Over the centuries, archaeologists have found stones, tablets, and inscriptions that help support the stories of the Bible. But few findings could be more significant than the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. What are the Dead Sea Scrolls? That is the name given to hundreds of well-preserved copies of Scripture that were written thousands of years ago—but found only in the last century.
As the story goes, in 1947 a Bedouin (BED oo in) shepherd boy was roaming about some caves in the region of Qumran (KOOM ron) near the Dead Sea. He was throwing rocks into the caves, as you might expect a boy to do while tending goats, when he heard a curious clink like that of a jar being shattered.
Indeed, the sound led him to discover a large collection of clay jars containing leather and papyrus scrolls. These were no ordinary documents. What the boy found were written fragments of the Old Testament, representing every book of the Hebrew Bible except the Book of Esther!
In time, archaeologists and Bedouins found 10 more caves in the nearby area. Under careful excavation, hundreds more scrolls were found. These included parts of the Apocrypha and records of the people who wrote these documents. (The Apocrypha, which means“hidden books,” is a controversial collection of books that some include in the Bible and some don’t.)
Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?
Though scholars still don’t agree on the matter, most think the scrolls were written by the Jewish sect called the Essenes (es SEENZ). The Essenes were a strict branch of Judaism that may have sprung from the former Maccabees. To uphold hundreds of Jewish laws and traditions, the Essenes thought they should live separate from the world around them. So for about two centuries (from c. 100 B.C. to c. A.D. 75), they lived far away from large populations and as distant as possible from the Romans.
In fact, from the excavation work at Qumran, scholars believe that the Essenes lived in communes and shared their wealth with one another. Their writings state that “they shall eat in common and bless in common and deliberate in common.” From this, we conclude that besides living together as neighbors, they ate together in one large group. And it was a rather large group. Anywhere from two hundred to four hundred people made up the commune at Qumran, which over the years was occupied, deserted, and occupied again.
The Essenes were self-sufficient, as was necessary for living out in the wilderness. But the main occupation of the Essenes appears to have been that of preserving the Scriptures—against enemies and the weather!
You see, over a thousand documents and hundreds of thousands of fragments have been retrieved from the desert spot in Qumran. And unlike most documents of that era, the Dead Sea Scrolls were incredibly well preserved. They probably lasted so long because Qumran, which was not exactly a popular spot, is situated among limestone cliffs along the low-lying fossil bed of the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea lies farther below sea level than any other place on earth! It is so hot there that as fresh water pours into the Dead Sea from nearby rivers, it quickly evaporates.
All to say, the Dead Sea Scrolls were well preserved by the extremely dry air in the region and the materials they were written on. Some writings were found on leather from calfskin and sheepskin. Most were on parchment and papyrus. Written in Hebrew, as well as a little Aramaic and Greek, the documents and fragments are still being pieced together by scholars like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Nobody knows for sure why the Dead Sea Scrolls were systematically stored as they were. But it was probably in response to the difficult times the Jews were having with the Romans—as well as a deep love for God’s Word.
Accuracy of the Scriptures!
Of great importance today, the Dead Sea Scrolls give amazing evidence for the accuracy of the Scriptures. How? Well, before the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, the oldest known copies of the Old Testament were written between A.D. 500 and 950. These copies were recorded by Jewish scholars called the Masoretes and so are called the Masoretic Text. With the Dead Sea Scrolls being written five hundred to one thousand years earlier, you might expect there to be major differences between them and the Masoretic Text. But that’s not the case! The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic Text are nearly identical, with only a few variations. Here’s how one scholar described two copies of Isaiah from Qumran compared to a copy of Isaiah from the Masoretic Text:
Even though the two copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran Cave 1 near the Dead Sea in 1947 were a thousand years earlier than the oldest dated manuscript previously known (A.D. 980), they proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The five percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling.
My friends, this is good news for those who hold to the Bible as a reliable source of truth! Though there will always be skeptics, these old, old copies of Scriptures, which haven’t changed over time, remind us that God’s words are words we can trust! As for the Essenes, who are most credited with writing the Dead Sea Scrolls, they eventually disappeared from history. Earthquakes violently shook the region, forcing many of them to leave. Wars with Rome may have forced them out too. Though we don’t know much more about the Essenes, we can be grateful for their dedication to the preservation of the Scriptures. The copies they left behind are priceless to Jews and Christians alike for supporting the accuracy of God’s Word.