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The discovery, origins and importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls



Much has been written concerning the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century in both the academic world and the popular press. The scrolls can be viewed at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, courses can be undertaken on the subject at some universities and they are relevant to faith communities, historians and others intrigued by the story behind the discovery. Whilst by no means and in no way affecting the integrity of the original scrolls which have been carefully preserved, the embarrassing realisation of recent fake scrolls fragments showcased in the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. has reignited interest.

The discovery

The initial stumbling across the first scrolls and how they became accessible to the mainstream public, contains an air of archaeological romanticism. It is remarkable that in 1947 a Bedouin shepherd teenager “Muhammed the Wolf” went in search of a stray goat which he supposed had wandered into a cave and that he cunningly threw a stone into the cave to scare it out when he heard the sound of broken pottery.

An examination of primary sources is revealing. In the autobiography of Athanasius Yeshue Samuel who purchased the initial first four scrolls, the foreword uncovers that ‘He was a poor farm boy fleeing for his life from Turkish persecutors of the Syrian Christians during World War I, and he was left sick and exhausted at a Syrian roadside to die. Yet the hand of Providence spared his life and provided for his education and spiritual training, until in 1946 he became the Metropolitan (or Archbishop) of the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese of Jerusalem.’[i]

Not only was it seemingly incredulous that the scrolls had been preserved, found and passed on to the Archbishop. His Hebrew was incredibly limited, and it wasn’t until he had the scrolls inspected by several experts that the realisation of what they contained, and their significance dawned upon him. On May 15th, 1948, (interestingly the day after Israel was re-established as a nation) William F Albright of the American School of Oriental Research at Jerusalem congratulated Athanasius with a letter “My heartiest congratulations on the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times!’[ii]

The Origins

If we consider the scrolls in their wider historic context it would be more accurate to state that they have been rediscovered. Origen (AD 185-284) mentioned that when he wrote his edition of the Old Testament he made use of a scroll from a text from a jar from a cave near Jericho and similarly Eusebius (AD 260-340) recalls the discovery of a Psalms scroll and other Hebrew and Greek manuscripts in a jar near Jericho during the reign of Emperor Caracalla.[iii]

Almost reminiscent of the initial 1947 discovery by Muhammed the wolf, Timothy I of Seleucia again wrote about ‘books’ discovered in a rock dwelling near Jericho and that an Arab hunter, found and took the books to Jerusalem, informed the Jewish folk concerning them and subsequently they found many books of the Old Testament and other writings in the Hebrew language.[iv]

Though various suggestions have been put forward concerning the identity of the community who authored the manuscripts, generally speaking most scholars attribute the original possession of the scrolls to the Essence community. Josephus helpfully offers some insight concerning their lifestyle.

‘The doctrine of the Essenes is this: That all things are best ascribed to God. They teach the immortality of souls, and esteem that the rewards of righteousness are to be earnestly striven for; and when they send what they have dedicated to God in the temple, they do not offer sacrifices because they have more pure offerings of their own; on which account they are excluded from the common court of the temple, but offer their sacrifices themselves.’[v]

Philo of Alexandria also writes, ‘These men in the first place, live in villages, avoiding all cities on account of the habitual lawlessness of those who inhabit them, well knowing that such a moral disease is contracted from associations with wicked men, just as a real disease might be from an impure atmosphere, and this would stamp an incurable evil on their souls.’[vi]

The content of the scrolls

The scrolls were hidden in 11 caves prior to the destruction of the site by the Romans in 68AD. Both the climate and location were perfect for storing such valuable documents. Fragments of every book of the Old Testament were discovered other than Esther and the whole of Isaiah was preserved. Most of the scrolls were written in Hebrew, 15% were in Aramaic and the rest in Greek.[vii]

In addition to portions from the Old Testament, there are commentaries on books of the Bible plus rules for religious purity and community life, texts relating to eschatology and records relating to daily life such as marriage contracts and deeds of sale.[viii]Cave 4 provided roughly 15, 000 fragments from 600 manuscripts and cave 7 was unique since it yielded fragments of 19 texts in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written.[ix]

The importance of the scrolls

Firstly, prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls the oldest known Hebrew text was the Masoretic text. Not only is the the dead sea scrolls an ancient collection demolishing the hypothesis that the Bible we have today is a product of ‘Chinese whispers’; but the similarity between the texts is remarkable considering the Qumran scrolls are over a thousand years older than previously identified biblical manuscripts.[x]

Secondly the scrolls play an important part in helping us to understand the Second Temple Period and the various Jewish groups represented at the time of Jesus. We knew about the Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots and most importantly about Jesus, His Jewish context and Jewish Messianic expectation. Nonetheless the Essenes were an important Jewish sect and focussed on holiness, separation from others and keenly anticipated the arrival of Messiah.

Thirdly, these texts are accessible and the Dead Sea Scrolls Bible sheds light on particular texts. For example in Psalm 22 which foretells so clearly of the suffering and crucifixion of the Lord Jesus, the Dead Sea Scrolls in Psalm 22:16 agrees with the translation of a particular verb by the Septuagint “They have pierced my hands and feet” as opposed to the Masoretic text “Like a lion are my hands and feet”.[xi] Nonetheless, when the Septuagint and Masoretic texts are considered within the context of Psalm 22 and considered alongside related scriptures as Isaiah 53:5 and Zechariah 12:10, they unequivocally point towards Jesus our Messiah having His hands and feet subjected to intense pain, though the dead scrolls bring even further clarity.

The implications

In a postmodern world which is suspicious of grand metanarratives, absolute truth or an omnipotent, omniscient, authoritative and omnipresent God, once again biblical archaeology points us to the book of the Lord and the Lord of the book. It equips believers with a still stronger apologetic and also silences the liberals and the higher critics who spend innumerable hours in their ivory towers trying to undermine the truth when they are confronted with it.

[i] Athanasius Yeshue Samuel Treasure of Qumran My history of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Hodder & Stoughton, London; 1968), p9 [ii] Ibid, p10 [iii] Joel Willits Essential Bible Reference The Dead Sea Scrolls How they were discovered and what they mean (Candle Books, Year of publication and location not given), p6 [iv] Ibid, 6 [v] The New Complete Works of Josephus Translated by William Whiston Commentary by Paul Maier (Kregel, Grand Rapids; 1999), Jewish Antiquities Book 18:18-19 [vi] The Works of Philo Complete and Unabridged Version Translated by C.D. Yonge & Foreword by David. M. Scholer (Hendrickson; USA; 2013), Every Good Man is Free XII (75) [vii] https://www.deadseascrolls.org.il/learn-about-the-scrolls/introduction [viii] J Randall Price The Dead Sea Scrolls (Rose Publishing, California; 2005), Dead Sea Scrolls Pamphlet [ix] Ibid, [x] https://www.deadseascrolls.org.il/learn-about-the-scrolls/introduction [xi] The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible Translated and with commentary by Martin Abegg Jr., Peter Flint & Eugene Ulrich (Harper, New York; 1999), p518-519 see commentary note

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