The Dead Sea Scrolls: the greatest archaeological discovery in history

The site of Qurman, in the West Bank

For a believer, the discovery made in Qumran on the northern shore of the Dead Sea surely remains the most important discovery in history. The revelation made in the Judaic desert, in the West Bank, remains the only certain proof that the Texts of the Holy Scriptures were not modified or compromised at least until Jesus’ time, about two thousand years ago. Archaeologists date these scrolls and papyruses from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D., and the most incredible thing is not only that they contain the entire Bible Old Testament (except the Book of Esther according to the Hebrew canon), but also that they can prove the authenticity of the contents of the translations that have survived to our days.

The discovery

Between November 1946 and February 1947 some bedouin shepherds discovered the first seven scrolls. These Bedouin teenagers while shepherding their goats and sheep near the ancient settlement of Qumran in the West Bank, lost a sheep from the flock. While they were looking for it, one of the young shepherds found a small opening, and since he couldn’t pass through it, he threw a stone inside and was amazed to hear an unexpected sound. The noise of broken pieces led them to get some help to enter the cave, and it was worth it. What they found was incredible, a collection of large clay pots, seven of which contained leather and papyrus scrolls.
After the news of the discovery spread, bedouin treasure hunters and archaeologists discovered in the same area tens of thousands of scroll fragments from ten other caves nearby, totaling about a thousand manuscripts.

About 1,400 original documents were recovered from the Qumram site, some complete or nearly complete (such as the famous Great Scroll of Isaiah), and many more fragmented (about 100,000 fragments)

The Essenes

Almost universally researchers’ opinion, attributes the discovered scrolls to the Essenes, a Jewish group organized in monastic communities that led a hermitic or cenobitic life.
So long before any excavation conducted in Qumran, it was already known that in this area of the Jewish Desert there were sects that during the Jewish Revolt between 66 and 68 AD settled in the desert, founding their life mainly on study and work to support themselves. After all, the Western monastic life was born from the intention to emulate the many ascetics living in the Holy Land. It is well known that the more far away you are from civilization, the more you can find inner peace, a fundamental element to be able to listen to the Word of GOD.

Supporting this theory are the remarkable similarities between the description of the initiation ceremony of new members in the Rule of the Community and the description of the Essene initiation ceremony mentioned in the works of Flavius Josephus, the Judeo-Roman historian of the Second Temple Period. In addition, other community rules such as Jewish ritual baths (Hebrew: miqvah = מקוה) were also discovered at Qumran, offering evidence of an observant Jewish presence at that site. So did Pliny the Elder (the geographer writing after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD) who describes a group of Essenes living in a desert community on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, near the ruined city of ‘Ein Gedi.

History and ancient thought re-emerging

The caves where the Scrolls were found are likely those where believers found refuge during the Third Judaic War, namely that of the Bar Kokhba revolt. The refuges have preserved numerous documents, including financial, military, legal and administrative records, as well as some religious texts including Bible scrolls. Valuable information about the economic and personal struggles endured by the refugees is therefore contained within these documents. Among the texts are letters to and from the leader of the Bar Kokhba revolt, and because many of the documents are dated, they are of extreme importance to the archaeology of the Roman and Talmudic periods.
The message gives a portrait of the diversity and complexity of Jewish religious life and the philosophy during the Second Temple era, revolutionizing our understanding of the world from which Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity emerged. Although rabbinic and Christian texts were not discovered among the ancient manuscripts, many of the thoughts and practices discovered in the Scrolls reemerge in later Jewish and Christian writings.

Why should the believer give importance to ancient manuscripts, and papyrus fragments? Because even the greatest faith needs to understand if its belief is based on facts that really happened.


Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Second Temple Judea was perceived as a monolithic society. Influenced by preconceived notions, scholars mistakenly thought that this idea of uniformity was supported by relevant primary sources, such as Josephus Flavius and other Greek and Roman authors, the New Testament Gospels, and rabbinic texts. Indeed, these sources offer a picture of diversity that can now be identified and supported by the texts found on the shores of the Dead Sea. More specifically, these works allude to a number of different Jewish sects, such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes.
The Scrolls clarify our understanding of the fundamental differences between these sects and show how contrasting their various worldviews and practices were. All of the ancient Jewish groups seem to agree on the centrality and importance of the Bible, although their conceptions of sacred literature may have differed. Thus, light is finally shed on philosophical disputes over such issues as the Temple and the priesthood, the religious calendar, and the hereafter.

Interior of the cave n.4 where the Messianic Apocalypse was found, a first century B.C. text that was by then lost: […] […For the hea]vens and the earth shall listen to His Messiah [and all w]hich is in them shall not turn away from the commandments of the holy ones. Strengthen yourselves, O you who seek the Lord, in His service… The Lord shall do glorious things that have not been done, just as he said. For He shall heal the critically wounded, He shall raise the dead, He shall bring good news to the poor, He shall […], He shall lead the [hol]y ones, and the hungry He shall enrich”. (Manuscript 4Q521, column 2)

Four interesting facts that most people don’t know about the Scrolls

  1. Hebrew is not the only language of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
    Most of the texts found at Qumram were not written in Hebrew. Some fragments were written in the ancient Paleo-Hebrew alphabet (in disuse around the fifth century BCE) and others written in Aramaic (the language spoken by the Jews at the time, including Jesus) while other writings contain translations of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, which some Jews used instead of or in addition to Hebrew at the time of the creation of the scrolls.
  2. The Dead Sea Scrolls include a treasure map.
    One of the most incredible manuscripts perhaps found at Qumran is the Copper Scroll, a kind of ancient treasure map that lists dozens of gold and silver deposits. While other texts are written with ink on parchment or animal skins, this curious document features Hebrew and Greek letters chiseled onto metal sheets, probably also to better withstand the passage of time. Using unconventional vocabulary and a particularly anomalous spelling, the copper scroll describes 64 underground hiding places around Israel that supposedly contain riches that have been hidden for safekeeping through time. According to the authorities, none of these treasures were eventually recovered, perhaps because the Romans completely sacked Judea during the first century AD. However, according to various hypotheses, the treasure belonged to local Essenes, and was taken away from the Second Temple before its destruction.
  3. Some scrolls were sold in the “classifieds” section.
    Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, a Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem, purchased four of the seven original Dead Sea Scrolls from a shoemaker who dabbled in collecting antiquities, paying them for less than 100 US dollars at the time. When the Arab-Israeli War broke out in 1948, Samuel traveled to the United States and unsuccessfully offered them to a number of universities, including Yale. Finally, in 1954, he took out an ad in the Wall Street Journal under the category “Miscellaneous Items for Sale” that read, “Biblical Manuscripts dating back to at least 200 B.C. are for sale. This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group.” Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, whose father had obtained the other three scrolls from the initial collection in 1947, secretly negotiated their purchase on behalf of the new State of Israel.
  4. An incredible scrolls length.
    Some of the largest scrolls stretch to nearly 30 feet. The Isaiah scroll is about seven meters long and consists of 17 sheets of parchment, sewn end to end.

Conclusions

GOD’s Message cannot be compromised. As much as evil, wars, and the erosion of time may try to compromise the Divine Writings, the CREATOR will not allow His Work to be hindered. These rediscovered scrolls have allowed the Abrahamic Religions believers to fortify their convictions about the flawlessness of the Word, and also permitted archaeologists to gather an immense amount of information about how the Bible has been transmitted from generation to generation. In most cases, the scrolls bear a remarkable resemblance to the Hebrew Bible Text currently in use, despite the fact that they were written in languages now disused that are inevitably subject to interpretation in order to transcribe them into today’s languages.
The differences between the scrolls and the traditional Hebrew text simply represent the difficulties, of today’s Hebrew Bible and of most modern translations of olther Bibles, in interpreting concepts expressed back then with today’s words and idioms, which is why the work of translators interpreting Scripture is truly an arduous task. Translation remains one of the few human activities in which the impossible is always happening, in order to bring these texts back to life and make them understandable in the languages used today, a small part of the text will inevitably be lost.
May GOD always lead all those who work for the Truth, helping them on their complex but magnificent journey.

 


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