Dead Sea scrolls

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Religious texts

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 comprise roughly 825-872 documents, including texts from the Hebrew Bible, discovered between 1947 and 1956 in eleven caves in and around the Wadi Qumran (near the ruins of the ancient settlement of Khirbet Qumran, on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea). The texts are of great religious and historical significance, as they are practically the only known surviving Biblical documents written before AD 100.

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– 61 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. 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.

About 80% to 85% of the Dead Sea Scrolls are written in one of three dialects of Hebrew, Biblical Hebrew (also known as Classical Hebrew), " Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew" (on which see Hoffman 2004 or Qimron 1986), or proto-Tannaitic Hebrew, as in the Copper Scroll and the MMT text. Biblical Hebrew dominates in the Biblical scrolls, and DSS Hebrew in scrolls which some scholars believe were composed at Qumran. Also some scrolls are written in Aramaic and a few in Koine Greek.

For the view that the scrolls are the remnants of Jerusalem libraries and that there is no organic connection between the scrolls and Qumran, see below, section 2.3. Even according to those scholars who believe that there was scribal activity at Qumran, only a few of the biblical scrolls were actually composed there, the majority being copied before the Qumran period and coming into the ownership of the claimed Qumran community (Abegg et al 2002). There is, however, no concrete physical evidence of scribal activity at Qumran, nor, a fortiori, that the claimed Qumran community altered the biblical texts to reflect their own theology (Golb, 1995; cf. Abegg et al 2002). It is thought that the claimed 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 nonbiblical 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 so-called Manual of Discipline (= Community Rule) (1QS/4QSa-j), which gives much information on the structure and theology of a sect; and the earliest version of the Damascus Document. The so-called Copper Scroll ( 1952), which lists valuable hidden caches of gold, scrolls, and weapons, is probably the most notorious.

The fragments span at least 801 texts that represent many diverse viewpoints, ranging from beliefs resembling those 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 Jewish sect, which some researchers continue to believe lived in the Qumran area. The rest (about 15%) of the fragments are yet unidentified.

Frequency of books found

Books Ranked According to Number of Manuscripts found (top 16)

Books No. found
Psalms 39
Deuteronomy 33
1 Enoch 25
Genesis 24
Isaiah 22
Jubilees 21
Exodus 18
Leviticus 17
Numbers 11
Minor Prophets 10
Daniel 8
Jeremiah 6
Ezekiel 6
Job 6
1 & 2 Samuel 4



According to a view almost universally held until the 1990s, the documents were written and hidden by a community of Essenes who were thought to have lived in the Qumran area. This is known as the Qumran-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. In view of rising opposition to this theory, it can no longer be stated with certitude that the opinion that the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls were Essenes is the most prevalent view among scholars (Golb 1995; Hirschfeld 2004; Magen and Peleg 2006; cf. Abegg et al 2002). Since the 1990s a version of this theory, which can also no longer be said to be prevalent among scholars, stresses that the authors of the scrolls were "Essene-Like" or a splinter Essene group rather than simply Essenes as such. This modification of the Essene theory takes into account some significant differences between the world view expressed in some of the scrolls and the Essenes, as described by the classical authors. Together, the two theories may be called the "Qumran-sectarian theory".


Theory of Sadduceean Origin

Another variation on the Qumran-sectarian theory, which has gained some 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 one or two purity laws identical to those attributed in rabbinic writings to the Sadducees (such as concerning the transfer of impurities). However many more purity laws differ. Any hard conclusions are hard to make on this fact. This document also reproduces a festival calendar which follows Sadducee principles for the dating of certain festival days.

Florentino Martinez in a 2000 article in Near Eastern Archaeology dates composition of the Temple Scroll to the times of Hasmonean power consolidation, long before the existence of the Essenes and states that this is only the date when it was reduced to writing; the notions it expresses must be older. Some theological issues make this unlikely. Josephus tells us in his Jewish War and in his Antiquities of the Jews that the Sadducees and the Essenes held opposing views of predestination, with the Essenes beliving in an immortal soul and attributing everything to fate, while the Sadducees denied both the existence of the soul and the role of fate altogether. The scroll authors' belief that the soul survived beyond death (and this belief included resurrection) and their complex world of angels and demons engaged in a cosmic war was contrary to the Sadduceean belief that there is no resurrection, no angel or spirit. For the Saducees every man had the right to choose between good and bad, and this life was it. For the Essenes, God ruled all and man lived for the next life that was soon to come. It is unlikely that one became the other. It seems this could make it unlikely that Sadducees and Essenes were too closely related.

Jerusalem libraries

In 1980 Norman Golb of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute published the first of a series of studies critical of the Qumran-sectarian theory, and offering historical and textual evidence that the scrolls are the remains of various libraries in Jerusalem, hidden in the Judaean desert during the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in 68-70 A.D. In broad terms, this evidence includes (1) the Copper Scroll found in Cave 3, which contains a list of treasures that, according to Golb and others, could only have originated in Jerusalem; (2) the great variety of conflicting ideas found among the scrolls; and (3) the fact that, apart from the Copper Scroll, they contain no original historical documents such as correspondence or contracts, but are all scribal copies of literary texts -- indicating that they are remnants of libraries and were not written at the site where they were found. Golb's theory has been endorsed by numerous scholars, including the prominent Israeli archaeologists Yizhar Hirschfeld,Yahman Jamaca, Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg. Hirschfeld believes that Qumran was the country estate of a wealthy Jerusalemite. Magen and Peleg believe that the site was a pottery factory and had nothing to do with any sect. Golb believes that it was a military fortress, part of a concentric series of such bastions protecting Jerusalem. Thus, while one can no longer speak of any consensus regarding Qumran, what can be said is that current scrolls scholarship appears to be polarized between the traditional Qumran-sectarian theory and a growing movement towards the view that the site was secular in nature and had no organic connection with the parchment fragments found in the caves (see below). The scrolls are increasingly held to have come from a major centre of intellectual culture in Palestine such as only Jerusalem is known to have been during the intertestamentary period. According to this theory, the scrolls are in fact more important than they were previously thought to be, because of the light they cast on Jewish thought in Jerusalem at that time.

Temple library

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 then thought to be supported by de Vaux's identification of a room within the ruins of Qumran as a probable scriptorium -- an identification that has since been disputed by various archaeologists). Rengstorf's theory is also rejected by Norman Golb, who argues that it is rendered unlikely by the great multiplicity of conflicting religious ideas found among the scrolls. It has been revived, however, by Rachel Elior, who heads the department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Christian connections

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 AD 30 and 60. Opponents consider that the fragment is tiny and requires so much reconstruction (the only complete word in Greek is "και" = "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.

Other theories

Because they are frequently described as important to the history of the Bible, the scrolls are surrounded by a wide range of conspiracy theories. 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).


The scrolls were found in 11 caves near a settlement at Qumran, none of them coming from the actual settlement. It is generally accepted that a Bedouin goat- or sheep-herder by the name of Mohammed Ahmed el-Hamed (nicknamed edh-Dhib, "the wolf") made the first discovery towards the beginning of 1947.

In the most commonly told story the shepherd threw a rock into a cave in an attempt to drive out a missing animal under his care. The shattering sound of pottery drew him into the cave, where he found several ancient jars containing scrolls wrapped in linen.

Dr. John C. Trevor has carried out a number of interviews with several men going by the name of Muhammed edh-Dhib, each relating a variation on this tale.

The scrolls were first brought to a Bethlehem antiquities dealer named Ibrahim 'Ijha, who returned them after being warned that they may have been stolen from a synagogue. The scrolls then fell into the hands of Khalil Eskander Shahin, "Kando", a cobbler and antiques dealer. By most accounts the Bedouin removed only three scrolls following their initial find and, either encouraged by Kando to return, or revisited the site to gather more. Alternatively, it is postulated that Kando engaged in his own illegal excavation: Kando himself possessed at least four scrolls.

Arrangements with Bedouin left the scrolls in the hands of a third party until a 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, more often referred to as Mar Samuel.

After examining the scrolls and suspecting their age, Mar Samuel expressed an interest in purchasing them. All four scrolls found their way into his hands, the now famous Isaiah Scroll, the Community Rule, the Habakkuk Peshar, and the Genesis Apocryphon. Through the antiquities market, more scrolls soon surfaced, and Eleazer Sukenik found himself in possession of three: The War Scroll, Thanksgiving Hymns, and another more fragmented Isaiah scroll.

By the end of 1947, Sukenik, received word of the scrolls in Mar Samuel's possession and attempted to purchase them. No deal was reached, and instead the scrolls found the attention of Dr. John C. Trevor, of the American School of Oriental Research (ASOR). Dr. Trevor compared the script in the scrolls to the Nash Papyrus, the oldest biblical manuscript at the time, finding similarities between the two.

Dr. Trevor, a keen amateur photographer, met with Mar Samuel on February 21, 1948, when he photographed the scrolls. The quality of his photographs often exceeded that of the scrolls themselves over the years, as the texts quickly eroded once removed from their linen wraps.

In March of that year, violence erupted between Arabs and Jews in Israel, prompting the removal of the scrolls from the country for safekeeping. The scrolls were illegally removed to Beirut.

Cave 1

In 1949, scholars pinpointed the cave from which the scrolls were lifted, following the initial discovery, two years previously. Excavations of the cave began in February, under the direction of G L Harding, Roland de Vaux, and Ibrahim El-Assouli, caretaker of the Rockefeller Museum. Many of the larger manuscripts and fragments had been removed by local Bedouin peoples, yet the excavation uncovered some 600 fragments, alongside scraps of wood, cloth and pottery fragments. Infrared photographs, later to provide a valuable means of reading the texts, were taken on-site. A sum of 1000 Jordanian pounds was negotiated with the Bedouin, working with Kando, in exchange for the remaining fragments, after it became apparent that the scrolls obtained by Sukenik and Mar Samuel were missing.

Cave 2

Three years later in 1952, the Bedouin, working with Kando, uncovered numerous fragments and sold them to the Palestine Archaeological Museum and the École Biblique.

Cave 3

On March 14 of the same year, the scholarly expedition discovered a third cave containing manuscript fragments. In addition to these fragments was the Copper Scroll, which aroused much speculation, comprising a list and directions to treasure sites.

Cave 4

In August 1952 the Bedouin made a find in Cave 4. Large volumes of scroll fragments (though no complete scrolls) soon surfaced on the antiquities market. When Harding discovered the site more than half of the cache had been gathered from the cave. The archaeological excavation began in late September of that year, yielding many more fragments from many more texts, as well as a second chamber to the cave.

One of the fragments from cave 4 is the only known witness to an additional part of the narrative in the Books of Samuel about Nahash, king of Ammon.

The financially struggling Jordanian government soon found itself unable to fund further purchases, and so instead offered the opportunity to foreign institutions to invest in the acquisition of the scrolls, for which they would be compensated with fragments. Several institutions responded, but were to be denied their purchase and refunded their money when the Jordanian government changed its position, instead keeping the texts in Jordan.

Caves 5 and 6

Excavations at Cave 4 soon led to the discovery of Cave 5, offering a modest yield of fragments. The Bedouin, shortly thereafter, found Cave 6, removing the remains of nearly three dozen more scrolls. 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 [sic], 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 7–10

In 1955 archaeologists would discover four more caves, 7 through 10. Yielding few fragments, they were nonetheless significant. Cave 7 would yield nineteen Greek fragments (including 7Q5) and spark much debate in the ensuing decades. Cave 8 held but five fragments, though many materials used in the tying of scrolls would be found. Cave 9 held but one fragment and Cave 10 nothing but an ostracon.

Cave 11

The Bedouin discovered Cave 11, yielding over two dozen texts, including the Temple Scroll, which would later be seized by the Israeli army at the behest of Yigael Yadin. Several other scrolls emerged from Cave 11, a copy of Leviticus, a book of Psalms, see also Psalm 152-155, including several previously unknown hymns, as well as a targum on Job. Many have speculated that more Cave 11 scrolls may rest in the hands of a private collector.


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 that 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, a large part of 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.

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.

However, the complete publication and dissemination of translations and photographic records of the works in the late 1990s and early 2000s effectively undermined these ideas, since the 'new' Scroll material did not include anything which connected the Scrolls to early Christianity and certainly did not contain anything about the Catholic Church or anything the church would want to 'suppress'. As a result, most scholars discredit this conspiracy theory.


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.

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