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In the winter of 1947, a Bedouin shepherd named Muhammed edh-Dhib stumbled across a cave on the west side of the Dead Sea. In this cave (later called Qumran Cave 1), he discovered some scrolls, and seven of them were almost complete. The Bedouin desired to sell the scrolls, and they used an antiques dealer in the town of Bethlehem. A Syrian Orthodox monastery purchased four of the scrolls, and E.L. Sukenik bought the other three. Sukenik was an Israeli archaeologist who was one of the founding members of the archaeology department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Over the next few years, numerous manuscripts were found in other caves in the area. Excavation work in the caves began in early 1949 under the direction of G. Lankester Harding and Roland de Vaux (in Cave 1), and it continued throughout most of the 1950s.

In late 1950, de Vaux and Harding also began digging at the site of Qumran that was located on the west side of the Dead Sea near the caves. They believed that Qumran was home base for a group of Jews called Essenes. During the second to first centuries BC, a small group of Jews had broken from the priesthood in Jerusalem because the latter had secularized. Both Josephus and Philo put the number of Essenes at four thousand. A small group of them withdrew to the desert to prepare the way for God (based on Isa. 40:3), and they founded the desert community at Qumran under the leadership of the “Teacher of Righteousness.” They set themselves up as the “true Israel” and bound themselves by a new covenant that they believed would help bring in a theocratic kingdom. Most scholars believe that it was this group of Essenes that wrote and copied the Dead Sea Scrolls hidden in the caves near Qumran. (Some other scholars think the group at Qumran was not Essene but rather a different splinter group.)

Excavations at Qumran from the Essene habitation (c. 150 BC–AD 68) uncovered no living accommodations. Apparently, the Essenes lived in caves in the adjoining cliffs, or perhaps in tents, and they gathered for religious and economic activities at the site. Qumran was likely a celibate community: excavation of the cemetery has revealed that most bodies were adult males, with only a few women and children. The site contained an elaborate water system, including ritual baths (mikvot) that the Essenes used for baptismal purification. Excavators also discovered a refectory (a room used for communal meals) with hundreds of bowls, plates, and other food vessels. Most importantly, they unearthed a scriptorium that contained in its debris a plastered writing table and two inkwells. Many of the scrolls that were found in the caves were probably copied in this installation.

Approximately nine hundred manuscripts, in various states of preservation, were found in the Qumran caves (marked Caves 1–11). Cave 4 yielded the greatest amount of written material, around eight hundred documents. Most of the manuscripts are made of leather, although there are some made of papyrus. A majority of the documents are written in Hebrew, some in Aramaic, and a few in Greek. The types of manuscripts may be divided into three general groupings: texts of the Hebrew Bible, noncanonized religious texts of the Second Temple Period (c. 516 BC–AD 70), and sectarian texts not found elsewhere. Included in the Second Temple Period texts are works from the Apocrypha, such as the book of Tobit, and from another group of extrabiblical texts called the Pseudepigrapha, such as the book of Enoch. The sectarian works included rulebooks for the community, calendars, prayers, magical texts, and major works such as the War Scroll and the Temple Scroll.

This chronology makes the Dead Sea Scrolls the second earliest known citations of biblical texts in Hebrew.

Fragments of 240 scrolls of the books of the Old Testament were discovered in the eleven caves. Most of them are small, containing no more than one-tenth of a book. However, the entire book of Isaiah was discovered in Cave 1. Originally, it had been thought that every book had been found except Esther and Nehemiah. Nehemiah’s absence was explained as its being a continuation of the book of Ezra, written on the same scroll, the portions of which contained Nehemiah did not survive the centuries of wear and tear in the caves. In 2016, however, Tarleif Elgvin, a Norwegian Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, published a fragment of Nehemiah allegedly discovered in one of the Qumran caves. Some scholars suggest that Esther is not extant because it never mentions the name of God or perhaps because in the eyes of Essenes it showed capitulation on the part of the Jews to Persian authority. It may also be that copies of Esther were originally present but have not survived. Almost all the scrolls contain one book, but three of the scrolls contain consecutive books. Two scrolls have Genesis and Exodus together, and another scroll has Leviticus and Numbers together. Some scrolls contain several of the Minor Prophets together. The Old Testament books with the most copies among the Dead Sea Scrolls are Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Isaiah.

The dating of the writing and copying of the scrolls is difficult to pinpoint. Several carbon-14 tests have been administered to some of the manuscripts, and the earliest texts would have been produced in the mid-third century BC. Some of the manuscripts would have been copied as late as the Roman conquest of the area of the Dead Sea in AD 68. Paleographic studies, which compare the alphabet writing of the Dead Sea Scrolls to other sources, such as coins and other manuscripts, confirm that the earliest scroll would have come from the mid-third century BC. This chronology makes the Dead Sea Scrolls the second earliest known manuscripts of biblical texts in Hebrew. They are predated only by the Ketef Hinnom Amulet from the late seventh century BC, which contains the priestly benediction from Numbers 6.

William Foxwell Albright, the father of American archaeology in Israel, called the Dead Sea Scrolls “the greatest archaeological find of modern times.” That is a correct assessment for a number of reasons. First, before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Old Testament was the Leningrad Codex, which is dated to AD 1008. Some of the biblical texts at Qumran predate that codex by twelve hundred years. The Dead Sea Scrolls are much closer in time to the writing of the biblical text. This obviously aids the biblical scholar in assessing the transmission of the biblical texts over time. For example, Psalm 145 is an acrostic—that is, each verse (two lines) of the psalm begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. However, in the Hebrew text handed down to us that serves as the primary basis for our English translations (the Masoretic Text), the acrostic is missing the verse (two lines) that ought to begin with the letter nun between verses 13 and 14. However, those two lines (one verse) are preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscript containing Psalm 145. It is likely that the nun verse was inadvertently omitted by a copyist error in the transmission of the Hebrew text. Rightly so, numerous modern translations now include the verse from the Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g., ESV, NASB).

This reality ought to be seen as the preserving work of the Holy Spirit in guarding and protecting God’s Word throughout the millennia.

Nevertheless, it is important for the reader to understand that the differences between the Hebrew text handed down to us and the Dead Sea Scrolls are minor. A comparison between the texts underscores the trustworthiness of the Scriptures and how they have been wonderfully preserved throughout the ages. This reality ought to be seen as the preserving work of the Holy Spirit in guarding and protecting God’s Word throughout the millennia. The minor differences between the texts are primarily due to copyist errors or omissions, and, again, these minimal variations in no way should lead us to distrust the text before us.

Second, the texts found at Qumran are important because they give us important insights into the operations of the Qumran community. One manuscript, called the Manual of Discipline, outlines many of the rules for the operation of that society. Other texts provide some insight into various sects of Judaism at the time: the Damascus Document condemns certain practices of religious opponents of the Qumran community who reside in Jerusalem. The Dead Sea Scrolls are some of the most important records of Judaism and its practices during the Second Temple Period.

Third, the Dead Sea Scrolls help us understand the world of the New Testament. It is important to note that there are no New Testament texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and no person in the New Testament appears in those manuscripts, although there has been a speculative claim that perhaps John the Baptist was an Essene from this area. There is also evidence that the writers of the New Testament were aware of the sectarian writings of the Qumran community. In giving us a glimpse of life during the period, the Dead Sea Scrolls are a valuable resource in New Testament studies for the background material and general setting they provide.

The work has not been finished. Many fragments remain that need to be translated. In addition, scroll fragments have been found in many other caves in the Judean wilderness and in the area of the Dead Sea. For example, at Wadi Murabba‘t, manuscripts were found in various caves: in Cave 5, shepherds found a single document, which is the scroll of the Minor Prophets. So, as the work continues, we can have great expectations that more will be revealed that will help us understand the transmission of the Old Testament texts, the Judaism of the Second Temple Period, and the setting of the writings of the New Testament.

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