I. Meeting the Kandos
How much do you know about the Dead Sea Scrolls? If you’re like most people, you have heard of these ancient artifacts. Most people leave it at that. They don’t learn about the Scrolls—let alone examine them, visit the caves where they were found, or converse with scholars.
In 1997, during my second visit to Israel, my wife ran into the Kandos—the family who purchased the first DSS from the bedouins, middlemen to the academic community. She insisted I meet them, so at the first opportunity we went to Bethlehem and had tea with the historic family—the first of many visits. As antiquities dealers they sell all kinds of objects, including coins (usually my favourite). This connection certainly furthered my interest in the Scrolls.
Years later—and perhaps 25 years after graduating from Harvard (in the M.T.S. program)—I learned that my second-year Hebrew professor, F. M. Cross (1921-2012), was a prominent leader in the Dead Sea Scrolls Project, and is widely regarded as the founder of Qumran Studies. Qumran is the name of the ancient settlement where the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were discovered. When I was his student—well, let’s just say I had other concerns. I was oblivious to the important research he was carrying out. Nor was I nearly as passionate about history and learning from the past as I am now.
I also recall, on one of my early flights to Israel, turning to greet the man in the seat next to me. He only offered his surname, assuring me that would be sufficient if I ever wanted to find him—everyone knew him. (He too has been a prominent figure in scroll research, I later learned, to my chagrin.) I’m still learning, but at least now recognize many of the principal figures involved in this ginormous project—scholars who toiled for decades to piece together the fragments and undertake the arduous work of translation.
I'm no archaeologist, and certainly no expert on the scrolls. In many ways, I'm only an amateur. Yet the more I’ve travelled to Israel (20+ times), especially leading groups interested in learning about the Scrolls, the more I’ve become convicted of the need to be informed about the facts and significance of the DSS. With that in mind, one of my academic goals has been to complete a study of all the non-biblical DSS. About 40% of the scrolls are actually copies of books in the Old Testament. My focus was the other 60%.
The (non-biblical) DSS are nicely published (2019) in two volumes (about 1350 pages), the original language(s) on each left page, the translation on the right. (The image is clickable.) I’d now like to share a few things I’ve learned, as the Scrolls shed considerable light on Judaism c.200 BC-AD 50, thereby illuminating the background of early Christianity.
II. The Discovery of Muhammed the Wolf
The find is credited to Muhammed edh-Dhib (born 1931), who as a teenager accidentally came across the first scrolls in the Qumran caves. The initial discoveries were made sometime between November 1946 and February 1947. Edh-Dhib (see L photo, R side) brought the finds to an antiquities middle-man, Iskander Kando (photo, R).
Further DSS scrolls were found 1949-1951, although it should be noted that the manuscript remains and other artifacts have been discovered in numerous other caves in the Dead Sea area, right up until our own time.
The scrolls had been hidden since 68 AD, when the Qumran community abandoned their settlement during the war with Rome (66-70 AD). The community’s manuscripts were secreted in 11 caves. Pictured below is Cave 4, where the majority were discovered. Other caves with manuscripts have since come to light—and new caves are being explored every year. But pride of place vis-a-vis the discovery still goes to Muhammed edh-Dhib (the Wolf).
Have “they” been hiding the truth from us? What embarrassing revelations are concealed in the DSS? Are ungodly academics pulling a fast one on us? Or maybe it’s a fundamentalist stratagem. Conspiracy theories are rife. Please forget them. They are without merit.
Sure, there were delays in translation, and there were many “cooks in the kitchen” (occasionally bumping into one another), as well as some sensitive political issues.
The biggest reason it took over four decades to complete the translation project was probably the difficulty of the task. And the fact that the principal (most experienced) scholars were (unsurprisingly) older men who didn’t all live to see their publication.
Our family enjoys 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles—with the picture on box cover as guide, of course. Not all DSS remnants are fragmentary, but a large number are—100,000 papyri and parchments ranging from minuscule scraps to lengthy scrolls. Now imagine a 100,000-piece puzzle, many pieces in poor condition or missing entirely, with no pictures (only text), in multiple languages, and without the jigsaw box cover. How quickly would you or I complete such a gargantuan project? These scholars deserve respect, not suspicion or criticism.
Of course, the fascinating story is more complicated than I am implying, but please pardon me for oversimplifying. (I’d rather you be intrigued than scared off by the complexities.)
So... was there a Vatican cover-up? Did Christians try to suppress this amazing discovery? No way! The DSS were translated and published in English in the early 1990s — including the scraps that are essentially unidentifiable.
IV. The Dead Sea Community
The Qumran community was established in the late 1st century BC, near the NW shore of the Dead Sea. This monastic settlement included living quarters, a communal dining hall, numerous immersion pools, for ritual cleansing, and a scriptorium, where manuscripts were painstakingly copied.
It is widely agreed among scholars that the Qumran ruins are the material remains of a Jewish group called the Essenes. Disgusted with the Jerusalem temple bureaucracy, they removed themselves to the desert in order to build a purified people of God and prepare for the end-times battle.
V. Rejecting the System (the Jerusalem Temple)
The Qumran community claimed the Jerusalem high priest was corrupt. In contrast, their own “Teacher of Righteousness” (probably the leader of the community) was holy. He did not mislead God’s people, unlike the Jerusalem priests (like Annas and Caiaphas, who engineered the crucifixion of Christ), who were greedy, wealthy, and arrogant, considering themselves above the law (1QpHab VIII-IX; CD-A x.7-8). These unscrupulous men were not godly shepherds. Rather, they were fleecing the poor and widows (4Q266.19. vi.16). Jesus too spoke out vehemently against such ungodly religious leaders in his day (Mark 12:40).
In the spirit of Malachi 1:10, the Qumran community rejected the Temple and its sacrifices (CD-A [the Damascus Document], vi.12ff). No temple was preferable to a corrupt one, since Yahweh would never honour meaningless sacrifices.
VI. Hierarchy & Discipline
The Essene community was strictly hierarchical (1QS [Rule of the Community] v.23-25. There was an elaborate system for “moving up” in rank, besides a one-year probationary period before joining (1QS vi). And not just anybody could join (CD-A, xv.15-17). Those prohibited from the assembly included all stupid, deranged, feeble-minded, and insane persons. Nor were the lame, those who stumbled, the deaf, or underage boys welcome. Also excluded were those with weak eyes—presumably because accurately copying manuscripts required sharp vision.
There were periods of discipline were imposed for various infractions, like falling asleep in one of the meetings, speaking out of turn, etc (1QS, v-ix). These periods could last days, weeks, months, or years.
Incidentally, no one over 60 was to serve as a judge in the congregation (CD-A, x.7-8). They weren’t expelled, but were required to cede their place to younger members, who could still benefit from their wisdom.
How about you and me? Am I fed up with “the system,” longing for purity and structure, like the Essenes? Or do I defend the establishment, as did the Sadducees and the Herodians? Perhaps I’m a radical, like the Zealots, calling for desperate measures. Or maybe I’m more of a reformer, like the Pharisees. The first-century spectrum within Judaism was hardly homogeneous, but dynamic and varied.
VII. Deciphering Scroll Notations
Now, to the Scrolls themselves: the physical evidence, language, dating, and content. But first, let’s learn how to interpret the technical scroll designations. Let’s consider a fragment from the Temple Scroll (pictured R). This manuscript is officially 11QTa.
- 11 = the cave number.
- Q = Qumran. All “official” DS caves are connected with the Qumran community.
- T = Temple
- a = the first manuscript, a opposed to b, c, d...
- There are multiple conventions for scroll identification, so don’t be surprised when you notice different designations for the same work.
Newcomers to the Bible have to learn a sort of shorthand. 2 Tim 3:16 refers to the second letter to Timothy, the third chapter, sixteenth verse—remember how alien this system felt at first, before you learned your way around the Bible? In the same way, there is a system that makes referring too specific DSS documents doable.
The manuscripts were written on a variety of materials