Scholars have spent long hours with the Bible. They have read it in the Hebrew and in the Greek and have tried to understand what God wants them to do. They have shared their insights with others through sermons and commentaries.
These scholars have long been aware that ancient manuscripts of the Bible vary somewhat, and they have worked to determine the specific text of the original documents. Over the past 200 years, however, some critical scholars have raised doubts about whether we can ever have the exact words of the Biblical writers. Their doubts have been received by average people who are skeptical about the Bible. You might here someone say:
“You can’t go by the Bible, because no original copies of it exist. We only have copies, of copies, of copies, of copies of the original manuscripts. How do we know that the Bible printed today is anywhere close to the documents written by Jeremiah, John, and Paul?"
Here at Qumran, a desolate place overlooking the Dead Sea, a discovery was made that gave us dramatic new evidence that the Hebrew text of the Old Testament is accurate and trustworthy. This was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
This map shows the approximate location where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.
The story of the discovery of these famous scrolls begins at these caves in 1947 when two young, Bedouin shepherd boys were searching on the rocky hillsides for a lost goat.
One of the boys, Mohammed ed Dhib, tossed rocks into one cave hoping to scare the animal out. Instead of hearing the goat he heard the sound of pottery breaking. He ran off, but later came back with friends.
Inside the cave they found large clay jars. Upon looking inside the jars they found seven very old scrolls.
This picture of Mohammed ed Dhib, on the right, was made a few years after he found the jars.
Mohammed ed Dhib took all seven scrolls to a Bethlehem shopkeeper named Kando. Kando divided them into two groups.
Three went to a Jewish scholar named Sukenik at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
The other four went to the Archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Athanasius Samuel (on the right). Samuel took his scrolls to the American School for Oriental Research in Jerusalem about a year later where a young scholar named John Trever (on the left), quickly realized that one of the scrolls was a manuscript of the Old Testament book of Isaiah.
Trever rushed photographs of the scrolls to the well-known American archaeologist William F. Albright at the Johns Hopkins University. Albright cabled back the exciting news. This manuscript of Isaiah was an old one, probably a thousand years older than any possessed at that time. In respect to the text of the Old Testament, this was the greatest archaeological discovery ever made.
On April 11, 1948, the existence of the Dead Sea Scrolls was announced to the world. But, what was written on these precious scrolls?
Two of the scrolls were copies of the book of Isaiah. One was a complete copy. There was also an ancient commentary on Habakkuk and a book of rules for a religious community. There was a scroll describing the great final battle between good and evil at the last day called “The War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness”. And there were scrolls of psalms and the stories of the patriarchs as found in the book of Genesis.
This is the Isaiah scroll. It was produced between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D. and is the oldest complete copy of a Biblical book ever discovered. It is of great interest that this ancient manuscript is essentially identical with the Hebrew text of Isaiah which has been copied and passed down through the centuries.
Scholars used the Isaiah scroll in the translation of our Revised Standard Version of the Bible. However, when you compare the Hebrew text handed down by copyists through the Middle Ages, called the Masoretic text, to the Isaiah scroll, the text showed something amazing, they read almost identical! Only thirteen minor changes were introduced because of different readings in the Qumran Isaiah Scroll! Amazing!
After the discovery of the first cave, archaeologists and Bedouin explorers investigated hundreds of caves in the area. They found scrolls or fragments of scrolls in ten of the caves.
The fourth cave, which was discovered in 1952, proved to hold the most valuable materials of all.
Cave four had no complete manuscripts, but it did have tens of thousands of fragments. This is the largest fragment. It measures 9 inches by 5 1/2 inches and is a collection of Old Testament verses about the end of time and the coming of the Messiah.
Archaeologists estimate that cave four contained at least 382 separate manuscripts. About 100 of these were Biblical manuscripts and included all the Old Testament books except Esther.
These two unusual copper scrolls found in another cave, tell of tons of gold and other treasures supposedly buried around Jerusalem. That's exciting! Hidden treasure! Unfortunately, none has been found.
More caves were found in 1955 and 1956, not quite ten years after the boys found the first cave in 1947.
Many of the fragments were so old and worn that they could never have been studied without modern technology. Here, for example, is a scroll fragment that could not be read.
But with the use of infra-red photography the words can all be read.
But who wrote the scrolls? Why were they hidden in caves? Why did the owners never return for them?
The ruins of Khirbet Qumran, located here near the Dead Sea, seem to offer the best hope for finding answers to these questions.
Scholars believe that a devout community of Jews, known as Essenes, came here to live about 135 years before the birth of Jesus. They were waiting for the Messiah and spend their time studying and copying scrolls. The community was formed, not only because of Messianic hopes, but also out of dissatisfaction with Hellenistic and Roman rule.
The Essenes were described in the first century by the Jewish historian, Josephus, and the Roman historian Pliny. The group numbered perhaps two to four hundred at any one time. They have little historical importance but the scrolls they behind left are priceless.
This plaque marks the site of Qumran. Scholars believe Qumran was destroyed by an earthquake and abandoned about 31 B.C., but inhabited again in the first century.
The earthquake tremors left cracks in stone steps which can still be seen today. About thirty years after the earthquake, the Essenes returned and rebuilt Qumran. This was about the time of Jesus' birth.
Here is an architect's sketch of what the Qumran buildings looked like in the first century. Number 5, on the right, is a two-story tower. Number 13, on the left, is the Hall of the Congregation, where the Essenes gathered for meals. And number 9, in the center, is the Scriptorium, where the scrolls were copied.
The most impressive part of the Qumran ruin is this two-story tower. It was probably used to defend the community. The Essenes were not pacifists as is seen in the "War of the Sons of Light with the Sons of Darkness", already mentioned. Some of their manuscripts were even discovered among the ruins of the Zealots of Masada, a group of rebellious Jews.
The entire community gathered in the Hall of the Congregation for meals. As they ate they listened to scriptures being read, and prayed. They shared everything. We know there was a two-year trial period before anyone was allowed to become a full member of the community.
They had a little pantry or pottery storage room where hundreds of pieces of pottery have been discovered, which was located next to the Hall of the Congregation.
There were cisterns discovered that stored water for the community.
A mortar was found, which was used to crush grain for making flour.
This is the doorway to the Scriptorium or the community library. Notice the Dead Sea in background.
The Scriptorium is 43 feet long and 13 feet wide. Here, community members studied and copied precious manuscripts. The Dead Sea Scroll called the Manual of Discipline tells us they often worked in shifts, 24 hours a day. The community seemed to have had favorite Old Testament books. Parts of Deuteronomy, Isaiah and Psalms were found most frequently among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Archaeologists found ink pots in the Scriptorium. Careful chemical analysis has established that the ink in the pots is identical to that employed in writing the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Hebrew alphabet is crudely written on this piece of broken pottery--the homework of a young member just beginning his training to become a scribe.
Coins have been found which were hidden under the floor in one of the rooms. The oldest coins were minted in the reign of John Hyrcanus about 130 B.C. Other coins have the picture of Archelaus, who ruled over Judea when Jesus was a small child. These coins can help us better estimate the date when the Essenes lived in Qumran.
The Essenes had a baptistery at Qumran which they used for ceremonial washings or baptisms. They practiced immersion, just as the New Testament church did, though it was not exactly the same. At Qumran the same person would be immersed many times, in some cases daily.
As one approaches Qumran from Jericho, the land rises sharply to the caves where the scrolls were found. Slowly we have been able to piece together the last days of the Essene community and the hiding of the scrolls.
An artist has put together this reconstruction of Qumran. This is probably what the community looked like in Jesus’ day.
Imagine yourself at a meal in Qumran listening to one of your brothers preach.
Or perhaps you are working while someone discusses the scriptures.
One of your jobs could have been making pottery utensils. Perhaps one of your jars would be used to store the precious scrolls after they were first wrapped in linen.
You may have spent hours copying the priceless manuscripts in the Scriptorium.
You might witness a ceremonial washing.
But this quiet, serene life suddenly ended in 68 A.D. when the Jewish nation rebelled against the Roman Emperor.
The powerful Roman armies marched down the Jordan Valley destroying everything in their path. After the thriving city of Jericho, only seven miles from Qumran, was devastated, the Roman soldiers headed for Qumran.
Frantically, the Essenes took their scrolls, their most precious possessions, and hid them in nearby caves. The Roman army attacked Qumran and destroyed the buildings. Roman arrowheads are found in the ruins. We do not know whether the Essenes were all killed or if some escaped. We do know that hundreds of manuscripts were hidden and forgotten.
The scrolls are protected and displayed today in a beautiful little museum in Jerusalem, appropriately called "The Shrine of the Book."
The architecture of the Shrine of the Book is interesting. On the outside it is shaped like the lid of one of the pottery jars found in the first cave., but when you enter the museum, you have the feeling of being inside a cave.
In the center of the cave the Isaiah scroll is displayed in a circular case. The Isaiah scroll is the oldest known manuscript of a complete book of the Bible. It was already in existence when Jesus came to Jericho not far away. Judging from the number of times Jesus quoted Isaiah, it must have been one of his favorite books, just as it was with the Essenes.
The scrolls, found here on the edge of the Dead Sea are a powerful testimony to the essential accuracy of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.
Scholars were amazed at the age of the scrolls--1,000 years older than the oldest known Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament. Before the scrolls were discovered, there was a 1,300 year gap between the time the Old Testament was complete and the oldest known Hebrew copy.
This old Hebrew copy is the Ben Asher Codex, which was made about 975 A.D.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are more that a thousand years older than the Ben Asher Codex, so the gap between the original writings of the Old Testament and the oldest manuscripts has now been reduced from 1,300 years to just 300 years.
The Hebrew text of the Old Testament that has been used in making every English translation from the King James to our recent modern-speech version is the Masoretic text.
Its name comes from the Jewish scholars, called Masoretes, who preserved this text through the Middle Ages. Some scholars had doubts about the accuracy of this text, but the Dead Sea Scrolls are so similar to the Masoretic text that they show it has been preserved with remarkable accuracy through the Middle Ages.
And when the scrolls differ from the Masoretic text, they often follow the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament made at Alexandria in the third century before Christ (about 300 B.C.).
The Dead Sea Scrolls are so valuable in so many ways. They give us far more information about the Essenes than we ever had before, they provide new insights into the culture and thought patterns of Jesus' world.
And, most important, they show that the neighborhood critic is sadly mistaken when he says, "You can't trust the Bible. We don't have the original writings. All we have are copies... of copies... of copies." But today, thanks to the accidental discovery of a shepherd boy, we have the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Essenes lived in lonely isolation at Qumran, studying the Scriptures, copying their manuscripts, and waiting for God to send the Messiah. And in the fullness of time Jesus came--he came to Jericho just seven miles away, but unfortunately, the men of Qumran never knew him.
In our next lesson we will look more closely at Jesus, the Messiah foretold by Isaiah, as we look at the land and the people who were blessed with his presence almost 2,000 years ago.
Original text and slides from "Proof from the Past: How Archaeology Confirms the Bible", ©1979 Religious Services Company, Inc. Used by permission. Various edits and new audio recordings by the Bible Study Center 2006-2014.
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