Can you imagine picking up the newspaper today and reading the following advertisement?
The Four Dead Sea Scrolls. Biblical manuscripts dating back to at least 200 BC are for sale. This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group.
It sounds like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark or an Elizabeth Peters novel. Yet this advertisement is real—it appeared in the Wall Street Journal on June 1, 1954. The ad was from Archbishop Samuel, head of the Syrian Orthodox Monastery of St. Mark in Jerusalem. He had bought them from a Bethlehem antiquities dealer named Kando, who in turn had purchased them from Bedouin goatherds who claimed to have found them in caves near the Dead Sea in 1947.
Due to turmoil in Palestine in the late 1940s, Archbishop Samuel smuggled the four scrolls to a Syrian church in New Jersey, where they remained until the Wall Street Journal advertisement. Through an American agent, archaeologist Yigael Yadin bought the four scrolls on behalf of the State of Israel. The scrolls consisted of a complete manuscript of Isaiah, a commentary on Habakkuk, a sectarian work called the Community Rule, and an Aramaic document called the Genesis Apocryphon.
The Bedouin goatherds had found three more scrolls, which they sold to a second Bethlehem antiquities dealer named Salahi. In 1948, archaeologist E. L. Sukenik (Yigael Yadin’s father) acquired the scrolls and they were housed at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The three documents consisted of a second copy of Isaiah, the War Scroll, and the Thanksgiving Scroll.
The discovery of these scrolls in the Judean Desert soon became common knowledge, leading to numerous expeditions to investigate other caves in the area. From 1947 to 1956, certain caves (marked Caves 1 to 11) yielded well over 900 (mostly fragmentary) manuscripts, which came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls are mostly leather, although a few are made of papyrus. Most are written in Hebrew, but some are in Aramaic and a few in Greek. The Dead Sea Scrolls include three types of manuscripts:
- texts of the Hebrew Bible
- non-canonical religious texts of the Second Temple Period (c. 500 BC to AD 70)
- sectarian texts
Archaeologists eventually discovered fragments of 240 Old Testament scrolls—representing every Old Testament book except Esther. Second Temple texts include books from the Apocrypha such as Tobit, and from the Pseudepigrapha such as Enoch. The sectarian documents include major works like the War Scroll and the Temple Scroll.
How the Scrolls Help Us
This year marks 75 years since the discovery of the first scrolls near the Dead Sea. Noted archaeologist W. F. Albright once called it the “greatest archaeological find of modern times.” His statement still holds true today, for at least three reasons.
1. They contain the second-earliest biblical texts in existence.
The earliest is a small amulet from the late seventh century BC, found at Ketef Hinnom, that contains the priestly benediction from Numbers 6. The oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Old Testament is the Leningrad Codex from AD 1008. Some texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls predate that manuscript by 1,200 years and therefore are crucial in assessing how the Bible has been transmitted to us. This study, called textual criticism, has demonstrated that any differences between the biblical texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls and what we have today are minor. Many of the differences are mere “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts” due to copyist errors. This underscores the trustworthiness of the Hebrew Bible and the powerful work of God in preserving his words for his people.
2. They record Jewish practice during the Second Temple Period.
A Jewish sect called the Essenes, located at the site of Qumran near the Dead Sea, likely copied and wrote the scrolls. Included in the sectarian scrolls was the so-called Damascus Document, which condemned religious opponents who resided in Jerusalem. This manuscript yields significant insight into the various theological positions held by Jewish sects at the time.
3. They help us understand the world of the New Testament.
Though no New Testament texts have been found in caves near the Dead Sea, the New Testament writers were likely aware of the Qumran community’s sectarian writings. Indeed, many of these sectarian texts give insight into the setting and background of the New Testament period.
The work is unfinished. Many fragments remain untranslated, and other caves have yielded more manuscripts: in the area of Wadi Murabba’at, for example, a scroll that includes all the minor prophets was found. Even in 2021, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of dozens of new Dead Sea Scroll fragments, which bear lines of Greek text from the Old Testament books of Zechariah and Nahum. This vital endeavor continues.
When I was in college in the 1970s, I had an Old Testament professor named Rachel King. In the late 1940s, she had attended the yearly meeting of a biblical society at which the discovery of the Scrolls was announced. In her words, she had never seen so many biblical scholars hugging and dancing in the aisles when they heard the news.
It’s still worth celebrating, even 75 years after the fact.