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The Dead Sea Scrolls from A to Z

The drama of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has intrigued the world since 1947.  Here’s an A to Z introduction to the discovery, study and significance of the scrolls:

Albright, William F. was considered the foremost archeologist and Bible scholar of his generation.  He was an American who taught at Johns Hopkins University. When he was shown a photocopy of the first manuscripts bought from the antiquities dealer by the head of Jerusalem’s Syrian Orthodox church, he exclaimed, “This is the most important discovery of the 20th century!”

Beduin from the Tam’ra tribe were the first to discover the scrolls when a young boy named Mohammed ed-Dib threw a stone inside a cave to find a lost goat. He heard the clink of pottery and thought he had discovered gold. Was he ever disappointed – at least in the beginning!

CAVE NUMBER 4 can be seen from the Qumran plateau.  Altogether more than 550 fragments out of 850+ larger fragments of the scrolls were found in Cave #4.  These fragments included parts of every book of the Old Testament except for the Book of Nehemiah and the Book of Esther.

Cave #4 at Qumran

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Cave # 4 excavated by Roland de Vaux in the 1950s

Dead Sea Scrolls were written on parchment, that is animal hides.  According to DNA studies, the hides were from goats, sheep and ibex (which are plentiful in the area of Ein Gedi).

Essenes were members of the community who inhabited Qumran, according to most scholars.  The Essenes were an ascetic group who were protesting against the practices of the priestly leadership in the Temple in Jerusalem.  They came down to the wilderness to await the coming of the messianic age.

Flash Floods are common in the Qumran area when it pours in Jerusalem.  At Qumran itself there are usually 360 sunny days a year.

Extraordinary waterfall opposite Qumran

Photo:  Courtesy of David Schlaegel

Extraordinary flash flood at Qumran, April 2006

Gospel of Matthew places the ministry of John the Baptist by the River Jordan in the land of Judea, in close proximity to the scribes who were copying the scrolls at Qumran.  Thus the scrolls have engaged the attention of Christians since their discovery in 1947.

Hidden in Clay Jars, the scrolls survived for 2,000 years. Whatever wasn’t hidden in jars was taken by the birds.  Many bird nests in the Judean wilderness have been found with bits of the old scrolls tucked into them.

Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Shrine of the Book which exhibits part of the Isaiah Scroll

Isaiah Manuscript 1 is the most important scroll found until now. It is complete – with all 66 chapters of the Book of Isaiah.  Isaiah Manuscript 1 is at least 2,100 years old. It is nearly identical to the Isaiah text from which the Bible has been translated into a multitude of tongues.  The scribes over the centuries diligently and accurately copied the sacred text!  A section of the Isaiah Manuscript 1 can be viewed at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.

John the Baptist was baptizing in the River Jordan only 5 miles as the crow flies from the Essene settlement.  He was telling people to repent, for the kingdom of heaven was close at hand. (Matthew 3:2)  For 50 years Dead Sea Scroll scholars have been debating whether there is a connection between John the Baptist and the Essene settlement.

Pilgrims by the River Jordan opposite Jericho

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Pilgrims by the River Jordan celebrating the Epiphany

Kando was the nickname of the most astute antiquities dealer.  He sold the first 4 Dead Sea Scrolls to the head of his church for a mere $97.20.  The head of the Syrian Orthodox church later sold those four scrolls to Yigael Yadin for $250,000!

Light versus darkness was one of the Essene themes.  They believed that they, the Sons of Light, would eventually triumph over the Sons of Darkness.

Mar Athanasius Samuel, the Metropolitan (bishop) of the Syrian Orthodox Church, bought the first scrolls although he did not know their true antiquity.  The liturgy of his church is Aramaic, the spoken language of Jesus day, and he thought the scrolls may be biblical in content.

Nails once attached to 2,000-year-old sandals were discovered on the paths between Qumran and the caves, proving that people from Qumran were hiding the scrolls.  The nails can be seen at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.

Olive oil lamps produced carbon soot which was mixed with honey, oil, vinegar and water to thin the ink to the proper consistency.

Pliny, a first century A.D. Roman historian, wrote, “On the west side of the Dead Sea is the solitary tribe of the Essenes, which is remarkable beyond all the other tribes in the whole world, as it has no women and has renounced all sexual desire, has no money, and has only palm trees for company.”

Qumran is the name of the plateau opposite the caves where the scrolls were found. Qumran in Arabic means “two moons.”  At the time of the full moon, one moon can be seen in the sky, and a second moon is reflected in the water of the Dead Sea. Qumran is almost always on my pilgrimage itineraries..

Ritual Baths were found in abundance at Qumran.  The Jews at Qumran immersed themselves so as to be in a state of purity before eating their main communal meal.

Professor Eleazar Sukenik examining one of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Professor Eleazar Sukenik studying the Thanksgiving Scroll

Sukenik, Eleazar boarded a bus bound for Bethlehem on November 29, 1947 in order to inspect the scrolls in the attic of the antiquities dealer. Sukenik was the first to realize that the scrolls were genuinely over 2,000 years old.

The Temple Scroll was “discovered” in a shoebox under a floor tile in Kando’s bedroom in 1967. The 30-foot long Temple Scroll is a rearrangement of biblical laws with God speaking almost continually in the first person.

Unaware of the True Value of the leathers, the Beduin approached a cobbler in Bethlehem and asked that he turn them into sandals. Luckily the cobbler noticed writing on the leathers and realized they were ancient manuscripts!

Vaux, Roland de was the chief excavator at Qumran in the 1950s. He believed that Qumran was like a monastery. Since the residential area wasn’t large, de Vaux concluded that most of the sect members lived in the surrounding caves and came to the Qumran center to dine and serve God.

Wilderness of Judea by Wadi Kelt

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Wilderness of Judea

Wilderness of Judea was a magnet for Jews waiting for the messiah to appear. They quoted Isaiah 40:3, “A voice is crying in the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord.”

X-tra Biblical Literature was found in addition to the biblical texts.  For example, the Thanksgiving Scroll is a collection of psalm-styled poems.

Yigael Yadin was shown an ad in the Wall Street Journal which advertised the sale of 4 biblical manuscripts.  He guessed that these were scrolls similar in age to the ones his father, Eleazar Sukenik, had bought in 1947.  Yadin bought the four scrolls for Israel for the tidy sum of $250,000.

Zealots fighting at Masada must have included some Essenes from Qumran for a special solar calendar with 5 Sabbaths in each month was discovered at both Qumran and Masada.

On your next pilgrimage, come with me to visit
The Shrine of the Book, the Judean Wilderness and Qumran!


Copyright 2007, 2011 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed to reprint in any medium.


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