The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a monumental archaeological event, began in 1947 and unveiled a series of ancient texts that have significantly influenced our understanding of the Hebrew Bible, early Judeo-Christianity, and the ancient Near East.
Following the initial discovery, there was accelerated activity between 1951 and 1956 in the search for caves and the complete archaeological excavation of the original Qumran site. Over those years, an eight-kilometer-long strip of cliffs was thoroughly investigated. Of the 11 Qumran Caves that yielded written manuscripts and remains, five were discovered by Bedouin and six were discovered by archaeologists.
So Where Were the Dead Sea Scrolls Found?
The majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found across a series of 11 caves near the Dead Sea in Qumran, each with its unique finds and historical significance. There were additional manuscripts and discoveries made in caves just beyond Qumran.
Scroll dates range from the 3rd century BC (or BCE) to the first century AD (or CE), before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. While Hebrew is the most frequently used language in the Scrolls, approximately 15% of the scrolls were written in Aramaic and Greek. The scrolls are made up mainly of parchment, although some are papyrus, and the text of one Scroll is engraved on copper.
Prior to the discovery in 1947, the oldest Biblical manuscripts were dated between 920 – 1008 AD (CE). These were the Aleppo Codex and Leningrad Codex which were Hebrew manuscripts of the Tanakh.
The Qumran Caves: A Series of Remarkable Discoveries
Discovered by a young Bedouin shepherd in 1947 and excavated by archaeologists in 1949. The first Dead Sea Scrolls were found in this cave, later called Cave 1. They were the best-preserved, said to have been protected by tall jars of clay with lids still in place.
This discovery of 7 scrolls revolutionized the study of the Hebrew Bible and the origins of Judeo-Christianity. Scrolls found in Cave 1 include the Community Rule, War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, Thanksgiving Scroll (Hodayot), Isaiah A and B, Genesis Apocryphon and Pesher Habakkuk (Habakkuk Commentary).
When archaeologists excavated the cave, they found additional fragments of these Scrolls and fragments of dozens of other scrolls. This cave was a historical goldmine, revealing the remains of at least 70 manuscripts. The discovery not only confirmed the origin of the Scrolls but also the dates suggested by paleographic analysis.
The below Genesis scroll is Among the oldest known copies of Genesis, the fragment of the Scroll shown here contains the description of the first three days of the creation of the world.
Discovered by Bedouin in 1952, Cave 2 yielded fragments of many biblical books, including all Five Books of Moses, Jeremiah, and Psalms, as well as non-biblical works like Jubilees and the Book of Enoch.
Also excavated in 1952, Cave 3 revealed a unique two-part Copper Scroll, which listed possible sites of Temple treasures buried across the Judean wilderness and Jerusalem. Besides the Copper Scroll, about a dozen other biblical and non-biblical Scrolls were found, including a copy of Jubilees.
Discovered in 1952, this cave was a treasure trove. Thousands of fragments from hundreds of manuscripts were uncovered here, accounting for 75% of all the material from the Qumran caves. These included biblical texts, biblical commentaries, and sectarian writings.
In the same year, archaeologists found Cave 5, which offered fragments of approximately 25 parchment Scrolls, including both biblical and sectarian texts.
Another discovery by Bedouin in 1952, Cave 6 contained about 31 Scrolls mostly written on papyrus, including biblical works, hymns, and sectarian compositions.
Found in 1955 by archaeologists, these caves revealed manuscripts in Greek, including a translation of the Book of Exodus, fragments of Genesis, Psalms, and other religious texts.
Discovered in 1956, Cave 11 was significant for the nearly complete Scrolls found, such as Leviticus, Psalms, and an Aramaic targum of Job. The Temple Scroll found here was especially notable, being the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Beyond Qumran: Expanding the Horizon
The discoveries extended beyond Qumran, offering a broader view of the region’s historical and cultural context.
Wadi Murabba’at and Nahal Hever
Discovered by Bedouin in 1951, the caves of Wadi Murabba’at provided an array of manuscripts sites yielding scrolls dating to the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE), including administrative documents, letters from the revolt leader Shim’on Bar Kokhba, and religious manuscripts. They also included financial records, personal documents of refugees, and letters penned by the leader of the revolt, Shim’on Bar Kokhba.
The caves at Nahal Hever, explored in the early 1950s, revealed a glimpse into the lives and struggles of those who lived during one of the most tumultuous periods in Judean history.
Known for the dramatic last stand of Judean rebels against Rome, this iconic site, excavated between 1963-65, revealed manuscripts within the structures of the palace, including fragments from several Biblical Scrolls. The discoveries at Masada provided unique insights into the religious and cultural practices of the Judean rebels during their last stand against the Romans.
The Historical and Cultural Impact
The Dead Sea Scrolls are invaluable for understanding the historical and religious context of the Second Temple period. They provide insights into the linguistic diversity of the time, showcasing texts in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. These texts also offer a glimpse into the religious practices and beliefs of various Jewish groups, as well as the development of early Christian thought.
Final Thoughts about the Dead Sea Scrolls Discovery
The Dead Sea Scrolls are more than just ancient manuscripts; they are a bridge connecting the past and the present. They have revolutionized our understanding of the development of the Hebrew Bible, the origins of Judeo-Christianity, and the history of the Second Temple period. Scholars continue to study these texts to unravel their secrets and deepen our understanding of a pivotal period in human history.
These Scrolls continue to be a subject of intense study and fascination, offering a window into a world over two millennia old. Their discovery not only deepened our understanding of ancient religious practices but also shed light on the linguistic and cultural diversity of the period.
Permission granted for use of images in this article by the Curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls Unit In Jerusalem. Courtesy of The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.