What are the Dead Sea Scrolls? Find out More about Qumran Scrolls
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 contextfor 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.
History of the Dead Sea
The Dead Sea is a place you must visit at least once in your lifetime. This unique spot is the lowest place on earth, and combines turquoise waters with majestic sand-colored hills all around them. Only an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, and a 2 hours’ drive from Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea can make for a wonderful day trip if you wish to see more of Israel’s varied landscapes. The mineral-infused mud of the Dead Sea and its ultra-salty waters are known for their healing properties, and many people visit the place for the purpose of improving various skin conditions.
But these are not the only unique things about the Dead Sea. It also has a very special history. From Biblical times, through the Greek and Roman period, and until modern times, the Dead Sea has featured in many historical moments of significance. Interested in knowing some Dead Sea history facts? Keep reading.
Dead Sea history in ancient times
During the Biblical period, different sects of Jews used to live in caves near the Dead Sea, most notably the Essesnes, who left the impressive Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves of Qumran. Sodom and Gomorrah, the famous cities mentioned in the Book of Genesis, are believed to have been on its southeastern shore. Ein Gedi, now a nature reserve near the Dead Sea, is mentioned in the Bible as the place where King David hid from Saul.
The ancient history of the Dead Sea encompasses many of the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean peoples of the time. The Nabateans, for example, used to harvest the sea’s natural asphalt, and in all probability, the Egyptians bought it from them. The Romans, too, referred to the Dead Sea as “Palus Asphaltites” (Asphalt Lake).
But perhaps the best-known moment in Dead Sea history in the ancient times was when a small group of Jewish zealots fled to Masada (a fortress built by King Herod the Great on a hill overlooking the Dead Sea) following the destruction of the Second Temple, in the year 70 AD. In 73 AD they were sieged there by the Roman X Legion, and rather than surrender, they chose to die by mass suicide.
During the Byzantine period, Greek Orthodox monks also came to this area for refuge. They built several monasteries in the vicinity of the Dead Sea: the Saint George monastery in Wadi Kelt is one of them.
Dead Sea discoveries in the modern era
Prior to the 19th Century, the Dead Sea was merely a mystery to the developing world, shrouded in references in the Bible, but unknown, unexplored and uncharted. But then, several different explorers started uncovering its mysteries.
The first known modern-era explorer of the Dead Sea was a pioneering young Irishman named Christopher Costigan, who had become interested in the Holy Land during his studies for the Catholic Priesthood. He set off on an expedition in 1835 having no navigational maps to guide him for the navigation of the Jordan River and Dead Sea which post-dated the Middle Ages. His 8 days of scientific exploration on the Dead Sea, with a lack of fresh water and an absence of winds for sailing, caused Costigan to boil and drink the brackish water of the sea. Probably suffering from massive dehydration, he contracted a severe fever. His assistant left him on the northern shore of the Dead Sea and went seeking help to the nearby Greek Orthodox Monastery of Deir Hijla. Taken for medical assistance by mule to Jerusalem, Costigan was dead on arrival and later buried on Mount Zion. Unfortunately, all of his notes and research were lost with his boat.
13 years later, Lt. William Francis Lynch of the US Navy was luckier. In 1848, Lynch undertook an expedition to the Dead Sea with a large team of men and two boats. Lynch’s expedition created the first published charted maps of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.
Over 20 years passed before an intrepid Scotsman, having sailed the newly opened Suez Canal and the Nile with his canoe, arrived in the region. Previously visiting the Sea of Galilee, John MacGregor canoed the entire length of the Jordan River to the Dead Sea. He named his canoe “Rob Roy”; discovered not long ago in Britain, it has been brought to Tel Aviv’s Eretz Israel Museum.
In 1868, the “Moabite Stone” (an inscribed stone set up by king Mesha of the ancient kingdom of Moab) was found on the plateau east of the Dead Sea by Frederick Augustus Klein, an Anglican missionary. However, in 1869, the stone was smashed by local villagers when they argued over its ownership.
The early 20th Century would see the work continued by the PEF (British Palestine Exploration Fund) and by Jewish-Siberian scientist-engineer Moshe (Mikhail Abromovitz) Novomeysky, who read the research on the Dead Sea by German geologist Blankenhorn, took samples of minerals, found they were in commercial quantities and founded the Dead Sea Works.
The late 1940s and early 1950s brought one the of the most significant Biblical discoveries in history: the Dead Sea Scrolls, hundreds of religious documents dating from the period between 150 BC and 70 AD, were found in the Qumran Caves, about 1.6 km from the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. Their first discoverers were three Bedouin shepherds, Muhammed edh-Dhib, Jum’a Muhammed, and Khalil Musa in 1946-47. In the years 1951-56, the caves were excavated by a team from the ASOR (the American School of Oriental Research), and more scrolls were found.
Last but not least is a meaningful scientific discovery made in 2011. A group of Israeli and German scientists dived into the depths of the Dead Sea and discovered fissures in its floor, which allow the entrance of fresh and brackish water into it. After sampling biofilms surrounding the fissures, they discovered the seas to be not so dead after all: many species of bacteria and archaea were found in them.
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