What Is the Truth About the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Over 50 years ago, a stone thrown by a Bedouin shepherd into a cave led to what some have called the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century. The Bedouin heard the stone crack open an earthenware jar. Upon investigating, he found the first of what came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

THESE scrolls have been the focus of attention and controversy both in scholarly circles and in the general media. Among the public, confusion and misinformation abound. Rumors have circulated about a massive cover-up, prompted by fear that the scrolls reveal facts that would undermine the faith of Christians and Jews alike. But what is the true significance of these scrolls? After more than 50 years, can the facts be known?

What Are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient Jewish manuscripts, most of them written in Hebrew, some in Aramaic, and a few in Greek. Many of these scrolls and fragments are over 2,000 years old, dating to before the birth of Jesus. Among the first scrolls obtained from the Bedouins were seven lengthy manuscripts in various stages of deterioration. As more caves were searched, other scrolls and thousands of scroll fragments were found. Between the years of 1947 and 1956, a total of 11 caves containing scrolls were discovered near Qumran, by the Dead Sea.

When all the scrolls and fragments are sorted out, they account for about 800 manuscripts.  About one quarter, or just over 200 manuscripts, are copies of portions of the Hebrew Bible text. Additional manuscripts represent ancient non-Biblical Jewish writings, both Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. *

Some of the scrolls that most excited scholars were previously unknown writings. These include interpretations on matters of Jewish law, specific rules for the community of the sect that lived in Qumran, liturgical poems and prayers, as well as eschatological works that reveal views about the fulfillment of Bible prophecy and the last days. There are also unique Bible commentaries, the most ancient antecedents of modern running commentary on Bible texts.

Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Various methods of dating ancient documents indicate that the scrolls were either copied or composed between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E. Some scholars have proposed that the scrolls were hidden in the caves by Jews from Jerusalem before the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. However, the majority of scholars researching the scrolls find this view out of harmony with the content of the scrolls themselves. Many scrolls reflect views and customs that stood in opposition to the religious authorities in Jerusalem. These scrolls reveal a community that believed that God had rejected the priests and the temple service in Jerusalem and that he viewed their group’s worship in the desert as a kind of substitute temple service. It seems unlikely that Jerusalem’s temple authorities would hide a collection that included such scrolls.

Although there likely was a school of copyists at Qumran, probably many of the scrolls were collected elsewhere and brought there by the believers. In a sense, the Dead Sea Scrolls are an extensive library collection. As with any library, the collection may include a wide range of thought, not all necessarily reflecting the religious viewpoints of its readers. However, those texts that exist in multiple copies more likely reflect the special interests and beliefs of the group.

Were the Qumran Residents Essenes?

If these scrolls were Qumran’s library, who were its residents? Professor Eleazar Sukenik, who obtained three scrolls for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1947, was the first to propose that these scrolls had belonged to a community of Essenes.

The Essenes were a Jewish sect mentioned by first-century writers Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, and Pliny the Elder. The exact origin of the Essenes is a matter of speculation, but they seem to have arisen during the period of turmoil following the Maccabean revolt in the second century B.C.E. * Josephus reported on their existence during that period as he detailed how their religious views differed from those of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Pliny mentioned the location of a community of Essenes by the Dead Sea between Jericho and En-gedi.

Professor James VanderKam, a Dead Sea Scroll scholar, proposes that “the Essenes who lived at Qumran were just a small part of the larger Essene movement,” which Josephus numbered at about four thousand. Although not perfectly fitting all descriptions, the picture that emerges from the Qumran texts seems to match the Essenes better than any other known Jewish group of that period.

Some have claimed that Christianity had its beginnings at Qumran. Nevertheless, many striking differences can be noted between  the religious views of the Qumran sect and the early Christians. The Qumran writings reveal ultrastrict Sabbath regulations and an almost obsessive preoccupation with ceremonial purity. (Matthew 15:1-20; Luke 6:1-11) Much the same could be said regarding the Essenes’ seclusion from society, their belief in fate and the immortality of the soul, and their emphasis on celibacy and mystical ideas about participating with the angels in their worship. This shows them to be at variance with Jesus’ teachings and those of early Christians.​—Matthew 5:14-16; John 11:23, 24; Colossians 2:18; 1 Timothy 4:1-3.

No Cover-up, No Hidden Scrolls

In the years following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, various publications were produced that made the initial finds readily available to scholars around the world. But the thousands of fragments from one of the caves, known as Cave 4, were far more problematic. These were in the hands of a small international team of scholars set up in East Jerusalem (then part of Jordan) at the Palestine Archaeological Museum. No Jewish or Israeli scholars were included in this team.

The team developed a policy of not allowing access to the scrolls until they published the official results of their research. The number of scholars on the team was kept to a set limit. When a team member died, only one new scholar would be added to replace him. The amount of work demanded a much larger team, and in some cases, greater expertise in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic. James VanderKam put it this way: “Tens of thousands of fragments were more than eight experts, however skilled, could handle.”

With the Six-Day War in 1967, East Jerusalem and its scrolls came under Israeli jurisdiction, but no policy change for the scroll research team was instituted. As the delay in publishing the scrolls from Cave 4 extended from years to decades, an outcry was heard from a number of scholars. In 1977, Professor Geza Vermes of Oxford University called it the academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century. Rumors started to spread that the Catholic Church was deliberately hiding information from the scrolls that would be devastating to Christianity.

In the 1980’s, the team was finally expanded to 20 scholars. Then, in 1990, under the direction of its newly appointed editor in chief, Emanuel Tov, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the team was further expanded to over 50 scholars. A strict schedule was set up for publishing all the scholarly editions of the remaining scrolls.

A real breakthrough came unexpectedly in 1991. First, A Preliminary Edition of the Unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls was published. This was put together with computer assistance based on a copy of the team’s concordance. Next, the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, announced that they would make available for any scholar their complete set of photographs of the scrolls. Before long, with the publication of A Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, photographs of the previously unpublished scrolls became easily accessible.

So for the last decade, all the Dead Sea Scrolls have been available for examination. The research reveals that there was no cover-up; there were no hidden scrolls. As the final official editions of the scrolls are being published, only now can full analysis begin. A new generation of scroll scholarship has been born. But what significance does this research have for Bible students?

[Footnotes]

^ par. 6 Both the Apocrypha (literally, “hidden”) and the Pseudepigrapha (literally, “falsely attributed writings”) are Jewish writings from the third century B.C.E. through the first century C.E. The Apocrypha are accepted by the Roman Catholic Church as part of the inspired Bible canon, but these books are rejected by Jews and Protestants. The Pseudepigrapha are often in the form of expansions on Biblical stories, written in the name of some famous Bible character.

^ par. 13 See the article “Who Were the Maccabees?” in The Watchtower of November 15, 1998, pages 21-4.

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These are among the caves near the Dead Sea in which ancient scrolls were found

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Scroll fragment: Pages 3, 4, and 6: Courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

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Courtesy of Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, Jerusalem