Imagine being able to scientifically study the Bible. Much discussion and countless debates have centered on religion and, in particular, each belief’s sacred book. It’s often a touchy subject, one based on beliefs and feelings rather than facts and evidence. Science, being a recent development in terms of history, had little to say about this topic. That is until the 1950s and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
For archaeologists, these remnants of parchment, papyrus, leather, and copper represent the single greatest find of the Twentieth Century, if not ever. It is because of these discoveries that researchers, scholars, and academics have been able to clarify many historical and archaeological questions that surround religion. Though the Dead Sea Scrolls do not answer questions such as “Is God real?” or “What is my purpose in life?” they do offer a clearer vision into the ancient world of the modern-day Middle East and offer a totally new perspective on Judaism, Christianity, and the world in which Jesus walked.
It seems fitting that shepherds are responsible for one of history’s greatest religious discoveries. Members of the nomadic Bedouin peoples came across the Dead Sea Scrolls by chance in 1947. Over the next two decades, in Khirbet Qumran in modern-day Israeli-occupied West Bank, Bedouin herders and archaeological expeditions uncovered close to a dozen more caves and fragments of around 950 scrolls. These comprise what we know today as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Since 1956, numerous excavations have taken place, but they have found no other artifacts.
The words and teachings of the Dead Sea Scrolls, written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, contain an abundance of information about religious matters and everyday life back in ancient Palestine. They are thought to be the products and belongings of the community that lived in the Qumran area of the Dead Sea coast from the third to the first century B.C.E. The scrolls are often classified into three categories: religious, apocryphal, and sectarian.
The religious scrolls comprise the entire Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh), save the books of Nehemiah and Esther. These discoveries proved significant both for Judaism and Christianity, since many of the books in the Hebrew Bible make up the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. It is clear from this portion of the scrolls that the community responsible for writing them valued their religious beliefs highly. Upwards of thirty copies of certain books of the Tanakh have been found, like those of Deuteronomy. They made over two hundred copies of the twenty-four books in the Tanakh.
The religious scrolls provide the earliest evidence for examples of biblical text. This evidence offers scholars insight into how the modern-day Hebrew and Christian Bibles came to be and how their corresponding beliefs started and evolved. The crown jewel discovery of the religious manuscripts is the Isaiah scroll. This is the only scroll to be found and preserved in its entirety; all other religious documents were uncovered in fragments. Since the Book of Isaiah has a prominent messianic theme, scholars now know that this community, living just before Jesus’s time, believed strongly in the coming of a heavenly savior and the end of times.
The apocryphal scrolls have religious themes as well, but the Jewish community kept these secret from their population and excluded them from the collection of the Hebrew Bible. The reason for this secrecy is unknown, making these scrolls an object of curiosity, research, and speculation.
In an ironic historical twist, the Christian community preserved these texts that the Jewish community shunned. Christians and sectarians valued and collected these portions of the scrolls. They survived to today as parts of the Greek translation of the Christian Bible or as independent, secular collections of prayers, wisdom, and literature.
The sectarian scrolls deal less with telling biblical stories and more with critical analysis of them. As far as researchers know, this type of biblical interpretation is unique to the Qumran community in which the scrolls were found. Through a mixture of detailing specific cases in some parts and providing a running commentary in others, the authors of the sectarian scrolls offered explanations of biblical text and laid out rules and laws that members of the community lived by.
As much information and answers as the Dead Sea Scrolls give to us, they raise just as many questions, if not more. One of the most debated questions surrounding this famous find is its authorship. With claims ranging from a religious community that inhabited the Qumran region to a fleeing group of exiles, the question of whom to attribute these exhilarating excavations to remains unanswered.
One of the wider told origin stories of the scrolls gives a community called the Essenes credit. According to historians, the Essenes were a group of Jewish ascetics living in the Qumran region over two thousand years ago. They dedicated their lives to resisting earthly pleasures and writing and preserving sacred texts. As this story goes, the Essenes worked well into the life, and even past the death, of Jesus, creating and conserving what we now call the Dead Sea Scrolls. They continued this work until the Roman empire destroyed their community in C.E. 68. If this story is true, it could provide a new link between the Jewish and Christian religions. John the Baptist, the aptly named baptizer of Jesus, could have been a student and member of the Essene ascetics. Talk about a revelation!
Other historians doubt the Essenes had anything to do with the scrolls, saying there is not sufficient evidence to suggest a religious community inhabited the region of Qumran. Another origin theory for the scrolls credits their authorship to a community of Jews fleeing the persecution of the Roman Empire. This origin story claims the refugees happened upon the caves in Qumran and hurriedly stashed the scrolls there for protection.
Still other theories claim Qumran was a manor house, another a perfume manufacturing center, and yet another a tannery. Many origin theories for the Dead Sea Scrolls have been offered, analyzed, and debated, making this question one of contention and potent feelings. But why is the origin of the scrolls so important?
One of the greatest revelations of the Dead Sea Scrolls was their historical insight: the laws, the teachings, and the lives of the people who lived during Biblical times and helped write two of history’s most influential books.
One such story concerns the Maccabean Revolt and the Second Judaean Temple. When the Maccabees overthrew the Seleucid Empire that ruled Judea in 164 B.C.E., they overthrew the priestly class that ruled the Second Temple. As is usually the case when a power vacuum emerges, different factions formed and fought for control of the Temple and the newly established Maccabean kingdom.
These rival sects are the different groups variously attributed for writing the Dead Sea Scrolls. The question of who exactly wrote them would have a vast impact on how scholars and historians view the context in which the Tanakh and Old Testament were written and the history of both Judaism and Christianity.
Forgeries, Legends, and the Black Market
Perhaps one of the few aspects of this archaeological discovery that experts can agree on is that the Dead Sea Scrolls is the most important find of the twentieth century. Their notoriety among scholars and popularity among laypeople launched the scrolls into legend-level fame. But fame can be a fickle friend. Thanks to their popularity, the Dead Sea Scrolls have been the victim of forgery, counterfeiting, and Black-Market circulation, in some instances as recently as 2020.
In Washington, D.C., The Museum of the Bible offers visitors a stroll through the history, meaning, and significance of one of history’s greatest books. The crowning achievement of their artifact collection was sixteen fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, independent research concluded in 2020 found that all the fragments in the museum were forgeries. The fragments consisted of pieces of ancient leather, but the writing on the leather was written during modern times.
This bombshell news sent shock waves throughout the archaeological community and threw many Dead Sea Scrolls artifacts into question. Further investigation has verified that, though all the original pieces found in the 1940s to 1960s and which now lie in the Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem are authentic, much, if not all the “artifacts” introduced in 2000 and later are fakes.
Some of the original fragments are not free of shady dealings, however. In the late 1940s, a Syrian Orthodox archbishop of Jerusalem bought four of the original pieces from a cobbler for one hundred dollars. He fled the Arab-Israeli war and went to the U.S. in 1948, where he posted the four fragments for sale in the classifieds of the Wall Street Journal. He negotiated their sale to the State of Israel for $250,000. Hefty profit, right? Well, at least for the IRS, which confiscated a vast majority of the money because of an improperly drafted Bill of Sale.
In addition to this shady underbelly of the Dead Sea Scrolls story, myths and legends bring intrigue to the mix. It is rumored that some scrolls, namely the texts inscribed on copper plates, contain a treasure map. The Hebrew and Greek in these scrolls use peculiar vocabulary and unconventional spelling, apparently to encrypt the location of hoards of gold, silver, and other plunder. To this day, though, no such treasure has been found. Further rumors have been born to explain the absence of these riches, ranging from Roman pillaging of Judaea to these stores never existing in the first place. Or, perhaps, the real treasures are the scores of knowledge and wealth of information these scrolls give us.
The Dead Sea Scrolls have proven to be that rare archaeological find that captivates both experts and laypeople alike. They have given archaeologists and historians a plethora of information to consider and no shortage of questions to debate. They have provided a wealth of stories, history, and folklore for the average Joe and Jane to ponder as well. Even their discovery was a shared effort between nomadic Bedouin herders and professional archaeological expeditions.
The Dead Sea Scrolls’ significance is hard to exaggerate. Their information affects every field of study from religion to history to archaeology and even sheds light on the origin, authorship, and background of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. The information uncovered will undoubtedly influence both academia and everyday life for centuries to come.
But their impact also came with a seedier side. Their fame, mixed with a measure of that good, old, greedy human nature, spurred some high-profile cases of forgery, hard-to-believe mundane transactions of priceless artifacts, and larger-than-life rumors of priceless treasures.
While there is still much to be learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls and scores of debates yet to be argued, one thing is certain: their discovery constitutes one of the greatest archaeological finds of the twentieth century.