Suitcase and World: Dead Sea Scrolls.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Dead Sea Scrolls.

Great Isaiah Scroll
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of 972 texts discovered between 1946 and 1956 that consist of biblical manuscripts from what is now known as the Hebrew Bible and extra-biblical documents found on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, from which they derive their name. The scrolls, considered by many to be the most significant archaeological find of the 20th century, have shed light on the development of the Hebrew Bible and the origins of Christianity.

The scrolls were discovered in a series of twelve caves around the site known as Wadi Qumran near the Dead Sea in the region that was known as the British Mandate Palestine but since 1947 has been known as the West Bank.

The story of the discovery of the scrolls begins in 1947 with three Bedouin shepherds, Muhammed Edh-Dhib, his cousin Jum'a Muhammed and Khalil Musa, who entered a cave in the Judean Desert and found jars filled with ancient scrolls. That initial discovery by the Bedouins yielded seven scrolls and began a search that lasted nearly a decade and eventually produced thousands of scroll fragments from eleven caves.

During those same years, archaeologists searching for a habitation close to the caves that might help identify the people who deposited the scrolls, excavated the Qumran ruin, a complex of structures located on a barren terrace between the cliffs where the caves are found and the Dead Sea. Within a fairly short time after their discovery, historical, paleographic, and linguistic evidence, as well as carbon-14 dating, established that the scrolls and the Qumran ruin dated from the third century BC to 68 AD.

The manuscripts are written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Nabataean, mostly on parchment, but with some written on papyrus and bronze. The scrolls are traditionally identified with the ancient Jewish sect called the Essenes, though some recent interpretations have challenged this association and argue that the scrolls were penned by priests in Jerusalem, Zadokites, or other unknown Jewish groups.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are traditionally divided into three groups:

Biblical manuscripts (copies of texts from the Hebrew Bible), which comprise roughly 40% of the identified scrolls.  Included in this category of manuscripts is the Great Isaiah Scroll, one of the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in Qumran in 1947. It is the best preserved of the scrolls, and is nearly complete.

At the Israel Museum's website, mousing over the Great Isaiah Scroll provides an English translation of the text.

Psalms Scroll  (Image from

Sectarian manuscripts  which are previously unknown documents that shed light on the rules and beliefs of a particular group or groups within greater Judaism.  Scrolls that fall into this category include the:

The Temple scroll, the thinnest of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Discovered in 1956, it contains God's instructions on how to run the Temple.

The War Scroll, also known as "The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness," tells an end-of-days-style tale of a battle between good and evil.

The Community Rule Scroll is a sort of manual for life, from governing who joins the community to laying down rules about how to behave at communal meals. The scroll was found in 1947.

The Commentary on Habakkuk Scroll analyses the biblical book of the prophet Habakkuk.
The Sectarian manuscripts comprise roughly 30% of the identified scrolls.

Community Scroll (Image from

Other manuscripts which includes known documents from the Second Temple Period like Enoch, Jubilees, Tobit, Sirach, additional psalms, etc., that were not ultimately canonized in the Hebrew Bible). This last category of scrolls comprises roughly 30% of the identified scrolls.

Enoch Scroll (Image from

The official ownership of the Dead Sea Scrolls is still under dispute between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the State of Israel, and the Palestinian Authority. The debate over the Dead Sea Scrolls stems from a more general Israeli-Palestinian conflict over land and state recognition.

As the debate continues, the world at large can still see them.  The most complete scrolls are held by the Israel Museum, with more pieces and smaller fragments found in other institutions and private collections. Tens of thousands of fragments from 900 Dead Sea manuscripts are held by the Israel Antiquities Authority, which has separately begun its own project to put them online in conjunction with Google.

Since its completion in April 1965, the majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection has been moved to the Shrine of the Book, a part of the Israel Museum, located in Jerusalem. The museum falls under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority, an official agency of the Israeli government. The permanent Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition at the museum features a reproduction of the Great Isaiah Scroll, surrounded by reproductions of other famous fragments that include Community Rule, the War Scroll, and the Thanksgiving Psalms Scroll.  The originals are kept in a secured vault in a Jerusalem building constructed specifically to house the scrolls. Access requires at least three different keys, a magnetic card and a secret code.

Shrine of the Book on the right (Image from The Israel Museum Jerusalem)

 Most of the scrolls can be found online in high resolution imagery either on The Israel Museum website  or on the Israel Antiquities Authority website. Both sites were developed with cooperation with Google.

Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, held by the Jordanian government prior to 1967, was stored in Amman rather than at the Palestinian Archaeological Museum in East Jerusalem. As a consequence, that part of the collection remained in Jordanian hands under their Department of Antiquities. Parts of this collection are anticipated to be on display at the Jordan Museum in Amman after the documents are moved over from the National Archaeological Museum of Jordan. Among the scroll items in the Jordanian collection are artificats from the Qumran site and the Copper Scroll.

I did make it to the Dead Sea on my trip to Jordan but I didn't get to see the scrolls; this trip I actually will!  My tour will take me there on the day we visit the New City of Jerusalem - can't wait!