The Dead Sea Scrolls

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Since their discovery in 1947 beside the Dead Sea (Yam Ha-Melach, the ‘Sea of Salt’ in Hebrew) in Israel, the Dead Sea Scrolls have changed much about what we know about how the Bible was created. The Scrolls and the nearby archaeological site Qumran (Khirbet Qumran) raise important debates about ancient Judaism and early Christianity. Over 900 separate texts were found in Caves 1-11, dating from about 200 BCE to 70 CE, nearly one-third of which are biblical texts from the Hebrew Bible. Most of the scrolls are actually small fragments which have had to be painstakingly identified by scholars; only a tiny minority like the Great Isaiah Scroll are complete rolls of parchment (calf-skin). The Dead Sea Scrolls make up the most ancient witnesses to the Bible. For that alone, they are critical to the history of the Bible.

The remaining two-thirds of the Dead Sea Scrolls are non-biblical texts. Some of these are apocryphal (‘hidden’): texts that were not included in the Bible, while others are commentaries on biblical books. But over half of the non-biblical texts are in another category: ‘sectarian’ texts, texts belonging to a ‘sect’, a group that considered itself separate or different from a larger group and had distinct beliefs and practices. The Dead Sea Scrolls tell us a great deal about the incredible variety of Second Temple Judaism. Second Temple Judaism was the period of ancient Judaism after the Babylonian Exile, spanning from the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem in 510 BCE through Persian and then Greek and Roman rule, until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans around 68 or 70 CE. Christianity began in the end of the Second Temple period, and modern Judaism developed out of Second Temple Judaism.

In Second Temple Judaism, we now know that many different groups and beliefs thrived and many new texts were created. Some of these groups we know from the New Testament and early Jewish writers like Josephus: Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots (or Sicarii), and Essenes. One of these groups, called the Essenes, is thought by some scholars to be related to the same community describing itself in the sectarian literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls thus reveal a long-lost wealth of Second Temple literature important for archaeology, biblical studies, and the history of Judaism and Christianity. As a glimpse into this crucial period of history and an unbelievably vast collection of manuscripts related to the Bible, the Scrolls are a cornerstone in the foundations of Western society.