The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of ancient
Jewish religious manuscripts, written mostly in
Hebrew on leather (parchment) or papyrus. They
were discovered in the 1940s and 1950s in caves at
various spots along the Dead Sea and the Jordan
River Valley. They include the earliest known texts
of the Hebrew BIBLE as well as other documents
that shed light on early Judaism and Christianity.
The scrolls rank among the most important literary
and religious discoveries of the 20th century.
The dramatic story of how they were found, the
controversies surrounding their eventual release to
the public, and their interpretation have only
added to their renown.
In the winter of 1946–47, a group of Beduin
shepherds were tending their flocks near the ancient
ruin of Qumran near the northern end of the
Dead Sea, in what was then the British Mandate of
Palestine. High up the cliffs they chanced on the
narrow opening of a cave. One of them managed
to pass inside, and he retrieved some moldy ancient
scrolls wrapped in cloth.
After some months, the scrolls were brought to
the attention of antique dealers and scholars. Further
explorations in the region eventually yielded
five major manuscript sites, including well over
one dozen separate caves. In all, more than 15,000
fragments were retrieved, which scholars have assembled
into some 800 discrete books, some with
Most of the manuscripts came into the possession
of a scholarly committee, which began analyzing
the material and publishing major documents.
The slow pace of publishing and the restricted access
to the fragments led to charges of a conspiracy
to withhold documents that might overturn traditional
views of early Christianity or Rabbinic Judaism.
However, when all the fragments were
released in the 1990s by the Israel Antiquities Authority,
which had inherited control during the Six-
Day War in 1967, no new surprises were uncovered.
After the original discoveries were made in the
caves near the Qumran ruins, archeologists spent
several years poring over the site on the theory that
the manuscripts found nearby were written or
owned by the original residents of the ruins.Most
scholars believe that the ruins, and thus the manuscripts,
belonged to the Essenes, an ascetic, messianic
sect of the Jews mentioned by Josephus and
other historians of the time. Many of the manuscripts
seem to reflect the beliefs and practices of a
tightly knit monastery or religious community.
These beliefs generally conform to what was previously
known about the Essenes.
Other scholars theorized that the Qumrun manuscripts,
whatever their date and origin, constituted
a “library” that was taken in its entirety from the
Temple and placed in the caves for safekeeping during
the first-century revolt against the Romans. Still
another theory emerged in which the caves’ residents
were said to be Sudducees, another Jewish faction.
Archeologists were eventually able to determine
dates for most of the manuscripts. Accurate radiocarbon
testing confirmed earlier guesses based on
analysis of the various Hebrew,Aramaic, and Greek
scripts used in the scrolls.Artifacts like pottery and
coins associated with some of the finds also helped
in pinpointing their period of origin—or at least
the time they were deposited in the caves.
The manuscripts were written from as early as
the third century B.C. up to the early second century
A.D., during the time of the Jewish rebellion
led by Bar Kochba against the Romans.Most of the
material dates to the first century B.C.
In terms of Christian history, this is the era that
precedes and frames the lifetime of Jesus. For Jews,
the same period saw the rise and fall of the last independent
Jewish dynasties, the Roman conquest,
and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It
was also the time when Rabbinic Judaism arose (so
called because rabbis took the place of the temple
priests in leading the people).
The documents that comprise the Dead Sea
Scrolls fall into three major categories: texts from
the Hebrew Bible; sectarian texts probably relating
to the Qumran community; and other material,
also for the most part of a religious nature.
Some 25 percent of the documents are biblical.
Apart from the Book of Esther, every single book
of the Hebrew Bible is represented, from a single
fragment in the case of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles
to a nearly complete book of Isaiah (also represented
by 20 partial copies). Thirty-seven partial
copies of Psalms were found at Qumran, as were
over 80 copies of the Books of Moses—including
one scroll with both Genesis and Exodus.
These Bible manuscripts are about 1,000 years
older than any previously known texts. In addition
to the standard books found in Jewish Bibles,
several of the apocryphal books found in some
Christian Bibles were also found. Taken together,
the findings shed dramatic light on the process by
which the Bible was standardized.
When scholars compared the various fragments
of biblical books from the Dead Sea hoards with
the earliest previously known Hebrew, Greek, and
Samaritan Bible manuscripts, several patterns appeared.
Perhaps most importantly, scholars found
that the later the fragment was in date, the closer it
resembled the standard Hebrew text. Fragments
from the Bar Kochba era (ca. A.D. 135) are virtually
identical to Bibles in print today. This gives
dramatic confirmation to extra-biblical evidence
in later Jewish works such as the TALMUD, which
seems to point to a similar date for the “canonization”
or standardization of the Bible.
The earlier scrolls and fragments show hundreds
of differences from the standard Bibles of
today, but most of these are minor variations that
do not affect the meaning of particular verses, let
alone the message of the books. These variations
include differences in spelling, the addition or
deletion of a word or short phrase, and obvious
Some texts showed more significant differences,
such as the addition of several previously unknown
psalms and the occasional insertion of explanatory
verses. Scholars have noticed three
different “textual families,” that is, groupings of
texts with similar variations. Some have made a
case that these families are those that gave birth to
the Septuagint (the Greek translation produced in
Egypt in the third century B.C.); the Hebrew text
in use today; and the Samaritan Bible, still used by
the tiny community of Samaritans in Israel. The
nonbiblical texts cover a large variety of genres,
including hymns, commentaries on biblical books,
so-called pseudepigraphic works (books supposedly
written by prominent biblical characters),
wisdom literature, and legal documents.
Many of these texts, including several large
scrolls, have been labeled “sectarian,” as they refer
to the beliefs and practices of the Qumran sect
(perhaps the Essenes). Some of the major sectarian
texts are (in the names scholars have given them)
The Rule of the Community (Manual of Discipline),
The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of
Darkness, and a commentary on the prophet
Habakkuk. The Temple scroll, which is largely devoted
to a plan for the construction of an ideal
Holy Temple, may be connected to the sect as well.
The Community Rule, which was found in one
fairly long scroll as well as fragments of about 10
other copies, is considered to be one of the oldest
documents of the sect, composed around 100 B.C.
Designed to be used by the Guardians or Masters
of the community, it contains instructions concerning
religious ceremonies and the holiday calendar,
rules for entering the community, and
guidance in disciplinary and penal matters.
The War scroll, found in seven copies, prophesizes
a 40-year struggle between the sons of light
and the sons of darkness, possibly including the entire
Gentile world. It goes into great detail about
battle plans, weapons, tactics, prayers, and personnel.
In the end, God’s intervention will ensure the
prearranged victory of the just. Scholars have found
correspondences between this scroll, composed in
the early or mid-first century B.C., and certain concepts
and language found in the New Testament.
The Habakkuk commentary gives some details
on the origins of the sect, perhaps as early as the
early second century B.C., during the struggles between
Jewish traditionalists and those who favored
assimilation into Hellenistic culture. It describes
the conflict between the Teacher of Righteousness
(perhaps the founder of the sect and probably a
temple priest of Jerusalem) and the corrupt
Wicked Priest (apparently a ruler of Israel who
persecuted the members of the sect).
The Copper scroll, so called because it is embossed
on copper foil, has also aroused great curiosity
and analysis. It describes 64 hiding places
for a huge quantity of silver, gold, and ritual objects.
Some scholars believe the scroll refers to the
treasure of the Temple in Jerusalem, either somehow
rescued from the destruction of A.D. 70, or
collected in the years thereafter in anticipation of
its ultimate reconstruction.
All of the scrolls and fragments are now in the
public domain and housed in the archaeology
wing of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, providing
sufficient material to keep scholars and historians
busy for years to come.
English Versions of the Dead Sea Scrolls
The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. Translated
by Geza Vermes. New York: Penguin, 1998.
The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible: The Oldest Known Bible
Translated for the First time into English. Edited by
Martin Abegg, Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich.
San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999.
Dead Sea Scrolls Reader: Exegetical Texts. Edited by
Donald W. Parry and Emanuel Tov.Herndon,Va.:
Brill Academic Publishers, 2004.
Works about the Dead Sea Scrolls
Alon, Hagit, et al. The Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Jewish Publication Society, 2004.
Palumbo, Arthur E., Jr. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the
Personages of Early Christianity. New York: Algora
Schiffman, Lawrence H. Reclaiming the Dead Sea
Scrolls: The History of Judaism, the Background of
Christianity, the Lost Library of Qumran. Philadelphia:
Jewish Publication Society, 1994.
Thiede, Carsten Peter. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the
Jewish Origins of Christianity. New York: Palgrave,
VanderKam, James C. and Peter Flinit. The Meaning
of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding
the Bible, Judaism, and Christianity.
San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002.
Yadin, Yigael. The Temple Scroll. New York: Random