Vol. 7, No. 6
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Qumran consists of the ruins of a desert community on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. It lies just a few miles southeast of Jerusalem and south of Jericho. Caves adjacent to Qumran yielded a library of about 800 books, including biblical texts, non-biblical but religious texts and secular texts. Bedouin shepherd boys accidentally found the since famous Dead Sea Scrolls while searching for lost sheep. This 1947 discovery eventually drew an extensive excavation of the cave in which the original find was located as well as neighboring caves.
Inside, the caves were not clean and neat and level. On the contrary, they were often very difficult to excavate in. In Cave 4 there were 6 feet of bat dung and dust deposited over 2,000 years that the Bedouin and the archaeologists had to wade through in the stifling heat in order to try to extricate the fragments. …A few of the scrolls, about ten or so, were beautifully preserved and largely intact, like the scrolls of the Book of Isaiah. But most consist of a lot of tiny fragments. (Shanks, et al. 4)
Arguably, the most significant contribution of biblical archaeology in the twentieth century, both in importance and sheer number of pieces, must be the accidental discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the nearby settlement of Qumran still present some mysteries that no theory adequately and completely addresses. Unanimity as to who lived at Qumran, who put the scrolls in the caves, why the scrolls were placed in the caves and who wrote the scrolls continues to be elusive.
Every scholar recognizes that not all the scrolls were written at Qumran. Many of the scrolls even pre-date the settlement at Qumran. All scholars also recognize that many of the other scrolls are not Essene documents--for example, the more than 200 Biblical scrolls. (Shanks, "Who Wrote" 12)
In 1947, an ancient manuscript of the Book of Isaiah was found that predated the previously oldest copy of that book by 1,000 years. The fidelity in translating between the copies that many years apart warrants great confidence in the reliability of the current text of Isaiah and the Bible in general.
…a date of about 100 B.C. Such an early manuscript of Isaiah is of great significance, inasmuch as the oldest manuscript up to that time dated from about 900 A.D. Even more important was the close agreement between this newly found Jerusalem manuscript and the traditional Hebrew text, which was copied much later. …there is nothing in this manuscript that can be called "a major addition or omission" …The substantial agreement between this ancient manuscript and those of a thousand years later shows the care with which biblical manuscripts were copied and adds to our assurance concerning the substantial accuracy of the later manuscripts from which our English translations were made. (Free and Vos 176)
It has every chapter and every verse that we have in our Bibles. Except for a few very minor variations, the Hebrew text is identical with the Massoretic text that was used for all our English translations of the Bible. (Humble, Archaeology 40)
This manuscript of Isaiah enjoys a singular distinction: "…2,000-year old manuscript--the oldest manuscript of a complete book of the Bible ever discovered (35)." The claims, then, that new discoveries somehow invalidated English translations of the Bible made before 1947 are baseless. This attempt to justify a myriad of new translations not only unnecessarily undermines confidence in the revealed will of God, but the numerous English translations themselves that have appeared shortly after each other this century also undercut confidence in the Word of God. Especially, doctrinal differences that appear in the modern translations must be attributable to something other than new discoveries!
The Book of Isaiah cited above and later discoveries from a total of 11 caves near Qumran resulted in the discovery of a number of additional scrolls, together called the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls are comprised of both biblical and secular documents.
…Cave 1 at Qumran. These include a complete scroll of Isaiah, a partial Isaiah, the Habakkuk Commentary (including two chapters of Habakkuk), the Manual of Discipline (rules for members of the religious community who lived nearby), Thanksgiving Hymns, a Genesis Apocryphon (apocryphal accounts of some of the patriarchs), and Wars of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness (an account of a real or spiritual war between some of the Hebrew tribes and the tribes east of the Jordan Ammonites, Moabites, etc.). (Free and Vos 176)
Overall, tens of thousands of manuscript fragments of hundreds of scrolls were found in the 11 caves. Of the biblical manuscripts, only the Book of Esther has not been found.
One curious manuscript is on a copper scroll.
This scroll consists of two rolls of copper found in cave 3. Written in Hebrew, it contains a list of hiding-places in Palestine containing fabulous treasures, with instructions for reaching them. Whether these were real treasures of the Temple or the sect or purely imaginary is still a matter of dispute. In any case, attempts to locate some of the treasures listed have ended in complete failure. (Archaeological Encyclopedia)
More recently, other efforts to follow this so-called treasure map have met with limited, though, somewhat anticlimactic success. Perhaps an unlikely source, Popular Mechanics featured the copper scroll in its May 1999 issue. Further, the magazine sponsored an effort, which included its Science Editor and a Popular Mechanics Land Rover, to search for some of the 60 to 64 treasures. The adventurers found none on that outing. Purportedly, though, Vendyl Jones, a Baptist preacher from Texas, found two items described on the copper scrolls.
In 1988, Jones and his team hit pay dirt. They found one of the artifacts listed in the text, a small jug of ancient anointing oil. Four years later, in 1992, Jones and his team made a second discovery, a red organic material that the Weizman Institute, the Israel Institute of Geology and Bar-Ilan University would all identify as containing eight of the 11 spices used in making ancient incense. (Fillon 73-74)
The theory is that during an interim in the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, the Jews hid temple treasures outside the city, and that the copper scrolls show where it was hidden.
Jerusalem, "the City of Peace," has been besieged about 40 times and destroyed--at least partially--on 32 occasions. The battle that most interests us was waged here nearly 2000 years ago. In 70 C.E. (Common Era), after four years of war, a meeting was arranged between the Roman commander Titus and leaders of the Jewish community. They offered to abandon the city and live in the desert. Titus refused and the battle raged for another month. It was during this time that the treasures alluded to in the copper scroll--which eluded us on our trek into the desert--were supposedly spirited to the caves in the Judean Hills. Legends say some were hidden en route. (134)
The color photographs of the Bible lands and of the copper scroll in Popular Science are exquisite. The translation of the map is awe-inspiring:
In Mount Gerizim, under the entrance of the upper pit: one chest and …60 talents of silver …In the vat of the olive press, in its western side, a plug stone of 2 cubits: 300 talents of gold. …Under the Monument of Absalom, on the western side, buried at 12 cubits: 80 talents. …towards the overflow tank: 80 talents of gold in two pitchers. …under the wall on the east, in a spur of rock: 600 pitchers of silver… (72-73).
Some of the landmarks are either not discernible or are simply not there any more. Doubtless, many treasures have been found purposely or accidentally over 2,000 years. Other sites are not accessible.
The ruins of Qumran are usually attributed to the Essenes. However, even among on-site students of Qumran, there is hardly a consensus regarding any number of matters, including: who occupied Qumran and when as well as who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls and stored them in the adjacent caves. "Among scholars, it would be easier to get agreement on the size, color, location, and deer-power of Santa's sleigh than to reach consensus on issues relating to the Essenes and the Qumran community" (Weiss)
Excavation of the site yielded inkpots, tables and benches in what excavators call the scriptorium.
We know from the Manual of Discipline, one of the manuscripts found in Cave 1, that the Essenes worked in shifts 24 hours a day in this library, or scriptorium, writing commentaries and copying precious manuscripts of the Bible. (Humble, Archaeology 38)
Several additional buildings and large cisterns also comprise the ruins of Qumran. "[I]n July and August it gets to 135 to 140 here" (39)
Qumran was destroyed by the Romans along with other Jewish cities, including Jerusalem, following the Jewish revolt in A.D. 66. The Essenes may have hidden the scrolls in the nearby caves to protect them from the impending approach of Roman armies.
Several of the scrolls are displayed in the Shrine of the Book museum in Jerusalem. The building looks like the lid of a pottery jar in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were stored in the caves at Qumran. In addition to scrolls containing biblical text, secular scrolls, including papyri letters, are kept in the Shrine of the Book. A letter by Bar Kochba, involved in an uprising against Rome (A.D. 132), advises ill treatment of Jewish Christians.
In this letter Bar Kochba orders one of his generals to put the Galileans in fetters. The "Galileans" were the Jewish Christians, and this is the first tangible evidence outside the New Testament of the persecution of believers. (42)
The Dead Sea Scrolls complement other ancient copies of the books of the Bible. The Sinaitic Manuscript was discovered in St. Catherine's Monastery at Mt. Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula. It has all 27 books of the New Testament, and it was written in the fourth century A.D.
The oldest New Testament manuscript is the John Rylands papyrus. It's only a small part of John 18, but this manuscript was made in the first half of the second century--perhaps within 50 years of the original writing of John. (43)
A burial cave in 1980 in Jerusalem yielded a silver amulet engraved with a priestly blessing from Numbers 6. "This is now the oldest fragment of Scripture ever discovered, about 500 years older that [sic] the Dead Sea Scrolls" (44). Finds like this, dating to 2,700 years ago, help verify the date that Bible books claim for themselves. Proper dating of biblical books is crucial especially to show prophecy and fulfillment. Demonstrating prophecy and fulfillment attests the divine origin of the Bible and its message.
The Temple Scroll is the largest Dead Sea scroll with an overall length of about 26.5 feet and a height of 9.5-10 inches. It reflects the mind of the Essenes regarding ceremonial laws in Judaism.
As an example, the Essenes believed that the Old Testament laws dealing with ritual cleanliness in the Israelite camp in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 23:10-14, for example) had to be applied to the entire city of Jerusalem. The Essenes were forbidden to have toilets inside the city. They had to go outside the camp (city) to go to the toilet. And because that was more than a Sabbath day's journey, they just could not go on the Sabbath. (50)
One of the most famous Dead Sea Scrolls …is MMT, which lists a series of religious laws …over which the Dead Sea Scroll sect (perhaps the Essenes) disagreed with other Jews, presumably those Jews (probably the Pharisees) whose allegiance was to the Temple priesthood. …Here are some of the concerns raised in MMT: If pure water in a pure vessel is poured into an [ceremonially] impure vessel, the water in the impure vessel certainly becomes impure; but does the impurity travel up the poured stream of water so that the remaining water in the pure vessel also becomes impure (along with the formerly pure vessel)? Further, when someone purifies himself or herself in a ritual bath… is the purification effective immediately …or only when the sun sets? The centrality of these kinds of questions to the Dead Sea Scroll community amply demonstrates the importance of ritual purity at the time. …Stone vessels, unlike ceramic and glass vessels, were not subject to impurity. …It made sense to purchase a vessel that could not become unclean, for once a vessel became ritually unclean, it had to be taken out of use. An impure pottery vessel, for example, had to be broken. . . . Dung vessels were made of a mixture of animal dung and clay, which was dried in the sun. They were used mainly for the storage of dry materials, such as wheat, barley and lentils. Earthen vessels were defined as having been made of unfired clay. Because stone vessels were also unfired, allowing the stone to remain in its natural state, they were grouped with earthen vessels. (Magen 46-52)
The Temple Scroll was confiscated by the Israeli military from an antiquities dealer following the 1967 Six-Day War. Before the Israeli victory in that short war, both the dealer's shop (in Jerusalem) and his home (in Bethlehem) were under Jordanian control. The dealer had attempted to negotiate the sale of the Temple Scroll for a million dollars, had refused $130,000 and was paid $105,000 following the confiscation of the scroll. (Shanks, "Magnificent" 35)
An interesting contrast occurs between the Manual of Discipline and the Gospel of Christ.
But in the Manual of Discipline, when a member was accepted into the Qumran community, he had to swear to love the sons of light and "hate the sons of darkness for all eternity." (Humble, Archaeology 50-51)
Jesus, however, taught: "Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matthew 5:43-44).
Thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls and these many other manuscripts, we can have great confidence in the text of the Bible. When we read the Bible, we don't need to ask, "Is this book just like it was written by Matthew and John and Paul?" We don't need to ask that question. We can be sure that it is. (44)
Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land. New York: Prentice Hall, 1990.
Fillon, Mike. "Searching for the Treasures of the Bible." Popular Mechanics. May 1999:72-74, 134.
Free, Joseph P. and Howard F. Vos. Archaeology and Bible History. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.
Humble, Bill. Archaeology and the Bible. Nashville: Christian Communications, 1990.
Magen, Yitzhak. "Ancient Israel's Stone Age: Purity in Second Temple Times." Biblical Archaeology Review. September-October 1998: 46-52.
Shanks, Hershel. "Magnificent Obsession." Biblical Archaeology Review. May-June 1996: 35.
- - -. "Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?" Biblical Archaeology Review. March-April 1995: 12.
Shanks, Hershel, et al. The Dead Sea Scrolls: After Forty Years. Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1992.
Weiss, Randall A. Jewish Sects of the New Testament Era. Cedar Hill: Cross Talk, 1994.