How the Dead Sea Scrolls Work

Part of the Isaiah Scroll is seen inside the vault of the Shrine of the Book building at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

September, year 70 of the Common Era. The Roman general Titus has been laying siege to the city of Jerusalem for months. His forces have already breached the two outer walls and they're steadily working away at the third — and thickest — one with massive battering rams. Inside the city, the situation has grown desperate. An extremist faction of rebels has burnt all the food supplies in a misguided effort to force the city to fight the Roman troops; even if the third wall holds, the people of Jerusalem will starve to death. But the wall doesn't hold and in the closing days of the month, the Roman forces sack the city and, infamously, burn the great temple to the ground.

The destruction of the Temple sounds the death knell of the Jewish revolt against Roman rule. In the months that follow, Roman troops brutally quell the uprising throughout the territory, executing, exiling or enslaving the Jews. This will be remembered as one of the most significant periods in the creation of the Jewish migration.

East of Jerusalem lies the remarkable geography surrounding the lowest place on Earth, the famed Dead Sea. There, the land plummets 1,412 feet (430 meters) below sea level [source: Pletcher]. Near its shores in an area now called Qumran, was a settlement populated by a community of Jewish sectarians — possibly the Essenes.

If such a community did exist here, its people might have found peace in isolation to pursue the tenets of their faith and keep extensive written records of their world, their beliefs and their traditions. But they could not have remained completely removed from the cataclysmic events to the east. Soon enough, Roman troops came marching, and suppressing in their direction. Those who fled before the advance of the imperial soldiers stowed their documents and treasures deep in remote caves and ran. Today we know these documents to be the Dead Sea Scrolls.