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Ancient history

Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Scholars don’t agree who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. “The most unanswered question is their origin,” says Professor Jean-Pierre Isbouts.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered 75 years ago in a series of caves near the ancient settlement of Masada in the Judean Desert. The manuscripts include the influential Book of Enoch and Book of Isaiah, and have even inspired modern forgeries. Scholars continue to debate related mysteries, such as who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. Professor Jean-Pierre Isbouts discusses his National Geographic special feature, The Dead Sea Scrolls: 75 Years Since Their Historic Discovery.

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How would you describe the Dead Sea Scrolls to someone who’s never heard of them?

The Dead Sea Scrolls have preserved the Hebrew Bible (or the “Old Testament”) as it existed in the latter part of the Second Temple Period (516 B.C.–70 C.E.) as well as the time of Jesus. The most sensational aspect of the Dead Sea Scrolls is their age: they are some 2,000 years old. Before their discovery, the oldest known manuscripts of Hebrew Scripture in Hebrew included the tenth-century-C.E. Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex, dated to the 10th century C.E. The oldest Greek version of segments from the Old Testament, the Codex Sinaiticus, was probably written in the fourth century C.E.

Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

First off, it would be more accurate to say who “copied” the Dead Sea Scrolls, since the origins of the Hebrew Bible go back at least to the 7th century B.C.E. and possibly to the 9th century B.C.E.

In the first decades of Dead Sea Scrolls research, most scholars tended to accept the “Standard Model” theory of who its authors were: they were scribes who copied the text from other sources while living in a desert community known in Arabic as Khirbet Qumran (“ruins of Qumran”). But as the scrolls have become more widely accessible, this theory has come under attack.

To me, it seems obvious that the people who hid the scrolls around Khirbet Qumran may not be the same people who wrote the scrolls. In fact, given that the Dead Sea Scrolls encompass nearly the full range of the Hebrew Bible, some historians (including myself) believe that it is far more likely that many—if not all of the scrolls—were written by professional scribes working at the Temple in Jerusalem.

A growing number of scholars have suggested that the people who hid the scrolls around the Khirbet Qumran may not be the same people who wrote the scrolls.

Jean-Pierre Isbouts, “The Dead Sea Scrolls: 75 Years Since Their Historic Discovery”

What do scholars believe led Jewish communities like Qumran to hide their biblical scrolls?

The prevailing theory is that the scrolls were either transported to Qumran from Jerusalem or copied in situ in order to preserve them from the advancing Roman army. In 66 C.E., a large force of Jewish rebels, led by the Zealots, staged the First Jewish Revolt against the Roman Occupation. Emperor Nero then sent an expeditionary force that steadily reconquered the region and in 70 C.E. destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. That would have provided the impetus to story the scrolls in clay jars and hide them in caves in the Judean Desert.

Where—and when—did the Qumran settlement hide their scrolls?

The scrolls were hidden in nearby caves in the Judean Desert. Whereas the original Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden between 68 and 70 C.E., as Roman forces entered the desert in search of rebels of the First Jewish War, it has now become clear that the Dead Sea Scrolls are not an isolated find.

During the Roman occupation of Palestine and beyond, numerous Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts were hidden in caves during various periods of war and turmoil, including the Second Jewish Revolt of 131-135 B.C.E. Strictly speaking, these texts do not form part of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, but are of great importance to scholars.

When were the Dead Sea Scrolls found?

In November of 1946, three Bedouin cousins—Jum’a Muhammad, Muhammad edh’Dhib, and Khalil Musa—went looking for a lost goat in the hills close to the Dead Sea, and stumbled on one of the caves that is now known as Cave 1. Believing that treasures had been deposited there centuries earlier, they decided to venture inside. But instead of the silver and gold the trio had hoped to find, they found several clay jars that held the Great Isaiah Scroll, the Community Rule, and the Habakkuk Commentary.

Eventually, the scrolls were identified by the American biblical archaeologist John C. Trever as ancient biblical manuscripts. On April 11, 1948, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was formally announced (and named the Dead Sea Scrolls because of Qumran’s proximity to the Dead Sea), but the news was overshadowed by the outbreak of war between the newly declared state of Israel and its Arab neighbors.

When was the most recent Dead Sea Scroll discovery?

In 2017, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) launched a project to survey around 600 caves in Israeli territory, as well as Area C of the occupied West Bank, where Israel maintains military and civil control. On March 17, 2021, it was announced that Israeli archaeologists had found some 20 additional fragments in Cave 8 near the wadi, or canyon, of Nahal Hever.

Cave 8 is also known as the “Cave of Horror,” after excavations in the early 1960s found the remains of 40 adults and children.

There are undoubtedly more caves that have yet to be discovered.

Do extracanonical writings found in the scrolls teach us anything new about Jewish life during the Second Temple period?

The extracanonical works are religious works written by Jewish authors between 300 B.C.E. and the late first century C.E., which are not included in the original canon of Hebrew Scripture. However, they do appear in a third century B.C.E. Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Septuagint (“seventy” in Latin), which formed the basis for the Christian Old Testament.

Many of these books capture the restless nature of the Hebrew people under Syrian occupation and the subsequent Hasmonean restoration, after the Maccabean Revolt. They include the Book of Tobit (five copies), the Wisdom of Sirach (three fragmentary copies), the Book of Jubilees (fourteen fragments) and the apocalyptic Book of 1 Enoch (eleven copies). Many of these books depict a Jewish community struggling to come to terms with the growing influence of Greek culture, or Hellenism, under both Syrian and Hasmonean rulers.

How have the scrolls impacted Isaiah scholarship?

The Dead Sea Scrolls of Isaiah are now recognized as the oldest copy of the Book of Isaiah, written across 17 sheets of parchment in biblical Hebrew. This makes it one of the longest documents in the Dead Sea Scrolls and one that has been preserved in its entirety, and in excellent condition.

Isaiah had special resonance for the Jews of the Hasmonean and Roman era. The prophet was active in the seventh century B.C.E., when the Kingdom of Judah was threatened by foreign invasion because of its kings’ political brinkmanship.

How do the scrolls help Christians better understand the ministry of Jesus and the context in which the Gospels were written?

For me, the Dead Sea Scrolls are particularly important because they reveal the Hebrew Bible as Jesus knew it. Very often, Jesus refers to the “Law and the Prophets” (Luke 16:16), the two divisions of Hebrew Scripture that were known at the time. The Ketuvim or “Writings” collection did not reach its final form until well into the second century c.e.

Nevertheless, Jesus was certainly familiar with several books in this collection, such as the Psalms and the Book of Daniel. So in fact, we now have a version of the Hebrew Bible that is much older than the oldest extant manuscripts of the New Testament, which probably date to the fourth century C.E., even though they were originally written in the second half of the 1st century.

Is there a connection between Jesus, John the Baptist, and Qumran?

Many scholars have looked for parallels between the Dead Sea Scrolls and Jesus or John the Baptist. I believe the most important parallel is the fact that the secular books of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which pertain to some form of rule books of the Qumran Community, speak about the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God in much the same way that John the Baptist did, and to so degree Jesus as well.

The difference is that the Qumranites and John saw the coming of the Kingdom of God as the result of some cataclysm, some regime change, whereas Jesus believed that the Kingdom society could be brought about as a grassroots movement pushing for social change. For Jesus, the role of the Messiah was to lead the nation to spiritual and social salvation regardless of the political circumstances.

Do any documents in the Dead Sea Scrolls suggest an Early Christian origin?

Not really. A few scholars have tried to identify evidence of a New Testament origin, but these have not found scholarly support.

What is one unanswered question about the scrolls that especially intrigues you?

The most unanswered question is their origin. The sheer number of copies among the Dead Sea Scrolls makes it unlikely that all of these duplicates could have come from the same source—the community of Qumran.

It seems far more likely that these books originated from different libraries in Jerusalem and Judea at large. The Dead Sea Scrolls are clearly the work of specialists, of scribes who were well-versed in Scripture, and the production of so many scrolls would have taken decades, if not more.

The most obvious origin, therefore, would be the center of ancient Judaism of the time, the scribes and scholars attached to the Second Temple (and perhaps various synagogues in Judea). But evidence for this theory must still be found.

What do you hope we are saying about the Dead Sea Scrolls on the 100th anniversary of their discovery?

I hope that by that time, we will not only have discovered more data about their origin, but that the scrolls will also be accessible to students and scholars around the world. For too long now, the scrolls were only available to a small group of specialists.

A major effort has begun to digitize the scrolls—beginning with the Israel Museum in Jerusalem teaming up with Google to create high-resolution images of the Dead Sea Scrolls and make them available in the public domain. I hope that will help introduce the Dead Sea Scrolls into the mainstream of academic research worldwide.

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About Jean-Pierre Isbouts

Prof Jean-Pierre Isbouts (Fielding Graduate University) is a historian and biblical scholar, and the author of a number of bestselling National Geographic books including The Biblical World, In the Footsteps of Jesus, The Story of Christianity, and The Archaeology of the Bible, which have sold over 2 million copies. His most recent book is Mapping America, the story of America’s birth as seen through maps; and National Geographic’s 650-page volume Ultimate Visual History of the World, encompassing all of his research to date. He has also produced several lecture series for The Great Courses, including The History and Archaeology of the Bible (2020).

Dr. Isbouts has also directed a number of TV specials, including Van Gogh Revisited with Leonard Nimoy, Walt: The Man Behind the Myth with Dick van Dyke, and The Mona Lisa Myth with Morgan Freeman. As a musicologist, Dr. Isbouts has produced a number of recordings by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and other ensembles and soloists. His website is www.jpisbouts.org.

A headshot of Dead Sea Scrolls historian Jean-Pierre Isbouts.
Jean-Pierre Isbouts is the author of “The Dead Sea Scrolls: 75 Years Since Their Historic Discovery.”

Further reading

Dead Sea Scrolls resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Editor. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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