The Dead Sea Scrolls: Why are they important?

March 12th, 2017

An amazing discovery

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of manuscripts written on leather and papyrus scrolls that had been sitting in clay jars, waiting to be discovered for almost 2,000 years. Around the beginning of 1947, Bedouin teenagers were tending sheep and goats in the West Bank area, as it’s now called, bordering Israel. One of the boys tossed a stone into a cave, and the surprising shattering sound he heard has reverberated throughout history.

The shattering sound the boy heard was a clay jar. The contents of the jar were the scrolls. A complete copy of the Book of Isaiah was found among the manuscripts, as well as fragments from every book of the Old Testament except for Esther. They’re believed to have been written between 150 B.C. and A.D. 70. Other texts found among the scrolls were a rule of life for the Essenes of Qumran, the group believed to have produced the scrolls and various other religious writings not from the Hebrew Scriptures. In total, over 900 manuscripts are represented in the fragments discovered.

Interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls was recently renewed after it was announced in early February that a 12th cave had been discovered. The previous cache of scrolls and artifacts was from 11 other caves. This 12th cave, while an exciting development, didn’t yield any new manuscripts. A tantalizing discovery was made though: an intact scroll in a jar. It was blank.

Though no new scrolls or fragments were found, the new cave contained string and cloth wrappings indicating that there had been scrolls there. These were probably stolen by looters, as rusty pickax heads were also found. Because the area has been such a target for looters, the Israeli Antiquities Authority is urging the Israeli government to sponsor a “systematic excavation” of the area in hopes of finding scrolls before thieves do. 

Importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Renowned American archaeologist W. F. Albright described the Dead Sea Scrolls as “the greatest archaeological find of modern times.” But why are they so important? Perhaps the most significant reason they’re so important is because, in the words of contributing editor Ed Stetzer from a 2012 article in Christianity Today, the scrolls “affirm and enhance the Hebrew Bible used by scholars.” This is because the scrolls were written hundreds of years prior to the oldest copy of the Hebrew Bible known at the time. That one, called the Leningrad Codex, was from A.D. 1008, and the oldest scroll from the cave discovery was from 250 B.C.

The scrolls are remarkably similar to the texts of the Hebrew Bible in use today, giving confidence that these translations are close to the original manuscripts, or at least as confident as scholars can currently be. Also, the scrolls give support to or clarify some of the editorial choices that have been made in translating the Bible.

Aside from the light that has been shed on the accuracy of Bible translations, the Dead Sea Scrolls have also given insight into the life of first-century Jews, particularly the community believed to have produced the scrolls, the Essenes. This group was essentially desert monks. They followed a rule of life called the Manual of Discipline, which was found in the cache of scrolls. The Essenes separated themselves from the rest of their Jewish peers because they believed what was happening in the Temple was corrupt and contrary to God’s will as revealed through the Scriptures. They held out until the Romans came in and destroyed the Temple in A.D. 70.

The similarities between the concerns the Essenes had with the state of Temple worship at the time and the actions of Jesus, such as the cleansing of the Temple, recorded in all four Gospels, cause some scholars to wonder if Jesus and John the Baptist had some connection with that community. Of course, this kind of question could never be answered definitively.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, then, increase our confidence in the reliability of the Bible, that the texts we have now are faithful transmissions of the oldest known copies of the books. They also give a fascinating look at the diversity of Jewish faith at the time of Jesus. On the whole, these discoveries are positive developments for people of faith.

Other archaeological discoveries

Those who would look to archaeology either to confirm or disprove biblical texts will largely be disappointed. The discoveries have been a mixed bag. An inscription found in Israel in 1993 dated back to 800 B.C. is attributed to King Hazael of Damascus. It calls Jerusalem the “City of David.” This lends some credence to the existence of David as an actual historical figure. Other evidence, such as the data that suggested the walls of Jericho did indeed fall at the time of Joshua, has later been disproved by more reliable testing methods.

In some cases, archaeological evidence flies in the face of long-held traditions. In 2001, excavations in Jerusalem unveiled the foundation walls and sewage system of Herod’s palace. Modern historians believe that this would have been the place where Pilate would have lived when he was in the city. Therefore, this would most likely be the place of the praetorium, which is where the Gospels state that Jesus was condemned to die.

The traditional site of Jesus’ condemnation is the Antonia Fortress, and it’s here that the Via Dolorosa, the pilgrimage route that traces Jesus’ last steps on the way to the cross, begins and has been observed since the 18th century. The route ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a site made prominent by Helena, the mother of Constantine, in the fourth century. It’s quite possible that this, too, is inaccurate. The church is inside the city walls, and the Bible says that Jesus died outside the city walls (Hebrews 13:12).

Archaeology and faith

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was a watershed moment in biblical studies. Archaeology had provided a boost to faith in the accuracy of Bible translations as well as shed a light on the practices of the Jews of the first century from which the early church sprang.

Other archaeological discoveries seemingly affirm what’s presented in the Bible as true, while some challenge the accounts of Scripture. How do people of faith respond when something found at a dig site seems to challenge what they believe? Can archaeology ever really prove or disprove anything about the Bible?

William Dever, a professor at the University of Arizona, has been academically engaged with the archaeology of the ancient Near East for more than 30 years. He stated in an interview on PBS’s Nova, “The fact is that archeology can never prove any of the theological suppositions of the Bible. Archeologists can often tell you what happened and when and where and how and even why. No archeologists can tell anyone what it means, and most of us don’t try.” The purpose, then, of biblical archaeology, according to Dever, is “reconstructing a real-life context for the world out of which the Bible came, and that does bring understanding.” 

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