Back in 1947, a Bedouin shepherd boy stumbled upon one of the century's greatest finds in a dark cave in the Judean desert. He sold three of the seven scrolls to an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem, who in turn sold them to the eminent archeologist Prof Eliezer Sukenik of the Hebrew University. The four remaining scrolls found their way to the U.S. and were purchased in 1954 by Prof Sukenik's son, Professor Yigael Yadin, on behalf of the government of Israel. Over the years, thousands more fragments of parchment, some papyrus and some leather, were found and pieced together into 80 documents. Today, the majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls have already been interpreted and published. Since 1965, they have been on display at the Israel Museum in a distinctive white pavilion called the Shrine of the Book, which has become a popular tourist site in Israel.
At first glance, the massive international interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls is baffling. The ragged pieces of parchment contain so much scribble in the eyes of many who look at them and are even difficult to decipher for those who know Hebrew. Yet the dry desert climate of the region meant that the parchments were amazingly well-preserved, and historians were able to uncover their secrets.
"The Dead Sea Scrolls represent a turning point in Jewish history," stresses Dr. Adolfo Roitman, curator of the Shrine of the Book. "They reveal the link between Biblical Israel and the Jewish culture of the Talmudic period."
According to Dr. Magen Broshi, who served as curator of the Shrine of the Book from 1965 to 1995, it is the fascinating story behind the scrolls that has captured the world's imagination.
"Not only are the scrolls the oldest known copy of the Old Testament," he explains, "but they belonged to the Essenes, a mysterious ascetic Jewish sect that existed about 2,000 years ago and is believed to have had a great influence on the early Christians." Most of the Essenes, who were mentioned by the contemporary historians Pliny and Josephus, lived on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea region. Nearly a third of the documents that were found in the caves of Qumran overlooking the Dead Sea contain the books of the Old Testament, save for the Book of Esther. "The levity of the Book of Esther would not have been to the sect's taste," speculates Dr. Broshi. "The banquets, the drunkenness and Esther's flirtation with Ahasuerus would not have been approved of by the Essenes."
Many of the non-Old Testament scrolls contain details about the Essene sect and their values. One of the scrolls tells the story of the battle between the "sons of light and the sons of darkness" and echoes the struggle between good and evil. The Essenes included celibate men, a phenomenon rarely found in Judaism, and their influence on the early Christians is unquestionable, making the scrolls of immense interest to Christian, as well as Jewish scholars.
The 50 years since the scrolls' discovery have been marked by enthusiastic international debate as to the dating of the scrolls, the nature of the Dead Sea sect, and more. Controversy has also surrounded the slow pace of the publishing of the scrolls and the question of access to the scrolls. To mark half a century since the discovery of the first scrolls the Israel Philatelic Service issued a stamp depicting one of the ceramic jars in which the scrolls were found against a backdrop of the Judean Desert....
Undoubtedly these ancient manuscripts will remain a witness to Jewish continuity and a source of knowledge regarding the roots of Christianity for centuries to come.
Sources: Israel Magazine-On-Web, July 1997, Israeli Foreign Ministry