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Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Dead Sea Scrolls

What Is the Truth About the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls @

Over 50 years ago, a stone thrown by a Bedouin shepherd into a cave led to what some have called the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century. The Bedouin heard the stone crack open an earthenware jar. Upon investigating, he found the first of what came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

THESE scrolls have been the focus of attention and controversy both in scholarly circles and in the general media. Among the public, confusion and misinformation abound. Rumors have circulated about a massive cover-up, prompted by fear that the scrolls reveal facts that would undermine the faith of Christians and Jews alike. But what is the true significance of these scrolls? After more than 50 years, can the facts be known?

What Are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient Jewish manuscripts, most of them written in Hebrew, some in Aramaic, and a few in Greek. Many of these scrolls and fragments are over 2,000 years old, dating to before the birth of Jesus. Among the first scrolls obtained from the Bedouins were seven lengthy manuscripts in various stages of deterioration. As more caves were searched, other scrolls and thousands of scroll fragments were found. Between the years of 1947 and 1956, a total of 11 caves containing scrolls were discovered near Qumran, by the Dead Sea.

When all the scrolls and fragments are sorted out, they account for about 800 manuscripts. About one quarter, or just over 200 manuscripts, are copies of portions of the Hebrew Bible text. Additional manuscripts represent ancient non-Biblical Jewish writings, both Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.

Some of the scrolls that most excited scholars were previously unknown writings. These include interpretations on matters of Jewish law, specific rules for the community of the sect that lived in Qumran, liturgical poems and prayers, as well as eschatological works that reveal views about the fulfillment of Bible prophecy and the last days. There are also unique Bible commentaries, the most ancient antecedents of modern running commentary on Bible texts.

Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Various methods of dating ancient documents indicate that the scrolls were either copied or composed between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E. Some scholars have proposed that the scrolls were hidden in the caves by Jews from Jerusalem before the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. However, the majority of scholars researching the scrolls find this view out of harmony with the content of the scrolls themselves. Many scrolls reflect views and customs that stood in opposition to the religious authorities in Jerusalem. These scrolls reveal a community that believed that God had rejected the priests and the temple service in Jerusalem and that he viewed their group’s worship in the desert as a kind of substitute temple service. It seems unlikely that Jerusalem’s temple authorities would hide a collection that included such scrolls.

Although there likely was a school of copyists at Qumran, probably many of the scrolls were collected elsewhere and brought there by the believers. In a sense, the Dead Sea Scrolls are an extensive library collection. As with any library, the collection may include a wide range of thought, not all necessarily reflecting the religious viewpoints of its readers. However, those texts that exist in multiple copies more likely reflect the special interests and beliefs of the group.

Were the Qumran Residents Essenes?

If these scrolls were Qumran’s library, who were its residents? Professor Eleazar Sukenik, who obtained three scrolls for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1947, was the first to propose that these scrolls had belonged to a community of Essenes.

The Essenes were a Jewish sect mentioned by first-century writers Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, and Pliny the Elder. The exact origin of the Essenes is a matter of speculation, but they seem to have arisen during the period of turmoil following the Maccabean revolt in the second century B.C.E. Josephus reported on their existence during that period as he detailed how their religious views differed from those of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Pliny mentioned the location of a community of Essenes by the Dead Sea between Jericho and En-gedi.

Professor James VanderKam, a Dead Sea Scroll scholar, proposes that “the Essenes who lived at Qumran were just a small part of the larger Essene movement,” which Josephus numbered at about four thousand. Although not perfectly fitting all descriptions, the picture that emerges from the Qumran texts seems to match the Essenes better than any other known Jewish group of that period.

Some have claimed that Christianity had its beginnings at Qumran. Nevertheless, many striking differences can be noted between the religious views of the Qumran sect and the early Christians. The Qumran writings reveal ultrastrict Sabbath regulations and an almost obsessive preoccupation with ceremonial purity. (Matthew 15:1-20; Luke 6:1-11) Much the same could be said regarding the Essenes’ seclusion from society, their belief in fate and the immortality of the soul, and their emphasis on celibacy and mystical ideas about participating with the angels in their worship. This shows them to be at variance with Jesus’ teachings and those of early Christians.—Matthew 5:14-16; John 11:23, 24; Colossians 2:18; 1 Timothy 4:1-3.

No Cover-up, No Hidden Scrolls

In the years following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, various publications were produced that made the initial finds readily available to scholars around the world. But the thousands of fragments from one of the caves, known as Cave 4, were far more problematic. These were in the hands of a small international team of scholars set up in East Jerusalem (then part of Jordan) at the Palestine Archaeological Museum. No Jewish or Israeli scholars were included in this team.

The team developed a policy of not allowing access to the scrolls until they published the official results of their research. The number of scholars on the team was kept to a set limit. When a team member died, only one new scholar would be added to replace him. The amount of work demanded a much larger team, and in some cases, greater expertise in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic. James VanderKam put it this way: “Tens of thousands of fragments were more than eight experts, however skilled, could handle.”

With the Six-Day War in 1967, East Jerusalem and its scrolls came under Israeli jurisdiction, but no policy change for the scroll research team was instituted. As the delay in publishing the scrolls from Cave 4 extended from years to decades, an outcry was heard from a number of scholars. In 1977, Professor Geza Vermes of Oxford University called it the academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century. Rumors started to spread that the Catholic Church was deliberately hiding information from the scrolls that would be devastating to Christianity.

In the 1980’s, the team was finally expanded to 20 scholars. Then, in 1990, under the direction of its newly appointed editor in chief, Emanuel Tov, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the team was further expanded to over 50 scholars. A strict schedule was set up for publishing all the scholarly editions of the remaining scrolls.

A real breakthrough came unexpectedly in 1991. First, A Preliminary Edition of the Unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls was published. This was put together with computer assistance based on a copy of the team’s concordance. Next, the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, announced that they would make available for any scholar their complete set of photographs of the scrolls. Before long, with the publication of A Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, photographs of the previously unpublished scrolls became easily accessible.

So for the last decade, all the Dead Sea Scrolls have been available for examination. The research reveals that there was no cover-up; there were no hidden scrolls. As the final official editions of the scrolls are being published, only now can full analysis begin. A new generation of scroll scholarship has been born. But what significance does this research have for Bible students?


Both the Apocrypha (literally, “hidden”) and the Pseudepigrapha (literally, “falsely attributed writings”) are Jewish writings from the third century B.C.E. through the first century C.E. The Apocrypha are accepted by the Roman Catholic Church as part of the inspired Bible canon, but these books are rejected by Jews and Protestants. The Pseudepigrapha are often in the form of expansions on Biblical stories, written in the name of some famous Bible character.

See the article “Who Were the Maccabees?” in The Watchtower of November 15, 1998, pages 21-4.

- February 15, 2001 Watchtower, WTB&TS

The Dead Sea Scrolls—Why Should They Interest You?

Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures were from about the ninth and tenth centuries C.E. Could these manuscripts truly be relied upon as faithful transmissions of God’s Word, since the writing of the Hebrew Scriptures was completed well over one thousand years earlier? Professor Julio Trebolle Barrera, a member of the international team of editors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, states: “The Isaiah Scroll [from Qumran] provides irrefutable proof that the transmission of the biblical text through a period of more than one thousand years by the hands of Jewish copyists has been extremely faithful and careful.”

THE scroll that Barrera refers to contains the complete book of Isaiah. To date, among over 200 Biblical manuscripts found at Qumran, portions have been identified of every book of the Hebrew Scriptures except the book of Esther. Unlike the Isaiah Scroll, most are represented only by fragments, containing less than one tenth of any given book. The Bible books that were most popular at Qumran were Psalms (36 copies), Deuteronomy (29 copies), and Isaiah (21 copies). These are also the books most frequently quoted in the Christian Greek Scriptures.

Although the scrolls demonstrate that the Bible has not undergone fundamental changes, they also reveal that to some extent there were different versions of Hebrew Bible texts used by Jews in the Second Temple period, each with its own variations. Not all the scrolls are identical to the Masoretic text in spelling or wording. Some are closer to the Greek Septuagint. Previously, scholars thought that the Septuagint’s differences might be the result of mistakes or even deliberate inventions by the translator. Now the scrolls reveal that many of these differences were actually due to variations in the Hebrew text. This may explain some cases in which early Christians quoted Hebrew Scripture texts using wording different from the Masoretic text.—Exodus 1:5; Acts 7:14.

Thus, this treasure trove of Biblical scrolls and fragments provides an excellent basis for studying the transmission of the Hebrew Bible text. The Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed the value of both the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch for textual comparison. They provide an additional source for Bible translators to consider for possible emendations to the Masoretic text. In a number of cases, they confirm decisions by the New World Bible Translation Committee to restore Jehovah’s name to places where it had been removed from the Masoretic text.

The scrolls describing the rules and beliefs of the Qumran sect make very clear that there was not just one form of Judaism in the time of Jesus. The Qumran sect had traditions different from those of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These differences likely led to the sect’s retreating to the wilderness. They incorrectly saw in themselves a fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3 about a voice in the wilderness making the way of Jehovah straight. A number of the scroll fragments refer to the Messiah, whose coming the authors saw as imminent. This is of particular interest because of Luke’s comment that “the people were in expectation” of the Messiah’s coming.—Luke 3:15.

The Dead Sea Scrolls help us to a degree to understand the context of Jewish life during the time that Jesus preached. They provide comparative information for the study of ancient Hebrew and the Bible text. But the text of many of the Dead Sea Scrolls still needs closer analysis. Therefore, new insights may yet be gained. Yes, the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century continues to excite both scholars and Bible students as we move along in the 21st century.

- February 15, 2001 Watchtower, WTB&TS

Dead Sea Scrolls—The Prized Find

ABOUT 15 miles [24 km] southeast of Jerusalem, Wadi En-Nar, a desolate, dry watercourse runs eastward down to the Dead Sea. A broken line of cliffs stretches behind the shoreline plain. On this plain, in the hot days and contrasting cold nights of autumn, the Ta‘amireh Bedouin tend their flocks of sheep and goats.

In the year 1947, while tending the flocks, a young Bedouin shepherd threw a stone into a small opening in the crumbling face of a cliff. He was startled by the noise it caused, apparently by shattering an earthenware jar. He fled in fear, but two days later he returned and climbed some 300 feet [100 m] to enter through a larger, higher opening. As his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he saw ten tall jars lining the walls of the cave, and a mass of broken pottery amid fallen rocks littered the floor.

Most of the jars were empty, but one contained three scrolls, two of which were cloth-covered. He took the manuscripts back to the Bedouin camp and left them there for about a month, hanging in a bag on a tent pole. Finally, some Bedouin took the scrolls to Bethlehem to see how much they would fetch. The Bedouin were unceremoniously turned away from one monastery, being told that the scrolls were of no value whatever. Another dealer said that the manuscripts had no archaeological merit, and he suspected that they had been stolen from a Jewish synagogue. How wrong he was! Eventually, with a Syrian cobbler acting as broker, their worth was rightfully established. Soon, other manuscripts were evaluated.

Some of these ancient writings opened up a whole new insight into the activity of Jewish religious groups about the time of Christ. But it was a Bible manuscript of Isaiah’s prophecy that excited the world. Why?

The Great Prize

The newly discovered scroll of Isaiah was originally about 25 feet [7.5 m] long. It was made up of 17 sheets of carefully prepared animal skin, nearly as refined as parchment. Composed in 54 columns averaging 30 lines each, it had been carefully ruled. On these lines the skilled penman had placed the letters of the text, written in paragraphs.

The scroll had not been rolled around sticks, and it was much darker in the center where many hands had held it for reading. It was well-worn, with skillful repairs and reinforcements in evidence. Its fine preservation was due to its having been carefully sealed in a jar. How valuable is it to the Bible scholar, and, by extension, to all of us?

This manuscript of the prophet Isaiah is some one thousand years older than any other surviving copy, yet its contents are not greatly different. Said Professor Millar Burrows, the editor of the text that was published in 1950: “The text of Isaiah in this manuscript, with significant differences in spelling and grammar and many variant readings of more or less interest and importance, is substantially that presented considerably later in the MT [Masoretic Hebrew Text].” Also noteworthy is its consistent use of the Tetragrammaton, יהוה, God’s holy name, Jehovah, in Hebrew.

Other Valuable Manuscripts

The divine name also appears in another manuscript from this same cave, now known as Cave 1. In a commentary on the book of Habakkuk, the Tetragrammaton appears four times in paleo-Hebrew letters, an older style that contrasts with the more familiar square Hebrew lettering.—See the footnote to Habakkuk 1:9, Reference Bible.

The cave yielded portions of another Isaiah scroll, along with leather fragments from the Bible book of Daniel. One of these preserves the change from Hebrew to Aramaic at Daniel 2:4, just as found in manuscripts of a thousand years later.

Small parts of the scrolls that are well preserved are now exhibited in Jerusalem, in the museum known as the Shrine of the Book. This museum is underground, so as you visit there, you have the impression of entering a cave. The upper part of the museum is in the shape of the lid of the earthenware jar in which the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah was discovered. Yet, you see only a facsimile of the Isaiah manuscript. The precious original rests safely in the storeroom nearby.


Some of its more important readings are noted in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures—With References at Isaiah 11:1; 12:2; 14:4; 15:2; 18:2; 30:19; 37:20, 28; 40:6; 48:19; 51:19; 56:5; 60:21. The scroll is identified in the footnotes as 1QIsa.

- April 15, 1991 Watchtower, WTB&TS


Dead Sea Scrolls—Unprecedented Treasure

AT THE foot of Wadi Qumran, on the northwest side of the Dead Sea, lie some ancient ruins. Long considered to be the remains of a Roman fort, they had received little attention from archaeologists. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah in 1947, however, prompted reconsideration of the site.

Soon scholars identified the buildings as belonging to a religious community of the Jews. The immediate assumption was that these people had hidden the scrolls in the caves among the cliffs nearby. But later discoveries seemed to cast doubt on that.
An Unprecedented Find

Bedouin were alert to the value of the manuscripts they had already found. So, in 1952, when an old man recounted that as a youth he had chased a wounded partridge until it disappeared into a hole in the rock face, where he found some pottery and an ancient oil lamp, a fresh search got under way.

The old man was still able to identify the cave mouth among the deep clefts of the precipitous cliff. It turned out to be a man-made cave, now identified as Cave 4. There the Bedouin found pieces of manuscripts a few feet [about a meter] below the then existing level of the floor. None of the pieces had been stored in jars, so most were badly decayed, blackened, and very brittle. In time some 40,000 fragments were recovered, representing nearly 400 manuscripts. All the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, with the exception of Esther, were represented among the one hundred Bible manuscripts. Much of the material recovered from Cave 4 has not yet been published.

One of the more significant manuscripts was of the books of Samuel, copied in a single roll. Its Hebrew text, preserved in 47 columns out of a probable 57, is very similar to that used by the translators of the Greek Septuagint version. There are also Greek fragments of the Septuagint from Leviticus and Numbers that date back to the first century B.C.E. The Leviticus manuscript uses IAO, for the Hebrew יהוה, the divine name of God, instead of the Greek Ky′ri‧os, “Lord.”

In a fragment from Deuteronomy, the Hebrew text includes the portion from chapter 32, verse 43, found in the Septuagint and quoted at Hebrews 1:6: “And let all God’s angels do obeisance to him.” This is the first time this line has been found in any Hebrew manuscript, revealing a text that evidently underlies the Greek translation. Scholars have thus gained new insight into the text of the Septuagint, so often quoted in the Christian Greek Scriptures.

An Exodus scroll has been dated to the third quarter of the third century B.C.E., one of Samuel to the end of the same century, and a scroll of Jeremiah to between 225 and 175 B.C.E. Sufficient material from the third to the first century B.C.E. has been found to trace changes in writing styles and individual letters of the Hebrew and Aramaic alphabets, something of great value in dating manuscripts.

The Surprise of Cave 11

Eventually, the whole area around Qumran had been thoroughly searched, both by local Bedouin and by archaeologists. Yet, one day in 1956, some Bedouin noticed bats emerging from crevices in the cliffs north of Cave 1. They climbed up and found another cave, the entrance of which was blocked. Two tons of fallen rock had to be removed to expose it. The finds inside were astounding—two complete manuscripts and five large portions of others.

The most significant find was a beautiful scroll of Psalms. The thickness of the leather suggests that it is probably calfskin rather than goatskin. A total of five sheets, four separable leaves, and four fragments give it a length of more than 13 feet [4 m]. Although the top of this scroll is well preserved, the bottom edge is considerably decayed. It dates from the first half of the first century C.E. and contains parts of 41 psalms. The Tetragrammaton is written some 105 times in ancient paleo-Hebrew characters, making it stand out amid the square Hebrew script of the context.

Another manuscript, of Leviticus, is written entirely in the ancient Hebrew script, but why this is so has not yet been adequately explained. It is the longest document in existence using this form of writing, which was in use when the Jews went into Babylonian exile at the end of the seventh century B.C.E.

A copy of a Targum, an Aramaic paraphrase of the book of Job, also came to light. It is among the earliest Targums committed to writing. A number of commentaries on other Bible books were also found in different caves. How did all these scrolls come to be hidden so well in these caves?

As mentioned earlier, some may have been concealed by the Qumran community. But from the evidence, it seems quite likely that many were put there by Jews fleeing the Roman advance on Judea in the year 68 C.E., before the final destruction of Jerusalem two years later. The Judean wilderness was a safe natural haven for the precious manuscripts not only in the caves close to Qumran but in those many miles to the north, around Jericho, and to the south, near Masada. How grateful we are for their preservation! They give further proof of the unchangeableness of Jehovah’s inspired Word. Truly, “as for the word of our God, it will last to time indefinite.”—Isaiah 40:8.


See the Reference Bible, Appendix 1C (5) and the footnote to Leviticus 3:12, where this manuscript is identified as 4Q LXX Levb.

- February 15, 2001 Watchtower, WTB&TS