It was 1946 when three Bedouin shepherd boys spotted strange caves near the shores of the Dead Sea, in a region of the West Bank now called Qumran. Curiosity led one of them too close and the shepherd fell in, leading to a discovery that would rock the religious and linguistic world. The cluster of ancient writings, collectively known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, is possibly the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century, yet the average person often has no idea why. Bible teachers reference them and scripture footnotes applaud their worth, but unless we’re attending a seminary, the details of their incredible significance can be murky. Let’s try to rectify that.
The scrolls themselves, 976 in total, date from between 408 B.C. to 318 A.D. and are inscribed on parchment, papyrus and bronze. Written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Nabataean, they contain ancient records and laws from Israel’s past that shed light on early practices of Judaism. However, where they truly shine is in that they include the earliest known surviving manuscripts of what would make up the bible’s Old Testament. Some of the books and scriptures found in the Dead Sea Scrolls include; Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, 2 copies of Isaiah and Jeremiah among many others. Scholars believe that Esther may not have been included because her marriage to a Persian King, Xerxes, was possibly looked down upon. The scrolls also contain some fragments from the Apocrypha, a controversial collection of writings usually not included in the bible, such as 1 Enoch of “Noah” infamy, and Tobit.
“…and?” Well, to understand how important this find is, we have to put things in perspective. When we see a bible in a bookstore, wrapped in a shiny cover and decorated with those ultra modern fonts, psychologically we can lose the depth of its nature. It is a collection of writings from people of various races, classes and time periods recording their encounter with the same God, One who declares that He is the true Creator of the earth and everything in it. Still, for centuries many believed that the bible had been tampered with, altered from the original source material, and therefore not to be trusted. Even today, some regard it as simply a book of metaphors, fabled narratives that couldn’t possibly have retained any historical accuracy after the thousands of years that it has existed. Then along came the Dead Sea scrolls, showing that, besides slight grammar alterations due to translation, the original content was largely intact, unchanged. Not only that, but the copies of the bible books in the caves were so old that in some cases they were written only a few centuries or so after the events they talk about.
For example, up until this discovery, bible translations utilized a relatively recent version of the Isaiah scroll from the 9th and 10th century A.D. The version found in the caves is from anywhere between 350 to 100 B.C., 1100 years earlier. This means it was written before the time of Christ and just centuries after Isaiah actually lived. Yet, passing through the millenniums and countless hands of translators and scribes, the prophecies, names and locations have remained the same. With Israel’s turbulent history; wars, being conquered and occupied by Persia then Rome, who completely destroyed Jerusalem in the second century A.D., it’s remarkable that no additional prophecies or forged inscriptions have been added. No one attempted to use these terrible events as reasons to alter the scrolls for the purpose of boosting Israel’s national morale.
Research is ongoing and Israel has even worked with NASA using infrared technology to recover the more damaged fragments of the scrolls. For now, we can rest assured knowing that God is always in control, as our bibles have largely remained the same for over 2400 years. The question now is this: do you believe what is written? “Whoa, slow down Ellis!” Ok, lets back up then. If any of this has sparked the theologian in you, know that most of the scrolls are contained in the Shrine of the Book, a wing of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Various other fragments can be found in the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and the Schøyen Collection in London and Oslo. Staying in tonight? Check out the digital copies at the links below. Keep on digging!
o Israel Museum:
o Dead Sea Scrolls online digital library:
o Christian commentary on the scrolls: