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  • The Dead Sea Scrolls
  • John J. Collins (bio)

No archaeological discovery of the 20th century has aroused more interest than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Between 1947 and 1956 fragments of some 900 manuscripts dating to the time around the turn of the era were found in caves near the Dead Sea. Most of these were in Hebrew, a significant minority in Aramaic, and a few in Greek. Prior to their discovery we had no Hebrew manuscripts from that period, so the Scrolls have been a bonanza for scholars. The interest they have aroused is due in large part to the fact that they came from the time of Jesus of Nazareth. They shed light on Judaism before the rabbis and the context in which Christianity was born. Discovered in Jordanian territory in the throes of the Arab-Israeli conflict, they have also raised issues about the ownership of ancient artifacts, and they would eventually give rise to controversy about the ethics of the publication of such materials.

The manuscripts may be divided into three categories. First, there are books that we know as part of the Bible. One of the first manuscripts brought to light was a copy of the Book of Isaiah that was a full millennium older than the oldest previously known Hebrew copy. Eventually fragments of all books of the Hebrew Bible except Esther were found. On the one hand, the manuscripts show that the traditional text of the Hebrew Bible (known as the Masoretic text or MT) was indeed current before the turn of the era. But on the other hand, they show that this was not the only form of the text in circulation. Different forms of the biblical text have been preserved in the Samaritan Bible and in the Greek translation known as the Septuagint or LXX. The Scrolls show that these, too, were based on Hebrew texts, and in some cases their form of the text was older than that of the MT. Scribes continued to work on the text of the Bible, smoothing out contradictions and differences, right down to the turn of the era.

A second category of manuscripts describes a sectarian movement within Judaism, presumably the people who placed the Scrolls in the caves. This was a voluntary association within Judaism, with its own rituals of admission and expulsion. The members accepted the same scriptures as other Jews (although they may have had others besides), but they were estranged from the Jerusalem temple and its priesthood. Almost as soon as the Scrolls were discovered, this movement was identified as that of the Essenes, who are known from ancient Greek and Latin accounts, but are not attested by that name in Hebrew or Aramaic sources. The Essenes were something of an oddity in ancient Judaism. At least some of them were celibate, and they had communal property. For this reason, scholars have linked them to Christian monasticism, a phenomenon that did not arise until several years later. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, there was a second order of the Essenes that married. The sect known from the Scrolls also had two forms. One rule book, known as “the Damascus Document” because it refers to a new covenant in the land of Damascus, speaks of people who “live in camps according the order of the land and marry and have children,” but another, known as “The Rule of the Community” (Serek ha-Yahad in Hebrew), does not mention women or children at all. There has always been some doubt about the Essene identification, because the Scrolls never demand celibacy as a requirement, but most scholars are satisfied that the Rule of the Community was actually written for a celibate community.

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The ruins at Qumran. From the BBC documentary Traders of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1998).

Most scholars also believe that a community of this sect lived at Qumran, a site with ancient ruins near the caves. (Some of the caves are literally a stone’s throw from the ruins). The Roman writer Pliny says that Essenes lived in this general area, to the west of the Dead Sea.

The ruins were excavated by the...


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