The Dead Sea Scrolls

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The Dead Sea Scrolls

In 1947 a Bedouin shepherd climbed into a cave in the north west shore of the Dead Sea in Israel and unexpectedly discoverd the first fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And between the years 1947 and 1956 more caves containing additional hidden scrolls were discovered by Bedouin and Archaelogists alike as extensive searches were made, a period some people refer to as 'The Scroll Rush'. They have been scientifically dated (and handwriting styles have hepled place them in a fairly accurate chronoligical order) and the results indicate that they were written around the time of Jesus, from the second century BC to the first century A.D. and thereby confirming that the scrolls contain the oldest written record of the Old Testament as well as other religious material and writings. Prior to 1947 the oldest original manuscripts that referred to the bible were from the medieval period, about AD 1000.

To describe the Dead Sea Scrolls as 'the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times' is no overstatement. Approximately twenty thousand fragments were discovered and trying to piece the fragments together was akin to solving a giant jigsaw puzzle with many pieces missing or damaged. And of course the huge scientific challange of physically unraveling these manuscripts without destroying them. The fact that they were so well preserved by the arid climate for so long is a miracle in itself. Eventually putting the fragments together resulted in about 900 scrolls. About 500 of the scrolls are copies of Jewish literature of the time. Another 200 are Biblical, and another 200 are the rules and practices of the 'desert people' that wrote and hid the scrolls.

Dead Sea Scrolls

These 'desert people', the scroll writers were most likely the Essenes, a Jewish sect based in Qumran, an area by the north western shore of the Dead Sea where the scrolls were found. They probably moved to this area in anticipation of a 'holy' war with the defeat of the Romans and the restoration of Isreal. They resided in Qumran from about 100 BC to AD 68, when Qumran was overrun by the Romans and the Essenes were defeated. Contemporary authors, such as Josephus, described the Essenes in his own independent works to have beliefs and practices that are very similar to what we read about in the Dead Sea Scrolls, where the Essenes write about their own lives, suggesting indeed that the Essenes scribes were the authors. The building complex lived in by the Essenes has been discovered and excavated. In fact Archaeologists have discovered even the remains of the tables on which the scrolls were first written including traces of dried-up ink in the inkwells!

It was known that the Essenes were expecting trouble from the Roman armies, due to their own teachings and practices. So they thought it was wise to hide the Scrolls. Though you would have to say thet they didn't take great care in hiding them as they were just left in containers in caves. Or could it be that there are other scrolls in more secure hiding places, and that these discoveries from 1947 - 1956 were left in temporary hiding places which the Essenes never got around to hiding properly, maybe due to the Roman attack happening before they expected it. It was led by the Roman general Vespasian in the early summer of AD 68. This attack was written about by Josephus, who told how the Essenes were tortured and many were killed. Others just fled never to return to Qumran, leaving the scrolls hidden in the 11 caves undisturbed until almost 2000 years later.

What are the writings about?

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain fragments of all the books of the Old Testament, often with more than one copy of each (except for the Book of Ester, apparently the scroll scribes were displeased with this book and so omitted it). They are written on, what are now obviously extremely fragile parchments, in mostly Hebrew, but also Aramaic and Greek.

One scroll recounts the book of Genesis. Another contains the complete book of Isaiah. There are 30 copies of the book of Deuteronmy. The Isaiah scroll, written at least one hundred years before the birth of Jesus, contains prophecies of Jesus’s physcial birth, his character, his miracles, his suffering and crucifixion. All of these are also contained in the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament. Amazingly the Isaiah copies of the Qumran community ‘proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling’ according to the biblical scholar Gleason Archer.

What does it all mean?

The works of Josephus were the main source of information on early Christian life around the time of Jesus. But now we also have the scrolls whose importance should not be underestimated. They dramatically improved our knowledge of that period and give us an extensive account of the religious and political atmosphere of thst era. Both Philo and Josephus state that there are over 4000 Essenes around that period who travelled all over the land where Jesus did his teaching. They most likely crossed paths. He may have been influenced by some of their teachings, as they may have been influenced by his, many of which were along the lines of his own, such as the rich are corrupt, and speaking up on behalf of the poor.

The bible's authenticity has been scrutinised for centuries, but it's authenticity has been reinforced by the Scrolls. Since these manuscripts have been revealed to contain scriptures which match the Hebrew Old Testament that we read today very closely, thereby demonstrating and reinforcing the claim that the Old Testament has not been significantly modified in the last 2000 years. So the modern Hebrew Bible which has been copied untold numbers of times is actually very very similar to the Dead Sea Scrolls which have remained untouched for 2000 years! Does this not speak volumes for the accuracy of the modern bible. And the non religious scrolls, also untouched in 2000 years, indicate that the Jewish thoughts and customs and religious practices are consistent with the events described in the New Testament.

So is appears that this is indisputable and incontrovertible archaelogical evidence that the Old Testament available today is not significantly altered from the time Jesus walked in Galilee! Surely now we must accept the message in the Bible!

The scribes copied the scrolls from other documents around this time. Who wrote the original documents? Where did the dead sea scroll writers get there information from?

Was there a coverup? Did the Catholic church try to prevent the publication of the scrolls? Did the church feel threatened, as to what the scrolls would reveal and hope that it did not clash with the traditional establishment or the Christian Church's interpretation of the bible and especially the character of Jesus? Would the scrolls undermine the chrisian faith? They appeared to reveal another character, 'the teacher of rightoutness' who was probably the spiritual leader of the Essenes at the time.

Are there more fragments and scrolls remaining in the caves, awaiting discovery? What of all the pilfered scrolls, will they ever re-surface?

Are they all translated and pieced together accurately?

The Dead Sea scrolls are still copies of some original, how many copies of copies have been made of the very first document. How much time was there from the original to the Dead Sea Scrolls? What can we say about their accuracy to the original? The Dead Sea Scrolls bring us closer to the original chronologically, but what can we say in terms of closeness in accuracy?

The Israel Antiquities Authority, the keeper of the scrolls, announced in 2008 that they would digitally photograph all scroll fragments. This will help preserve the manuscripts and make them available to a wider audience to hopefully improve the interpretations of the material. In addition, this digital imaging has the added benefit of revealing text that is not visible to the naked eye. So what other revelations lie in wait?