How the Dead Sea Scrolls Work

Introduction to 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.

Discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls

Discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls
The cave area near the ancient Qumran settlement where the first Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947. DeAgostini/Getty Images

For nearly 2,000 years the scrolls sat in the dark, in the dry depths of those remote caves in the Judean Desert. Outside in the sun, little changed. Down near the shores of the Dead Sea, small communities and ports thrived or fell into disuse. In the distance, the Roman Empire rose and fell, and the ancient city of Byzantium had its day. Christianity grew from an obscure mystery cult into a vast cultural force, and the armies of Europe conquered Jerusalem, lost it, reconquered it and lost it again, while Islam spread from Arabia to all points of the compass.

Across the world, history continued to unfold, but a time-lapse film of the landscape outside those caves would have recorded little beyond some scrubby bushes and grasses growing and dying and the occasional goat wandering by.

Roughly 1,877 years after the scrolls were hidden, it was, in fact, one of these wandering goats that caused their rediscovery. Two Bedouin shepherds were hunting for one of their missing animals near an outcrop overlooking the Dead Sea when they happened upon an opening in the rock face. The shepherds threw a couple of stones in to make sure nothing dangerous lurked inside. To their astonishment, they heard shattering crockery. When they crawled in to investigate, they discovered they'd broken an ancient clay pot, revealing scraps of crumbling leather covered in strange writing. And there were more pots, containing still more scrolls.

The shepherds, Jum'a and Muhammed ed-Dib, bundled the scrolls up and went back to their herd. In the following weeks, they toted the scrolls around, showing them to friends and family and finally made the decision to head for Bethlehem, the nearest commercial center, to see if there was any money to be made. There, they connected with an antiquities dealer named Feidi Salahi. Salahi wasn't sure what he was looking at — the script was unfamiliar — but he had a hunch the scrolls were important. He communicated with an Armenian dealer who, in turn, got in touch with a friend of his, a professor of archaeology named Eleazar Lipa Sukenik.

Sukenik was intrigued, but he had a problem. In 1947, the territory now known as Israel was in turmoil. The city of Jerusalem itself was divided into zones with checkpoints and wire fences. Sukenik went to meet his Armenian friend but neither of them had the right paperwork to cross the necessary checkpoint, so they had to talk through the fence. The Armenian pressed an ancient scrap of script-covered leather to the wire and Sukenik peered at it — it looked strangely familiar, but even he, fluent in Hebrew, couldn't read it. Perhaps it was a forgery, or maybe it was older than any text he'd yet seen. Sukenik was beside himself with excitement — this could be a major find. But to see more scrolls, he had to get himself to Bethlehem, a town smack in the middle of the Palestinian territory. For a Jew to travel there in 1948 was to risk his life [source: Yadin].

The Dead Sea Scrolls and Israel

The Dead Sea Scrolls and Israel
Archaeologist Yigael Yadin (left) and Israeli professor James Biberkraut study samples from the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1965. Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

Eleazar Sukenik's eldest son, Yigael Yadin, was an important figure in the Israeli Defense Force and eventually went on to win the Israel Prize in Jewish studies for his doctoral thesis on the translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. When Sukenik consulted Yadin about traveling to Bethlehem, his son strongly advised against it. Later, when the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls had been established, Yadin admitted that it was a good thing his father ignored his advice.

Sukenik got his paperwork in order and made his way to Bethlehem. There, following local traditions, he mastered his impatience and made pleasant small talk with Feidi Salahi, the antiquities dealer. At last, Feidi brought out the scrolls and showed them to Sukenik. Although he couldn't yet decipher the text, the archaeologist was almost certain that he was looking at extremely ancient Hebrew writing, possibly the oldest yet found. He convinced Salahi to let him take the scrolls back to Jerusalem for a closer look.

Sukenik was at home poring over the ancient writing on the evening of Nov. 29, 1947 while his son was tuning the radio to catch a report on the results of a United Nations vote. It was after midnight and Sukenik was still bent over the scrolls, becoming more and more convinced that he was looking at something of incredible historic importance, when his son came racing into his room shouting that the United Nations Assembly had passed Resolution 181, effectively recognizing the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

The Palestinians who comprised the majority population in the region did not agree with the resolution and, in fact, its passage triggered a bitter civil war. But forever afterward, Sukenik would recall the remarkable coincidence that he was rediscovering written artefacts dating back to the destruction of Israel at the precise moment of its re-creation [source: Yadin].

Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?
A 2,000-year-old fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls is seen on display at The Jewish Museum in New York City in the 2008 exhibit "The Dead Sea Scrolls: Mysteries of the Ancient World." Chris Hondros/Getty Images

In the decades that followed the initial 1947 discovery, Bedouins and archaeologists discovered more caves in the Qumran area, and many more scrolls hidden inside them. The bulk of the texts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls come from 11 caves and comprise one of the most significant collections of early writings on religion ever discovered. Most of the more than 900 texts are written in ancient Hebrew, and are only fragments, but some are composed in an even older version of the language known as "paleo-Hebrew."

Many of them correspond to the known biblical texts, however, they are a full 1,000 years older than any other biblical texts in existence. There are other religious writings, including copies of the Scriptures, and other non-canonical books and holy writings produced by the writers.

But who wrote them? This question remains so contentious that recently the son of one well-known scholar was arrested for using internet aliases to harass his father's rivals online [source: Leland]. Consult five different researchers and you'll turn up five different theories about the origins of the scrolls. The problem is that the evidence on the ground is so inconclusive that people can see what they want to see.

The early scholarly consensus was that most of the Qumran texts were probably generated by the Essenes, one of the three main Jewish sects then in existence. That idea has been challenged in recent times, however for several reasons.

First, most of the texts predate Qumran by a full century. And as noted earlier, others claim there's no link at all between the community and the scrolls. The texts were hidden, they say, by refugees fleeing Jerusalem during a century of ferment. Still others say the Qumran was not a religious community at all, but perhaps a perfume factory, or ceramics workshop, or fortress or, according to one estimation — the estate of a wealthy Judean.

More recently, scholars have concluded that, while the community referred to in the scrolls might have been related to the Essenes, it was probably more than one group. Like the Essenes, the community mentioned in the scrolls seems to have placed a great deal of emphasis on communal living and on purity, involving, for instance, ritual bathing.

While much of the writing lays out the specific practices and rules of communal living, there are also many other intriguing texts. Scholars have particularly prized documents hidden by members of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, another rebellion against Roman rule that erupted in the 2nd century C.E. In fact, many of the letters found in another set of caves nearby were written by members of the administration of the rebellion's leader, Shim'on Kosiba.

Yet another group of writings found in the Qumran area in the years following the initial scroll discovery, belongs to the corpus of work known as the Apocrypha. These include texts that are not part of the Hebrew or the Protestant bibles, but are actually elements of both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian canons. The presence of these texts led some to speculate that some of the scrolls were generated byan early Christian community, but there is no clear evidence that this is true.

Some still believe that the scrolls are the work of Essene religious community, but most scholars now agree that the collection represents other communities rather than just the Essenes [source: Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Library].

The Significance and Future of the Scrolls

The Significance and Future of the Scrolls
Shai Halevi, the photographer responsible for processing of thousands of fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls, stands next to a special camera at the Dead Sea Scrolls digital laboratory at the Israeli Antiquities Authorities in Jerusalem. GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps future archaeological finds will illuminate the obscure source of the scrolls, or perhaps the identities of the people who inscribed them will remain forever lost to us. In the meantime, the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls remains multifaceted. Finding the ancient scrolls on the eve of Israel's re-founding was itself considered enormously meaningful. And although the initial belief that the texts revealed important details about the Essenes has since been questioned, the contents of the scrolls still have much to tell us.

The existence of the Apocrypha, for instance, reminds us that the Bible, in addition to being a book of vast religious import, is also an historical document that evolved over time. In fact, because many of the scrolls are actually ancient biblical texts, scholars have been able to refer to them to resolve controversies over the "authoritative" version of certain biblical passages.

For Christians, the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal the degree to which the tenets that underpin their faith were not brand new revelations at the time of Christ, but were actually deeply rooted in certain Judaic practices. In other words, the ideas preserved in many of the scrolls closely parallel the ideas attributed to Jesus, demonstrating clearly that he was not only born a Jew, but lived his life and practiced as a Jew of his time. In part, we can say that because the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown us that being a Jew 2,000 years ago didn't mean any one thing. Judaism, it's now clear, was incredibly diverse, an historical fact that was largely unknown before the discovery at Qumran in 1947 [source: Shanks].

One thing is clear, the more we look at the Dead Sea Scrolls, the more they reveal. No doubt, as scholars pore over the documents, more discoveries will reveal themselves. Fortunately, this is even more likely due to a bold project spearheaded by the Israel Antiquities Authority — the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library. This project aims to digitize the entire collection of 930 manuscripts and upload them to the internet for global access. Currently the scrolls are carefully archived in climate controlled vaults in Jerusalem. Digitizing them will not only increase the availability of the texts, but also help preserve them by allowing scholars to examine the scrolls without actually handling them.

The digitization process uses extremely high-resolution imaging technology and the library intends to provide metadata that will include translations, transcriptions and bibliographies [source: Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library]. It seems highly likely that such a project will lead to a further revolution in our understanding of these endlessly fascinating documents.

Author's Note: How the Dead Sea Scrolls Work

It took two archaeological digs when I was in high school to end my longstanding ambition to become Indiana Jones. Using a miniscule trowel to painstakingly work away at packed clay and mud in a small grid bore little resemblance to the swashbuckling feats of Professor Jones. But researching the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their discovery reminded me that finding history can still have its thrilling moments.

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More Great Links


  • BBC News. "New Dead Sea Scrolls cave discovered." Feb. 9, 2017. (April 14, 2017)
  • Elazar, Daniel. "The Jewish People as the Classic Diaspora: A Political Analysis." Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. (April 11, 2017)
  • Green, David B. "This Day in Jewish History// 70 C.E.: The Roman Siege of Jerusalem Ends." Haaretz. June 9, 2012. (April 11, 2017)
  • Lawler, Andrew. "Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scroll?" Smithsonian. Jan. 2010. (April 14, 2017)
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