History and Sources
What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?
In the spring of 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd, Muhammad adh-Dhib, discovered eleven ancient leather scrolls in a cave located in the cliffs above the northeastern corner of the Dead Sea. The eleven so-called Dead Sea Scrolls comprise seven distinct manuscripts. Through the work of E. L. Sukenik and other authorities, the eleven scrolls have been authenticated as genuine documents of roughly the second century B.C.E. to the time of the unsuccessful Jewish revolt against Rome (66-70 C.E.). The manuscripts were written variously in Hebrew and Aramaic. They include portions of several of the books of the Old Testament, Apocrypha, prayers, hymns, commentaries, and rules; the most important set is “The Manual of Discipline.”
Between 1949 and 1956, archaeological exploration of the area west of the Dead Sea was carried out by G. Lankester Harding and Father Roland De Vaux. The two men explored the original cave and more than two hundred others, finding numerous additional fragments of scrolls and other evidence of human occupancy. Most of these caves are located in the vicinity of Khirbet (Arabic for “ruin”) Qumran— itself less than a mile south of the original cave—and in the ravine of Wadi Murabbaat some ten miles farther south. The manuscripts discovered at Wadi Murabbaat are very important in that, unlike those at Khirbet Qumran, they indicate that the Hebrew Bible had reached its final form by about 140 C.E. The older Khirbet Qumran biblical manuscripts reveal a scriptural text that was still evolving.
The discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls stand among the greatest finds in the history of modern archaeology. The scrolls shed much light on the religious and political life of the Jewish people in the centuries just before and after the time of Christ. In addition, the documents are of great importance for the understanding of early Christianity. The biblical scrolls antedate the earliest extant Hebrew text by about a thousand years. Fragments of the Isaiah text discovered at Wadi Murabbaat are in complete agreement with the current biblical text, thus confirming the authenticity of later Hebrew texts.