The Dead Sea Scrolls are more than just ancient manuscripts discovered in the Qumran Caves; they represent a unique narrative that extends beyond their discovery in the mid-20th century. Their journey is not just a physical one, but also an intellectual and cultural voyage marked by scholarly research and debates over ownership.
Uncover the layers of history, knowledge, and controversy the Dead Sea Scrolls have accumulated over the decades.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of ancient Jewish religious manuscripts. These scrolls hold significant religious, historical, and linguistic importance.
Qumran Cave where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in Israel (Credit: Sopotnicki/Shutterstock)
In 1947, teenage Bedouin shepherds found jars in a cave on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. Seven scrolls were inside the jars, including the Isaiah scroll, which was 24 feet long. Written in Hebrew, it told the entire Book of Isaiah, and it was the only scroll that was fully preserved.
The Dead Sea Scrolls date back to the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE, which made it the oldest known copy of the Book of Isaiah. Most of the documents were created between 150 B.C. and A.D. 70.
There are close to 1,000 dead sea scrolls. In their first trip, they found fragments for another 70 documents, as well as small artifacts related to ancient life, such as pottery shards and linen scraps. These scrolls, however, didn’t initially interest buyers when the shepherd brought them to Jerusalem and looked for a buyer.
But in just a few years, scientists and scholars realized the immense value of these ancient texts and they returned to the caves in the late 1940s and early 1950s to collect as many artifacts as possible. Over time, they excavated other caves in the area and found between 800 and 900 manuscripts. The majority were written on parchment but some were on papyrus.
The seven scrolls were the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls and also included a type of rule book for the community that scholars initially referred to as “The Manual of Discipline” (Serek ha-Yahad). There was also a commentary (pesharim commentaries) on the biblical book of the prophet Habakkuk.
The Scrolls include books from the Hebrew Bible, apocryphal texts, and sectarian manuscripts. About two dozen books of the Bible, including Isaiah, were seen in the scrolls.
Scientists began to piece together and translate the scrolls like a jigsaw puzzle. The text was written primarily in ancient Hebrew, although a few were in Aramaic or Greek. The copies of texts from Hebrew scriptures were the largest portions of the content.
The scrolls gave historians great insight into the ancient forms of these languages, and they also changed the way scholars studied the Old Testament. For example, the scroll with the most complete version of the book of Psalms had about 40 psalms, including three that were previously unknown. One of these unknown psalms was a “plea for deliverance,” which made note of “evil incarnation.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls provide evidence of the diversity of religious thought in early Judaism and the Hebrew Bible’s text development. They revealed the psalms were once sequenced in a different order. This was interesting to scholars because the texts had long been so uniform, and seeing flexibility with the wording and organization was stunning.
Few people, however, were able to read and analyze the texts. The Dead Sea Scrolls were long hidden away until they were “liberated” in the 1990s.
In June 1954, The Wall Street Journal ran a classified advertisement in the “miscellaneous for sale section” for four Dead Sea Scrolls. The ad was a simple, two-sentence description that said the biblical manuscripts dated back to 200 B.C. The ad suggested, “this would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group.”
A banker bought the Dead Sea Scrolls for $250,000. But he didn’t keep them for himself. He was helping the son of an Israeli archeologist who died the previous year and wanted the scrolls to go to the Israeli Museum.
In 1965, After the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel took control of the scrolls at the Palestine Archeological Museum and transferred them to an Israeli antiquities government department. Many scholars and scientists were divided on who had the right to possess the documents, and collaboration came to a halt.
Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed in the Shrine of the Book, a part of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Only a few scholars were allowed access to the scrolls or even photographs of the texts. The original seven scrolls had been translated and shared, but the rest were restricted. Researchers wanted access, particularly to gain insight into these ancient peoples’ lives.
Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (Credit: Teo K/Shutterstock)
In 1991, a suburban library near Los Angeles announced they had 3,000 photograph negatives of the artifacts. They had enough of the academic hogging, and they were making photographs available for all to study.
Critics complained the photographs were stolen property, but the library forged ahead. Scholars around the world finally had access. Opportunities to study the scrolls increased as digitization became possible. Today, translations of the scrolls are now available in many languages, and a person no longer needs to know ancient Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic to read these aged texts.
Read More: Digitized Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls are believed to have been written by members of a Jewish sect, possibly the Essenes, who lived in the Qumran community near the site of the discovery.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the Qumran Caves, located on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea in what is now the West Bank.
Yes, the Dead Sea Scrolls are authentic ancient manuscripts, validated through extensive historical, linguistic, and material analyses.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, predating Jesus by at least a century, do not mention him or directly relate to his teachings.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were likely hidden in the caves to protect them from the political turmoil and destruction that occurred around the 1st century CE.
A Bedouin shepherd found the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls accidentally in a cave near Qumran in 1947.
The Dead Sea Scrolls contain portions of every book of the Hebrew Bible (except the Book of Esther), along with apocryphal and sectarian texts unique to the Qumran community.
While some of the texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls are versions of books found in the Hebrew Bible, the Scrolls themselves are not a part of the modern Bible but provide valuable context and historical insight.
Read More: Eight Ancient Languages Still Spoken Today
This article was originally published on Sept. 28, 2022 and has since been updated by the Discover staff.