What Are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

These ancient parchments discovered by chance in desert caves by the Dead Sea tell mysteries about the mysterious Jewish sect that wrote them, and debunk a myth about Goliath's height while about it.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

In 1947, a group of Bedouin stumbled upon a number of clay jars in Khirbet Qumran, a site of caves overlooking the Dead Sea. Inside the jars were beautifully preserved scrolls with ancient Hebrew writing.

The scrolls turned out to be one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century.

Despite the oft-repeated story that the finders chopped the scrolls up into tiny bits and sold the pieces one by one on the market to maximize their profit, in reality they took relatively good care of the parchments and received a mere pittance for them.

Once archaeologists had authenticated the scrolls, and dated them to some 2,000 years ago, a mad dash began to the caves of Qumran (pronounced koom-RAN). Archaeologists combed the honeycomb of desiccated desert landscape for more, and indeed, many were found. All were made of parchment, with the exception of the Copper Scroll, which is held in Jordan and as its name implies was made of copper.

Fragments do turn up from time to time. The Israeli Antiquities Authority does its best to obtain them, arguing that they are Israeli state property in any case.

Academics have since been painstakingly piecing together the thousands of fragments to make sense of the great mass of text. Among the mysteries that the Dead Sea Scrolls have cleared up are who Nahash was anyway, and the true height of that terrifying Philistine, Goliath of Gath.

The library of the Essenes

Meanwhile, the long wait - and the exclusivity of the small group of academics granted permission to work on the scrolls – birthed a number of outlandish conspiracy theories. A popular one suggested that the scrolls contained some shocking revelations about early Christianity that were being suppressed by the Catholic Church or some other powerful group a-la Dan Brown’s Opus Dei.

Finally the work was done and the entire collection was made public in 1991. The scrolls do not in fact mention Jesus or Christianity.

What they were was essentially the library of a Jewish sect called the Essenes. Very little had been known about them before the Qumran find, apart from brief references to them by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, and the Jewish writers Josephus and Philo.

The Essenes lived during the Second Temple period. They were a pious Jewish sect, which apparently formed when the Hasmonean kings usurped the authority of the High Priest, becoming not only the monarchs but the top religious power as well – even though by Jewish tradition, they were not eligible to hold that position. They may have been kohanim, but not Zadokite Kohanim, members of the priestly family that traced its ancestry to Moses' brother Aaron, who had monopolized the position up to then.

The writings of the Essenes are full of allusions to an “Evil Priest,” who was probably one of these early king/high priests.

Battle between Essene good and everything else

The Essenes seem to have existed in two classes: some living in the cities, marrying, praying at the Temple in Jerusalem and living relatively normal Jewish lives. The other group lived in the arid desert of Qumran, in a sort of commune.

The Qumranites were all unmarried men. They practiced extreme purity rites, washing in ceremonial baths, mikvehs, after every bowel movement. Being accepted into the Essene community was an extremely arduous process, taking two years. All Essenes, whether urban or members of the commune, went through an annual appraisal by the community leaders.

Their theology was quite different from that of the other two contemporary Jewish schools of thought, the Pharisees and the Zadokites, on the question of free will versus determinism.

The Pharisees, the forerunners of rabbinical Judaism, believed that some things were predetermined while others were left to free will. The Sadducees believed that all is left to free will.

The Essenes took the extreme position that all things are predetermined. This belief extended to the belief in a kind of physiognomy - one’s facial features would tell whether someone was good or evil. They applied this method when taking in new members.

According to Essene theology, the world was a battle between good and evil. They, the few members of the Essenes, were the good and everyone else Jews and gentiles alike were evil.

Furthermore, according to a book discovered in Qumran and named by scholars "War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness," they believed that a war between good and evil was imminent, and that God would intercede on their side and kill all the evil people, essentially all of humanity.

Multiverse of biblical tales and Nahash the Ammonite

In addition to shedding light on this fascinating community's beliefs, the scrolls are also extremely important to our understanding of how the Masoretic Bible came to be.

Many of the scrolls are biblical texts. There are at least fragments of every book in the Torah, with the exception of the Book of Esther, which isn't there.

Before the discovery of the scrolls, it was believed that there were three versions of the bible in antiquity, from which the Hebrew bible and the early Biblical translations to Greek arose. Qumran showed that the story was more complicated than that; and that the biblical texts at the time were more fluid, existing in many different variations.

The biblical texts in Qumran - some 1,000 years more ancient than the oldest manuscript of the Hebrew Bible known prior to their discovery – also helped resolve some mysteries.

The most famous and interesting example of this is in the case of the story of the mysterious "Nahash the Ammonite" in the Book of 1 Samuel.

Chapter 10 ends with people deriding the newly-crowned King Saul “And they despised him, and brought him no presents. But he held his peace.” (27) The next chapter begins abruptly, mid-story, as if some part had gone missing. “Then Nahash the Ammonite came up, and encamped against Jabesh-Gilead: and all the men of Jabesh said unto Nahash, Make a covenant with us, and we will serve thee.” (11:1)

That leap in narrative had puzzled scholars for some time. We weren't told who Nahash is or why he was suddenly laying siege to Jabesh-Gilead. Elsewhere in Samuel, when a new king is introduced, his title and territory is given, for example “Agag the king of the Amalekites” (15:8).

And indeed it turned out that a paragraph had been missing, and now we know what it is, because it appears in a manuscript found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. A translation of it was added into the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, published in 1990: “Now Nahash king of the Ammonites had been grievously oppressing the Gadites and the Reubenites. He would gouge out the right eye of each of them and would not grant Israel a deliverer. No one was left of the Israelites across the Jordan whose right eye Nahash king of the Ammonites had not gouged out.”

Another case where the scrolls shed light on the Bible is in the matter of Goliath's height. The Masoretic text and the text of the Septuagint, the earliest known translation of the Bible, are in disagreement. The Masoretic cites Goliath as being six cubits and a span tall, which is roughly three meters, while the Septuagint says he was four cubits and a span tall, or roughly two meters tall.

The text in the Qumran sides with the Septuagint: it seems that Goliath wasn’t superhumanly tall after all.

Most of the scrolls are on display at the Israel Museum's Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, a building designed to look like the clay lids that covered the jars in which the scrolls were originally found. But you don’t have to go to Jerusalem to see the scroll (though it is truly moving experience to read Hebrew off a 2,000-year-old piece of parchment). Many of the scrolls can be read online. The Israel Museum and Google, which collaborated on the Dead Sea Scrolls project, plan to have the entire collection online by 2016.

A Dead Sea Scroll fragment.Credit: AP
Pnina Shor shows scans of scroll fragments.
A Dead Sea Scroll fragment.
The 10 Commandments, on a Dead Sea Scroll.
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Pnina Shor shows scans of scroll fragments.Credit: AP
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A Dead Sea Scroll fragment.Credit: AP
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The 10 Commandments, on a Dead Sea Scroll.Credit: AP
Dead Sea Scrolls
Small fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls at an Israel Antiquities Authority conservation laboratory in Jerusalem, October 19, 2010.
A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls at an Israel Antiquities Authority conservation laboratory in Jerusalem, October 19, 2010.
Small fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls at an Israel Antiquities Authority conservation laboratory in Jerusalem, October 19, 2010.
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Small fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls at an Israel Antiquities Authority conservation laboratory in Jerusalem, October 19, 2010.Credit: AP
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A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls at an Israel Antiquities Authority conservation laboratory in Jerusalem, October 19, 2010.Credit: AP
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Small fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls at an Israel Antiquities Authority conservation laboratory in Jerusalem, October 19, 2010.Credit: AP
Original Dead Sea Scrolls being scanned in order to upload them to Google

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