Voices from Another Time: The Dead Sea Scrolls

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”

– Hebrew University Professor Eliezer Lipa Sukenik 

The Dead Sea Scrolls refer to ancient biblical manuscripts known for their amazing textual accuracy to the medieval Hebrew Bible upon the Christian Bible was based for centuries. Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest known source of the Hebrew Bible was about a thousand years old. The discovery pushed this date back by another thousand years, which is of unique importance from the viewpoint of both cultural history and the Christian faith.

The story of the Dead Sea Scroll discovery is the stuff of fables. One steamy day in 1947, a young Jewish shepherd went looking for his lost goat among the limestone cliffs around Qumran in the northwestern rim of the Dead Sea. While searching for the stray, he stumbled on a cave on the rocky hillside. Intrigued, he cast a stone into the dark interior and was surprised to hear the sound of breaking pots. On entering the cave, he saw many large clay jars. Most were empty but the others contained the greatest find of the century – the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Some of the scrolls went to antique dealers, one of whom resold them to Archbishop Samuel, head of the Syrian Orthodox Monastery of St. Mark in Jerusalem. When Hebrew University Professor Eliezer Lipa Sukenik heard about the scrolls’ discovery through an Armenian antiquities dealer, he arranged to meet the dealer in secret to examine the finds. During this secretive meeting, the dealer held up a fragment for the professor to examine. Immediately, Professor Sukenik realized the ancient writing and wanted to see more scrolls. He saw three more scrolls in Bethlehem which were in the hands of another dealer. Opening the scrolls, he was amazed to see Hebrew manuscripts that were far older than any existing biblical manuscripts. ‏The quotes at the beginning of this blog records his excitement written in his diary.

In all, over 800 Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves by the Dead Sea through 1940s and 1950s. Most were blackened with age and fragile to the touch. They written on papyrus or animal skin, the majority in Hebrew, the rest in Greek and Aramaic. Many of the scrolls are fragments while others are substantially complete (the longest scroll being eight metres long). A quarter of the scrolls (220 in all) are books of the Hebrew Bible containing the Old Testament. Another quarter are religious texts not part of the standard Bible such as the books of Enoch and the book of Jubilee. The rest are secular writings such as lists of laws and advice on warfare. The most common Biblical books were the Psalms and Deuteronomy. The best preserved is the Great Isaiah Scroll, discovered in 1947. Dating to around 126 BC, it is also one of the oldest of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Christians believe that the Bible is written by men under the inspiration of God. Since many of the scrolls pre-date events that took place during the lifetime of Jesus Christ, these manuscripts offer a much earlier source of evidence on the Word of God than the Hebrew Bible. When scholars examined the scrolls thoroughly, they were amazed at the accuracy of the manuscript tradition from the time the scrolls to that of the Hebrew Bible. The two sources were essentially the same! What differences that exist were mainly variations in wording and spelling; the theological content was intact. This consistency suggests that even older biblical manuscripts (if discovered) would also have the same theological content, including the faith-affirming prophecies about the death and resurrection of Jesus recorded in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament.

A close up of image of ancient Dead Sea scroll texts.
Sections of the ancient Dead Sea scrolls are seen on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem

The great Isaiah Scroll! the oldest manuscript we have of the Bible. Discovered in the Caves of qumran in 1947.
Oldest Copy of the Book of Isaiah, also notable in being the only scroll from the Qumran Caves to be preserved almost in its entirety.

Further reading

Lee Biondi, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Ancient World: A Brief History of the Bible from Antiquity to Modern Times, Cashcor Pte Ltd, Singapore, 2009.

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