top of page
Check back soon
Once posts are published, you’ll see them here.

June 1 The Dead Sea Scrolls

A Bedouin shepherd throwing a stone into a cave on the shore of the Dead Sea was puzzled by the cracking sound within. Investigating he was amazed to find a cracked earthenware jar that contained papyrus and leather scrolls. This lead to further discoveries in nearby caves and gave us astonishing insights into an ancient Jewish and Biblical world. The most astonishing find in modern archaeology.


Today an advert for four of the Dead Sea Scrolls appeared in the Wall Street Journal – it read “Biblical Manuscripts dating back to at least 200 B.C. are for sale. This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group.” These ancient scrolls, mostly in Hebrew, were found in a sensational discovery on the north-western shore of the Dead Sea in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd. Tossing a rock into an opening on the side of a cliff, he was surprised to hear a shattering sound. He later entered the cave and found a collection of large clay jars, seven of which contained leather and papyrus scrolls. Soon after tens of thousands of additional scroll fragments from 10 nearby caves were discovered; making up between 800 and 900 manuscripts This is now considered to be one of the most important finds in the history of modern archaeology.

These artefacts have great historical, religious, and linguistic significance. They include the second-oldest known surviving manuscripts of works later included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible otherwise known as the Old Testament. Where did they come from? The most popular theory is that the scrolls were produced by the Essenes, a sect of Jews living at nearby Qumran. The historian Josephus mentions the Essenes as sharing property among the members of the community, this is echoed in a key text that was found, called the Community Rule. During the excavation, two inkwells and plastered elements thought to be tables were found, offering evidence that some form of writing was done there. More inkwells were discovered nearby and this area was named the "scriptorium" based upon this discovery. Strengthening the theory of an Essene community, was the discovery of several Jewish ritual baths at Qumran, offering evidence of an observant Jewish presence at the site. Pliny the Elder (a geographer writing after the fall of Jerusalem in 70) describes a group of Essenes living in a desert community on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea near the ruined town of Ein Gedi.

An alternative theory is that Jews living in Jerusalem, hid the scrolls in the caves near Qumran while fleeing from the Romans during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Karl Heinrich Rengstorf first proposed that the Scrolls originated at the library of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Proponents of the Jerusalem Origin theory point to the diversity of thought and handwriting among the scrolls as evidence. A third more recent theory is that it may have been an early Christian Community. Spanish Jesuit José O'Callaghan Martínez demonstrated in the 1960s that one fragment (7Q5) preserves a portion of text from the New Testament Gospel of Mark and Robert Eisenman has advanced the theory that some scrolls describe the early Christian community recording events of the disciples James and Paul.

Owing to the poor condition of some of the scrolls, scholars have not identified all of their texts. So far the identified texts fall into three general groups with about 40% copies from the Hebrew Scriptures. Approximately another 30% are texts from the Second Temple Period which ultimately were not included in the Hebrew Bible, like the Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, the Book of Tobit, the Wisdom of Sirach, Psalms 152–155, etc. The remainder (roughly 30%) are sectarian manuscripts of previously unknown documents that shed light on the rules and beliefs of a particular group (sect) or groups within greater Judaism. One of the most intriguing manuscripts from Qumran is the Copper Scroll, a sort of ancient treasure map that lists dozens of gold and silver caches. While the other texts are written in ink on parchment or animal skins, this curious document features Hebrew and Greek letters chiselled onto metal sheets—perhaps, as some have theorized, to better withstand the passage of time. Using an unconventional vocabulary and odd spelling, the Copper Scroll describes 64 underground hiding places around Israel that purportedly contain riches stashed for safekeeping. None of these hoards have been recovered, possibly because the Romans pillaged Judaea during the first century A.D. According to various hypotheses, the treasure belonged to local Essenes, was spirited out of the Second Temple before its destruction or never existed to begin with.

Arrangements with the Bedouin, left the scrolls in the hands of a third party until a profitable sale of them could be negotiated. That third party, was a member of the Syriac Orthodox Church, who contacted St Mark's Monastery in the hope of getting an appraisal of the nature of the texts. News of the find then reached Metropolitan Mar Samuel, After examining the scrolls and suspecting their antiquity, he expressed an interest in purchasing them. Four scrolls found their way into his hands and more scrolls soon surfaced in the antiquities market, and archaeologists at Hebrew University, soon found themselves in possession of three. Four of the Dead Sea Scrolls eventually went up for sale in an advertisement on 1 June 1954, in the Wall Street Journal under the category “Miscellaneous Items for Sale”’—that read: “Biblical Manuscripts dating back to at least 200 B.C. are for sale. This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group.” Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, whose father had obtained the other three scrolls from the initial collection in 1947, secretly negotiated their purchase on behalf of the newly established State of Israel. Unfortunately for Samuel, much of the $250,000 he received went to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service since the bill of sale had not been properly drawn up. Since 2002, forgeries of alleged Dead Sea Scrolls have appeared on black markets. Israel claims ownership of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection currently housed in the Shrine of the Book on the grounds of the Israel Museum. The ownership is contested by both Jordan and by the Palestinian Authority.


bottom of page