The Greatest Archaeological Discovery of the 20th Century: An Interview with a Renowned Expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls

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Since 1991, Weston W. Fields (PhD, Hebrew University) has been the executive director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation as well as the director of Dead Sea Scrolls Publications. Brill has published his 600-page monograph, The Dead Seas Scrolls: A Full History, along with his The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Short HistorySince 1999 he has traveled throughout the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, interviewing all of the first generation of Dead Sea Scroll scholars who were then still alive, including those who discovered scrolls in the 1950s or were the first to examine and reconstruct them.

The following interview is adapted with permission from an article he wrote for the Dead Sea Scroll Foundation website.


How significant was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The Dead Sea Scrolls are considered by many to be the single most important archaeological manuscript find of the 20th century.

How many documents are we talking about?

They represent more than 1,400 original documents, some complete or nearly complete (such as the Great Isaiah Scroll), but many quite fragmentary. There are about 100,000 fragments in all.

How big did the scrolls get?

Some of the larger scrolls stretch as long as 30 feet. The Isaiah scroll is approximately seven meters long (23 feet) and is made up of 17 parchment sheets, sewn end to end.

What are the scrolls made out of?

Most of the scrolls are made of dried animal skins (parchment).

What color are the skins?

The skins of most of the Dead Sea Scrolls are leather or parchment, light brown or yellowish in color. The finest scrolls are almost white.

How old are the scrolls?

The Qumran scrolls date from approximately 250 BC to about AD 65, and at some other locations to about AD 135.

How old were the oldest extant manuscripts before the discovery was made?

Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest existing manuscripts of parts of the Hebrew Bible came from about AD 800–1000.

The oldest complete copy of the Hebrew Bible—the Leningrad (St. Petersburg) Codex—dates to AD 1008.

This means that the Dead Sea Scrolls provide us with texts of the Bible copied more than 1,000 years earlier than any others now in existence! In other words, the scrolls comprise, among other things, the oldest copies of parts of the Bible in existence.

It’s amazing that many of the scrolls stay preserved and didn’t decompose after that many centuries. How did that happen?

While many of the manuscripts have suffered the ravages of time, the ancient people who hid the scrolls in the caves sealed some of them in clay jars, often wrapped in linen covers to help preserve them.

The scrolls are believed to have been treated with salt and flour to remove the hair, and tanned with gall-nut liquid that was lightly brushed on or sprinkled over both surfaces of the skin. Most of the scrolls were written with carbon ink (powdered charcoal) which was fairly easy to erase.

What languages do we find on the DSS, and how were they written?

The Dead Seas Scrolls contain Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. They were written on the scrolls in columns.

Do the DSS contain the entire Old Testament? Are other writings included as well?

The scrolls contain all or part of every book of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament)—with the exception of Esther.

They also include many non-biblical books, some previously known only in Greek or other languages, but now found in Hebrew.

There are also a number of previously unknown compositions.

Are there any complete books of the Bible found among the DSS?

The Isaiah Scroll is the only complete biblical book surviving among the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was found in Cave One at Qumran in 1947, and dates from about 120 BC.


How does the Isaiah Scroll compare to the version of Isaiah we have in our Hebrew Bibles today?

The text of the scroll hardly differs from the version used today, demonstrating the degree to which the text of the Bible was faithfully transmitted over the centuries. Remarkably, the text of many of these Hebrew manuscripts has hardly changed over the course of 2,000 years.

How were the scrolls discovered?

The majority of the scrolls were discovered in caves along the western shore of the Dead Sea from 1947 to 1956.  The most famous of these are the 11 caves near Qumran, where a community lived that some scholars identify as Essenes, a Jewish sect known to have existed elsewhere in Israel during the Second Temple period, which includes the time of Jesus.

Scrolls were also discovered at several other locations north and south of Qumran, and in the 1960s scrolls were unearthed during the excavation of Masada.

A few have been discovered during the past decade.

So what happened after the shepherds discovered the scrolls? Can you give us a rough timeline of some of the most significant events since that time?

The first seven scrolls came into the hands of dealers in antiquities who offered them to scholars.

The first to recognize their antiquity was Professor Eleazar Sukenik, father of Yigael Yadin, who succeeded in acquiring three of them for the Hebrew University. Between 1948 and 1950 he published specimens from them.

Sukenik recollected, “My hands shook as I started to unwrap one of them. I read a few sentences. It was written in beautiful biblical Hebrew. The language was like that of the Psalms, but the text was unknown to me. I looked and looked, and I suddenly had the feeling that I was privileged by destiny to gaze upon a Hebrew scroll which had not been read for more than 2,000 years.”

Four other scrolls were sold by the Bedouin to the Bethlehem antiquities dealer Kando, who in turn sold them to Mar Athaniasius Samuel, the Archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Christian community. They were independently recognized as ancient and photographed by Dr. John Trever and Dr. William Brownlee in Jerusalem in 1948.

Mar Samuel brought them to the United States, where they were exhibited first in 1949.

The photographs of two were published in 1950: the Great Isaiah Scroll and the Commentary on Habakkuk.

Photographs of the Manual of Discipline were published in 1951.

Subsequently in 1954, the Government of Israel, with the help of a donation from Samuel Gottesman, purchased the scrolls, which are now housed in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.

In 1949 Gerald Lankester Harding and Father Roland de Vaux excavated Qumran Cave 1 and found fragments from 70 more original scrolls.

Between 1951 and 1962 tens of thousands of additional scroll fragments were discovered, mostly by Bedouin, in 10 more caves near Qumran and in several other locations in the Judaean Desert. It has taken 60 years to publish this vast collection.

After the Six-Day War in 1967, Yadin obtained the Temple Scroll. As a result of the capture of East Jerusalem by Israel the major collections from Qumran Caves 2-11 and Wadi Murabba‘at in the Palestine Archaeological Museum (renamed in 1967 the Rockefeller Museum) in East Jerusalem came under the control of the Israel Department of Antiquities. The only major scroll not in Jerusalem was the Copper Scroll, which together with other scroll fragments was on display in Amman, Jordan. These are displayed today in the Jordan Museum.

While scholars wrestle with the contents of the scrolls, their antiquity is no longer in question. What is remarkable is that the text of many of these Hebrew manuscripts has hardly changed over the course of 2,000 years.

What can we learn from the scrolls? What effect does their discovery have upon biblical scholarship?

The scrolls have enabled scholars to gather an immense amount of information about how the Bible was written and how it was transmitted from generation to generation.

In many cases, the scrolls show a remarkable similarity to the text of the Hebrew Bible currently in use.

In some cases, differences between the scrolls and the traditional Hebrew text help explain difficulties in the present Hebrew Bible, and most modern translations of the Bible incorporate some of the new information from the scrolls.

Another crucial feature of the scrolls is the picture they portray of the Judaism of Jesus’s day. The scrolls show that Judaism in that period was more diverse than was once thought, and the literary parallels between the Gospels and the literature of Qumran demonstrate several instructive points of contact between Jesus’s teaching and the Judaism of his day.


Watch below as Dr. Fields lectures on the Dead Sea Scrolls at Lanier Theological Library in Houston, Texas, in 2011:

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