Qumran Pt 1: What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

It All Started with Throwing Rocks in the Hills of Qumran

No, really, that is how it all started. After almost seventy years of “Whodunnit,” we still really do not know the full story of how the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and initially handled. The reigning theory – based on who said what and when and who paid whom off and so forth – runs as follows. In the winter of 1947 or spring of 1948, a group of (Muslim) Bedouins were tending their flocks on the northwest hillsides of the Dead Sea, near the ruins of an ancient community of some sort named Qumran. One of the Bedouins had a habit of throwing rocks into caves to pass the time, and one day he heard something shatter when his rock entered. Days later, his friend Muhammad edh-Dhib returned to scout out the cave to see what it contained. They uncovered some pottery containing what appeared to be ancient scrolls – 3 at first, and then 4 more were discovered later. At this point, the eyewitness accounts get murky about what they did with those first scrolls, who they talked to, who bought them first, how those initial seven were divided up, and so forth. Antiquities dealers, Roman Catholic priests, American scholars in Jerusalem, and many more players got involved. Press releases announcing these scrolls were published prematurely, scholarly bragging rights as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars were at risk, and the whole thing initially got a little out of hand.

Map of the Qumran findings

The findings were, however, huge. One manuscripts scholar wrote to one of the Americans involved in the initial study of the scrolls later in 1948, “My heartiest congratulations on the greatest [manuscripts] discovery of modern times!” And he was right.

The only problem was that something else big happened in 1948: the creation of the nation of Israel in Palestinian territory, which launched several years of unrest. This combination of Muslim Bedouin shepherds finding caves, Roman Catholics and Americans reviewing and cataloguing them, and the instability of the region post-Israeli independence understandably added a layer of intrigue as well as delays to the progress in excavating Qumran (which was delayed to the early 1950s) and finding more scrolls. At any rate, more caves were found in the Qumran area, totaling 11 in all that contained scrolls of some sort.

It took decades for all the scrolls to be assembled, pieced together, photographed, and ultimately published so that they could be read. The whole process was a bit of a mess and took far longer than it probably should have (which further fueled the conspiracy theories; more on this later). But at long last, the bulk of the scrolls began seeing light in the early 1990s and are easily accessible in both original languages and English translations today.

What Exactly are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

All told, there have been roughly 930 total manuscripts discovered in the eleven Qumran caves. Several are full manuscripts that are in pretty good condition; many are partial pieces or even just scraps containing a word or two. The scrolls can be divided into three basic categories:

Bible Manuscripts

  • Roughly 218-220 manuscripts are copies of Old Testament writings, mostly Hebrew but a few in Greek (some form of the Septuagint).
  • Every OT book is represented in the DSS except Esther.
  • The most well-known biblical scroll is the “Great Isaiah Scroll,” which was found in the first cave and is a nearly intact scroll of the prophet Isaiah (which can be viewed online here).
  • The five most common books, by frequency, are as follows:
    1. Psalms (34)
    2. Deuteronomy (30)
    3. Isaiah (21)
    4. Genesis (20)
    5. Exodus (16)
  • From there, the most frequent books are Leviticus, Daniel, the Twelve Minor Prophets, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel; beyond that, most books are present in only 1-4 copies.
  • Moreover, Aramaic “targums” (translations of the Hebrew Bible often used in the Jewish synagogues) were found for Leviticus and Job, which is notable because no other written targums have been found until well after the Christian era (e.g., 2nd and 3rd century and later).
  • [In part 2, I will delve into some significant implications of these findings]
The Great Isaiah Scroll

Religious Writings

Other religious writings that are not in the canonical Hebrew Bible but still reflect Jewish religion include the following. Different groups throughout time have ascribed varying levels of authoritativeness to these works.

  • Apocryphal works: included in the Septuagint (and the Roman Catholic / Orthodox Bibles, but not recognized by Protestants)
    1. Tobit, Sirach, Baruch 6, and Psalm 151
  • Pseudepigrapha: books that were written in the intertestamental period but not included in the Hebrew Bible or Septuagint (or any other “Bible”)
    1. Known before DSS: 1 Enoch, Jubilees, and Testaments of the Twelve Patriarch
    2. Found only in the DSS: Genesis Apocryphon, Prayer of Nabonidus, and a variety of others
  • Biblical commentaries: several examples of “running commentaries” that go verse-by-verse through a biblical book and provide an interpretation. Typically, the basic assumptions evident in the DSS are (a) that the biblical prophets were speaking only about latter days, and (b) that the Qumran community was living in those very days. Thus, the commentaries try to map prophesies 1:1 from the Bible to their present circumstances (often called “pesher” interpretation).
    1. Habakkuk Commentary (one of the original 7 from cave 1)
    2. Nahum Commentary
    3. Commentary on the Psalms,
    4. Florilegium (commentary on 2 Samuel and Psalms 1 and 2), and more.
The Copper Scroll

Sectarian Writings

  • The remainder of the Qumran scrolls constitute a variety of documents describing the life, initiation rights, ceremonies, worship, and legal regulations of the community that (apparently) lived there.
  • Throughout these documents there is a variety of recurring themes drawn from the Bible and applied to the community, expressing their understanding of Israel, God, salvation, future salvation, and so forth. These major themes include:
    1. The great cosmic battle between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness
    2. The rise and inspired teachings of the Teacher of Righteousness
    3. The arch-enemy known as the Kittim (likely the government of Rome), led by the Wicked Priest
    4. The fulfillment of God’s “New Covenant” (a biblical concept) among the community at Qumran
    5. Righteousness and Law
  • The more famous sectarian scrolls are the following[1]:
    1. The Damascus Document (CD), The Community Rule (1QS), The Temple Scroll (11QT), The War Scroll (1QM), Some Works of the Torah (4QMMT), and The Copper Scroll (3Q15).

A full set of the Dead Sea Scrolls, minus the Bible scrolls, can be found in Wise, Abegg, and Cook The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation. Translations of the Bible scrolls are available in Abegg, Flint, and Ulrich The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible.[2]

When Were the Scrolls Written?

One of the most important questions surrounding the scrolls is the dating. Scholarly opinions have varied since day one, but the weight of evidence points in one consistent direction: the scrolls (and the community that used them, some of whom lived in the Qumran settlement itself) date from roughly the third century BC to the first century AD. This means that the scrolls were composed / copied / translated AFTER the close of the Hebrew Bible in ca. 400 BC and BEFORE or DURING the ministry of Jesus (early 30s AD) and the dawn of the early Christian church.

There are four strands of evidence for this dating of the DSS.

  • Paleography (handwriting): If you were to uncover a typed document written in Comic Sans, you would likely date it to the late 1990s / early 2000s; if you found something printed in dot-matrix font, you would date it to the 80s; if on a typerwriter, the 1940s-1970s; and so on. The same logic applies to handwritten manuscripts: scribal handwriting exhibits patterns over time, which you can use to date manuscripts. Scholars have been able to divide the DSS into three tranches: Archaic (250-150 BC), Hasmonean (150-30 BC), and Herodian (30 BC-70 AD).
  • Accelerated Mass Spectrometry: This fancy form of Carbon-14 dating has placed the DSS in roughly the same time brackets as above (with normal testing some deviation): 250 BC to 100 AD.
  • Internal Allusions: If you found a newspaper fragment that mentioned something President Jimmy Carter did yesterday, you would date it to the late 1970s. Same thing with the DSS. While specific allusions are few and far between, the ones we do have – Demetrius of Greece and Antiochus – point to the first century BC.
  • Artifacts: Pottery, coins, and other artifacts from the Qumran settlement and the eleven caves suggest that they were in use in the same general time period (e.g., there are coins minted as early as the 300s BC and as late as AD 70 and beyond).

Who Wrote the Scrolls? Who Lived in Qumran?

These questions have proven especially difficult to answer, because the writers of the non-biblical Qumran texts simply do not identify themselves in any clear way; even their references to their enemies are shrouded in code words and metaphors. The leading hypotheses are as follows:

Qumran ruins
Qumran ruins
  • When was Qumran occupied by somebody? How was it used?
    1. There is one basic theory with multiple tweaks pertaining to what the ruins at Qumran actually were and how they relate to the caves containing the scrolls.
    2. The settlement contained living quarters, a scriptorium for scribal use (though some argue it was just a large dining room), ceremonial pools, possibly a military-like tower, cemeteries, and a variety of other features that suggest that a band of people, numbering in the low hundreds, lived in Qumran at various points of time. [The other theories suggest it was just a military outpost or a country villa, not a permanent settlement]
    3. The residents of Qumran settled there for punctuated stages of time. The first may have been as early as 800-700 BC. The second was contemporaneous with the Jewish Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BC. The third coincided with the death of King Herod and lasted until the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD). A possible fourth coincided with the Bar Khokhba period (130s AD).
  • Who lived at Qumran?
    1. We frankly do not know, especially for the earliest period and later periods. However, for the main period relevant to the Scrolls, the leading theory is that the Qumran community consisted of Essenes.
    2. Historians such as Josephus and Pliny (as well as the NT) identify a few different Jewish groups in existence in the late centuries BC and first century AD: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes (and possibly the Zealots). While the Essenes are not mentioned in the Bible explicitly, they were well known among Jewish historians. Pliny and Dio Chrysostom specifically state that a group of Essenes lived west of the Dead Sea, and given that there are no known settlements that fit their description other than Qumran, the Essenes have been the lead candidates.
    3. Other data within the scrolls themselves point to the Essenes (versus the Pharisees and Sadducees), such as the Scrolls’ teaching on predestination, angels, soul immortality (but not bodily resurrection per se), communal sharing of property, rankings among the people, and so forth.
    4. Some have proposed that no specific sect lived at Qumran at all, but rather that the scrolls were brought to the caves near Qumran during the time when Jerusalem was being attacked in 68-70 AD. This theory is not altogether implausible, but the weight of evidence continues to lean in the direction of the Essenes.

In the next post, I will delve into four main areas:

  • What are some of the major beliefs espoused by the Qumran community in the DSS, and why did those ideas cause such an uproar (if indeed they did?)
  • Why do the DSS matter for OT studies?
  • Why do the DSS matter for NT studies? [And is it all a big conspiracy after all?]
  • How should Christians think about the DSS?

So what? Connecting to the pew

This has largely been a history lesson so far, which is necessary in order to discuss the Scrolls in their proper context. However, even from this cursory overview (which was necessarily oversimplified), we can derive a few important implications for the Christian:

  • Remember that there are facts … and there are interpretations of the facts. Alleged objective academic findings – the so-called scholarly consensus – can often present its findings in such a matter-of-fact, “I can’t believe anyone would disagree with this” kind of way that aggressively communicates that a proposed theory EQUALS absolute truth. The thinking runs thus: “Data is objective,” and “Reason is too,” and so if enough rational scholars hold to a theory, it must be factual truth. Theory = fact. For the average churchgoer, this can be quite intimidating, since you are put in a position where you can never know as much as the expert. If a DSS scholar says, “Scholarly consensus shows that Jesus did not see himself as divine but rather as the fulfillment of the Qumran Teacher of Righteousness,” that can be hard to stomach. We need to keep in mind an important truth: there is no such thing as an unbiased interpreter or “objective” reason. Positively, we all have a worldview or a set of basic assumptions about reality that color everything we think about. Negatively, the noetic (mental) effect of the fall presented in Scripture (e.g., Romans 1:18ff) teaches that all human brains are warped in some way. We are not unbiased, no matter how hard we try. Thus, no scholar can bracket out his worldview or the imperfections of his faculty of reason when evaluating any data. We should avoid making the false equation that “interpretation” = “fact”; rather, we should be encouraged to keep calm, judiciously evaluate any claim, and remember that (a) God is the Lord of all truth, (b) he has revealed himself in Word and Flesh, and (c) he has given his Spirit to lead us to truth (John 16:13ff).
  • Don’t be afraid of the big bad wolf. I will delve into the DSS controversies more in the next post, but this is worth mentioning now. It is easy for Christians to respond one of two ways to things like the Dead Sea Scrolls (or the latest Dan Brown book, or the Gospel of Judas, or any host of conspiracy theories about the church). Either we buy into the furor and start thinking that the historic church has kept some nasty secret hidden for centuries (and, thus, become skeptics), or we circle the wagons and avoid the whole topic altogether, out of fear that somehow it will jettison our faith. Neither extreme is healthy nor Christ-like. When facing Satan in the desert, Jesus did not buy into his lies, but he also did not cower and try to ignore him altogether. He critically evaluated Satan’s claims, exposed their deceit, and stood firm on the revelation of God in Scripture. We should do the same. If God is who he says he is, and if the Bible is what it claims to be, then we have nothing to fear from the big bad wolf in whatever form it appears: Dead Sea Scrolls, apocryphal gospels, gnostic writings, or Dan Brown. We should critically evaluate the material, discern where it is helpful (in understanding history, beliefs of people contemporaneous with Christians, similarities and differences relative to the Bible, and so forth), and identify where it is inaccurate or unbiblical. There is nothing to be afraid of in the facts themselves; the interpretations are what we have to watch out for!


Recommended sources:


[1] The DSS are numbered according to the following convention: # [Cave Number] + Q [for Qumran] + [Descriptor or Number] + [Version superscript, if necessary]. For instance, the first copy of Isaiah found in cave 1 is identified as 1QIsaa.

[2] The transcribed Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts can be found in an accessible format in Martinez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (2 vols).

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