by Giuseppe Guarino
The discovery of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls took place in the middle of the 20th Century but the meaning of their witness is still open field for theories and suggestions.
It was in 1947 that, by mere chance, a shepherd found some manuscripts inside a cave near the Dead Sea. Further investigation of the site led to the discovery of ten other caves which brought back to light a treasure of long lost documents dating from 250 BC to 68 DC.
The Dead Sea Scroll discovery and study led some to controversial theories, which were to undermine the whole Christian core of beliefs and entirely try to re-write the relationship between the Jewish and Christian faith.
However, time and a more scientific approach have proven the case for a less radical view of the Scrolls.
The Scrolls give us a better understanding of the Jewish world of the second temple, especially the years preceding the destruction brought by the Romans.
The Scrolls also brought to light Old Testament (Tanakh for the Jews) manuscripts dating between the third Century BC and the first century AD.
No evidence found in the caves can reasonably be dated later than 68 AD, when the Qumran site was abandoned. That is why the Scrolls have given scholars the opportunity to examine the Old Testament, canon and text, in light of manuscript evidence about one thousand years older than those that were available before.
The Dead Sea Scrolls by Stephen Hodge is a very interesting book on the subject. It shows a scientific and sound approach to the matter. I strongly suggest the reading of his work to those who want a sober and reliable update on the Dead Sea Scrolls studies. I personally do not entirely endorse his views, but honestly speaking my approach is more apologetic than purely scientific.
Hodges maintains that at least 850 books were placed in the eleven Qumran caves. Most of the manuscripts surviving are in a fragmentary state. The so called Great Isaiah Scroll (in the picture) is an exception, since it is preserved in its integrity.
The remarkable agreement of this manuscript with the so called Masoretic text has given fresh credibility to the traditional Tanakh in use among Jewish and Christian believers.
“Once scholars had had the opportunity to study the great Isaiah scroll from Cave 1 (1QIsaa, copied in approximately 100 B.C.) and to compare it with the Masoretic Text, they were impressed with the results. Despite the fact that the Isaiah scroll was about a thousand years older than the Masoretic version of Isaiah, the two were nearly identical except for small details that rarely affected the meaning of the text. […] The results obtained from comparative studies of this kind have been repeated for many other scriptural books represented at Qumran. The large majority of the new scrolls do belong to the same textual tradition as the Masoretic Text. They are, however, centuries older and thus demonstrate in a forceful way how carefully Jewish scribes transmitted that text across the years.” James C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today, p.126
The Great Isaiah scroll can be examined on the following website
The most credited theory on the Dead Sea Scrolls is that they are the surviving evidence of a “library” in use of an Essenic monastic community that had its abode at Qumran.
The Essenes were a Jewish sect. They are never mentioned in the New Testament, though open reference is made there to other Jewish groups, like the Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes and Zealots. The argument based on silence has led some to suppose that more than simple sympathy existed between the ascetic community of Qumran and John the Baptist and even Jesus. But it was mere speculation.
The existence of a monastery is the best credited theory, but the archeological sites and the findings do not give definite evidence in this direction. It is not even sure that the extra biblical writings found in the caves really belonged to the sect of the Essenes.
Considering the variety of the writings found in the caves, some suppose they are simply manuscripts rescued from the destruction of Jerusalem accurately hidden in the caves.
One very important thing about the Scrolls is that they proved the case for the Hebrew language being spoken in Israel in the first century AD. In fact, the percentage of writings in Hebrew at Qumran is unexpectedly high: 80 percent of the total found. The rest are in Aramaic and only a few in Greek. Up until the discovery of the Scrolls it was commonly believed that Aramaic had replaced Hebrew after the Babylonian exile.
The Hebrew language has no parallel in history. It was spoken and written by Moses and it is read and understood today in the synagogues – about 3500 years later. This is, to say the least, surprising, though it is noteworthy that the Jewish people itself, with its traditions, religion, culture, has survived centuries of diaspora, persecutions, hatred, migrations, etc… never losing national identity.
Some overestimated the analogies between the Christian doctrine of the Gospels and the teaching of the Essenes. This position was taken to the extreme, supposing that even Jesus belonged to this sect. A better knowledge of the Scrolls has proven the case against such a gratuitous theory. Some of the teachings of Jesus might seem close to the beliefs of the Qumran community, but others do strongly and openly oppose them.
In any respect, it is no surprise that the Jewish religious thought of the time had much in common with Jesus’ teachings.
Jesus was not a Pharisee but he supported them against the party of the Sadducees concerning the belief in a future bodily resurrection. He agreed with both parties though and that of the Scribes, and they agreed among themselves, believing the Torah is God’s Word. He rejected the tradition of the Pharisees, but also the restrict views of the Sadducees.
In other words, Jesus never questioned the basic truths of the second temple Judaism, but at the same time he never accepted compromise and strongly supported the true spiritual meaning of the Law and the Tanakh in general.
The Qumran community was the abode of a sect of self-proclaimed Jewish elect, devoted to ascetic life. The Essenes gave up social life – Jesus never did. He was always among all kinds of people, never scared to “mingle with the commoners.” Jesus openly taught his disciples to spread his doctrine among the heathens! – See Matthew 28:19. Not to mention the mission given by the risen Messiah himself to Paul – see Galatians 2:8-9. Too many Essenes’ practices and beliefs were radically against the teachings of Jesus and the Gospels to believe the Lord was one of the Essenes himself.
Another very notable difference between the Essen creed and Jesus’ teachings is the love for enemies that Jesus openly taught. – Matthew 5:43-47. Before the Scrolls, it wasn’t clear who Jesus was referring to when he spoke of people that were teaching hate for their enemies. Thanks to the contents of non-biblical Scrolls we know now that he was openly speaking against the Essenes, who taught in such a way.
Jesus started a non violent revolution, a spiritual renewal, to change society in a radical way – one individual’s heart at a time. He never supported or encouraged any military action to impose religion or thought. In this perspective his teaching had nothing in common with the aggressive attitude displayed in the Qumran writings and the Jewish expectations of the time in general.
The Messianic beliefs of the times of Jesus were obviously based on an interpretation of the Tanakh. It is also clear that the various spiritual and even some pseudo-political movements originated from the Jewish religious background of the nation. They all were equally Jews, though each faction had its own expectations, plans and programs. Christianity did not originate outside of the Jewish world, but within. Its founder was a Jew, its leaders were Jewish. The first disciples kept the law like any other Jew would have done. The main, evident difference with the rest of the Jewish “sects” was that Christians received Jesus as the promised Messiah. Also, very soon the followers of Christ opened the door of salvation to non-Jewish converts. The invitation in the Gospel of John (though he was a Jew) is clearly universal and, like in other parts of the New Testament, it was motivated by the failure of the Jewish nation to recognize that Jesus was the Messiah they had long waited for – See John 1:11-12.
Supposing the Dead Sea Scrolls to be a collection of manuscripts hidden in the caves to save them from the destruction brought by the Romans explains the nature of the manuscripts and also their independence from the inhabitants of Qumran – whoever they might have been.
Even today it is hard to underestimate the responsibility felt by the nation of Israel for the preservation of the text of the Old Testament Bible – definitely entrusted to them. It is possible to take a virtual tour of the museum where the Scrolls are preserved on the website:
www.imj.org.il/panavision/shrine_inter_eng.html This building has been structured to survive a nuclear attack and preserve those precious witnesses of the Jewish Bible.
It is most probable that the people fleeing the city of Jerusalem because of the imminent destruction might have hidden the Scrolls to preserve them for future witness to God’s Word – which is indeed what really happened.
Probably we will never know, but it is a fact that those extraordinary documents were hidden in a safe place for almost two thousand years. Now they are being diligently studied, providing new – providential – light on the world where Christianity moved its first steps.
The facts about the eleven caves of Qumran as recorded by Hodges are the following.
The caves contained fragments of about 850 books. Only the so called Great Isaiah scroll is complete. Only ten manuscripts preserve more than fifty percent of the text found in the original manuscript.
223 manuscripts are biblical.
The highest number of manuscripts of a biblical book is that of the Psalms (39 mss). After that, the best attested is of course the Torah, the Law of Moses. Worthy of mention is the finding of 8 manuscripts of the canonical book of the prophet Daniel.
96 manuscripts have not been yet identified.
The rest of the fragments witness to other texts, like Tobias, Enoch, an apocriphon of the book of Genesis, the so called “scroll of the temple”, “The Rule of the Community”, “The Scroll of War” and several commentaries to the canonical books of the Old Testament.
As we said earlier, the language found in the manuscripts is quite important. Over 80 percent of the texts are written in the Hebrew language. Almost all the rest of the evidence is written in Aramaic.
In this book I will focus my attention on the 18 (+1) fragments of Greek papyri found in cave 7. I will try to understand what those manuscripts were doing in a Jewish, Hebrew library.
Eusebius Pamphilus, bishop of Cesarea in the first half of the fourth century, wrote a very important Ecclesiastical History. He bears witness to a very interesting story on why the Christians in Jerusalem did not fall victim of the destruction of the city which took place in 70 AD, when Titus led the Roman army inside the city of David. He writes: “The whole body, however, of the church at Jerusalem, having been commanded by a divine revelation, given to men of approved piety there before the war, removed from the city, and dwelt at a certain town beyond the Jordan, called Pella,” Eusebius Pamphilus, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter V, Baker Book House, Reprint of 1991, p.86
It is quite possible that some of the Christian writings were taken away from Jerusalem to preserve them from destruction and that those manuscripts found their way in a cave at Qumran.
My book “The New Testament among the Dead Sea Scrolls” takes that possibility into serious consideration.
The 18 papyri fragments of Cave 7 are visible hd quality on the official website: