The Nazarene Way of Essenic Studies
~ The Dead Sea Scrolls ~
Their Discovery, Interpretations and Publication

The Dead Sea scrolls are a collection of about 850 documents, including texts from the Hebrew Bible, which have been discovered between 1947 and 1956 at eleven caves near Qumran, a ruins northwest of the Dead Sea in Israel, in historical times part of Judea. They were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, sometime between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD. The texts are important as being practically the only Jewish Biblical documents from that period, and because of what they can tell about the political and religious context of the time.

Date and Contents

According to carbon dating and textual analysis, the documents were written at various times between the middle of the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD. At least one document has a carbon date range of 21 BC–61 AD. The Nash Papyrus from Egypt, containing a copy of the Ten Commandments, is the only other Hebrew document of comparable antiquity. Similar written materials have been recovered from nearby sites, including the fortress of Masada. 

The fragments span at least 800 texts, that represent many diverse viewpoints ranging from the beliefs of the Essenes to those of other sects. About 30% are fragments from the Hebrew Bible, from all the books except Book of Esther. About 25% are traditional Jewish religious texts that are not in the canonical Hebrew Bible, such as the Book of Enoch and the Testament of Levi. Another 30% contain Biblical commentaries or other texts related to the beliefs, regulations, and membership requirements of some Jewish sect, which is believed to have lived in the Qumran area. The rest (about 15%) of the fragments are yet unidentified. Most of them are written in Hebrew, but also some written in Aramaic, and a few in Greek. 

Important texts include the Isaiah (discovered in 1947), a Commentary on the Habakkuk (1947), the so-called Copper Scroll (1952), which lists hidden caches of gold and weapons, and the earliest version of the Damascus Document. 


According to a view commonly held until the 1990s, the documents were written and hidden by a community of Essenes who lived in the Qumran area. Another theory, which has been gaining acceptance, is that the community was led by Zadokite priests (Sadducees), who were ousted from the Temple by the Maccabeans (Hasmoneans). 

A Spanish Jesuit, José O'Callaghan, has argued that the fragment 7Q5 from Cave 7 is a New Testament text from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 6, verses 52-53. In recent years this controversial assertion has been taked up again by German scholar Carsten Peter Thiede. A successful identification of this fragment as a passage from Mark would make it the earliest extant New Testament document, dating somewhere between 30 and 60 CE. 

In 1963 Karl Heinrich Rengstorf of the University of Münster put forth the theory that the Dead Sea scrolls originated at the library of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. This theory was rejected by most scholars during the 1960s, who maintained that the scrolls were written at Qumran rather than transported from another location. However, the theory was revived by Norman Golb and other scholars during the 1990s, who added that the scrolls probably also originated from several other libraries in addition to the Temple library. 

Allegations that the Vatican suppressed the publication of the scrolls were published in the 1990s, notably by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, whose book The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception contains a popularized version of speculations by Robert Eisenman that some scrolls actually describe the early Christian community, characterized as more fundamentalist and rigid than the one portrayed by the New Testament, and that the life of Jesus was deliberately mythicized by Paul, possibly a Roman agent who faked his "conversion" from Saul in order to undermine the influence of anti-Roman messianic cults in the region.

Eisenman's own theories, themselves not always convincing, merely attempt to relate the career of James the Just and Paul to some of these documents. Baigent and Leigh allege that several key scrolls were deliberately kept under wraps for decades to prevent alternative theories to the prevailing "consensus" that the scrolls had nothing to do with Christianity from arising. 

Because they are frequently described as important to the history of the Bible, the scrolls are surrounded by a wide range of conspiracy theories.


The scrolls were discovered by a young shepherd, Muhammed edh-Dhib, who had thrown a stone into a cave in an attempt to coerce a goat out of it. His stone struck one of the many pieces of pottery that had contained the scrolls for approximately two millennia. Later archeological excavation, as well as searches by the local Bedouin residents, identified and recovered material from the 11 caves. Israel obtained 4 of the 7 major Dead Sea scrolls on February 13, 1955. 


Most of the documents were published in a surprisingly prompt manner: all of the writing found in Cave 1 appeared in print between 1950 and 1956; the finds from 8 different caves were released in a single volume in 1963; and 1965 saw the publication of the Psalms Scroll from Cave 11. Translation of these materials quickly followed. 

The exception to this speed were the documents from Cave 4, which represented 40% of the total material. The publication of these materials had been entrusted to an international team led by Father Roland de Vaux, a member of the Dominican Order in Jerusalem. This group published the first volume of the materials entrusted to them in 1968, but spent much of their energies defending their theories of the material instead of publishing it. Geza Vermes, who had been involved from the start in the editing and publication of these materials, blamed the delay – and eventual failure – on de Vaux's selection of a team unsuited to the quality of work he had planned, as well as relying "on his personal, quasi-patriarchal authority" to ensure the work was promptly done. 

As a result, the finds from Cave 4 were not made public for many years. Access to the scrolls was governed by a "secrecy rule" that allowed only the original International Team – or their designates – to view the original materials. After de Vaux's death in 1971, his successors repeatedly refused to even allow the publication of photographs of these materials so that other scholars could at least make their judgements.

This rule was eventually broken: first by the publication in the fall of 1991, of 17 documents reconstructed from a concordance that had been made in 1988 and had come into the hands of scholars outside of the International Team; next, that same month, of the discovery – and publication – of a complete set of photographs of the Cave 4 materials at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California that was not covered by the "secrecy rule". After some delays, these photographs were published by Robert Eisenman and James Robinson (A Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, two volumes, Washington, D.C., 1991). As a result, the "secrecy rule" was lifted, and publication of the Cave 4 documents soon commenced, with five volumes in print by 1995. 

The Essenes, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Qumran

Archaeological evidence is raising many questions about the conventional interpretation linking the desolate ruins of the ancient settlement of Qumran with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

After early excavations at the site, scholars concluded that members of a holy Jewish sect, the Essenes, had lived there in a monastery and
presumably wrote the scrolls in the first centuries B.C. and A.D. Many of the texts describe religious practices and doctrine in ancient Israel.

But two Israeli archaeologists who have excavated the site on and off for more than 10 years now assert that Qumran had nothing to do with
the Essenes or a monastery, or the scrolls. It had been a pottery factory.

The archaeologists, Yizhak Magen and Yuval Peleg of the Israel Antiquities Authority, reported in a book and a related magazine article that their extensive excavations turned up pottery kilns, whole vessels, production rejects and thousands of clay fragments. Derelict water reservoirs held thick deposits of fine potters' clay.

Dr. Magen and Dr. Peleg said that, indeed, the elaborate water system at Qumran appeared to be designed to bring the clay-laced water into the site for the purposes of the pottery industry. No other site in the region has been found to have such a water system.

By the time the Romans destroyed Qumran in A.D. 68 in the Jewish revolt, the archaeologists concluded the settlement had been a center of the pottery industry for at least a century. Before that, the site apparently was an outpost in a chain of fortresses along the Israelites' eastern frontier.

"The association between Qumran, the caves and the scrolls is, thus, a hypothesis lacking any factual archaeological basis," Dr. Magen said in an article in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

He and Dr. Peleg wrote a more detailed report of their research in "The Site of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Archaeological Interpretations and Debates," published this year. The book was edited by Katharina Galor of Brown, Jean-Baptiste Humbert of the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem, and Jürgen Zangenberg of the University of Wuppertal in Germany.

This is by no means the first challenge to the Essene hypothesis originally advanced by Roland de Vaux, a French priest and archaeologist who was an early interpreter of the scrolls after their discovery almost 60 years ago. Other scholars have suggested that Qumran was a fortified manor house or a villa, possibly an agricultural community or a commercial entrepôt.

Norman Golb, a professor of Near Eastern languages and civilization at the University of Chicago who is a longtime critic of the Essene link, said he was impressed by the new findings and the pottery-factory interpretation.

"Magen's a very seasoned archaeologist and scholar, and many of his views are cogent," Dr. Golb said in a telephone interview. "A pottery factory? That could well be the case."

Dr. Golb said that, of course, Qumran could have been both a monastery and a pottery factory. Yet, he added: "There is not an iota of evidence that it was a monastery. We have come to see it as a secular site, not one of pronounced religious orientation."

For years, Dr. Golb has argued that the multiplicity of Jewish religious ideas and practices recorded in the scrolls made it unlikely that they were the work of a single sect like the Essenes. He noted that few of the texts dealt with specific Essene traditions. Not one, he said, espoused celibacy or vegetarianism, both of which the sect practiced.

The scrolls in the caves were probably written by many different groups, Dr. Golb surmised, and were removed from Jerusalem libraries and temples by refugees in the Roman war. Fleeing to the east, the refugees may well have deposited the scrolls for safekeeping in the many caves near Qumran.

The new research appears to support this view. As Dr. Magen noted, Qumran in those days was at a major crossroads of traffic to and from Jerusalem and along the Dead Sea. Similar scrolls have been found at Masada, the site south of Qumran of the suicidal hold-out against the Romans.

Dr. Magen also cited documents showing that refugees in another revolt against the Romans in the next century had fled to the same caves. He said they were "the last spot they could hide the scrolls before descending to the shore" of the Dead Sea.

In the magazine article, Dr. Magen said the jars in which most of the scrolls were stored had probably come from the pottery factory. If so, this may prove to be the only established connection between the Qumran settlement and the scrolls.

Despite the rising tide of revisionist thinking, other scholars of the Dead Sea scrolls continue to defend the Essene hypothesis, though with some modifications and diminishing conviction.

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Dead Sea Scrolls