The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls are some 900 fragmented and complete documents recovered from eleven caves located off the western shore of the Dead Sea in Israel. Some of these caves are natural openings in the rugged limestone and dolomite cliffs; others were carved into the soft marl terrace. Written between 250 BCE and about 68-70 CE, the Dead Sea Scrolls are the earliest copies we have of many ancient Jewish manuscripts.

The Dead Sea ScrollsThe Dead Sea Scrolls were made from parchment (processed animal hide), although some are of papyrus reed paper and one, known as the Copper Scroll, is of thin sheets of bronze. They are written in Hebrew, for the most part, with about 20 percent in Aramaic (an ancient semitic language spoken by Jews beginning about 900 BCE) and a few in Greek. The alphabets used on the scrolls are mostly Aramaic script, an alphabet adopted by the Jews after the fall of the Kingdom of Judea, about 586 BCE.

Discovery and Publication

In the mid 1940s, bedouins discovered a cache of scrolls stored in a large cylindrical jar in what was to be later named Cave 1, located about a half mile from the site of Qumran. Additional caves were identified throughout the 1950s, with the last cave (Cave 11) discovered in 1956. Scrolls which had been stored in jars within the caves are in the best shape; others were apparently stored on wooden shelves and have been badly fragmented since placed in the caves nearly 2000 years ago.

The piecing together and preservation of the fragments was a long process, hampered by political situations in the world and by competing interests in the scholarly and secular world. One often-cited reason for the delay is the size of the initial team; only nine scholars were allowed access to the materials for the first 40 years of the study. Published in 2001, the completed Discoveries in the Judean Desert includes 52 volumes, covering 1500 manuscripts. These include all 900 of the Qumran scrolls, as well as others recovered from the sites of Wadi Murabba’at and Najal Hever. Indeed, many of these documents are today available for viewing on the Internet.

Contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Since their discovery, all of the texts have been translated. The texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls include 23 of the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible (the Protestant Old Testament)–Esther is missing. Eight or more copies of several books of the old testament were found, including the Pentateuch, Isaiah, Twelve Prophets, Psalms, and Daniel. The scrolls also include what scholars refer to as sectarian literature–papers that describe the rules, beliefs and practices of the sect which had stored the scrolls, and commentaries on biblical books.

Finally, there are manuscripts that are part of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. The Apocyrpha includes those books which are collected in the Catholic Old Testament (called the Deuterocanonicals) but omitted from the Protestant Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible). Pseudepigrapha are books that were collected in neither version of the Old Testament, but are Jewish religious texts dated from the first centuries BCE and CE.

The Library of Qumran

The Dead Sea Scrolls are sometimes known as the Library of Qumran or the Qumran Scrolls, because other scroll deposits have been found in the Dead Sea region, such as the Bar Kokhba documents from Wadi Muraba’at. Qumran is the name of the archaeological site located nearest the caves, and in fact is 500 meters from Cave 4, where over 500 documents were discovered. An ongoing scholarly debate concerns Qumran, as to its association with the scrolls and whether its ruins represent a sectarian settlement where the authors of the scrolls resided, or alternatively a Roman villa, a fortress, and even a pottery factory.

Primary Resources on the Web

For More Information

Herron, Ellen Middlebrook. 2003. The Dead Sea Scrolls: Catalog of the Exhibition of Scrolls and Artifacts from the Collections of the Israel Antiquities Authority, at the Public Museum of Grand Rapids. Public Museum of Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Larson, Erik W. 2000 Are the Dead Sea Scrolls Christian? Near Eastern Archaeology 63(3):168-171.

Magness, Jodi. 2002. The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Shanks, Hershel and John Strugnell. 1994. An Interview with John Strugnell: Ousted chief scroll editor makes his case and Yigael Yadin: “Hoarder and Monopolist”. Biblical Archaeology Review( July/August):40-53, 57.

Shanks, Hershel and Yuval Peleg. 2006. Qumran–the Pottery Factory. Biblical Archaeology Review 32(5): 26-32.

Vermes, Geza. 1999. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. Penguin, London.


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