Why should we care about the Dead Sea Scrolls?

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The big news of last week was the announcement by Hebrew University, and Craig Evans here on theLAB, that a 12th Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) cave was discovered just last month.

But why are the DSS important? I’ll look at three main reasons below. But first we need to ask, what are the DSS?

What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The term ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ actually refers to a wealth of archaeological treasures discovered in a specific region of the land of Israel, running from Jericho to Masada (a straight-line distance just under 40 miles, and about 66 by car). These finds trace their origins back to the fourth century BCE, and up to the second century CE. Various inhabitants of this region left traces of their existence behind, including ancient ruins, pottery, caves, parchments, papyri, linen, coins, tools, and more.

History of Discovery

One day in late 1946 or early 1947, a 15-year-old shepherd boy wandered into a wadi, or canyon, looking for a lost sheep. When a well-placed toss of a rock into a cave mouth on the cliffs brought the sound of breaking pottery, he went to investigate. The scrolls he found and brought back to show his family were the first of the most important finds in modern biblical archeology. This wadi, which has yielded the majority of the manuscript treasures, is the now-famous Wadi Qumran located near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea.

The area was thoroughly excavated in the 1940’s and 50’s by both local and Western explorers and archaeologists. Although hundreds of caves were explored, only eleven had yielded manuscript treasures now identified as the Dead Sea Scrolls. That number has now increased to 12 with the recent archaeological work undertaken by Randall Price, Oren Gutfield, and Ahiad Ovadia. Although they did not find any entire scrolls with writing, the pottery fragments, parchments, papyri, and linen coverings indicate clearly that this twelfth cave deserves to be numbered with the other eleven.

The DSS Manuscripts

To date, there have been 600 manuscripts discovered among the 12 caves. Cave 4, however, contained the greatest concentration, yielding 400 manuscripts of which 100 are biblical. The only book of the OT not represented in this collection is Esther. One of the greatest treasures discovered among the DSS is a nearly complete scroll of Isaiah, known as the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsa). The biblical material in the DSS collection is an important witness to the textual transmission of the OT.

But biblical material makes up a smaller percentage of the texts. The DSS also contain a large amount of apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works. These include Tobit, Ecclesiasticus, the Letter of Jeremiah, 1 Enoch, Jubilees, and The Testament of Levi. In additional to these, there are the so-called Sectarian Manuscripts which concern life in the religious community at Qumran, including the Manual of Discipline and the Thanksgiving Hymns.

Finally, the DSS collection includes commentaries on various books of the OT, including the famous Habakkuk commentary. This text presents fascinating insights into the interpretive practices of the Qumran community. The commentary follows a verse-by-verse approach, and centers on a figure called “The Teacher of Righteousness” who is persecuted by a wicked priest.

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And yet as interesting as the DSS are in archaeological and historical terms, why are they significant to biblical scholars today?

Why do the Scrolls matter?

We can consider the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls along three main points of interest: texts, people, and hermeneutics.

The History of Textual Transmission

First, the texts enjoy a unique position in the history of the transmission of scripture. They are the oldest surviving manuscript witnesses to the OT, nearly 1,000 years older than the earliest known witnesses prior to 1946. This is significant in and of itself, but it also means that the DSS can be compared to other textual witnesses, including the Septuagint and Masoretic Text, to gain insight both into pedantic issues of grammar, punctuation, and spelling, and into bigger-picture questions of pre-Christian Judaism in the intertestamental period.

Indeed, one of the most significant aspects from a textual perspective is that the DSS confirm the early history of the Masoretic form of the text of the OT. Prior to the discovery of the DSS, the MT was dated by many scholars to, at the earliest, the 2nd century CE. Now, however, the evidence points to a provenance many centuries prior.

This gives modern biblical scholars a deeper level of confidence that the text before them, in their critical editions or otherwise, has been faithfully and accurately transmitted by real people living centuries ago, who were motivated by legitimate zeal for God.

Real People in History

This bring us to our second point, that there were real people behind the production of the DSS who left footprints of their existence in the scrolls. The way of life followed by the Qumran community is proscribed in texts such as the Manual of Discipline, and the songs they sang together are found in the Thanksgiving Hymns. Thus the DSS offer a perpetual reminder of the vital importance of remembering that real flesh and blood people once inhabited this region, and lived their lives in strict adherence to their particular interpretation of the OT.

The scriptures were a life-and-death matter for these people. They took their sacred books so seriously that they were willing to live in the desert regions of Israel and separate from the Temple in Jerusalem. That alone was a radical departure from the typical Judaism of the day, matched only by the radical interpretations of scripture presented by the authors of the NT.

Ancient Interpretations of Scripture

This leads to our third and final point concerning hermeneutics. As an interesting comparison, while the Qumran community took to the arid regions of ancient Palestine to practice their particular form of Judaism, the Christian community initially tried to remain within the ancient synagogue, viewing Christ as the long-awaited Messiah now come for his people. Both groups relied upon their particular views of the OT scriptures to shape and inform their approach to daily life, and the life to come.

What we find in the DSS non-biblical manuscripts is the attempt by pious Jews to grasp the significance of the OT for the times in which they lived. Their commentaries on various books of the OT and their documents dictating life in the community attest to the power of scripture in the lives of these people so many years ago. However, there are crucial differences between the interpretive practices of the Qumran scribes and the writers of the NT books, and herein lies the greatest potential for fruitful research into the DSS.

Scholarly work on either the DSS or the NT requires engagement with the other set of texts. One cannot do serious research into the NT without considering the DSS, nor the other way around. These texts are both crucial witnesses to the Judaism leading up to and during the time of Jesus.

They mutually inform each other on many issues, including the sayings of Jesus; Messianic expectations during the Roman occupation; and the concept of “grace” in the Second Temple period. A particularly good example of this last point is the recent study by John Barclay, Paul and the Gift, where the DSS present a key dialogue partner with Paul on the theme of God’s charis, or grace.

Why the DSS should matter to you

In sum, the DSS are an essential witness to the text, people, and interpretive practices of at least one type of Judaism in the period preceding the arrival of Christ in ancient Palestine. That alone is enough to warrant, at the very least, a strong familiarity with their history and teachings.

To begin your foray into the DSS, I suggest starting with the classic translation and introductions in Geza Vermes’s The Dead Sea Scrolls in English. For a helpful recent introduction to the DSS, get a hold of Joseph Fitzmyer’s The Impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Both resources, and many more, are fully tagged and searchable in Logos 7.

But apart from reading a translation and some introductory material, how does one best study the DSS, especially when doing serious research? That will be the topic of my next post.

Please consider subscribing to theLAB to stay abreast of the latest news from Qumran, and to read compelling articles by biblical scholars from around the globe on all topics related to academic study of the Bible.

Parchments found at new Dead Sea Scrolls Cave

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Photo credit: Randall Price

Craig A. Evans, Ph.D., D.Habil., is the John Bisagno Distinguished Professor of Christian Origins at Houston Baptist University in south Texas. Evans has published extensively in the area of the historical Jesus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and archaeology. He earned his Ph.D. under William Hugh Brownlee, one of the very first scholars to lay eyes on the Scrolls. Evans is a member of the Scholars Initiative concerned with the significance of the ancient biblical artifacts housed and conserved by the Museum of the Bible. Evans is also featured in several Faithlife Mobile Education courses, including the acclaimed video Archaeology and Jesus.

A New Cave, an Old Controversy: Dramatic New Discovery in Israel will Re-Ignite Debates

By Craig A. Evans

The last Dead Sea Scrolls cave, linked to the ruins on the marl shelf at the mouth of Wadi Qumran, was discovered in 1956, bringing the total number of caves to eleven — eleven caves containing the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, ceramic jars, and a number of other artifacts.

Examine the DSS interactively on Logos. >>

For sixty years archaeologists and looters have been searching for a twelfth cave. Would another one ever be found? Most didn’t think so. This is what makes the announcement from Hebrew University so astounding: A twelfth cave has been discovered!

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Photo credit: Randall Price

Playing in the dirt

One of the Operation Scroll volunteers was archaeologist Randall Price, who today serves on the faculty of Liberty University. One of the briefly examined caves in 1993 — cave 53 — caught his attention.

Last year Price received permission to excavate that cave. Last month (January 2017) he, Oren Gutfeld, Ahiad Ovadia from Hebrew University, and a number of volunteers did so. Among the volunteers was sixty-five year old Cary Summers, President of the Museum of the Bible, whose exhibits and extensive collection will open to the public in November.

“You are never too old to play in the dirt,” Cary told me in a recent email. As a veteran volunteer digger myself, I know what he means and I couldn’t agree more. As it turns out, Cary chose the right dirt to play in.

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Photo credit: Randall Price

Study the Dead Sea Scrolls on Logos. >>

The discovery in Cave 12

Price and his team made a truly significant discovery. Although the cave that the archaeologist and his team excavated had been looted (and the looters left behind a couple pick-axes), what was unearthed was quite important. Price and has team recovered six jars identical to the jars found in several of the other Qumran caves. These ceramic jars were designed to contain scrolls.

The condition of the some of the better-preserved Scrolls strongly supports the widely-held view that the jars were indeed intended for that purpose. Most of these jars are on display in Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book and in Kando’s famous antiquities shop in Bethlehem. Although there are doubters, most scholars are convinced that these ceramic jars at one time contained many of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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Photo credit: Randall Price

The jars in ancient sources

In fact, ancient sources actually refer to ceramic jars used for this very purpose. Long ago the prophet Jeremiah was instructed to “take these deeds … and put them in an earthenware vessel, that they may last for a long time” (Jeremiah 32:14). In a first-century apocryphal writing Moses is commanded to “take this writing so that later you will remember how to preserve the books that I shall entrust to you. You shall arrange them, anoint them with cedar, and deposit them in earthenware jars … ” (Testament of Moses 1:16–17).

Long before the Scrolls were found in modern times in the caves near the Dead Sea, ancient scrolls were found in the general vicinity. Fourth-century Church historian Eusebius reports that third-century Origen somehow got hold of a biblical scroll “found at Jericho in a jar” (Hist. Eccl. 6.16.3).

We will never know if Origen’s scroll came from the ancient library partially preserved in the celebrated eleven caves in and around Qumran, discovered from 1947 to 1956. But the report of a discovery of a scroll in a jar at least attests the ancient practice.

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Archaeologists Oren Gutfeld & Ahiad Ovadia in the cave. Photo credit: Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld

Cave 13 discovery on the horizon?

It is hard to believe it, but Price and his team seem to have discovered a twelfth cave, something Scrolls scholars have been dreaming about for sixty years. And not only that, Price thinks there may even be a thirteenth cave near the Qumran ruins.

Unlike the newly discovered Cave 12, the mouth of the suspected thirteenth cave is concealed — which means there is a chance that it has not been looted. If that is the case, more texts could be discovered. If that happens, who knows what new things we might learn?

Of course, new scrolls have been coming to light from time to time for decades. Often they have been in possession of bedouins, reaching all the way back to those heady days of discovery and exploration in the 1940s and 1950s. The caves from which these scroll fragments were derived usually cannot be determined.

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Photo credit: Randall Price

Parchment, Papyri, and Linen!

This is what makes Price and team’s discovery so important. He and his team have discovered what likely will be confirmed as Qumran’s Cave 12. Not only were six scroll jars recovered, but small fragments of parchment and papyrus, as well as at least one linen used for wrapping scrolls.

Scientific testing of the ceramic should confirm its link to the ruins and Qumran and to some of the other jars found in nearby caves. DNA testing of the parchment could confirm links to some of the scrolls whose origins have to date not been determined. The presence of the jars and the linen wrapper confirms that Scrolls used to be in this cave (and same applies in the case of Cave 8).

This is truly exciting. I might add that the recovered artifacts of the new Qumran cave will be of interest to scholars of great antiquity as well, for Price and his team also recovered Neolithic remains, including arrowheads and knives.

Linking worlds together

The caves, the ruins, and the scrolls of Qumran are important because they link the Old Testament and Jewish world to the world of Jesus, the Christian Church, and the writings of the New Testament. These discoveries near the Dead Sea also link sacred texts with hard evidence. The texts clarify the hard evidence, and the hard evidence clarifies the texts.

What archaeological evidence shows is that the ancient narratives of our old scriptures reflect an ancient world that actually existed, not a fairytale world of imagination and fiction. Thanks to archaeology, which in the last century or so has uncovered a great quantity of manuscripts, we now know that the ancient texts do indeed speak of real people, real places, and real events.

Judaism in the time of Jesus

The Qumran Scrolls are also important because they shed a great deal of light on the Judaism of Jesus’ day and a great deal of light on specific teachings of Jesus and his early followers.

For example, an Aramaic scroll from Cave 4 speaks of a coming figure who will be called “Son of God” and “Son of the Most High” who will be “Great” and who will reign forever. The parallels with the Annunciation of Luke 1 are obvious. Another scroll from Cave 4 anticipates the coming of God’s Messiah who give sight to the blind, heal the wounded, raise the dead, and proclaim good news to the poor. The parallels to Jesus’ reply to John the Baptist are quite apparent.

Even Paul’s “works of the law” terminology finds an important parallel in a Cave 4 letter concerned with legal matters.
The Melchizedek Scroll from Cave 11 forecasts the coming of one who seems to be God himself, possessing the power to forgive sin, heal, and defeat Satan. Examples like these — and there are many more — should make it clear how important the Scrolls are.

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Photo credit: Randall Price

The controversy is re-ignited

Of course, this startling new discovery will almost certainly re-ignite the controversy over who owns the Dead Sea Scrolls? Do they belong to Israel (when first found, Qumran was part of Jordan), or do they belong to the Palestinians? It was this hotly debated political issue that led to the new discovery.

The organized, authorized search for new Scrolls caves started with the dispute over the West Bank and the fear that Israel would lose access to the famous Dead Sea caves that to date have yielded about 1,000 documents, including and especially the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, which have been described as “the greatest archaeological find of the twentieth century.”

On the chance that Israel might lose access to this desolate region, in 1993 Operation Scroll was launched. Manned by members of the Israel Antiquities Authority (under the direction of IAA chief Amir Drori), the Israel Defence Forces, and a number of archaeologists and volunteers, Operation Scroll explored and recorded hundreds of caves along the western bank of the Dead Sea, including Jericho to the north. A few odds and ends were discovered but nothing earth-shaking, at least nothing that could count as another Dead Sea Scrolls cave.[1]

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Photo credit: Randall Price

New treasures, new troubles

I am deeply grateful to Dr Price for sharing with me the details of his important discovery. I also share his hope that Cave 12 will not be the last Qumran cave to be discovered. Who knows what new treasures will be unearthed? And, who knows what new political trouble these new discoveries will generate? We live in interesting times.

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Dr. Evans with Cave 4 in the background. Photo credit: Greg Monette

Dr. Evans has an outstanding series of online education courses, including Archaeology and the NT, The DSS and the NT, and a new course under development, Archaeology in Action: Jesus and Archaeology, only available on Logos.

[1] For a report of Operation Scroll, see Neil Asher Silberman, “Operation Scroll,” Archaeology 47/2 (1994) 27–28; idem, “Operation Scroll,” in K. D. Vitelli (ed.), Archaeological Ethics (London: Altamira Press, 1996) 132–35.