Where were the Dead Sea scrolls found?
Probably the most significant finding in the
history of the Holy Land, the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered incidentally. In 1947 a Bedouin shepherd looking for a lost goat cast a stone into a cave near the Dead Sea. He heard a hollow sound and decided to climb down into the cave where he found a jar containing 3 ancient Dead Sea scrolls. He brought them to an antique dealer in Bethlehem, who eventually came back with him to Qumran, to find a total of 7 scrolls (many others were to be found later on), known today as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In November 1947, the First Arab- Israeli War broke between the Jews and the Arabs in the Holy land. Professor Elazar Sukenik of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem heard rumors about some ancient scrolls found in the Judean Desert. He set off to meet the antique dealer in Bethlehem, but Bethlehem and Jerusalem were on opposite sides. Sukenik traveled back and forth numerous times, across barricades and under fire. His early examinations confirmed the authenticity of the scrolls: Hebrew texts from the early centuries BC, among which are the oldest copies of the
bible ever known to modern research. Sukenik kept risking his life going back and forth to Bethlehem while trying to get funding from the Hebrew University; a hard task in a poor financial wartime reality. Meanwhile, 4 scrolls were purchased by the Assyrian Patriarch of Jerusalem for the worth of 97.20$ (about 1,500$ today).
Qumran Scrolls now
As negotiation over the Dead Sea Scrolls advanced, prices rocketed. Sukenik finally managed to raise 350£ (about 6,000£ today), enough to purchase the remaining 3 Dead Sea scrolls. For the Jewish renewing nation the 7 Dead Sea scrolls were of high importance, but all the attempts to lay hands on the remaining 4 Dead Sea Scrolls were in vain.
At the end of the war, Jordan got a hold of the West Bank, including the northern part of the Dead Sea, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. The interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls of scholars around the world went up high and at the same time, the Jordanian and British archaeologists were racing against the local Bedouins (who have instantly became aware of the value of the Dead Sea scrolls) surveying every nearby cave in Qumran. Some of the Qumran scrolls, unfortunately, fell in the hands of Bedouins (now aware of their precious value) who tore them down to pieces in an attempt to get the best deal, measuring them by the square inch.
Over the next couple of years, thousands of Dead Sea scrolls and fragments were found by Jordanian archaeologists. Among Jewish scholars, frustration was high, with the sense that these old texts of the Dead Sea Scroll, written by their forefathers, with such high significance to the study of Jewish history, culture, and textual tradition were out of their reach.
Sukenik passed away in 1953, and it was his son, Professor Yigael Yadin, who finally in 1954 managed to purchase the 4 other Dead Sea scrolls. The Dead Sea scrolls were offered for sale in the US, this time for a humble sum of $250,000, with financing from the Israeli government.
The majority of the Dead Sea scrolls which were owned by Jordan, fell into Israeli hands in 1967, during the conquest of the Eastern part of Jerusalem. Since then the largest archive of the Dead Sea Scrolls was deposited in the Rockefeller Museum in the formerly Jordanian Part.
What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?
Up until today, over 18,000 pieces of more than 900 different scrolls were found in different parts of the Judean Desert. The weaving together of the lot was a slow elaborate process and actually has not been completed until today. Innovative preservation techniques demand slow and patient labor in order to fight the damages of time.
The Dead Sea scrolls were mostly written with ink on parchment, some on papyrus and a single most distinctive scroll was engraved in copper. The majority was written in Hebrew, more or less coherent with the nowadays alphabet. Some phrases were written in Greek and Aramaic.
The Dead Sea Scrolls can be divided into a couple of categories:
Bible: Except for the book of Ester (written in the Hellenistic Era) all the books of the Old Testament were found
either fragmented or complete in a prior version to the MT (Masoretic Text = the authoritative Hebrew text of the
Old Testament). Some variations can be found between different scrolls, and some appear a couple of times. Interpretation literature: These scrolls follow a known biblical book interpreting the text.
Biblical Apocrypha: Books that were excluded from the MT, and were found in certain Christian codex.
Scrolls referring to the thinking and religious views of the Judean Desert cult, who seem to have been
persecuted by the governing priests in Jerusalem. Technical and social texts – including strict regulations for the members of the cult.
And the copper scrolls, with a detailed list of treasures and hiding places, none of which by the way, was ever
This categorization is one out of many others possible. More than 50 scrolls include books which were completely unknown, and about a dozen were only mentioned in different origins. A couple of books were known only through translation, and their exciting discovery enabled reading them in the original Hebrew or Aramaic version.
Significance and Religious Aspects of the Dead Sea Scrolls
It takes just a brief review of the dry evidence above, to understand the significance of the Dead Sea scrolls, being the oldest and therefore the closest to the original biblical texts known to modern research.
The Dead Sea scrolls reveal even more intriguing topics
Professor Rachel Elior, of the Hebrew University, claims that the abundance of the textual finding in the Dead Sea Scrolls is but a testimony to the successful attempt of the rabbinic leadership to wipe out entire narratives from the canonical codex for political-religious purposes. This indicates that Judaism as known to us today seems to have been somewhat diverted from Judaism of King David and the prophets of first temple time.
Elior’s assumption and the affiliation between some of the inner texts of the Dead Sea cult and ideas, reflected in the New Testament, can lead to some poignant conclusions about the evolution of the monotheistic religions.
Some intriguing documentary films have recently exposed harsh controversies between various research groups around the world. To prevent a controversy the ‘opponent’ universities were not allowed to observe (let alone examine) some significant fragments. This is not surprising, once understanding the perilous potential of new revelations to arouse scandals in the academic and religious world.
There is no doubt that the Dead Sea Scrolls are one of the most fascinating and mysterious issues in historical research of the Holy Land, and is rightly titled by some: the most important
archaeological discovery in the world.
Want to learn more about the historic significance of the Dead Sea? Take a look at the Sermon on Lot’s Wife Looking Back
Another biblical site nearby: Martyrius Monastery