The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible

Gerhard Pfandl

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible

The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient documents, written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, which were accidentally discovered near Qumran on the shore of the Dead Sea. These texts date to the years 250 B.C. to about A.D. 50.1 A Jewish community, most likely the Essenes living at Qumran hid these scrolls in the surrounding caves when the Roman army advanced toward the Dead Sea during the first Jewish revolt (A.D. 66–73).

The story is told that three young Bedouin shepherds were leading their goats along the sloping cliffs bordering the northwest end of the Dead Sea sometime during the winter of 1946-1947. One of the shepherds threw a stone into one of the many caves in these cliffs and heard the sound of a breaking clay jar. Climbing into the cave, they found a number of jars containing seeds and one that contained seven leather scrolls. Not being able to read the scrolls, they took four of them to a Syrian Orthodox antiquities dealer in Bethlehem, named Kando, who sold them to the Orthodox Metropolitan Samuel for about $100. The Bedouins received two-thirds of the money. In 1954, the Israeli government paid the Metropolitan Samuel $250,000 for the four scrolls. The other three scrolls were given to another antiquities dealer, Faidi Salahi, who sold them to the Eleazar Sukenik, a Jewish archaeologist on the faculty of Hebrew University.

Eventually, 11 caves yielded more than 900 scrolls and scroll fragments, most of which ended up in the possession of the state of modern Israel, which built a special museum for them in Jerusalem where the scrolls can be seen today. A handful of scrolls are in the Archaeological Museum in Amman, among them the famous Copper Scroll.

The Essenes were one of the main Jewish parties in the time of Jesus, the others being the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Zealots. The Jewish community living at Qumran who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls were possibly part of the Essene sect. The Essenes are not mentioned in the Bible, but they are well known from the writings of Jewish and Roman authors. According to the Jewish historian Josephus (A.D. 37–100), they lived communally with no private wealth and with a series of initiation rites for those entering their group.2

Theologically, the Essenes agreed with the Pharisees concerning the immortality of the soul and the existence of angels, but they denied that human beings have a free will. A number of the Qumran texts deal with end-time events. They expected the final conflict to be a 40-year war between “the sons of light” and the “sons of darkness,” in which the “sons of light,” fighting alongside their allies the angels, would be victorious.3

The original seven scrolls consisted of two Isaiah scrolls and five Jewish writings: A commentary on the Book of Habakkuk; the “Genesis Apocryphon” (containing an elaboration on stories in Genesis); the “Manual of Discipline” (a rule book for the community at Qumran); the “Thanksgiving Psalm” (a collection of hymns); and the “War Scroll” (describing the battle between the “sons of light” and the “sons of darkness” already mentioned).

Most of the scrolls are written in Hebrew or Aramaic, but a few biblical scroll fragments are in Greek, indicating the presence of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Although the majority of the scrolls were written on leather, several fragments of biblical texts were written on papyrus, and in 1952 a scroll made of copper was discovered in Cave 3. The Copper Scroll, cut in strips, contains a tabulation of 64 treasure caches and the enigmatic descriptions of their hiding places. In spite of some searching for these treasures, thus far nothing has been found.

The longest intact scroll is the Temple Scroll. It is 27 feet long and contains, besides biblical laws recast in stricter form, a grandiose description of the future Jerusalem temple, similar to that found in Ezekiel 40 to 48. Another interesting manuscript is the “Damascus Document” that contains exhortations to follow the ways of God and laws concerning sacrifices, the purity of priests, diseases, marriage, and relations with non-Jews.

About 230 of the more than 900 scrolls and fragments are biblical texts. Most of them are fragmentary copies of Old Testament books; only one of the two Isaiah scrolls contains the complete text of the biblical book.

The Book of Psalms is present in the largest number of copies (36), with the next two being Deuteronomy (29) and Isaiah (21). Of the others, only Exodus (17), Genesis (15), and Leviticus (13) break into double figures. At the other extreme, not a single recognizable scrap from a manuscript of Esther has been located, and the same is true for Nehemiah.

The three books with the most copies (Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah) are also the most frequently cited books in the New Testament. One of the scroll fragments mentions a threefold division of the books of the Old Testament: “[And also] we [have written] to you that you may have understanding in the book of Moses [and in the words of the p]rophets, and in Davi[d].”4 The name David refers to the Book of Psalms, which stands at the beginning of “the writings,” the third division of the Hebrew Bible.

Until the discovery of the of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest ancient Hebrew manuscript known was the “Nash Papyrus” from the first century B.C. It contains among other texts the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. Otherwise, apart from a few biblical fragments from the Cairo Geniza (a synagogue storeroom), dating to the fifth century A.D., the oldest biblical Hebrew manuscripts come from the ninth and tenth century A.D., the Aleppo Codex, the Cairo Codex of the Prophets (both about A.D. 900) and the Leningrad Codex (A.D. 1009). The latter has been the basis of all modern Hebrew Bibles until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The great importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, therefore, lies in the fact that the earliest scrolls date back to only about two hundred years after the last book of the Old Testament was completed. Thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls, we now have a complete manuscript of the Hebrew text of the Book of Isaiah and fragments of most of the other biblical books that are more than one thousand years older than the manuscripts previously known to exist.

The significance of this discovery has to do with the detailed closeness of the “Isaiah Scroll” (second century B.C.) to the text of Isaiah one thousand years later in the Cairo, Aleppo, and Leningrad codices. It demonstrates the unusual accuracy of the copyists of the biblical text over a thousand-year period. When the later texts were compared with the Qumran texts, they were found to be almost identical.



1. Gary A. Rendsburg, The Dead Sea Scrolls (Chantilly, Va.: The Great Courses, 2010), p. 4.
2. Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 2. 8. 3, 5, 7.
3. J. C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 65.
4. Ibid., p. 149.