The ancient manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls have been called by scholars "the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times." They include books of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) and non-biblical texts dating from 100 bc to ad 68.
They are not original manuscripts but copies made by scribes. They are a thousand years older than the oldest known Masoretic (traditional Hebrew) text of the Torah, which is the basis of the English translation of the Old Testament (see Bible).
The first scrolls were found in 1947 in a cave on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, in Jordan. They were found by a Bedouin shepherd whose account of the details of the discovery varied in later years. One version was that a runaway goat jumped into the cave. The shepherd threw in a stone and heard the sound of breaking pottery. He called another boy, and the two crawled into the cave. They saw several large pottery jars, most of them broken. Protruding from the necks of the jars were scrolls of leather wrapped in linen cloth. Although they were badly decomposed, it was possible to see that they were inscribed in a strange writing. There were seven scrolls.
Either the boys themselves or older members of their tribe sold the seven scrolls to two Bethlehem dealers in antiquities. Three scrolls were bought for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem by Eliezer L. Sukenik, a professor of archaeology. The other four were sold to the head (metropolitan) of the Syrian Orthodox Christian church, at the Monastery of St. Mark in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem.
The metropolitan took his scrolls to the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem for examination. Satisfied that they were genuine, the American School photographed them and announced the discovery to the world in April 1948.
The metropolitan then took his scrolls to the United States. In 1954 Professor Yigael Yadin, son of Sukenik, was lecturing in the United States on the three scrolls acquired by his father for the Hebrew University. By chance he learned that the metropolitan was advertising the other four scrolls for sale in a New York newspaper. He purchased them for 250,000 dollars for the government of Israel.
Meanwhile Bedouins were searching every cave near the first one and finding thousands of fragments, which they sold to dealers. In 1949 G. Lankester Harding, British-born director of the Department of Antiquities for Jordan, and Father Roland de Vaux, head of the French Dominican School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, took charge of exploring the caves. Hundreds of manuscripts were found, including almost all the books of the Torah.
The seven scrolls found in the first cave were the most important. They consisted of two scrolls of the Book of Isaiah, one complete, the other incomplete, and five scrolls of nonbiblical texts. The Manual of Discipline, also called the Rule of the Community, gives detailed information on all matters concerning a Jewish sect that lived an ascetic communal life on the shores of the Dead Sea. This sect is believed by most scholars to have been the Essenes. They were one of three parties within Judaism at the time the scrolls were written, the other two being the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The members of the sect referred to themselves only as the Sons of Light.
The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness discusses the coming victory over the Sons of Darkness. The Commentary on the Book of Habakkuk tells of the defiling of the sanctuary of God and the persecution of the Teacher of Righteousness, who was driven into exile by the Wicked Priest. Enemies called the Kittim are described as plundering and slaying. The scroll of the Thanksgiving Hymns is a collection of songs similar to the Psalms.
The Book of Lamech was so fragile that seven years went by before it could be unrolled. It was assumed to be the lost Apocryphal Book of Lamech, but it proved to be a document in Aramaic relating to the Book of Genesis. It is now called the Scroll of the Apocryphal Genesis. It describes the journeys of Abraham.
Of the later discoveries, one of the most interesting was a copper scroll found in 1952. It was broken in two pieces and was too brittle to unroll. The Jordan government sent it to the Manchester College of Technology in England. Professor H.W. Wright-Baker devised a way of mounting the pieces on a spindle and cutting them into paper-thin strips through which the letters could be read. The scroll contains a long list of hiding places of treasures of enormous value. They were hidden in wells, in tombs, and near certain trees and springs. Some scholars believe the list to be imaginary or symbolic. Some think it may be a catalog of the treasures of King Solomon's Temple, others that it lists actual treasures of the Essenes.
An eighth scroll, the longest and most complete of the Dead Sea Scrolls, was acquired by the Israeli government during the Six-Day War in 1967. Called the Temple Scroll, it was probably found in the late 1950s. Yadin, who published a translation of the 27-foot (8-meter) scroll in 1977, dated it between the 2nd century bc and AD 70. The document establishes clear links between early Christian doctrines and the religious teachings of the Essenes.
Near the caves is a ruined building in an area long known to the Arabs as Khirbat Qumran. Archaeologists began excavating the ruins in 1951 in the hope of finding some link between the building and the scrolls. They discovered what is believed by some to be the community center of the Essenes who made the scrolls. Other scholars hold that the ruins are the remains of a military fortress and the scrolls are a treasury of Jewish writings sent out of Jerusalem for safekeeping--to be hidden in the caves away from the 1st-century Roman invaders.
From the evidence of silver coins, pottery shards, and other materials, the archaeologists believe that the building was erected no later than the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC). It was destroyed by an earthquake in 31 BC. It was probably restored in the time of Herod's son Herod Archelaus (ruled 4 BC-AD 6) by the same community that occupied it before.
In the war that followed the Jewish revolt against the Romans, the people who lived in the community center at Khirbat Qumran were driven away or exterminated in ad 68. Before the Romans arrived, however, the Essenes hid their library in jars in the surrounding caves. All evidence indicates that the scrolls were copied during the 1st or 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were written during one of the most decisive periods in the history of the Jewish people, on the eve of the birth of Christianity. The tens of thousands of scroll fragments represent a great amount of new material for the study of biblical texts and the people who wrote them as well as of Jewish history after the 4th century bc. There was a long-standing controversy over the fact that access to the scrolls was limited to a small number of scholars. This was resolved to some degree in the early 1990s when copies of the scrolls were finally published.