The Dead Sea Scrolls (also Qumran Caves Scrolls) are ancient Jewish religious manuscripts found in the Qumran Caves in the Judaean Desert, near Ein Feshkha on the northern shore of the Dead Sea. Scholarly consensus dates these scrolls from the last three centuries BCE and the first century CE. The texts have great historical, religious, and linguistic significance because they include the second-oldest known surviving manuscripts of works later included in the Hebrew Bible canon, along with deuterocanonical and extra-biblical manuscripts which preserve evidence of the diversity of religious thought in late Second Temple Judaism. Almost all of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection is currently under the ownership of the Government of the state of Israel, and housed in the Shrine of the Book on the grounds of the Israel Museum.
Many thousands of written fragments have been discovered in the Dead Sea area. They represent the remnants of larger manuscripts damaged by natural causes or through human interference, with the vast majority holding only small scraps of text. However, a small number of well-preserved, almost intact manuscripts have survived – fewer than a dozen among those from the Qumran Caves. Researchers have assembled a collection of 981 different manuscripts – discovered in 1946/47 and in 1956 – from 11 caves. The 11 Qumran Caves lie in the immediate vicinity of the Hellenistic-period Jewish settlement at Khirbet Qumran in the eastern Judaean Desert, in the West Bank. The caves are located about one mile (1.6 kilometres) west of the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, whence they derive their name. Scholarly consensus dates the Qumran Caves Scrolls from the last three centuries BCE and the first century CE. Bronze coins found at the same sites form a series beginning with John Hyrcanus (in office 135–104 BCE) and continuing until the period of the First Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE), supporting the radiocarbon and paleographic dating of the scrolls.
Initial discovery (1946–1947)
The initial discovery by Bedouin shepherd Muhammed edh-Dhib, his cousin Jum’a Muhammed, and Khalil Musa, took place between November 1946 and February 1947. The shepherds discovered seven scrolls (See Scrolls and fragments) housed in jars in a cave near what is now known as the Qumran site. John C. Trever reconstructed the story of the scrolls from several interviews with the Bedouin. Edh-Dhib’s cousin noticed the caves, but edh-Dhib himself was the first to actually fall into one (the cave now called Cave 1). He retrieved a handful of scrolls, which Trever identifies as the Isaiah Scroll, Habakkuk Commentary, and the Community Rule, and took them back to the camp to show to his family. None of the scrolls were destroyed in this process. The Bedouin kept the scrolls hanging on a tent pole while they figured out what to do with them, periodically taking them out to show to their people. At some point during this time, the Community Rule was split in two. The Bedouin first took the scrolls to a dealer named Ibrahim ‘Ijha in Bethlehem. ‘Ijha returned them, saying they were worthless, after being warned that they might have been stolen from a synagogue. Undaunted, the Bedouin went to a nearby market, where a Syrian Christian offered to buy them. A sheikh joined their conversation and suggested they take the scrolls to Khalil Eskander Shahin, “Kando”, a cobbler and part-time antiques dealer. The Bedouin and the dealers returned to the site, leaving one scroll with Kando and selling three others to a dealer for 7 Jordanian pounds (approximately $28, or $314 in 2018 dollars). The original scrolls continued to change hands after the Bedouin left them in the possession of a third party until a sale could be arranged. (See Ownership.)
In 1947 the original seven scrolls caught the attention of Dr. John C. Trever, of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), who compared the script in the scrolls to that of The Nash Papyrus, the oldest biblical manuscript then known, and found similarities between them. In March the 1948 Arab–Israeli War prompted the move of some of the scrolls to Beirut, Lebanon, for safekeeping. On 11 April 1948, Millar Burrows, head of the ASOR, announced the discovery of the scrolls in a general press release.
In the larger sense, the Dead Sea Scrolls include manuscripts from additional Judaean Desert sites, dated as early as the 8th century BCE and as late as the 11th century CE.
Search for the Qumran caves (1948–1949)
Early in September 1948, Metropolitan bishop Mar Samuel brought some additional scroll fragments that he had acquired to Professor Ovid R. Sellers, the new Director of ASOR. By the end of 1948, nearly two years after their discovery, scholars had yet to locate the original cave where the fragments had been found. With unrest in the country at that time, no large-scale search could be undertaken safely. Sellers tried to get the Syrians to assist in the search for the cave, but he was unable to pay their price. In early 1948, the government of Jordan gave permission to the Arab Legion to search the area where the original Qumran cave was thought to be. Consequently, Cave 1 was rediscovered on 28 January 1949, by Belgian United Nations observer Captain Phillipe Lippens and Arab Legion Captain Akkash el-Zebn.
Archaeologists have long associated the scrolls with the ancient Jewish sect called the Essenes, although some recent interpretations have challenged this connection and argue that priests in Jerusalem, or Zadokites, or other unknown Jewish groups wrote the scrolls. Robert Eisenman vigorously posits his theory that the later, non-biblical “sectarian” scrolls must be viewed in the context of a wider first-century CE “Opposition Movement,” including Essenes, Zealots, Sicarii, and/or Nazoreans, and particularly the early Judeo-Christian community of Jerusalem, the Ebionites, whose leader, James, the brother of Jesus, was acknowledged by the entire “Opposition Movement,” and who is no other than the Scrolls’ Teacher of Righteousness. He thus creates a strong link between the Scrolls and the pre-Pauline Jewish Christian community.
Most of the texts use Hebrew, with some written in Aramaic (for example the Son of God text; in different regional dialects, including Nabataean), and a few in Greek. Discoveries from the Judaean Desert add Latin (from Masada) and Arabic (from Khirbet al-Mird) texts. Most of the texts are written on parchment, some on papyrus, and one on copper.
Owing to the poor condition of some of the scrolls, scholars have not identified all of their texts. The identified texts fall into three general groups:
- About 40% are copies of texts from the Hebrew Scriptures.
- Approximately another 30% are texts from the Second Temple Period which ultimately were not canonized in the Hebrew Bible, like the Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, the Book of Tobit, the Wisdom of Sirach, Psalms 152–155, etc.
- The remainder (roughly 30%) are sectarian manuscripts of previously unknown documents that shed light on the rules and beliefs of a particular group (sect) or groups within greater Judaism, like the Community Rule, the War Scroll, the Pesher on Habakkuk, and The Rule of the Blessing
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