The Archaeological Find of the 20th Century? Israel's Dead Sea Scrolls

In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd boy herding his goats on the north-west shores of the Dead Sea realised one of his flock was missing.  Believing the animal had wandered into the nearby Qumran Caves, he stepped inside.  Not only did he find his lone goat, but he also stumbled upon what is arguably considered the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century - ancient manuscripts written predominantly in Hebrew.  Written on parchment and later found to be around 2,000 years old, few were found intact but with the help of scholars, they were eventually reconstructed into 850 different manuscripts.  Today, we know them as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Three of the scrolls were quickly purchased by Professor Sukenik, an archaeologist, on behalf of the Hebrew University; the others were snapped up by the Syrian Orthodox Church in East Jerusalem.  When the War of Independence broke out in 1948, Mar Samuelof that Church decided to smuggle the scrolls out of the country, to ensure they were not damaged.  He took them to New York where they remained for six years...until Sukenik’s son, Yigal Yadin, raised the funds necessary ($250,000 at that time!) have them returned.  A home was found for them at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and soon architects were engaged to design a special building in which to house them. 

The Scrolls are considered to be of extraordinary importance due to the tremendous insight they give us into Jewish society in Israel during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, as well as the origins of rabbinical Judaism.   Written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, they encompass a variety of subjects and literary styles.  They also include fragments of manuscripts from almost every book in the Hebrew Bible.  Archaeologists now know they were written by a separatist group called the Essenes, who fled to the desert wilderness because of what they saw as corruption in the Temple.  

So who were the Essenes?  Well, in the main, they were semi-monastic Priests who regarded themselves as the ‘sons of light’ that would eventually battle and defeat the forces of evil.    They kept Jewish laws but did notcarry out sacrifices nor eat meat.  They left their wives and children to live in the desert, and there they worked for the common good, relinquishing all personal property.  They observed strict religious orders, but also worked diligently in their professions - and not for profit or luxuries, merely necessities.  Admission to their sect was rigid, life was disciplined and they revealed nothing to outsiders.

The Essenes also functioned as scribes and prophets, studying and preserving the Scriptures.  This is why the Scrolls found in Qumran were in such good condition - most of them (save one found in copper) had been written on animal hide (regarded as long-lasting material).  The arid climate of the desert also helped preserve them.  And then, at a certain point, they were placed in earthenware jars (almost airtight and water-resistant) and buried in a cool, dark environment.  This kept humidity and mould at bay.  Of course, when found they were still not in optimum condition (and could fall apart very easily) but, nevertheless, some of them could be unrolled and read.

Remarkably, despite the thousand year gap, scholars found the Masoretic Text and Dead Sea Scrolls to be nearly identical. The Dead Sea Scrolls therefore provide valuable evidence that the Hebrew Bible been accurately and carefully preserved.  Today, they continue to amaze scholars and lay persons alike, and are on display for the world to see, housed in the Book of the Shrine, at the Israel Museum.  More about that in the next post…