Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Contents, Biblical Insights and Who Made Them

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Dead Sea Scrolls Habakkuk Pesher
The Dead Sea Scrolls, also called the Qumran Caves Scrolls, are a set of ancient Jewish manuscripts discovered at the Qumran Caves near Ein Feshkha in the West Bank, on the northern shore of the Dead Sea. The texts include the world’s oldest surviving biblical texts and oldest copies of the Hebrew Bible. Dated to between 250 B.C. and A.D. 70, when the Romans destroyed the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, they have been described by scholars as — the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times — and consist of rolled manuscripts found in jars in 11 caves overlooking the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, near the archaeological site of Qumran between 1947 and 1956.

The Dead Sea Scrolls include early copies of almost every book of the Hebrew Bible, non-canonical texts related to it known as Apocrypha, and the writings of a Hebrew sect thought to have been based at Qumran, most likely the Essenes. The texts offer valuable insights into ancient Jewish law and ritual and messianic speculation in the period after the composition of the Hebrew Bible and before the rise of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. Written primarily on parchment and papyrus,, The Dead Sea Scrolls have been called, justifiably, the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century. They contain canonical works on Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Kings and Deuteronomy as well psalms, hymns, calendars, and community rules. One scroll made of copper describes the location of buried treasure. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, September 30, 2013]

Scholars have identified as many as 100,000 Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, which come from more than 1,000 original manuscripts. The texts are 1000 years older than other versions of Biblical scriptures, yet their text varies little from the text found in the Old Testament in today's Bibles. The scrolls are of great significance to scholars for the insights they offer into the creation of the Bible and other Jewish and Christian religious texts. They also provide insights into what was going on in Palestine during one of the most important periods of human history: when Christianity was developing and when Judaism was going through cataclysmic changes.

After years of study, the Dead Sea Scrolls have revealed that Biblical texts were more unsettled, that Judaism was more diverse and that early Christianity was more Jewish than most people thought.

In 2008, the Israel Museum and Israel Antiquities Authority, the custodian of the scrolls, began taking digital photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls using special camera that produce no damaging heat or ultraviolet radiation with the aim of making all the Dead Sea scrolls available to the public and researchers on the Internet

Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: What makes the Dead Sea Scrolls so important is that they help us construct the history of the Biblical text itself. Professor Charlotte Hempel of the University of Birmingham, a specialist on the Dead Sea Scrolls, told The Daily Beast that the scrolls of the Qumran Community (also known as the Essenes) display “intriguing signs that [the Bible] was nevertheless still fluid.” But by the end of the first century CE, she said, the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts are “much more stable.” [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, March 20, 2021]

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Temple scroll
John J. Collins wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The Dead Sea Scrolls “are the only primary texts we have from Judea that date to about the time of the birth of Christianity and just before the rise of rabbinical Judaism. Consequently, they are precious evidence of the nature of Judaism at a time of enormous consequence for Western history. Scholars who control the interpretation of the scrolls can potentially have a great impact on the understanding of Judaism and Christianity, and it is the lure of such influence on the understanding of Western history that has made the scrolls a battleground nonpareil of academic controversy. [Source: John J. Collins, Los Angeles Times, March 10, 2013. Collins is a professor at Yale Divinity School and the author of the book "The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography" |=|]

“In fact, the impact of the scrolls is somewhat less than is sometimes claimed, but it is considerable nonetheless. They shed light on the Scriptures that were revered in the time of Jesus; they provide numerous parallels in detail to the New Testament; they show that a concern for exact interpretation of the law, which is characteristic of rabbinical literature, was already in place around the turn of the era; and they also show that there was considerable variety in the Judaism of the time. Nothing in the scrolls either validates or discredits Christianity or Judaism as they later evolved, but the scrolls are an invaluable source of information about a crucial juncture in the development of Western religion.” |=|

Shaye I.D. Cohen of Brown University wrote: “Even before the Qumran Scrolls were discovered, we knew that Judaism in the time of Jesus was a very diverse phenomena. After all, the Jewish historian Josephus gives us the names of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. We know from the New Testament of a group called Herodians - what they are exactly, we don't know, but there they are. Rabbinic texts add the names of yet other groups and then once the war comes around, in the year 66, we have the names of a whole slew of other groups.... Plus, we have a very wide ranging rich literature from this period which is impossible to imagine all coming from a single source, or all coming from a single school or a single class. The result was, even before the Qumran Scrolls were discovered, we knew or sensed that Judaism in the 1st century of our era was a very rich and varied phenomena. What the Qumran Scrolls do is to demonstrate clearly and unambiguously the truth of that which we always somehow felt or intuited.... [Source: Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“The Qumran Scrolls show us the existence of a sect, a group that has separated itself from society at large, a group that defines itself against the Temple, the single central institution of Judaism..., and sees itself as the repository of everything that is sacred and true and sees all other Jews out there, including the priests, as wrong at best and at worst, irredeemably wicked. That is something which we had never previously seen....

“The Qumran Scrolls also reveal a whole range of new books which we previously had not known, or had known about only in fragments or only in quotations, or perhaps in corrupted versions. We now have the original text. We have now a rich library of text showing that diversity was even greater than we had ever imagined and the range of possibilities for 1st century Judaism was far bigger than any of us had ever suspected.

Discovery and Composition of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The first Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in 1947 near Qumran. Accounts vary on exactly how the discovery was made. According to one story, a Bedouin boy named Muhammad Adh-Dhib, searching for a lost goat, threw a stone into a cave above the Dead Sea. When he heard something shatter he ran away to get a friend. After hoisting themselves inside the cave they discovered several jars with seven scrolls stuffed inside them. There are some inconsistencies with the boy’s stories. Some think they were more likely on a looting expedition than herding goats. The caves where the scrolls were found were on steep cliffs facing a barren area, not the kind of place people tend goats.

In any case, the seven scrolls were sold by the boys themselves or members of their tribe to two antiquities dealers in Bethlehem. Three were bought by Dr. Eleazar Sukenik, a professor of archaeology at Hebrew University. Four of the Dead Scrolls were purchased reluctantly for 24 pounds by a Syrian cleric named Athanasius Veshue Samuel in Jerusalem. In April, 1948 he learned of the scrolls value and age and announced the discovery to the world. He took out an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal and they were sold to the Israeli government for $250,000. In the meantime caves in the Qumran area were searched by Bedouins who found some more scrolls and sold them to dealers. In 1949, archaeologists began an organized search of the caves, and hundreds of manuscripts were ultimately found by 1956.

The Dead Sea Scrolls consist of religious texts, legal codes, oracles, secular works, and literary works, about 90 percent of which were written in Hebrew, with the remainder mostly written in Greek or Aramaic. They are not original texts but copies of sacred texts made by scribes. Several scrolls revealed ancient Hebrew script, dating from the 7th century B.C., thus making them the oldest Biblical texts ever found. There are about 1,000 scrolls in all which in turn are broken into about 9,000 fragments each. A few large pieces are on permanent display at the Israel Museum. The Dead Sea scrolls were made of leather, wrapped in linen and placed in earthen pottery containers.

Essenes, Authors the Dead Sea Scrolls?

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Dead Sea scroll written by the Essenes
Many scholars believe The Dead Sea Scrolls were produced by Jewish sects, including an apocalyptical Jewish sect known as the Essenes. Archaeological excavations on a promontory above the western shore of the Dead Sea in the Qumran area, where the scrolls were found, revealed what archaeologists initially said was an Essenes community center or monastery that produced many of the scrolls.

The center, archaeologists said, contained a "scriptorium", with clay scribe writing tables and inkwells. Shards from jars matched the jars in the caves that contained the scrolls. A cache of silver coins found in the "scriptorium" was instrumental in dating the site and the scrolls. The Essenes were crushed and driven from the Dead Sea by the Romans during the war in A.D. 68 that followed the Jewish revolts. It is believed that the scrolls were hidden in the caves before their demise.

In 1953, French archaeologist and Catholic priest Roland de Vaux led an international team that studied the Dead Sea Scrolls. He concluded that the scrolls were written by people who lived in Qumran, because the 11 scroll caves were close to the site. Ancient Jewish historians described the presence of Essenes in the Dead Sea region, and de Vaux argued Qumran was one of their communities after his team uncovered numerous remains of pools that he believed to be Jewish ritual baths. His theory appeared to be supported by the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of which contained guidelines for communal living that matched ancient descriptions of Essene customs. "The scrolls describe communal dining and ritual bathing instructions consistent with Qumran's archaeology," Robert Cargill, an archaeologist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), told National Geographic. [Source: Ker Than, National Geographic, July 27, 2010]

Debunking the Idea of the Essenes Being the ,Authors the Dead Sea Scrolls

It had been suggested that nearly all the scrolls were produced by the Essenes. Now, based partly on wide range of views displayed in the texts, it is widely believed to many of scrolls were written by other Jewish sects such as the Sadduccees, a priestly group described by the Jewish historian Josephus. Evidence linking the Essenes to the scrolls has also been debunked.

In 2006, John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times: "Two Israeli archaeologists who have excavated the ["monastery"] site on and off for more than 10 years now assert that Qumran had nothing to do with the Essenes or a monastery or the scrolls. It had been a pottery factory. “The archaeologists, Yizhak Magen and Yuval Peleg of the Israel Antiquities Authority, reported in a book and a related magazine article that their extensive excavations turned up pottery kilns, whole vessels, production rejects and thousands of clay fragments. Derelict water reservoirs held thick deposits of fine potters’ clay. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, August 15, 2006]

“Dr. Magen and Dr. Peleg said that, indeed, the elaborate water system at Qumran appeared to be designed to bring the clay-laced water into the site for the purposes of the pottery industry. No other site in the region has been found to have such a water system. By the time the Romans destroyed Qumran in A.D. 68 in the Jewish revolt, the archaeologists concluded, the settlement had been a center of the pottery industry for at least a century. Before that, the site apparently was an outpost in a chain of fortresses along the Israelites’ eastern frontier. “The association between Qumran, the caves and the scrolls is, thus, a hypothesis lacking any factual archaeological basis,” Dr. Magen said in an article in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

“This is by no means the first challenge to the Essene hypothesis originally advanced by Roland de Vaux, a French priest and archaeologist who was an early interpreter of the scrolls after their discovery almost 60 years ago. Other scholars have suggested that Qumran was a fortified manor house or a villa, possibly an agricultural community or a commercial entrepôt.

“Norman Golb, a professor of Near Eastern languages and civilization at the University of Chicago who is a longtime critic of the Essene link, said he was impressed by the new findings and the pottery-factory interpretation. Dr. Golb said that, of course, Qumran could have been both a monastery and a pottery factory. Yet, he added: “There is not an iota of evidence that it was a monastery. We have come to see it as a secular site, not one of pronounced religious orientation.”

“For years, Dr. Golb has argued that the multiplicity of Jewish religious ideas and practices recorded in the scrolls made it unlikely that they were the work of a single sect like the Essenes. He noted that few of the texts dealt with specific Essene traditions. Not one, he said, espoused celibacy, which the sect practiced. The scrolls in the caves were probably written by many different groups, Dr. Golb surmised, and were removed from Jerusalem libraries by refugees in the Roman war. Fleeing to the east, the refugees may well have deposited the scrolls for safekeeping in the many caves near Qumran.

The new research appears to support this view. As Dr. Magen noted, Qumran in those days was at a major crossroads of traffic to and from Jerusalem and along the Dead Sea. Similar scrolls have been found at Masada, the site south of Qumran of the suicidal hold-out against the Romans. Dr. Magen also cited documents showing that refugees in another revolt against the Romans in the next century had fled to the same caves. He said they were “the last spot they could hide the scrolls before descending to the shore” of the Dead Sea. In the magazine article, Dr. Magen said the jars in which most of the scrolls were stored had probably come from the pottery factory. If so, this may prove to be the only established connection between the Qumran settlement and the scrolls.

Were the Dead Sea Scrolls Written by People Outside the Dea Sea Area?

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Linen Dead Sea scroll
The decoding of a cryptic message on a cup, the excavation of ancient Jerusalem tunnels, and other archaeological clues hint that the Dead Sea Scrolls may have been written by several groups outside of the Quram area and hidden away during wartime. Cargill told National Geographic. “New research suggests many of the Dead Sea Scrolls originated elsewhere and were written by multiple Jewish groups, some fleeing the circa-A.D. 70 Roman siege that destroyed the legendary Temple in Jerusalem.[Source: Ker Than, National Geographic, July 27, 2010]

Ken Than wrote in National Geographic: “On Jerusalem's Mount Zion, archaeologists recently discovered and deciphered a two-thousand-year-old cup with the phrase "Lord, I have returned" inscribed on its sides in a cryptic code similar to one used in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. To some experts, the code suggests that religious leaders from Jerusalem authored at least some of the scrolls. "Priests may have used cryptic texts to encode certain texts from nonpriestly readers," Cargill told National Geographic News.

“According to an emerging theory, the Essenes may have actually been Jerusalem Temple priests who went into self-imposed exile in the second century B.C., after kings unlawfully assumed the role of high priest. This group of rebel priests may have escaped to Qumran to worship God in their own way. While there, they may have written some of the texts that would come to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes may not have abandoned all of their old ways at Qumran, however, and writing in code may have been one of the practices they preserved. It's possible too that some of the scrolls weren't written at Qumran but were instead spirited away from the Temple for safekeeping, Cargill said. "I think it dramatically changes our understanding of the Dead Sea Scrolls if we see them as documents produced by priests," he said.

“Recent archeological evidence suggests disparate Jewish groups may have passed by Qumran around A.D. 70, during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, which destroyed the Temple and much of the rest of the city. A team led by Israeli archaeologist Ronnie Reich recently discovered ancient sewers beneath Jerusalem. In those sewers they found artifacts—including pottery and coins—that they dated to the time of the siege. The finds suggest that the sewers may have been used as escape routes by Jews, some of whom may have been smuggling out cherished religious scrolls, according to Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls.Importantly, the sewers lead to the Valley of Kidron. From there it's only a short distance to the Dead Sea—and Qumran.

“The jars in which the scrolls were found may provide additional evidence that the Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of disparate sects' texts. Jan Gunneweg of Hebrew University in Jerusalem performed chemical analysis on vessel fragments from the Qumran-area caves. "We take a piece of ceramic, we grind it, we send it to a nuclear reactor, where it's bombarded with neutrons, then we can measure the chemical fingerprint of the clay of which the pottery was made," Gunneweg says in the documentary. "Since there is no clay on Earth with the exact chemical composition—it is like DNA—you can point to a specific area and say this pottery was made here, that pottery was made over here." Gunneweg's conclusion: Only half of the pottery that held the Dead Sea Scrolls is local to Qumran.

“Not everyone agrees with the idea that Dead Sea Scrolls may hail from beyond Qumran. "I don't buy it," said NYU's Schiffman, who added that the idea of the scrolls being written by multiple Jewish groups from Jerusalem has been around since the 1950s. "The Jerusalem theory has been rejected by virtually everyone in the field," he said. "The notion that someone brought a bunch of scrolls together from some other location and deposited them in a cave is very, very unlikely," Schiffman added. "The reason is that most of the [the scrolls] fit a coherent theme and hang together. "If the scrolls were brought from some other place, presumably by some other groups of Jews, you would expect to find items that fit the ideologies of groups that are in disagreement with [the Essenes]. And it's not there," said Schiffman, who dismisses interpretations that link some Dead Sea Scroll writings to groups such as the Zealots.

“Cargill agrees with Schiffman that the Dead Sea Scrolls show "a tremendous amount of congruence of ideology, messianic expectation, interpretation of scripture, [Jewish law] interpretation, and calendrical dates. "At the same time," Cargill said, "it is difficult to explain some of the ideological diversity present within some of the scrolls if one argues that all of the scrolls were composed by a single sectarian group at Qumran."

“If Cargill and others are correct, it would mean that what modern scholars call the Dead Sea Scrolls are not wholly the work of isolated scribes. Instead they may be the unrecovered treasures of terrified Jews who did not—or could not—return to reclaim what they entrusted to the desert for safekeeping. "Whoever wrote them, the scrolls were considered scripture by their owners, and much care was taken to ensure their survival," Cargill said. "Essenes or not, the Dead Sea Scrolls give us a rare glimpse into the vast diversity of Judaism—or Judaisms—in the first century."

Contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain early copies of almost every book of the Hebrew Bible and have been called, justifiably, the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century. Dating between roughly 200 B.C. up until about A.D. 70, when the Romans destroted the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and Qumran was abandoned, the 900 manuscripts found in 11 caves contain materials that include canonical works from the Hebrew Bible, including Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Kings and Deuteronomy. They also include psalms, hymns, calendars, apocryphal (non-canonical) biblical works and community rules. One scroll made of copper describes the location of buried treasure. Questions about who wrote the scrolls are still debated. Many scholars believe they were writtem by a monastic sect called the Essenes, who lived at Qumran. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, September 30, 2013]

Shaye I.D. Cohen of Brown University wrote: “The manuscripts that we call the Dead Sea Scrolls are a wide variety of texts. Some of these texts are hardly sectarian texts. These are texts that all Jews would have had, all Jews would have read. For example, the largest single category of Dead Sea text or Qumran Scrolls are text you and I call Biblical. No one is going to say the Book of Genesis was a Qumran document because fragments of the Book of Genesis were found in the Qumran scrolls.... We have to realize then that the Qumran scrolls contain a wide variety of text and we are not always able to distinguish clearly those texts which they simply read from those texts, which they actually wrote. [Source: Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Dead Sea caves
L. Michael White of the University of Texas wrote: “Among the cache of scrolls that we now call the Dead Sea Scrolls, are three distinct types of material. First, we have a collection of copies of the actual books of the Hebrew Scriptures. These people were copyists. They were preserving the texts of the Bible itself. Secondly, there were commentaries on these biblical texts. But these commentaries also show their own interpretation of what would happen. This is where we begin to get some of the insights into the way the Essenes at Qumran believed, because of the way they interpret the prophecies of Isaiah, or the prophesies of Habakkuk as well as the way they read the Torah, itself. So among the scrolls, then, we have a complete set of almost all the biblical books, and commentaries on many of them. "The Isaiah Scroll" is one of the most famous of the biblical manuscripts. And the commentaries on Isaiah is also very important for our understanding of Jewish interpretation of Scripture in this period. [Source: L. Michael Whit, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“The third major type of material found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, though, in some ways is the most interesting insight into the life of the community that lived there, because this material includes their own sectarian writings, that is, their rules of life ... their prayer book. Included then, is the book of the rule of the community or sometimes called "The Manual of Discipline", which talks about how one goes about getting into the community. The rules for someone who wants to be pure and a part of the elect community. We also have something called "The War Scroll" and the War Scroll seems to be their own battle plan for the war that will occur at the end of the present evil age. And so this is something that really is real in their mind ... that this coming end of the age will be a cataclysmic event in their view. Also was found something called "The Copper Scroll". Quite literally, with the letters incised, in Hebrew, into soft, burnished copper. And the contents of the Copper Scroll are still a source of great interest among many people, because people think it may be a treasure map of their own holdings.”

Discoveries from the Dead Sea Scrolls

Hershel Shanks wrote for PBS: “By 1960 the contents of the collection were reasonably clear. More than two hundred Dead Sea documents were books of the Hebrew Bible. These varied in size from a tiny scrap to a complete book of the prophet Isaiah. Other manuscripts were nonbiblical books, known from later medieval copies, such as Jubilees and Enoch. In the case of such texts, the Dead Sea Scroll fragments could be reconstructed relatively easily since the later copy formed a template into which the fragments could be fit. [Source: Hershel Shanks, Frontline, PBS, April 1998. Book: “The Meaning and Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls” by Hershel Shanks (Random House, 1998) ]

“But hundreds of Dead Sea documents were completely unknown. It is these that proved most fascinating, both to scholars and to the public. Most of the documents were written on either goatskin or sheepskin. A few were on papyrus. One especially intriguing intact scroll engraved on copper sheeting identified over sixty sites of buried treasure. The various texts were bewildering--previously unknown psalms, Bible commentaries, calendrical texts, mystical texts, apocalyptic texts, liturgical texts, purity laws, Rabbinic-like expansions of biblical stories, and on and on. How to make sense of it all?

“From the outset it seemed clear that some of the scrolls reflected the views of a distinct Jewish sect, which scholars soon identified as the Essenes, an obscure Jewish movement described in some detail by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. In recent years, however, the Essene hypothesis has been increasingly questioned, as we shall see.

“Another aspect of the scrolls proved more sensational: In many respects the published scrolls seemed to mimic Christian doctrine--though most of them dated to a time before the Christian era. Was Jesus to be found in the scrolls? Was Christian doctrine, long thought to be unique, foreshadowed by the scrolls?

Dead Sea Scroll Biblical Texts

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Isaiah Chapter 53
About 127 of the scrolls are biblical texts, including partial and complete books from the Old Testament (or Torah). Every part of the Hebrew bible was found, except for Esther, the only book which doesn't mention God. The teaching of Isaiah, the Psalms and Deuteronomy are prominently featured. One of the first seven scrolls discovered was a complete Book of Isaiah that is 24 feet long.

Overall the texts in the Dead Sea scrolls are amazingly similar to those found in modern Bibles, and have not offered any radical interpretations or particularly groundbreaking insights. There are few differences however. “The Scroll of the Apocryphal Genesis” , for example, contains passages of Abraham’s journey, Sarah’s beauty and Noah’s birth that are not in the Bible. Another contains a Satan figure called Mastenah who encouraged God to test Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his son. Others contain lines from the Book of Samuel and the Psalms that are different from those in modern Bibles.

The number of different takes on the same text have led scholars to conclude that there were a number of interpretations out there, offered perhaps by different sects, and there was no single “authorized” version. Many versions seem to be drawn from the Septuagint, the earliest Greek Old Testament.

Several scrolls contain the priestly benediction from Genesis: "The Lord bless thee and keep thee: The Lord make his face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee and give thee peace ." The Great Isaiah Scroll is the best preserved and most complete of the Dead Sea biblical scrolls. It contains the famous line “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up swords against nations neither shall they learn war anymore.”

A collection of psalms claim David as their author. Some of the scrolls were written by someone referred to as the "teacher of the Righteousness." Some Christians have suggested, without much evidence, that this may have been Jesus or John the Baptist.

Dead Sea Scroll Non-Biblical Texts

The remaining scrolls contain prayers, lists of rules, interpretations of the Bible, mystical hymns, magical and astrological texts, and apocalyptic visions. “The Manuel of Discipline”, provides details about the Essenes way of life. “The War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness” describes conflicts between the sects and provides and insight into the Messianic expectations and frenzy that existed in Palestine around the time Christ was born.

“The Thanksgiving Hymns” is a collection of songs similar to the psalms. “The Commentary of the Book of Habakkuk” describes the desecration of a sanctuary of God and the persecution of a righteous teacher who was driven into exile by wicked priests.

Ten of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in a mysterious code that was broken by an American scholar who said they contained basic spiritual tenets, a record of moon's cycle and laws. The copper scroll contains a list of hidden treasures, including 200 tons of gold and silver items. No items on the list have ever been found leading scholars to believe they were imaginary.

Gerald A. Larue wrote in “Old Testament Life and Literature”: “Like their fellow Jews, the sectaries of Qumran made use of writings now included in the Jewish Bible, with the possible exception of Esther of which no fragment has, as yet, been found. They also possessed copies of Ben Sira's work and Tobit, as well as Jubilees (at least ten copies), Enoch and The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs which are today placed in the Pseudepigrapha. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,”1968,]

“In addition, they consulted writings that appear to have been uniquely their own, including a collection of thanksgiving hymns, a manual of the order of the community ("The Manual of Discipline"), an apocryphal scroll called "The Wars of the Sons of Darkness versus the Sons of Light," a Genesis Apocryphon, a copper "treasure" scroll, commentaries on the books of Nahum and Habakkuk and numerous other writings. Clearly, the library of Qumran was not limited to books later adopted by the Jews as authoritative. At the same time, there is no way to determine how the Qumran sect weighted the authority of individual writings. Jubilees, on the basis of manuscript counting, appears to have been a popular work, and is quoted in one of the sect's documents, The Damascus Document, but one cannot assume that it was given more weight than the book of Isaiah which was also represented by several copies.

“Among the writings recovered from Qumran was a collection of hymns of thanksgiving, apparently composed by members of the sect. The hymns are not unlike the psalms of thanksgiving in the Bible. The scrolls were composed of parchment leather and were wrapped in linen. Decomposition was due to natural aging brought on by time and some moisture, and in some cases increased by rodents nibbling the edges of the manuscripts.”

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Copper scroll

Dead Sea Scrolls Links Between Judaism and Christianity

Hershel Shanks wrote for PBS: “It was such questions as these that aroused--and continue to arouse--wide public interest in the scrolls. The French scholar Andre Dupont-Sommer, who was not a member of the scroll publication team, sought to draw a direct line between the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran and Christianity, arguing that Jesus was prefigured by a character in the scrolls known as the Teacher of Righteousness. [Source: Hershel Shanks, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

In a now-famous passage, Dupont-Sommer wrote: “The Galilean Master . . . appears in many respects as an astonishing reincarnation of [the Teacher of Righteotlsness in the scrolls]. Like the latter, He preached penitence, poverty, humility, love of one's neighbor, chastity. Like him, He prescribed the observance of the law of Moses, the whole Law, but the Law finished and perfected, thanks to His own revelations. Like him, He was the Elect and Messiah of God, the Messiah redeemer of the world. Like him, He was the object of the hostility of the priests.... Like him He was condemned and put to death. Like him He pronounced judgment on Jerusalem, which was taken and destroyed by the Romans for having put Him to death. Like him, at the end of time, He will be the supreme judge. Like him, He founded a Church whose adherents fervently awaited his glorious return.

“Dupont-Sommer greatly influenced the prominent American literary critic Edmund Wilson, who wrote a best-selling book on the scrolls, reprinted from a series of articles that appeared in The New Yorker from 1951 to 1954. Wilson, following Dupont-Sommer, claimed that the Qumran sect and early Christianity were "successive phases of a [single] movement." Wilson drew out the implications of Dupont-Sommer's position:

“The monastery [at Qumran], this structure of stone that endures, between the waters and precipitous cliffs, with its oven and its inkwells, its mill and its cesspool, its constellations of sacred fonts and the unadorned graves of its dead, is perhaps, more than Bethlehem or Nazareth, the cradle of Christianity.

“This position was given credibility by factors entirely unrelated to the content of the scrolls themselves. The publication team, was largely Catholic, indeed largely Catholic priests, and, foolishly, they refused to release the texts of the unpublished fragmentary scrolls. This decision, understandably, led to accusations that the unpublished scrolls were being withheld because they undermined Christian faith. Ultimately the refusal to release the scrolls resulted, in the words of Geza Vermes, a distinguished commentator on the scrolls, in "the academic scandal par excellence of the twentieth century. "

What the Dead Sea Scrolls Tell Us and What They Don’t

L. Michael White of the University of Texas told PBS: ““The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and our growing knowledge of the Essene community that produced them, gives us one of the most important pieces of evidence for the diversity of Jewish life and thought in the time of Jesus. Now, it has sometimes been suggested that Jesus, himself, or maybe even John the Baptist, were members of this group. And that can't be proven at all. But what the Essenes and the Qumran scrolls do show us is the kind of challenges that could be brought against some of the traditional lines of Jewish thought, and even the operation of the Temple itself. So if one of our perspectives is that there is this growing tension in Jerusalem, the Essenes are probably the best example of how radical that questioning of Temple life might become.” [Source: L. Michael Whit, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

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Psalms Scroll

Hershel Shanks wrote for PBS: ““In 1991, after considerable struggle, as we shall see, the hitherto secret texts finally became available to all scholars. Since then scroll scholarship has burgeoned. It is now possible to attempt an assessment, which provides the occasion for this book: What do the scrolls tell us about the period from which both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism emerged? [Source: Hershel Shanks, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“It is clear that the scrolls have not fulfilled the extravagant expectations that their discovery first aroused. Dupont-Sommer was wrong. Jesus is not in the scrolls. Nor is the uniqueness of Christianity in doubt. But the scrolls do tell us a great deal that we had not previously known about the situation of Judaism at the dawn of Christianity.

“The scrolls also tell us much about Judaism at the time the Temple still stood in Jerusalem and about the roots of Rabbinic Judaism, the direct ancestor of all major Jewish denominations today, which emerged after the Romans destroyed the Temple. Finally, the scrolls tell us about the Bible before the authoritative canon was established in the second century A.D., at a time when different versions of the biblical books circulated within the Jewish world.

“The scrolls thus provide a unique insight into a religious culture at a time of unparalleled religious as well as social ferment. The earliest of the scrolls dates to about 250 B.C.; the latest to 68 A.D., when the conquering Romans destroyed Qumran on their way to Jerusalem, which they burned a bare two years later, effectively ending the First Jewish Revolt against Rome.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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