Beginning in 1947 in the area west of the Dead Sea, which borders the countries of Israel and Jordan, a number of caves were discovered that had preserved a collection of ancient Jewish manuscripts for roughly two thousand years. Near these caves, the ruins of the ancient community known as Qumran were also uncovered.
For the past five decades, scholars, historians, and believers all over the world have been fascinated by the treasure trove of artifacts dated back to the intertestamental period that were discovered in this series of caves.
Who were the people that lived in the community of Qumran? What manuscripts were discovered hidden in the caves? And what importance do these documents carry for today’s Christians?
Finding the Scrolls
The first scrolls were found in a cave near the Dead Sea, south of Jericho, by members of the Ta’amireh Bedouin tribe, at some point in late 1946 or early 1947. During that time, political upheaval made it difficult for scholars to access the ancient documents. At the time, Palestine was under British mandate. When the mandate ended, Palestine was split into two countries, Israel and Jordan, with both entities claiming jurisdiction over the Scrolls.
Additionally, some of the Scrolls were sold into private libraries before being acquired by academic scholars. This further delayed scholarly study. Between 1951 and 1956, hundreds more documents and fragments were found scattered in a total of eleven caves in the desert.
Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?
The community of people that lived at the Qumran site is shrouded in mystery. Many scholars believe that there are indications that the Essenes were the founders of the Qumran community. The Essenes were an important Jewish sect that thrived during the intertestamental period of the late second century B.C. to the late first century A.D.
The ancient sources that mention the Essenes do not provide any insight as to the group’s beliefs and practices before the time of Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.). Additionally, there is no definitive proof that the Essene sect of Judaism is responsible for the community at Qumran, although it is generally accepted that many of the Jews living at Qumran belonged to the Essene community.
Ancient historians such as Josephus, Pliny, and Philo agree that the main characteristics of the Qumran community were asceticism, communal life, and celibacy. The manuscripts that are part of the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal that the community at Qumran was highly concerned with ritual purity and preserving the Jewish covenant way of life against the influence of Hellenism.
The Qumran community believed they were the godly remnant and that the priests of the Second Temple and their practices were a corrupt representation of God’s will. They were led by the “Teacher of Righteousness” into the wilderness to await a new epoch in the coming kingdom of God.
The monastic style community at Qumran was dispersed by the Roman response to the Jewish revolt. Israel was suppressed, Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed, and many Jews carried off into captivity between A.D. 66-70. The Qumran community was then abandoned.
What Was in the Scrolls?
Many scholars agree that the scrolls found in the desert were not originally a single library or collection. It is believed that several communities within Judaism used the caves to hide their manuscripts in an attempt to preserve their sacred writings from the Roman incursion. The designation of “Dead Sea Scrolls” was applied by scholars after their discovery. The scrolls are a mixture of biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian documents.
Within Cave 1, seven ancient manuscripts were found in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic. The Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) is one of the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in Cave 1 in Qumran in 1947. It is the largest (734 cm) and best preserved of all the biblical scrolls, and the only one that is almost complete. Scholars believe that the Isaiah Scroll was written as early as 100 BC, making it one of the oldest Hebrew scrolls preserved. A copy of the Isaiah Scroll can be viewed at the Shrine of the Book in Israel. Digital copies of the scrolls can be viewed online.
In addition to the Great Isaiah Scroll, an incomplete Isaiah scroll, Scrolls of Hymns, War of the Sons of Light, and a commentary on Habakkuk were found in Cave 1. The Manual of Discipline is also known as the Community Rule, shedding light on the rules of living and the ascetic lifestyle of the members of the Essene community living at the time in Qumran.
Between 1951-1956, ten more caves were found to contain ancient manuscripts and fragments. Caves 4 and 11 contained the largest number and most significant manuscripts. The Temple Scroll (11Q19) was found in Cave 11, several miles north of Khirbet Qumran in 1956. The scroll is written on thin parchment in Herodian script common in the Second Temple period. The Temple Scroll appears to be instructions to rebuild and operate the Temple, mixed with new versions of Mosaic laws as found in Deuteronomy. A little over 8 meters, the Temple Scroll is the longest of all of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
What Do the Dead Sea Scrolls Mean to Modern Christians?
The scrolls are important in helping modern scholars to understand the earliest Christians and the writings that became the New Testament. While the Dead Sea Scrolls do not bear witness to the life and ministry of Jesus, they do provide valuable insight into the Judaic way of life during the first century. This is important to understanding the origins of Christianity. Jesus and all of his disciples lived, worshipped, and ministered in Jewish communities and were descendants of the Abrahamic covenant.
The discovery of the scrolls provides significant insights into biblical studies in several ways. The scrolls illuminate ancient writing practices and the manner of making scrolls and books just before and during the time of Christ. Additionally, the scrolls provide insight into textual criticism of the Old Testament, linguistic studies in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic, the study of the sects of ancient Judaism – most notably the Essenes – and the study of first-century doctrines and religious ideology. The Scrolls provide extra-biblical witness to the intertestamental period that exists between the writings of Malachi at the end of the Old Testament and the Gospels at the beginning of the New Testament.
An Important Snapshot
The Dead Sea Scrolls have been described as one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century. While the scrolls do not mention the life of Jesus or the origins of Christianity, they teach us a great deal about the beliefs and culture in which Christianity began. The scrolls document the lives of a community that sought to preserve the purity of the Jewish life against the influences of pagan cultures.
The community at Qumran demonstrated the vital importance of the Holy Scriptures. The community’s efforts to preserve their sacred writings from destruction have provided modern scholars a glimpse into the life and culture into which the Messiah entered the world.
“Dead Sea Scrolls” by F.F. Bruce and J.J. Scott Jr. in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker Book House Company, 2001.
The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English by Geza Vermes, Penguin Book Publishing, 1987.
The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography by John J. Collins, Princeton University Press, 2013.
Ancient Texts for New Testament Study by Craig A. Evans, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Author T.A. Boland holds a BA in Biblical Studies and is working to complete MA in Biblical Exposition.