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The Dead Sea Scrolls: History & Overview

Original article by Ayala Sussman and Ruth Peled

Shrine of the Book - Israel Museum, Jerusalem

The Dead Sea Scrolls refer to ancient Hebrew scrolls that were accidentally discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin boy in the Judean Desert. On display today in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the scrolls have kindled popular enthusiasm as well as serious scholarly interest over the past half century as they reveal exciting history from the Second Temple period (520 B.C.E.-70 C.E.) – a time of crucial developments in the crystallization of the monotheistic religions.

Archaeological Investigations
Dating of the Scrolls
The Essenes
The Qumran Library
A New Discovery


The Judean Desert, a region reputedly barren, defied preconceptions and yielded an unprecedented treasure. The young Ta’amireh shepherd was certainly unaware of destiny when his innocent search for a stray goat led to the fateful discovery of Hebrew scrolls preserved in jars in a long-untouched cave. One discovery led to another, and eleven scroll-yielding caves and a habitation site eventually were uncovered. Since 1947, the site of these discoveries-the Qumran region (the desert plain and the adjoining mountainous ridge) and the Qumran site have been subjected to countless probes; not a stone has remained unturned in the desert, not an aperture unprobed. The Qumran settlement has been exhaustively excavated.

The first trove found by the Bedouins in the Judean Desert consisted of seven large scrolls from Cave I. The unusual circumstances of the find, on the eve of Israel’s war of independence, obstructed the initial negotiations for the purchase of all the scrolls. Shortly before the establishment of the state of Israel, Professor E. L. Sukenik of the Hebrew University clandestinely acquired three of the scrolls from a Christian Arab antiquities dealer in Bethlehem. The remaining four scrolls reached the hands of Mar Athanasius Yeshua Samuel, Metropolitan of the Syrian Jacobite Monastery of St. Mark in Jerusalem. In 194-9 he traveled to the United States with the scrolls, but five years went by before the prelate found a purchaser.

On June 1, 1954, Mar Samuel placed an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal offering “The Four Dead Sea Scrolls” for sale. The advertisement was brought to the attention of Yigael Yadin, Professor Sukenik’s son, who had just retired as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and had reverted to his primary vocation, archeology. With the aid of intermediaries, the four scrolls were purchased from Mar Samuel for $250,000 Thus, the scrolls that had eluded Yadin’s father because of the war were now at his disposal. Part of the purchase price was contributed by D. S. Gottesman, a New York philanthropist. His heirs sponsored construction of the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, in which these unique manuscripts are exhibited to the public.

The seven scrolls from Cave I, now housed together in the Shrine of the Book, are Isaiah A, Isaiah B, the Habakkuk Commentary, the Thanksgiving Scroll, the Community Rule (or the Manual of Discipline), the War Rule (or the War of Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness), and the Genesis Apocryphon, the last being in Aramaic. All the large scrolls have been published.

Great Isaiah Scroll

Thanks to modern technological advances, scientists and archaeologists have been able to piece together tiny separate fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls and reconstruct damaged parts via computer imaging. Scientists in September 2016 completed the virtual unwrapping of a badly damaged ancient piece of parchment and found it to contain parts of the book of Leviticus. To read more about the virtual unwrapping of this scroll, please click here.

In January 2018, researchers announced that they had completed piecing together sixty parchment fragments and deciphered one of the last remaining and most obscure portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The tiny fragments, once pieced together and translated, revealed the word Tekufah, or a festival marking a change in seasons. The same word in modern-day Hebrew means period.

Archaeological Investigations

The Caves. At least a year elapsed between the discovery of the scrolls in 1947 and the initiation of a systematic archeological investigation of the Qumran site. The northern Dead Sea area, the location of Qumran, became and remained part of Jordan until 1967. The search for scroll material rested in the hands of the Bedouins, who ravaged the Cave I site, no doubt losing precious material in the process.

Early in 1949 the cave site was finally identified by the archeological authorities of Jordan. G. Lankester Harding, director of the Jordanian Antiquities Department, undertook to excavate Cave I with Père Roland de Vaux, a French Dominican priest who headed the École Biblique in Jerusalem. Exploration of the cave, which lay one kilometer north of Wadi Qumran, yielded at least seventy fragments, including bits of the original seven scrolls. This discovery established the provenance of the purchased scrolls. Also recovered were archeological artifacts that confirmed the scroll dates suggested by paleographic study.

The Bedouins continued to search for scrolls, as these scraps of leather proved to be a fine source of income. Because Cave I had been exhausted by archeological excavation, the fresh material that the Bedouins were offering proved that Cave I was not an isolated phenomenon in the desert and that other caves with manuscripts also existed.

Temple Scroll

The years between 1951 and 1956 were marked by accelerated activity in both the search for caves and the archeological excavation of sites related to tile manuscripts. An eight-kilometer-long strip of cliffs was thoroughly investigated. Of the eleven caves that yieldedhj manuscripts, five were discovered by the Bedouins and six by archeologists. Some of the caves were particularly rich in material. Cave 3 preserved two oxidized rolls of beaten copper (the Copper Scroll), containing a lengthy roster of real or imaginary hidden treasures-a tantalizing enigma to this day. Cave 4. was particularly rich in material: 15,000 fragments from at least six hundred composite texts were found there. The last manuscript cave discovered, Cave II, was located in 1956, providing extensive documents, including the Psalms Scroll, an Aramaic targum of Job, and the Temple Scroll, the longest (about twenty-nine feet) of the Qumran manuscripts. The Temple Scroll was acquired by Yigael Yadin in 1967 and is now housed alongside the first seven scrolls in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. All the remaining manuscripts, sizable texts as well as minute fragments, are stored in the Rockefeller Museum building in Jerusalem, the premises of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Khirbet Qumran (The Qumran Ruin). Père de Vaux gradually realized the need to identify a habitation site close to the caves. Excavating such a site could provide clues that would help identify the people who deposited the scrolls.

The ruins of Qumran lie on a barren terrace between the limestone cliffs of the Judean Desert and the maritime bed along the Dead Sea. The excavations uncovered a complex of structures, 262 by 328 feet (80 by 100 meters), preserved to a considerable height. The structures were neither military nor private but rather communal in character.

Nearby were remains of burials. Pottery uncovered was identical with that of Cave I and confirmed the link with the nearby caves. Following the initial excavations, de Vaux suggested that this site was the wilderness retreat established by the Essene sect, which was alluded to by ancient historians. The sectarians inhabited neighboring locations, most likely caves, tents, anisd solid structures, but depended on the center for communal facilities such as stores of food and water. Excavations conducted in 1956 and 1958 at the neighboring site of ‘En Feshkha proved it to be the agricultural adjunct of Qumran.

The final report on the Qumran settlement excavations is pending, but the results are known through preliminary publications.

Dating of the Scrolls

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls caused heated controversy in scholarly circles over their date and the identity of the community they represented.

Professor Sukenik, after initially defining the time span of the scrolls as the Second Temple period, recognized their special significance and advocated the now widely accepted theory that they were remnants of the library of the Essenes. At the time, however, he was vociferously opposed by several scholars who doubted the antiquity as well as the authenticity of the texts. Lingering in the memory of learned circles was the notorious Shapira affair of 1883. M. Shapira, a Jerusalem antiquities dealer, announced the discovery of an ancient text of Deuteronomy. His texts, allegedly inscribed on fifteen leather strips, caused a huge stir in Europe, and were even exhibited at the British Museum. Shortly thereafter, the leading European scholars of the day denounced the writings as rank forgeries.

Today scholarly opinion regarding the time span and background of the Dead Sea Scrolls is anchored in historical, paleographic, and linguistic evidence, corroborated firmly by carbon 14-datings. Some manuscripts were written and copied in the third century B.C.E., but the bulk of the material, particularly the texts that reflect on a sectarian community, are originals or copies from the first century B.C.E.; a number of texts date from as late as the years preceding the destruction of the site in 68 C.E. at the hands of the Roman legions.

The Essenes

The Qumran sect’s origins are postulated by some scholars to be in the communities of the Hasidim, the pious anti-Hellenistic circles formed in the early days of the Maccabees. The Hasidim may have been the precursors of the Essenes, who were concerned about growing Hellenization and strove to abide by the Torah.

Archeological and historical evidence indicates that Qumran was founded in the second half of the second century B.C.E., during the time of the Maccabean dynasty. A hiatus in the occupation of the site is linked to evidence of a huge earthquake. Qumran was abandoned about the time of the Roman incursion of 68 C.E., two years before the collapse of Jewish self-government in Judea and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

The chief sources of information for the history of this fateful time span are the Qumran scrolls and the excavations, but earlier information on the Essenes was provided by their contemporaries: Josephus Flavius, Philo of Alexandria, and Pliny the Elder. Their accounts arc continuously being borne out by the site excavations and study of the writings.

The historian Josephus relates the division of the Jews of the Second Temple period into three orders: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes. The Sadducees included mainly the priestly and aristocratic families; the Pharisees constituted the Jay circles; and the Essenes were a separatist group, part of which formed an ascetic monastic community that retreated to the wilderness. The exact political and religious affinities of each of these groups, as well as their development and interrelationships, are still relatively obscure and arc the source of widely disparate scholarly views.

The crisis that brought about the secession of the Essenes from mainstream Judaism is thought to have occurred when the Maccabean ruling princes Jonathan (160-142 B.C.E.) and Simeon (142-134 B.C.E.) usurped the office of high priest (which included secular duties), much to the consternation of conservative Jews; some of them could not tolerate the situation and denounced the new rulers. The persecution of the Essenes and their leader, the teacher of righteousness probably elicited the sect’s apocalyptic visions. These included the overthrow of “the wicked priest” of Jerusalem and of the evil people and, in the dawn of the Messianic Age, the recognition of their community as the true Israel. The retreat of these Jews into the desert would enable them “to separate themselves from the congregation of perverse men (IQ Serekh 5:2).

A significant feature of the Essene sect is its calendar, which was based on a solar system of 364 days, unlike the common Jewish calendar, which was lunar and consisted of 354-days. It is not clear how the sectarian calendar was reconciled, as was the normative Jewish calendar, with the astronomical time system.

The sectarian calendar was always reckoned from a Wednesday, the day on which God created the luminaries. The year consisted of fifty-two weeks, divided into four seasons of thirteen weeks each, and the festivals consistently fell on the same days of the week. A similar solar system was long familiar from pseudepigraphic works. The sectarian calendar played a weighty, role in the schism of the community from the rest of Judaism, as the festivals and fast days of the sect were ordinary workdays for the mainstream community and vice versa. The author of the Book of Jubilees accuses the followers of the lunar calendar of turning secular “days of impurity” into “festivals and holy days” (Jubilees 6:36-37).

The Essenes persisted in a separatist existence through two centuries, occupying themselves with study and a communal way of life that included worship, prayer, and work. It is clear, however, that large groups of adherents also lived in towns and villages outside the Qumran area.

The word Essene is never distinctly mentioned in the scrolls. How then can we attribute either the writings or the sites of the Judean Desert to the Essenes?

The argument in favor of this ascription is supported by the tripartite division of Judaism referred to in Qumran writings (for example, in the Nahum Commentary) into Ephraim, Menasseh, and Judah, corresponding to the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. As the Essenes refer to themselves in the scrolls as Judah, it is quite clear whom they regarded themselves to be. Moreover, their religious concepts and beliefs as attested in the scrolls conform to those recorded by contemporary writers and stand in sharp contrast to those of the other known Jewish groups.

In most cases the principles of the Essene way of life and beliefs are described by contemporaneous writers in language similar to the self-descriptions found in the scrolls. Customs described in ancient sources as Essene-such as the probationary period for new members, the strict hierarchy practiced in the organization of the sect, their frequent ablutions, and communal meals-are all echoed in the scrolls. From the Community Rule: “Communally they shall cat and communally they shall bless and communally they shall take counsel” (IQ Serekh 6:1). Finally, the location of the sect is assigned to the Dead Sea area by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder.

Although this evidence is accepted by most scholars as conclusive in identifying the Essenes with the Qumran settlement and the manuscripts found in the surrounding caves, a number of scholars remain vehemently opposed. Some propose that the site was a military garrison or even a winter villa. The scrolls are viewed as an eclectic collection, neither necessarily inscribed in the Dead Sea area nor sectarian in nature, perhaps even remains of the library of the Temple in Jerusalem. Other scholars view the texts as the writings of forerunners or even followers of Jesus--Jewish Christians--who still observed Jewish law.

The Qumran Library

The collection of writing recovered in the Qumran environs has restored to us a voluminous corpus of Jewish documents dating from the third century B.C.E. to 68 C.E., demonstrating the rich literary activity of Second Temple-period Jewry. The collection comprises documents of a varied nature, most of them of a distinct religious bent. The chief categories represented are biblical, apocryphal or pseudepigraphical, and sectarian writings. The study of this original library has demonstrated that the boundaries between these categories is far from clear-cut.

The biblical manuscripts include what are probably the earliest copies of these texts to have come down to us. Most of the books of the Bible are represented in the collection. Some books are extant in large number of copies; others are represented only fragmentarily on mere scraps of parchment. The biblical texts display considerable similarity to the standard Masoretic (received) text. This, however, is not always the rule, and many texts diverge from the Masoretic. For example, some of the texts of Samuel from Cave 4 follow the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Bible translated in the third to second centuries B.C.E. Indeed. Qumran has yielded copies of the Septuagint in Greek.

The biblical scrolls in general have provided many new readings that facilitate the reconstruction of the textual history of the Old Testament. It is also significant that several manuscripts of the Bible, including the Leviticus Scroll are inscribed not in the Jewish script dominant at the time but rather in the ancient paleo-Hebrew script.

A considerable number of apocryphal and pseudepigraphic texts are preserved at Qumran, where original Hebrew and Aramaic versions of these Jewish compositions of the Second Temple period were first encountered. These writings, which are not included in the canonical Jewish scriptures, were preserved by different Christian churches, and were transmitted in Greek, Ethiopic, Syriac, Armenian, and other translations.

Some of these are narrative texts closely related to biblical compositions, such as the Book of Jubilees and Enoch, whereas others arc independent works-for example, Tobit and Ben Sira. Apparently, some of these compositions were treated by the Qumran community as canonical and were studied by them.

The most original and unique group of writings from Qumran are the sectarian Ones, which were practically unknown until their discovery in 1947. An exception is the Damascus Document (or Damascus Covenant), which lacked a definite identification before the discoveries of the Dead Sea area. This widely varied literature reveals the beliefs and customs of a pietistic commune, probably centered at Qumran, and includes rules and ordinances, biblical commentaries, apocalyptic visions, and liturgical works, generally attributed to the last quarter of the second century B.C.E. and onward.

The “rules,” the collections of rules and instructions reflecting the practices of the commune, arc exemplified by the Damascus Document, the Community Rule, and Some Torah Precepts. Here we witness a considerable corpus of legal material (Halakhah) that has Much in common with the rabbinic tradition preserved at a later date in the Mishnah. The Halakhah emerging from the sectarian writings seems to be corroborated by the sectarian Halakhah referred to in rabbinic sources.

The biblical commentaries (pesharim), such as the Habakkuk Commentary, the Nahum Commentary, and the Hosea Commentary, are attested solely at Qumran and grew out of the sect’s eschatological presuppositions. The Scriptures were scanned by the sect for allusions to current and future events. These allusions could be understood only by the sectarians themselves, because only they possessed “eyes to see”-their distinct eschatological vision. Liturgical works figure prominently among the sectarian manuscripts at Qumran because of the centrality of prayer in this period. The Thanksgiving Psalms (Hodayot) are of two types: those characterized by a personal tone, attributed by some to the “teacher of righteousness,” and the communal type, referring to a group.

Many more compositions deserve mention, but this brief survey demonstrates the major role played by the Dead Sea Scrolls in improving our comprehension of this pivotal moment in Jewish history.

A New Discovery

In March 2021, for the first time in nearly 60 years, fragments from a Dead Sea scroll were found in a cave in the Judean Desert. Nearly 2,000 year old parchment fragments ranging from a few millimeters to a thumbnail in size are from the book of the 12 minor prophets, including Zechariah and Nahum. Though written mainly in Greek, the scroll has the name of god, Yahweh, written in Hebrew letters typical of the First Temple period. The fragments may be from a Minor Prophets scroll discovered in 1952, which includes Micah’s prophecy about the End of Days and the rise of a ruler out of Bethlehem.

Part of the text from Zechariah was translated from the fragments: “These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates. And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate — declares the Lord.”

The fragments were found in the “Cave of Horrors,” so-called because archaeologists in the 1950s found the skeletons of 40 men, women, and children who had hidden there during the Bar Kochba revolt and apparently starved to death when the Romans besieged the area.

The discovery was made during a national project initiated in 2017 to explore all caves and ravines of the Judean Desert in a hunt for relics from prehistoric and biblical times. Authorities are racing to find whatever relics may be in the area before they are taken by looters who sell them on the black market.

Sources: Ayala Sussman and Ruth Peled, Scrolls From the Dead Sea, (DC: Library of Congress, 1993);
Mysterious Dead Sea Scroll deciphered in Israel, BBC News, (January 22, 2018).
Ruth Schuster and Ariel David, “Israel Finds New Dead Sea Scrolls, First Such Discovery in 60 Years,” Haaretz, (March 16, 2021).
Isabel Kershner, “Israel Reveals Newly Discovered Fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls,” New York Times, (March 16, 2021).

Photos: Shrine of the Book By Xavier Gillet, Bordeaux, France (xavier33300 on flickr) – Israel Museum, Jerusalem, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Qumran Caves By Tamarah - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons.
Isaiah Scroll by Ardon Bar Hama, author of original document is unknown. - Website of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Temple Scroll Israel Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Dead Sea Scroll Jar By Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.