Dead Sea Scrolls

The term Dead Sea Scrolls refers to various manuscript discoveries since 1947, mostly in the Judaean wilderness close to the Dead Sea or the River Jordan. Those include discoveries of papyri at Wadi Daliyeh (14 km/8.5 miles north of Jericho), manuscripts on skin from below the floor of a meeting room at Masada, the Babatha archive from the Bar Kokhba period (132-35 CE), and the Nahal Hever Greek Minor Prophets scroll. Most well known are the manuscripts discovered between 1947 and 1956 in eleven caves at and near Qumran, on the north-west shore of the Dead Sea. The manuscripts are normally referred to by the place of their discovery, often abbreviated (e.g., 3Q = Cave 3 at Qumran), and either a number or name.

The manuscripts from Qumran

The finds from the Qumran caves amount to approximately 950 manuscripts. They are mostly made from animal skin. About 100 are written on papyrus. One highly distinctive scroll (3Q15), a list of buried treasure, was inscribed in twelve columns on three sheets of copper, discovered in two rolls. It is now widely thought that the Qumran site was occupied from some time in the first half of the 1st century BCE until 68 CE with a short break (ca. 9-4 BCE) at the end of the reign of Herod the Great (37-4 BCE). The scrolls were put in the caves during as well as at the end of the period of occupation. Caves 1, 3, and 11 are natural caves in the foothills a little way from the Qumran site; the other eight caves are artificial and are close to or only accessible through the remains of the community site itself. The different caves seem to have had different functions (akin to a genizah, that is, a room in a synagogue for the secure storage of disused manuscripts [Cave 1]; workshops [Cave 8]; personal storage [Caves 6, 7]; library depository [Cave 4]).

The finds in the caves with the largest deposits of manuscripts (Caves 1, 4, and 11) share a literary profile, indicating that the collection of all eleven caves should be considered together. The proximity of Cave 4 to the Qumran site itself is one of several arguments for associating the manuscript finds in some way with the occupants of the site. Most of the manuscripts were penned in the first centuries BCE and CE, but some are from the 2nd and even 3rd centuries BCE. Those written before the occupation of the Qumran site, as well as many of the rest, were written somewhere other than Qumran, most probably Jerusalem. Those manuscripts most likely to have been written at Qumran variously share certain scribal features, though not with a thoroughgoing consistency. It seems that a number of forgeries have appeared on the international market since 2002.

Authoritative texts

Amongst the manuscript finds from the Qumran caves there are almost no documentary texts; it is a literary collection of some kind, perhaps a library or libraries. The texts are often classified in three categories, but such classification is not without its problems. First, about a quarter of the manuscripts contain various authoritative traditions from the Second Temple period, including many that end up in both Jewish and Christian Bibles, or were deemed authoritative in more restricted circles (such as the Books of Enoch, Jubilees). The manuscripts show that it was normal in the period for there to be more than one different text of literary works: for some compositions (such as Exodus, Jeremiah, Psalms) that is best described in terms of there being two or more editions, for others simply in terms of textual variety. The so-called scriptural scrolls have been important for revitalising the study of the ancient versions, especially the Greek versions.

Sectarian compositions

A second group, again about a quarter of the collection, are manuscripts containing compositions that reflect the varied organisation, ways of life, and thinking of a group, movement, or sect, widely believed to be the Essenes. That movement, partly referred to as the Yahad (community) in some compositions, originated well before the occupation of the Qumran site by a small section of its members. The movement seems to have gone through change and development during the two centuries or more of its existence. The Damascus Document (a collection of exhortations and laws) and some of the sectarian commentaries on the Prophets (the Pesharim, singular Pesher) refer to a Teacher of Righteousness (or Right Teacher) who seems to have been a focal figure in the early stages; the composition of some of the Thanksgiving Hymns (Hodayot) is sometimes attributed to him. The sect had an explicitly priestly outlook, a hierarchical organisation, and a rigorous attitude to matters of purity; at some point it tried to encourage others to agree with it on such matters (see Miqsat Ma’aseh Ha-Torah).

General Jewish literature

The third set of manuscripts contain the rest of the compositions. They are items of general Jewish literature of the Second Temple period. Though not explicitly sectarian, many of the compositions would have been sympathetically received by the sect. About one hundred of those manuscripts contain compositions in Aramaic, many of which have traditions about the Patriarchs amongst them. It is commonly observed that amongst this group of texts some were previously known in translations preserved mostly by Christian groups, but most seem to have remained untransmitted since antiquity. They include narrative about Jewish halakah or legal rules, poetic, liturgical, wisdom, and other genres—absent are works of speculative philosophy, or historiography, such as the Books of Maccabees, or non-Jewish compositions.

Overall significance

Taken all together the Dead Sea Scrolls have radically changed the modern understanding of Judaism in Palestine in the three centuries before the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Before 1947 all that was available to historians of the period for the region in Hebrew and Aramaic were coin inscriptions and the brief inscriptions, mostly of proper names, on ossuaries (boxes for the secondary burial of bones). Now there are hundreds of manuscripts to be considered. Overall the scrolls indicate that the Judaism of the time was more diverse than previously thought: its sacred texts were textually pluriform, its elite groups complex, its religious practices contested, its politics diverse, and its cultural identities rich and varied.

Further reading

Overall illustrated introduction:

Davies, P. R., G. J. Brooke, and P. Callaway. The Complete World of the Dead Sea Scrolls. 2nd ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 2011.

More comprehensive introductory coverage:

Schiffman, L. H., and J. C. VanderKam, eds. Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Texts in English:

Vermes, G. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. Rev. 50th anniversary ed. London: Penguin, 2011.

Easy access to Hebrew, Aramaic, and English texts:

Martínez, F. García, and E. J. C. Tigchelaar. The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition. 2 vols. Leiden; Grand Rapids: Brill, 2000.

Open access to multiple images:

History of scholarship:

Dimant, D., ed. The Dead Sea Scrolls in Scholarly Perspective: A History of Research. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

Searchable bibliography since 1995:

There are several ways of purchasing electronic resources, including images of manuscripts texts in transcription and translation.