By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Seventy years ago this year, a young Bedouin shepherd went wandering through the Qumran hills looking for a lost animal. Whether he actually found the animal or not does not seem to be recorded. The story, possibly apocryphal, is that in order to scare the lost sheep out of a small cave he found, Muhammed edh-Dhib hurled a stone in. He did not hear the bleating of a sheep (or goat, sources differ). What he did hear was the sound of pottery being smashed. Being a sixteen year old boy, he had to crawl in to see where the noise was coming from. He found scrolls lying amongst pottery shards. He took the scrolls home and after a while they passed into the hands of cousins who knew a thing or two about antiquities. From there, it was a time of moving from one collector to another until they came in to the hands of Metropolitan Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, the head of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch in Jerusalem. He recognized what he had found as being very old indeed and took them to experts, including Drs. Ovid Sellers and John C. Trever, at the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) in Jerusalem. After comparing them to the Nash Papyrus, the then oldest known biblical text, they were able to determine the scrolls found in Qumran were very old.
After an announcement made in early 1948, the biblical archaeological community began to wonder what else lay out there in caves in the desert on the shores of the Dead Sea. Plans were made, expeditions formulated, but there was an issue getting back out to the area where the first scrolls were discovered. At the same time the scrolls were being authenticated, tempers were running high between the Arab League and the new state of Israel. By May this had erupted into the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. After hostilities ebbed the Arab Legion began searching for the caves. The first cave where the original find was made was finally located by United Nations observer Captain Phillipe Lip pens and Arab Legion Captain Akkash el-Zebn at the end of January, 1949. Ten more caves were found in the decade after Muhammed edh-Dhib first hurled the stone, with the final cave to contain anything, Cave Eleven, being found in 1956. In all, 972 manuscripts in scrolls or fragments were discovered. They are mostly written on animal skin parchment, with some fewer on papyrus and one scroll on copper.
Contrary to popular belief, the scrolls did not contain an entire old testament. In fact many of the scrolls, up to thirty percent, were copies of books that were not included in the bible as we know it and a further thirty percent were rules for the Essene community and comments on biblical passages. The scrolls do contain at least fragments from every single book of the Tanakh, or the Old Testament if you prefer, with the exception of the Book of Esther. It should be noted that the Book of Esther is the last book to be made cannon by the sages of the Great assembly and is the only book in the bible that does not mention God explicitly. There are also books of religious origin that do not show up in the Tanakh or the Christian Old Testament, although some are found in Apocrypha and the Catholic Bible. The majority of the scrolls actually deal with rules of daily and religious life, and with the beliefs and practices of the makers.
The same site that yielded the scrolls also contained coins from approximately 135 BCE to 73 CE. While it’s not the strongest dating procedure it does give you a very narrow, 208 year time window for these caves use. And when you consider how often you run into a coin minted during the Jefferson administration in the library today, you have to admit that it gives a likely date for their initial placement in the Qumran caves. However scientific dating techniques have gone on to prove these dates to be with in the margin for error. However, there are older materials present amongst the scrolls. The oldest is a fragment called MUR 17 and it dates from the 8th century BCE.
Who wrote them?
While the general consensus is that the scrolls were written by the Essenes that lived nearby, many scholars have other theories. There is a theory that the scrolls were actually prepared in Jerusalem and then stashed in the caves as the city’s inhabitants fled during the Jewish revolts against Roman rule. There is a fairly debunked theory that the scrolls are actually the work of very early Christian writers. This is based upon a tenuous identification of the scroll named 7Q5 as the text from Mark 6:52-53. This would make it the earliest known evidence of the New Testament. The majority of the people believe that these scrolls were the work of locals, either Essenes or otherwise. That they were locally produced is bolstered by the jars they were found in. The style of container is particular to Qumran and the caves alone. The best evidence linking the scrolls to the Essenes are the scrolls themselves. The scroll known as the Community Rule Scroll contains many references to practices and strictures that match contemporary descriptions of the rites of the Essenes.
The texts contained in the Dead Sea scrolls are the oldest ever found in such completion. The next oldest are the Masoretic texts that come from a thousand years later (approx. 900-1000 CE). Because of this they provide a look into scripture at some of its earliest moments. What little change there is between the scrolls version of the many of the books and the Masoretic texts or even the texts used in synagogues today, some books like Exodus and Samuel show great differences. This is a great way to see how scripture has changed and what has remained constant. These travelers from the past have come to tell us how Jewish and by extension Christian beliefs have evolved.