Why the Dead Sea Scrolls are such a big deal.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 March

Other than being our oldest copies of the Old Testament.

Round 1947—most likely some years earlier—Muhammad edh Dhib, a Bedouin goatherd, was chasing a stray goat through Khirbet Qumran, ruins near the Dead Sea. Checking the nearby caves in case the goat was hiding in there, he threw rocks into the blackness to scare out the goat. Instead he heard a pot break. So he went in to check that out. He found pottery which contained scrolls written in first-century Hebrew.

Figuring they were worth a sheqel or two, he sold them to an antiquities dealer. In November 1947, the dealer sold ’em to Eliezer Sukenik of Hebrew University. Word spread. Hundreds of Qumran caves were searched. Eleven were found to contain tens of thousands of scroll fragments, which altogether make up about 875 books.

Popularly they’re called the Dead Sea Scrolls. Sometimes they’re called the Qumran scrolls. They’re the writings of an ancient religious commune in Qumran, Jews from Jesus’s day who considered themselves neither Sadducee nor Pharisee. (In fact they had a lot of condemnation for the Judean leadership.) Other ancient writers never mentioned this group, but since Flavius Josephus and Pliny the Elder mentioned a denomination called the Essenes, various people claim the Qumrani sect was Essene. But there’s zero evidence for this theory. (Same with the theory John the baptist was Essene—or Qumrani.)

The Dead Sea Scrolls are significant ’cause among them are the oldest known copies of the Old Testament. Before they were found, the oldest known copy was a Greek-language Septuagint (originally copied between 250–100BC). Then a Latin-language Vulgate (from 385–420). Then a Hebrew-language copy of the Old Testament (from the 900s). It’s not good when your translations are older than your original-language texts; you’re always tempted to take the translations more seriously than maybe you oughta.

Well, now scholars have a Hebrew Old Testament that’s 10 centuries older than the previous version, ’cause some of the Dead Sea Scrolls date to 100BC. Arguably it’s the very same Old Testament read by the Pharisees, Jesus, and his students.

So they’re kinda important. For even more reasons than their age.

Sorting the facts from mythology.

Initially the only people who got to even look at the scrolls were the Israeli Antiquities Authority, the government agency which supervises archeology—and has to police looters, the people who wanna steal and sell artifacts. Including wannabe archeologists who skip the proper channels and procedures, and are basically looters. You know, like Indiana Jones. Thanks to looters, a lot of stuff gets swiped, mislabeled for profit (i.e. a 900-year-old Roman item which they’ll claim is a 2,000-year-old Canaanite artifact), and valuable history gets lost as a result.

Arguably the IAA was a little too cautious. Initially they only permitted seven scholars to examine the scrolls. These guys were the only ones who got to photograph, study, translate, and publish their results—in a book series called Discoveries in the Judean Desert.

Thing is, these guys didn’t only examine the scrolls. They had day jobs. They taught, they studied, they went on digs, they presented lectures. They took a really long time to produce each new volume of the Discoveries. Volume 5 was published in 1968, volume 6 nine years later in 1977, volume 7 five years later in 1982, volume 8 seven years later in 1989. Other scholars grew impatient. Rumors spread about unscholarly behavior. Bootleg copies of the scrolls began to circumate.

Myths began to spread that the delays were because of what’s really in the scrolls. You know how conspiracy theorists can be: Skeptics claimed the scrolls might disprove the Old Testament, so the scholars were busy trying to hide this, or conceal any controversial scrolls. Or there might be secrets they revealed, which the Israelis didn’t want known: Prophecies about the End Times, teachings which’d denounce present-day synagogues and churches (or the Israeli government), or whatever. And of course con artists and practitioners of eclectic religions claimed the scrolls really taught what they teach, and traditional religions wanted it kept under wraps.

Yep, these myths are still around. Even though, the IAA lifted their restrictions in the 1990s, and now permit any qualified scholar to study the scrolls. The other 31 volumes of Discoveries have been published since. And nowadays you can find photos of the scrolls on the internet if you wanna check ’em out for yourself. Or you can buy one of the many books which translate them into English. (Or you can buy the Discoveries volumes yourself, but they so aren’t cheap.)

What’s in them?

There are about 875 books in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Way more than the 39 to 46 books in the Christian Old Testament, so people naturally wanna know what the other books are. They’re basically all the writings of the Qumran religious community: Copies of the bible, commentaries on the bible, Qumrani rules, and Qumrani prophecies.

The Qumranis were an End Times cult. (Yep, one of those.) They considered themselves “children of light,” “children of truth,” “God’s minions,” and so forth. They left Jerusalem and the Judeans, considering them “children of darkness,” “children of perversion,” “children of the lie,” “the house of Absalom,” “men of the pit,” “the devil’s minions,” and other pejorative terms. Same as cults nowadays, they considered themselves the only ones going into God’s kingdom. ’Cause they followed him properly and believed all the right things.

So into the desert they went. They learned the Qumrani rules, handed over all their worldly possessions to the community, and after two years of examination were considered full members. They spent their time studying the scriptures, resisting Satan, staying pure, examining themselves… and awaiting the Teacher of Rightness, a leader who’d prepare the way for Messiah, and lead ’em into a final battle between the children of light and children of darkness.

Yep, we learned all that from the scrolls. Plus a lot of Qumrani thinking: Their worship songs and prayers, their interpretations and Aramaic translations of the bible, their traditions and rulings on the Law, their instructions for how to throw out demons, their End Times theories, their astronomical/astrological workings (including a 364-day solar calendar which conveniently made sure no festivals ever fell on Sabbath), and their interpretations and critiques of history and then-current events.

We also learned the Qumranis had a lot of beliefs similar to the ancient Christians. The Christians also had a lot in common with the Pharisees, but over the centuries, Christians and Jews deliberately got rid of those similarities, just to distance ourselves from one another (for no good reason). But the Qumranis never had a chance to do such a thing, so the similarities are much more obvious.

But while similar, our beliefs don’t match up in a lot of ways. Fr’instance the Qumranis believed if you went astray, you were doomed; you’re predestined for hell. In comparison both John the baptist and Jesus offered God’s salvation to anyone who’d repent.

Both of us trusted God’s grace to save us. Both recognized the importance of the Law—though the Qumranis got legalistic about it, whereas Christians see it as foundational. Both were really big fans of Isaiah, though obviously we and they interpret the book quite differently. And both believe the End will come, though the Qumranis didn’t speculate much about what Messiah was like… whereas we Christians know Jesus is Messiah.

But what more Christians were pleased to discover, is how much that copy of the Old Testament from the 900s matched up with the Dead Sea Scrolls. The rabbis had done an outstanding job of making exact copies of the bible. Nine hundred years of copying hadn’t produced any significant differences; what we had was what they had. Compare that with the Septuagint and Vulgate, which sometimes have big differences in the Old Testament. So you gotta give the rabbis respect for a job well done.