Dead Sea Scrolls—Unprecedented Treasure
AT THE foot of Wadi Qumran, on the northwest side of the Dead Sea, lie some ancient ruins. Long considered to be the remains of a Roman fort, they had received little attention from archaeologists. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah in 1947, however, prompted reconsideration of the site.
Soon scholars identified the buildings as belonging to a religious community of the Jews. The immediate assumption was that these people had hidden the scrolls in the caves among the cliffs nearby. But later discoveries seemed to cast doubt on that.
An Unprecedented Find
Bedouin were alert to the value of the manuscripts they had already found. So, in 1952, when an old man recounted that as a youth he had chased a wounded partridge until it disappeared into a hole in the rock face, where he found some pottery and an ancient oil lamp, a fresh search got under way.
The old man was still able to identify the cave mouth among the deep clefts of the precipitous cliff. It turned out to be a man-made cave, now identified as Cave 4. There the Bedouin found pieces of manuscripts a few feet [about a meter] below the then existing level of the floor. None of the pieces had been stored in jars, so most were badly decayed, blackened, and very brittle. In time some 40,000 fragments were recovered, representing nearly 400 manuscripts. All the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, with the exception of Esther, were represented among the one hundred Bible manuscripts. Much of the material recovered from Cave 4 has not yet been published.
One of the more significant manuscripts was of the books of Samuel, copied in a single roll. Its Hebrew text, preserved in 47 columns out of a probable 57, is very similar to that used by the translators of the Greek Septuagint version. There are also Greek fragments of the Septuagint from Leviticus and Numbers that date back to the first century B.C.E. The Leviticus manuscript uses IAO, for the Hebrew יהוה, the divine name of God, instead of the Greek Kyʹri·os, “Lord.”a
In a fragment from Deuteronomy, the Hebrew text includes the portion from De chapter 32, verse 43, found in the Septuagint and quoted at Hebrews 1:6: “And let all God’s angels do obeisance to him.” This is the first time this line has been found in any Hebrew manuscript, revealing a text that evidently underlies the Greek translation. Scholars have thus gained new insight into the text of the Septuagint, so often quoted in the Christian Greek Scriptures.
An Exodus scroll has been dated to the third quarter of the third century B.C.E., one of Samuel to the end of the same century, and a scroll of Jeremiah to between 225 and 175 B.C.E. Sufficient material from the third to the first century B.C.E. has been found to trace changes in writing styles and individual letters of the Hebrew and Aramaic alphabets, something of great value in dating manuscripts.
The Surprise of Cave 11
Eventually, the whole area around Qumran had been thoroughly searched, both by local Bedouin and by archaeologists. Yet, one day in 1956, some Bedouin noticed bats emerging from crevices in the cliffs north of Cave 1. They climbed up and found another cave, the entrance of which was blocked. Two tons of fallen rock had to be removed to expose it. The finds inside were astounding—two complete manuscripts and five large portions of others.
The most significant find was a beautiful scroll of Psalms. The thickness of the leather suggests that it is probably calfskin rather than goatskin. A total of five sheets, four separable leaves, and four fragments give it a length of more than 13 feet [4 m]. Although the top of this scroll is well preserved, the bottom edge is considerably decayed. It dates from the first half of the first century C.E. and contains parts of 41 psalms. The Tetragrammaton is written some 105 times in ancient paleo-Hebrew characters, making it stand out amid the square Hebrew script of the context.
Another manuscript, of Leviticus, is written entirely in the ancient Hebrew script, but why this is so has not yet been adequately explained. It is the longest document in existence using this form of writing, which was in use when the Jews went into Babylonian exile at the end of the seventh century B.C.E.
A copy of a Targum, an Aramaic paraphrase of the book of Job, also came to light. It is among the earliest Targums committed to writing. A number of commentaries on other Bible books were also found in different caves. How did all these scrolls come to be hidden so well in these caves?
As mentioned earlier, some may have been concealed by the Qumran community. But from the evidence, it seems quite likely that many were put there by Jews fleeing the Roman advance on Judea in the year 68 C.E., before the final destruction of Jerusalem two years later. The Judean wilderness was a safe natural haven for the precious manuscripts not only in the caves close to Qumran but in those many miles to the north, around Jericho, and to the south, near Masada. How grateful we are for their preservation! They give further proof of the unchangeableness of Jehovah’s inspired Word. Truly, “as for the word of our God, it will last to time indefinite.”—Isaiah 40:8.
[Box on page 13]
MORE TO COME SOON?
Though discovered decades ago, a large quantity of Dead Sea Scroll fragments are unpublished. The New York Times of December 23, 1990, decried: “Even their photographic likenesses are held captive by a clannish group of scholars who shun their colleagues and refuse to publish much of the material in their possession.” The paper reported, however, that a staff change in this editorial team has recently been made, which may be a step toward breaking “the clannishness surrounding the scrolls . . . , and the world will know more about an extraordinary era in history.”
[Picture Credit Line on page 12]
Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.