Dead Sea Scrolls
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Dead Sea Scrolls


If goats had not strayed up a Jordanian cliff in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls might still be hidden in Middle Eastern caves, and scholars might know far less about Jewish and early Christian history. The young man who went after the goats--one of three cousins tending the flock--tossed a stone into a small cave opening and heard it break pottery. When the cousins explored the cave, they found jars filled with ancient scrolls and document fragments. It was not the treasure they'd hoped for (they sold three of the larger scrolls for five British pounds), but the Dead Sea Scrolls have been a treasure trove for historians and theologians.

Between 1947 and 1956, nearly 800 manuscripts turned up in 11 caves near Qumran (an area at the northern end of the Dead Sea, which was Jordanian and is now in the Israeli Occupied Territories). Most of the scrolls are written in Hebrew, but some are in Aramaic or Greek--the Bible's original languages. Many of the documents are on parchment (animal skins); some are on papyrus (made from an African grass).

The scrolls include biblical and non-biblical texts, probably written sometime between the 3rd century BC and AD 68. The biblical texts include fragments of every Old Testament chapter except the Book of Esther--as well as psalms and prophecies that don't appear in the modern Bible. The non-biblical texts address rules, rituals and other aspects of life in the community that produced the scrolls. Among other things, the Jews in that community were expecting the arrival of a Messiah, and scholars believe their views could have contributed to the emergence of Christianity. In that way, the accidental discovery of three goat herders has transformed thinking about two important religions.

In one of the caves that held the Dead Sea Scrolls, an archaeologist found evidence of what seemed to be a deed transferring ownership of land from a young Jewish disciple to the religious sect he was joining. The find provided a potentially important clue about the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls: they lived communally. Disagreement about who wrote the scrolls remains, but based on that deed and other clues, many scholars think the authors were from a group called the Essenes.

Much of what is known of the Essenes comes from Roman historian Pliny the Elder, Jewish historian Josephus, and Jewish philosopher Philo. They describe the sect as a communal group of male scholars who lived on a plateau at the northeast corner of the Dead Sea--near where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The Essenes existed during the Second Temple period (520 BC to AD 70), which was the last time before the 1948 creation of Israel that Jews in the Holy Land ruled themselves. The Essenes opposed religious leaders in Jerusalem, believing these priests ignored important rituals of purity, and their reputation as religious rebels provides another link to the scrolls: The authors call themselves "Sons of Light" and write of their battle against "Sons of Darkness." Could this be the Essenes referring to their dispute with Jewish leaders?

Without definitive evidence, scholars may never agree unanimously that the Essenes wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls--though that theory receives the widest support. Others think the authors came from the Sadducees, a group of Jewish aristocrats; some say there's not enough evidence to draw conclusions. But questions of authorship aside, few people dispute the suggestion that their discovery was one of the most significant archaeological finds of the 20th century.

Scholars initially believed the Dead Sea Scrolls would revolutionize our understanding of Christian history. Surely, they argued, the "Master Teacher" mentioned in the scrolls was an early Christian missionary--John the Baptist, perhaps, or Paul. Accurate dating of the scrolls makes that less likely and has prompted scholars to rethink those views. Nonetheless, the scrolls provide valuable insight into Judaism and elements of it that may have led to Christianity.

Scientific tests have shown that the scrolls were written sometime between the 3rd century BC and AD 68. It's possible, therefore, that the scrolls' authors were contemporaries of Jesus, but more likely that they lived earlier. If so, the scrolls cannot be referring to the founding events of Christianity.

Still, the scrolls reveal much about the traditions and beliefs that may have helped Christianity emerge from Judaism. For instance, they confirm other accounts of the Essenes--male Jewish scholars thought to have written the scrolls. The Essenes lived in almost daily anticipation of the arrival of a Messiah, the kind of mindset that might have produced the followers of Jesus.

Another surprising discovery provides more evidence that the scrolls' authors lived at a time when Judaism was evolving. Included in the scroll documents are scraps of parchment meant to be stored in phylacteries, small boxes that traditionally observant Jews use during morning prayers. Today these boxes, referred to in Hebrew as tefillin, always contain transcriptions of four passages from Exodus and Deuteronomy (the second and fifth chapters of the Bible). But the phylactery parchments found in the scrolls feature about 30 different passages, suggesting that the Essenes--and perhaps the entire Jewish community--were more divided on key issues of faith than previously suspected.

Since their discovery in Jordanian caves in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls have been a source of heated political controversy. Debate initially centered on Jordan's decision to leave Jewish scholars off the analysis team. The scrolls are written primarily in Hebrew and Aramaic, which was seen as a strong indication that the authors were Jewish and that the scrolls could provide important insights on Jewish history.

Jewish scholars joined the group in the 1980s, but by then, another controversy raged: After almost 40 years, the analysis team had published barely half of the scrolls' contents, and they were constantly pushing back the schedule for releasing new material. Intense pressure from scholars outside the official team led, in the 1990s, to publication of unofficial editions that are based solely on photographs.

Today, questions regarding ownership of the scrolls remain. Israel took control of the Qumran region after the 1967 Six-Day War, but may turn the land over to the Palestinians as part of a peace settlement. As a result, control of the Dead Sea Scrolls has become a point of debate. They're currently stored at the Israel Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem, but if the Qumran caves are handed over to the Palestinians, should the scrolls be turned over, too?

Tempers are also flaring over ongoing Israeli excavations in the Occupied Territories, known in Israel as "Operation Scroll." After Israeli archaeologists in Jericho unearthed second-century documents, jewelry, and coins, the Palestinians accused them of "plundering." Israel signed a 1954 United Nations agreement that forbids the excavation and removal of "cultural artifacts" by foreign occupiers, which begs the question: Should that agreement apply to the Israeli Occupied Territories? The recent discovery of more caves in Qumran, legendary home to the Dead Sea Scrolls, only seems likely to fuel debate on that point.