Among the most famous archaeological finds of the 20th century, the Dead Sea Scrolls include the better part of 1,000 ancient Jewish texts discovered in the Judaean Desert between 1947 and 1956. Bedouin shepherds unearthed the original clutch of Dead Sea Scrolls from the cliff-tucked Qumran Caves along the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea, close to the historic community of Qumran. (Additional artifacts discovered nearby in the Judaean are often lumped with the Dead Sea Scrolls, while the core of the collection is sometimes referred to as the Qumran Scrolls.)
The Dead Sea Scrolls hail from a remarkable period in Jewish history, spanning the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE. This falls within the Second Temple Period, which saw a number of different Jewish sects develop.
Among the Dead Sea Scrolls’ incomparable bounty are some of the oldest surviving copies of Hebrew scriptures as well as remarkable clues to the beliefs and daily customs of a Second Temple Period Jewish community. They also suggest the formative context for both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.
Where Did the Scrolls Come From?
The exact authorship of the Dead Sea Scrolls isn’t clear, although a dominant theory attributes the bulk of the material to the Essenes, a reclusive Jewish sect some scholars contend settled at Qumran. According to some lines of thinking, the Essenes broke from Jerusalem over matters of doctrine and worship, and retreated to remote refuges—such as the rugged shores of the Dead Sea—to cultivate a “purer” community. Given the breadth of the biblical and non-biblical materials included within the Qumran Caves, some believe a portion of the scrolls represent a library of the Essenes.
Other Dead Sea Scrolls authorities disagree with the Essenes theory—suggesting, for example, that a different sect occupied Qumran and compiled the scrolls, or that at least some of the documents may have been stashed in the caves by Jewish priests fleeing the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
Inside the Dead Sea Scrolls
What was in the Dead Sea Scrolls? Scholars often divide their components into three major categories. The biblical texts, some 230 of them, represent material from the Hebrew Bible. The Bible scrolls include full or partial copies of every book of the Hebrew Scriptures save for the Book of Esther, and while many of them correspond to the Masoretic Text—today the standard version of the Hebrew Bible, and probably enjoying that definitive status by the close of the Second Temple Period—there are some intriguing variations and discrepancies. Other texts are psuedepigraphical or apocryphal, including religious works such as the Book of Jubilees that aren’t canonical in the Hebrew Bible. Finally, a large share of the scrolls consists of sectariandocuments: biblical commentaries, liturgical writings, codes of custom, community rules, and the like.
Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls texts—including copies of the canonical books of the Hebrew Bible—are known from other records, while many of the sectarian writings are only known from this precious repository.
In short, the Qumran Scrolls encompass texts specific to a particular Jewish sect as well as copies of canonical and non-canonical religious writings. Their enormous value stems both from their picture of the diversity of Judaism as a whole during the Second Temple Period as well as the distinctive customs and beliefs of a strict, messianic sectarian community of that tumultuous and momentous era.
Language of the Dead Sea Scrolls
Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls (composed of parchment mostly, plus papyrus and copper) are written in Hebrew, but some are in Aramaic and Greek. The authors of the Hebrew texts primarily wrote in the familiar “Jewish” or “Asyrrian” script, but the ancient “paleo-Hebrew” handwriting as well as cryptographic styles are also represented.
The Aramaic scrolls showcase several dialects of that Semitic language of the Near East, including Standard Aramaic, Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, and Nabatean Aramaic. The Greek writing, meanwhile, is of the Koine dialect standard in Hellenistic-Roman times (and the language of the New Testament).
A Quick Peek at Some of the Best-Known Dead Sea Scrolls
Among the scrolls in the finest condition is also one of the largest: the Great Isaiah Scroll, one of a number of copies of the Book of Isaiah preserved in the Qumran Caves. The parchment scroll—the oldest complete copy of the book in known existence—spans some 24 feet and 54 columns of text. The Great Isaiah Scroll was among the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls uncovered in 1947 in Qumran Cave 1. As the Israel Museum notes in its Digital Dead Sea Scrolls database, the “authoritative and scriptural status of the Book of Isaiah is consistent with the messianic beliefs of the community living at Qumran,” as the text is known for its flavor of judgment and righteousness, and also includes an unmistakable pronouncement of monotheism on the part of Yahweh: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.”
Another impressively big manuscript from the Qumran Caves is the 27-foot Temple Scroll of Cave 11, notable for literally laying out—via a command of God to Moses—the blueprint for a proper Temple of Jerusalem.
Cave 1 also yielded the Community Rule (once called the “Manual of Discipline”), which offers fascinating insight into the devout, ascetic routines of the Qumran sectarians—perhaps the Essenes.
And then there’s the War Scroll, also known as “The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness.” This detailed, apocalyptically colored scroll describes a decades-long conflict between the “Sons of Light” (the Israelites, aided by the Archangel Michael) and the “Sons of Darkness,” an alliance of enemy nations that includes Edom, Ammon, Philistia, and the Kittim, whom some scholars interpret to be the Romans.
Visiting the Dead Sea
The Dead Sea Scrolls are an astonishing treasure-trove of theological and historical information: significant not only for understanding the history of Judaism and Christianity but also humanity in general’s quest for relating itself to the universe. Visiting the Dead Sea today gives you unforgettable context for appreciating these momentous archives.