The Dead-sea Scrolls — I

Sep 20, 2021 | Bible Archeology | 0 comments

The Dead-sea Scrolls — I
Discovery Of The Amazing Cache Of Writings
Dr. Johnson C. Philip
Bible is a much-attacked book. These attacks became intense in the last two to four hundred years, affecting many Christians adversely. However, this had the positive result of forcing Christians to go back to the logical, rational, and historical content of their faith.

As a consequence, numerous Christians [scholars as well as amateurs] dedicated themselves to study extra-biblical material which has a bearing on the Christian faith. This in turn enriched the Christian community by providing addition information related to the customs, background, and history related to Bible. It also enriched them by discovery of a large number of ancient biblical and Bible-related manuscripts, and new breakthroughs in biblical languages and grammar.

One of the attacks  against the Bible was that the Christians did not have sufficiently ancient manuscripts, which meant they could claim the presently used Hebrew and Greek versions to be sufficiently authentic. Till the middle of the 1900s,  the oldest available Hebrew manuscript was the one produced around 1000 AD, almost 1400 years removed from the time the last book of the Old Testament was produced. This disturbed many Christians, but the whole story took a U-turn in 1947 with the discovery of what are now called the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Qumran Scrolls.

The Discovery: The discover of what are now called the Dead-sea or Qumran Scrolls happened quite by accident, and they could have been destroyed the way countless such writings were thrown away or burned by treasure-seekrs who did not see value for anything other than precious metals and large artifacts.

A young shepherd boy Muhammed edh-Dhib was looking for this lost sheep. He noticed some caves, not easily accessible, and just to examine if his goats have gone into it he threw a stone into it. However, instead of the sounds he expected from a normal cave, what he heard was the sound of pottery shattering. This scared him terribly. He ran and told the story to two of his cousins, Khalil and Muhammad. Since it was getting late, they decided to explore the cave only next day. Of course, they realized that the contents of the caves can mean much riches, as often happened when people discovered ancient artifacts.

Muhammad, the youngest of the three, rose the next day before his fellow “treasure seekers” reached the cave, and was terribly disappointed to find only pottery and scrolls, a good amount of it lying on the floor. These had no value for him. Frantically he examined some tall jars that were still intact. He threw the contents out, only to be met with some bundles wrapped in cloth and greenish with age.  Disappointed, he returned and narrated his sad tale to his cousins. However, they decided to visit the cave anyway. Together they examined the cave, were disappointed, but decided to anyway take away seven bundles that were intact, and hung them in their tent. These then remained in their tent for some time before the family sold it to two dealers: a cobbler and antique dealer called Kando and another person. They in turn sold three of the scrolls for relatively small amounts to Eleazar L. Sukenik of Hebrew University and four to Metropolitan Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel of the Syrian Orthodox monastery of St. Mark in the Old City of Jerusalem.

After some time Mar Athanasius took the manuscripts to American School of Oriental Research, and the scholars were stunned to see them, as they immediately realized that these were extremely old manuscripts. John Trever of ASOR photographed them in details, and sent them to William F. Albright, who soon announced that the scrolls were from the period between 200 BC and Ad 200. This created a worldwide stir as everyone realized that the scrolls contain manuscripts of some Old Testament books at least 1000 years older than the oldest manuscript available till then.

Tensions between Arabs and the Jewish population was high during those days, and the scrolls were discovered in places with Arab dominion. Meanwhile the British Mandate period in Palestine was coming to and end, creating political tension and uncertainty. This made the task of examining the scrolls, or going to the site of the original find, perilous. Thus the work on the manuscripts was delayed, allowing robbers plenty of time to visit the location.

Eventually the researchers were able to locate the site of the original discovery, which is about 20 kilometers east of Jerusalem. The site is 1,300 feet below sea level, whereas Jerusalem is 2,400 feet above sea level.  An official archeological expedition started there in 1949. This eventually resulted in the discovery of ten more caves [a total of 11, 5 by Beduins, 6 by archeologists] by 1956. But thieves had already removed a large number of scrolls that they could find intact. Yet they in their haste could not be as thorough in searching that area, and many of the newly discovered caves yielded many manuscripts. Close to the caves are the ruins of the ancient Khirbet (ruins of) Qumran, which were excavated in the early 1950s. After six seasons of intensive excavation, the excavators were quite sure that the scrolls were produced by people in this community, which flourished between 125 BC to AD 68. In all probability, the scrolls were stored in a hurry in the caves before the community there fled the encroaching Roman Army, which was there to suppress the Jewish Revolt of AD 66 to 70.

Fortunately, thieves of archeological items are often not archeologists. Thus they did not touch the pieces of scrolls that were strewn on the floors of the caves. The official teams carefully picked up these pieces, and they have turned out to be invaluable for research. In all they have been able to collect in excess of 80,000 fragments, which represent portions of at least 800 scrolls.

Meanwhile the scrolls that came up for sale were all acquired at fabulous prices. For example, when the Orthodox priest Mar Athanasius tried to sell the scrolls to raise money to support refugees, Yigal Yadin [son of E L Sukenik and a General in the Israeli Army who became an archeologist] came to know about it from an advertisement that Mar Athanasius had placed in an American newspaper. Yigal Yadin happened to lecture in USA at that time, and on seeing the advertisement, he negotiated through intermediaries, and purchased these four scrolls for $250,000. In February 1955, the Prime Minister of Israel made a public announcement about this purchase, and that all seven [which includes three scrolls purchased by Professor Sukenik] were to be housed in a special museum at the Hebrew University, named the Shrine of Book.

The Scrolls:  The scrolls and fragments have yielded portions or the whole of as many as 800 books, touching all aspects of life and spirituality. This includes a representation or the whole of all the 66 books of the Bible. The seven original scrolls from what is labeled “Cave One” are made up of the following:

1. A well-preserved copy of the entire book of Isaiah. This is oldest copy so far of this book ever discovered.
2. A fragmentary scroll of Isaiah
3. A commentary on the first two chapters of Habakkuk. It is an allegorical commentary, applying the scripture  to the Qumran brotherhood.
4. The Manual of Discipline or Community Rule. It describes the requirements for those who wish to become members of this sect.  For modern researchers this has become a window into the life and philosophy of the Qumran sect.
5. The “Thanksgiving Hymns”. These are a collection of devotional psalms and praises to God.
6. An Aramaic paraphrase of the book of Genesis
7. The “Rule of War”. This deals with the battle between the “Sons of Light” and the “Sons of Darkness”. The Sons of Light are, obviously, the men of the Qumran community whereas the Sons of Darkness are their spiritual and political enemies.  This battle was to take place in the last days, which they believed was about to arrive.

In the subsequent searches, more than 600 scrolls, and over 80,000 fragments were discovered. One of these was a copper scroll which was so fused with moss and deposits that scholars had to X-ray it and determine the best way of opening it. After much deliberation the scholars working on it cut it open along predetermined lines, and thus salvaged as much of the text as possible. To their surprise, it contained a list of 60 treasures located in various parts of Judea. Perhaps they hid their assets before they fled, and left this scroll as a key. Several investigators searched for these hidden treasures, but so far none has been able to locate any of them.

Another scroll was discovered in 1967 by Israeli archeologists beneath the floor of a Bethlehem antiquities dealer, and now it is called the “Temple Scroll”. It contains detailed commentary on an elaborate Temple Ritual.

To Be Continued In Part II

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