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Part III: The Dead Sea Scrolls

 

Qumran and the Essenes

In the wilderness desert on the hills by the Dead Sea in Israel lies the archaeological ruins of an ancient community known as "Qumran." Though only discovered and excavated during the last 50 years, we know quite a bit about the people, community, and religion of Qumran. They were a religious sect of Jews who built their desert community in about 166 B.C. and lived there until destruction by the Roman army advancing on Jerusalem in 68 A.D. They had withdrawn from society because of discontent with the corruption and abuses of the priesthood in Jerusalem and the Hasmonean Jewish rulers. Retreating to the rocky crevices of the Dead Sea desert, the Jewish families established monastic-style brotherhoods. The group was a part of the "Essenes," a Jewish sect who thought of themselves as the righteous remnant of Israel. The Qumran group followed a leader mysteriously referred to as the "Teacher of Righteousness." Many have speculated regarding who this person was, even suggesting that it may have been John the Baptist (although this seems unlikely). It is possible that John was an Essene in his youth, for the Biblical account speaks of him living in the wilderness and separated from society in much the same manner that Essenes chose to live.

One of the jars that Scrolls were found inA lot of what we know of the Essenes comes from the 1st century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Their monastic lifestyle was one of self-deprivation and rigorous discipline. They had strict rules with harsh punishment, and were communal with all of their possessions. They were obsessed with ritual cleanliness, and took ritual baths daily to keep themselves ready for the imminent coming of three deliverers (two Messiahs and a prophet) and the advent of a new age. Yet they saw the Messiahs as military deliverers who would defeat the Roman armies, return them to their rightful place in Jerusalem, and usher in a new age.

The reading and studying of Scripture was an essential part of life for the Qumran Essenes. Excavations revealed a scriptorium in their small community, and they had an entire library of scrolls. Since these scrolls were their most cherished possessions, when the Roman army approached on their march toward Jerusalem, the Qumran Essenes began hiding their library in caves near their community. Many of the scrolls were stored in large clay jars to protect them from the elements.   They expected to retrieve these after their Messiahs had come and defeated the Roman army, but instead the army massacred the brotherhood and all knowledge of the hidden scrolls. The library of the Qumran Essenes would remained buried in the desert caves for nearly two thousand years.

 

The Archaeological Discovery of the Century

Just fifty years ago the oldest manuscripts of Old Testament Scripture known to man were from the ninth century A.D. Despite the diligent copying methods of the scribes, many scholars contested that over so many centuries (from the original Scriptures written in the centuries B.C. to the ninth century), many errors certainly had crept into the text. The reliability of the text of the Old Testament was in question, leaving doubt in some people’s minds whether they could trust the Bibles they had in their hands as God’s Word. As if to answer these doubt and questions, God had allowed an ancient library containing most of the Old Testament to remain hidden, and allowed it to be discovered in the twentieth century.

Cliffs of Dead Sea CavesIn 1947, a shepherd boy was looking for a lost goat in the cliffs near the Dead Sea and found a cave with some old scrolls in clay jars. The jars were two feet high with leather scrolls wrapped in linen cloth, and the boy realized they were old and took them out to sell them. Eventually, scholars heard about and examined the scrolls, and some discredited them as forgeries, not able to believe that such ancient manuscripts could exist. But the arid desert of the Dead Sea area had preserved many of the scrolls very well, and as more of the scrolls turned up, every scholar conceded that they were genuine. Archeologists searched the rugged terrain around the first cave and found 10 more caves. Some parts of the ancient library were well preserved in clay jars, some of the caves had already been looted and only a few scraps remained, and other scrolls were in tiny fragments which had to be pieced together like jigsaw puzzles. In all, about 100,000 pieces of various ancient Jewish text were found, and when pieced together, about 870 scrolls were identified. 220 of these were biblical scrolls contained at least part of every Old Testament book except Esther (some Jews did not consider Esther as part of their canon because the name of God is never mentioned in the book). The other 650 scrolls were religious works written in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic and included a list of buried treasure (the Copper Scroll), plans to rebuild the temple should it be destroyed (the Temple Scroll), and a last-days prophecy of the "Sons of Light" at war with the "Sons of Darkness" (the War Scroll).

The Shrine of the Book museum in IsraelOf the Biblical scrolls, the largest and most complete was found in the first cave- a complete scroll of Isaiah. In excellent condition, it was seventeen sheets of leather bound end to end in a single scroll, measuring 24 ft. in length completely stretched out. Each sheet was a foot high with 54 columns of legible Hebrew text. Other scrolls were very worn and damaged over time, and in certain cases where the text could no longer be read, infra-red photography was used to see the original writing on the leather parchment. Cave four was the other great find for biblical archaeology, for here most of the other Old Testament books were found. Some of the scrolls are on display at the Shrine of the Book museum in Jerusalem, which is partially underground and constructed so as to protect the ancient Scriptures in the event of a nuclear attack on Israel.

 

Dead Sea Scrolls fragment- LXX Psalm 50

Dead Sea Scroll- Psalms Torah fragments
Dead Sea Scroll fragment- Greek Septuagint,  Psalm 50:17-20 Dead Sea Scroll- Psalms Dead Sea Scroll fragments- Hebrew Torah

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The Significance of the Scrolls

The most significant aspect of the Dead Sea Scrolls is that they have put to rest the questions of critics of the accuracy of the Old Testament. Before their discovery, many scholars questioned how many errors were in the Hebrew manuscripts that all English translations were based on, since the oldest of these manuscripts were from the ninth century. The Dead Sea Scrolls jumped back in time an entire millenium to the time just before Christ. When these texts were examined, they were found to have a high level of accuracy with the newer texts, proving that the Hebrew scribes had been accurate century after century in copying the Scriptures. The Isaiah Scroll, for example, which is the largest biblical scroll and contains the entire 66 chapters of Isaiah, was copied in 100 B.C. but matches the 1000 A.D. Masoretic Text 99% of the time. The Old Testament Scriptures have indeed been well preserved, and Christians today can hold their Bibles with assurance that the very words they are reading are very, very close to the exact Words that Moses, David, and others wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit thousands of years ago.

Dead Sea Scroll fragment- LXX Psalm 18Though most of the differences in the text that the Scrolls brought to light are minor, there are a few that have caused slight changes to our Bibles:

  • The Masoretic Text of A.D. 1000 said that the number of Jacob’s descendants who traveled with him to Egypt was 70, but in Acts 7:14 Stephen says it was 75- seemingly an error in the Scriptures. But the Dead Sea Scroll 4QExod-a says 75, so modern translations of the Exodus passage have been corrected.
  • There are hardly any new Scriptures found in the Scrolls (despite what tabloid newspapers may have said). One new one is found in the Scroll 4QSam-a. Here there is an extra paragraph at the end of 1 Samuel 10, which says, "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." The first English translation to include this new paragraph is the New Revised Standard Version.

Besides the importance of the biblical Scrolls, the non-biblical Scrolls are also very important in understanding Israel at the time just before and during the life of Christ. It has helped answer questions and debate among scholars on important issues. For example, Bultman and other scholars in this century contested that the Gospels, because of some of the language that was used such as "Son of God," were not Jewish but instead very influenced by the Greco-Roman culture. But the language of the Scrolls proves otherwise. Now most scholars agree that the Dead Sea Scrolls prove that the Gospels are rooted in the Jewish tradition.

Are there more Scrolls? It is possible. Fifty years ago, no one would have thought there were manuscripts in Israel from the time of Jesus that have survived. The next big earthquake in the region could reveal more caves around the Dead Sea hiding buried treasure of the Word of God.

 

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