar Harry Orlinsky) to purchase several scrolls that had been advertised in the “miscellaneous for sale” section of the Wall Street Journal’s classified ads.

After the Bedouin shepherd’s initial discovery, a survey was eventually undertaken, and scholars found ten more caves containing scrolls. Today they are numbered Caves 1 to 11. Eventually a huge number of scrolls and scroll fragments—almost a thousand—were discovered.

The study of the scrolls was parceled out to a team of scholars, but some of the scholars did not process them efficiently. Although one could simply release photographs of the scrolls, it was customary to allow scholars to translate, analyze, and prepare commentaries on the scrolls before publicizing them. For a variety of reasons—including the huge number of scrolls and fragments—some scholars didn’t do their work quickly, and decades went by without the full body of scrolls being published.

Rumors of Catholic suppression

This led to rumors that the unpublished scrolls were being held back deliberately, and since some of the scholars analyzing them were Catholic, rumors began to circulate that the Vatican was suppressing the scrolls because they contained dangerous revelations that would threaten the Christian Faith. (This rumor was one of the inspirations for Dan Brown’s conspiracy novel The Da Vinci Code.)

In a surprise twist, the impasse was finally broken in 1991 when rebel scholars frustrated with the situation made an unexpected move.

Although many of the scrolls had not been published, an exhaustive concordance of them had been. Like a concordance of the Bible, this work listed each word in the scrolls along with a snippet of its context. The rebel scholars used a computer program to analyze the concordance and piece together the text of the unpublished scrolls by combining the concordance entries like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

In the wake of this, the Huntington Library in San Marino, California—which had a complete set of photographs of the scrolls—announced that it would allow scholars access to this material.

The embargo on the unpublished scrolls was broken, and today all of the scrolls are available to the public. In fact, the Israeli Antiquities Authority has put them online: they can be viewed at www.DeadSeaScrolls.org.il.

By the numbers

Because of the Dead Sea Scrolls’ fragmentary nature, statistics regarding them are approximate, but it appears that the total number of texts is around 930. The vast majority of the scrolls are parchment (animal skin prepared for writing), a small number are papyrus (paper made from a reed that grows in Egypt), and one is inscribed on copper.

Breaking them down by the languages they are written in:

  790 (85 percent) are in Hebrew

  120 (13 percent) are in Aramaic

  20 (2 percent) are in Greek

Breaking them down by subject matter:

•230 (25 percent) are Jewish biblical texts

•250 (27 percent) are general Jewish texts

•350 (38 percent) are sectarian texts

•100 (11 percent) are unclassified

The biblical texts are books that belong to the Jewish Bible as it is understood today (i.e., the protocanonical books of Scripture).

The general Jewish texts are ones that aren’t included in the Jewish Bible, though a broad range of Jews read them. Examples include the deuterocanonical books of the Catholic Bible as well as non-canonical works like Jubilees and 1 Enoch.

The sectarian writings are those that the Qumran sect produced and that reflect its unique views. Examples include the War Scroll, the Halakhic Letter, and the Community Rule.

The unclassified texts are ones that scholars aren’t sure about. They are not biblical texts, but it is hard to tell—often because they are too fragmentary—whether they are general Jewish texts or specifically sectarian ones.

Who wrote the scrolls?

Near the caves where the scrolls were found is an archaeological ruin known as Qumran. Most scholars have concluded that the people who lived at or near Qumran placed the scrolls in the caves. For this reason, the people who wrote the scrolls, although they called themselves the yakhad (Hebrew, “community”), are often called “the Qumran sect.”

Because ancient sources, including Josephus and Pliny the Elder, report that there were Essenes living by the Dead Sea at approximately the location of Qumran, the majority view among scholars is that members of the Qumran sect were Essenes. If this is correct, the scrolls give us new information about the history of the Essenes.

History of the Qumran sect

The sect appears to have originated in the early second century B.C. It existed for twenty years before a man known as the Teacher of Righteousness became its leader. The sectarians believed the Teacher of Righteousness was divinely inspired, and he appears to have been a high-ranking priest from Jerusalem—perhaps a high priest who was deposed by Jonathan Maccabeus.

The Teacher was opposed by a figure known as the Wicked Priest (often thought to be Jonathan Maccabeus), who pursued him into the desert. He was also opposed within the sect by a dissenter known as the Man of Lies (or the Spouter of Lies) who rejected the Teacher’s interpretation of the Jewish Law.

The fact that the scrolls do not identify these figures by name has led to a great deal of speculation among scholars.

Precisely how the Qumran sect fit into the world of ancient Israel is unclear. Their legal interpretations are strikingly similar to those of the Sadducees, leading some to suggest the latter were an offshoot of this sect. However, the sect held theological views (including belief in the afterlife and predestination) that the Sadducees rejected. The Jewish historian Josephus records that the three major Jewish sects of the time were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes and that the last was the strictest.

This fits with the picture the scrolls give of their authors. They were a radical sect that looked down on the more relaxed attitude of the Pharisees (who they referred to as “seekers after smooth things”). They also believed that the Sadducees had allowed the Jerusalem temple to become polluted, and so they refused to worship there.

Like others of the period, the Qumran sectarians expected an imminent war between the forces of light and darkness. They expected God to lead them to the destruction of their enemies and an age of perpetual peace. But when the Jewish War of A.D. 66-73 occurred, the Romans were victorious, and the Qumran sect disappeared from history.

The scrolls and the Bible

The Dead Sea Scrolls are significant because they are a thousand years older than the next earliest copies of the Hebrew scriptures that we have, which were made by medieval Jewish scribes known as the Masoretes.

The scrolls’ discovery demonstrated the remarkably accurate preservation of these texts. At the same time, they contain some readings that are different from the medieval Hebrew copies. Sometimes these alternative readings support those found in the Septuagint—the major Greek translation of the Old Testament—and sometimes they are unique to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Today, Bible translators use the Masoretic texts, the Septuagint, and the Dead Sea Scrolls when trying to determine the original reading of biblical passages.

The scrolls and the canon

The Dead Sea Scrolls are important for the study of the canon of the Bible because they include copies of all of the protocanonical books of the Old Testament—except for Esther, whose canonicity was disputed by some Jews. The scrolls also include copies of deuterocanonical works like Tobit, Baruch, and Sirach.

It is unclear whether the Qumran sect had a closed list of books they regarded as canonical and which books these were. The scrolls do show that they thought more books counted as Scripture than did the Sadducees and Samaritans (who accepted the first five books of the Bible) and the Pharisees (who accepted the protocanonical books, roughly speaking).

It appears, for example, the Qumran sect regarded 1 Enoch, Jubilees, and the Temple Scroll divinely inspired.

Christian connections?

When the scrolls were discovered, attention quickly focused on what light they might shed on early Christianity, and there are a number of similarities between the Qumran sectarians and early Christians.

Both groups focused on prophecy and personal holiness, had members who practiced celibacy, and had leaders who were called “bishop” or “overseer” (Hebrew, mebaqqer, Greek, episkopos). This led some crackpot authors to make fanciful proposals, such as that John the Baptist was the Teacher of Righteousness, Jesus was the Wicked Priest, and St. Paul was the Spouter of Lies.

This is nonsense. Carbon dating shows that scrolls mentioning these figures were written before the New Testament era. Also, the early Christian attitude toward Gentiles and the Jewish law was starkly opposed to the rigorist and exclusivist view of the Qumran sectarians.

Although the Dead Sea Scrolls don’t tell us anything directly about early Christianity, they do tell us a great deal about the world in which Christianity emerged.

Sidebar 1:

The Dead Sea and the Essenes

The Roman author Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) is one of several ancient writers who discussed the wonders of the Dead Sea and the Essenes who lived nearby.

[The Jordan River flows] towards that gloomy lake, the Dead Sea, which ultimately swallows it up, its much-praised waters mingling with the pestilential waters of the lake….

The only product of the Dead Sea is bitumen, the Greek word for which gives it its Greek name, Asphaltites. The bodies of animals do not sink in its waters, even bulls and camels floating; this has given rise to the report that nothing at all can sink in it. It is more than 100 miles long, and fully seventy-five miles broad at the broadest part but only six miles at the narrowest. On the east it is faced by Arabia of the Nomads….

On the west side of the Dead Sea, but out of range of the noxious exhalations of the coast, is the solitary tribe of the Essenes, which…has only palm-trees for company” (Natural History 5:15:71-73).

Sidebar 2:

How the Scrolls Are Organized

Scholars needed a way to keep track of the huge number of manuscripts and fragments, so they developed a numbering system.

A typical designation in this system is “4Q491.” The Q stands for Qumran, and the 4 that precedes it indicates that the text was discovered in Cave 4. The designation “4Q491” thus indicates manuscript 491 from Cave 4 at Qumran. Every text in the Dead Sea Scrolls has a designation like this, but they often have additional names based on their content.

For example, an important text at Qumran is known as “the War Scroll,” which describes an apocalyptic battle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. 4Q491 is a fragment of the War Scroll, but another, longer copy was found in Cave 1. That more complete copy is sometimes called 1QWarScroll.

Biblical manuscripts typically have content-based designations in addition to their numerical ones. For example, 4Q41 is also known as 4QDeutn because it is from a copy of Deuteronomy.

Sidebar 3:

Notable Scrolls

The Community Rule (1QS): A manual describing how the Qumran sect was to function, including information about initiation, communal meals, etc. It is the sect’s equivalent of a monastic rule like the Rule of St. Benedict.

The Temple Scroll (11QTempleScrolla): A work describing a version of the Jerusalem temple that was never built. Written in the form of a revelation from God to Moses, it describes the sect’s ideal temple and the ceremonies that should take place in it.

The Halakhic Letter (4QMMT): A letter written to the Jerusalem priests explaining the points of Jewish law that the Qumran sectarians felt separated them from the Sadducees and Pharisees.

The War Scroll (1QWarScroll): An apocalyptic prophecy of a battle between the “sons of light” (the Qumran sect) and the “sons of darkness” (everybody else, but led by the Romans). It includes the military tactics that the sons of light were expected to use.

The Copper Scroll (3Q15): Unique among the scrolls, it was inscribed on a roll made of copper and contains a list of locations where vast sums of gold and silver are said to be buried. None of the sites have ever been found, leading some to suggest it is a work of fiction. However, it seems unlikely anyone would take the trouble to inscribe a work of fiction on a difficult medium like copper. If real, the treasures are so vast they could have come only from the in the Jerusalem temple treasury and presumably were hidden to keep them safe from the Romans in the Jewish War of A.D. 66-73.


You can read more about the Dead Sea Scrolls from Cale Clarke here, or listen to Dr. John Bergsma discuss them on Catholic Answers Live here.

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