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Archaeology, being "concerned with the recovery of the remains of ancient civilisations"[1] is an unusual science in that, although it "deals with concrete objects and employs exact measurements",[2] the many possible interpretations of data make it a less exact science than chemistry, for example. However, having recognised it limitations we can see that archaeological finds have made many important contributions to our study of the OT. Edwin Yamauchi writes that,

The historical facts of the Bible, rightly understood, find agreement in the facts culled from archaeology, equally rightly understood, that is, the majority or errors can be ascribed to errors of interpretation by modern scholars and not to substantiated 'errors' of fact presented by the biblical historians. This view is further strengthened when it is remembered how many theories and interpretations of Scripture have been checked or corrected by archaeological discoveries.[3]

One of the most significant archaeological finds is the library of the Qumran Community: the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is certainly "one of the few great archaeological discoveries to have excited public imagination and interest".[4] This is perhaps due to the challenges the find made to Biblical scholarship, or perhaps because of the light these documents threw upon the early history of Judaism and Christianity.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this find was that it had a completely accidental beginning. The discovery was not made by trained archaeologists but by Bedouin goat herders. The discovery was made some time during the winter of 1946/47. Within the next decade, around a dozen preserved scrolls and thousands of leather and papyrus fragments have been found.

The search revealed eleven caves that appeared to have been used by the owners of the scrolls, and most of these contained fragments of documents used by the community. The Bedouins sold them to the Jordanian Department of Antiquities at approximately one pound per square centimetre. There were various problems concerning the actual search for the scrolls, one of them being the war in Palestine in 1948 that was the same year in which news of the Dead Sea Scrolls was broken. However, it has been possible to glean some information about the community of Qumran.

Many cliffs are to be found along the north-western shore of the Dead Sea and there is a shallow depression above known as el-buqei'a. This is cut by a river (Wadi in Arabic) and the place where it comes down through the cliffs is known as Wadi Qumran. There is a plateau at the base of the cliffs and it is here that archaeologists found the remains of the buildings of the Qumran Community, known by the Arabic name Khurbet Qumran (the ruins of Qumran). These ruins were discovered before the scrolls, but it wasn't until the search for the history of the scrolls had begun that their significance was understood.

Although no manuscripts were found at Khurbet Qumran, there was evidence of links between the caves and the buildings. When the ruins were excavated, identical pottery types to the ones found in the caves were discovered. Coins were also found which "corresponded with the period to which the palaeographers were assigning the manuscripts".[5] As more and more evidence was unearthed "it became clear that Qumran was, after all, the home of the community which had written the scrolls".[6]

The connection between the scrolls and the ruins helped excavators identify what they believe to have been 'The Scriptorium of the Order'. The scrolls contained information concerning the frequent bathing of the men at Qumran and this also helped to explain why the ruins contained such a large and elaborate water system.

However, even though some of the information from the scrolls appears to have been written by members of the fellowship, we know relatively little about its beginnings, "since in its writings the community displays little awareness of, or interest in its own evolution".[7]

In looking at the DSS, scholars have tried to understand as much as possible concerning the people who owned them. The excavators revealed that there had been several stages of occupation. There originally was a small settlement at Qumran several hundred years before the time of Christ, but that established by the Community founded by the 'Teacher of Righteousness', was built some time in the middle of the second century BCE. From that time, until the Romans captured it in 68 CE, it was almost continually occupied by this group that had broken away from traditional Judaism.

Around the beginning of the first century BCE, the settlement was considerably enlarged. Archaeological evidence has shown that the settlement was destroyed by fire around 30 BCE. This may have been due to an earthquake that occurred in 31 BCE. Several hundred coins found in the excavations date the limits of the main period of occupation from 135 BCE to 68 CE. The area seems to have been occupied briefly by two other groups, following the actual break-up of the Community. It would appear that it was used as a Roman fort until 74 CE, and again in the 2nd century by Jewish fighters.

From the evidence concerning this Jewish Community, scholars have tried to associate them with groups such as the Gnostics and the Zoroastrians, but we can see that "whatever foreign influences may have affected the ideas of the Qumran covenanters, their basic point of view and major doctrines were thoroughly Jewish, derived primarily from the Old Testament".[8]

There are many similarities between those who lived at Qumran and the Essenes. The people at Qumran are "more closely related to the Essenes than to any other group known to us",[9] but we cannot say with any great certainty what the relationship was between them.

In 1950 Professor Andre Dupont-Sommer of the Sorbonne, "confidently identified this community with the Essenes",[10] and scholars have argued from Pliny, who "described a community by the Dead Sea which could easily be the people of the scrolls".[11] Others have stated that this description "obviously applies to the period after the first Jewish war"[12] when Qumran was probably occupied by Roman soldiers. All that this proves, however, is that it is not very clear if there are any links.

There are some notable differences, one of which is that the Essenes were on the whole, celibates, whereas the Qumran community did admit women into the fellowship and would appear to have had married members. The Essenes tended to spiritualise the sacrificial system, in contrast to the writing on the subject in the 'Damascus Document'. The Community at Qumran cut itself off from the outside world, but the Essenes were known to work in Colleges near their settlements. Also the 'War Scroll', whatever interpretation could be put upon it, certainly does not indicate that the people of Qumran were a pacifist group. Therefore, "in view of these objections alone, it should be clear that the brotherhood at Qumran can only be designated as Essene in the most general sense".[13] However, as it is certain that "the Qumran Community was a Jewish sect... The great quantity of Jewish Scriptures and the stress on the Torah in the sectarian documents, make this irrefutable".[14]). They were a group who condemned the Jewish religious leaders of their day, just as Jesus did, and they withdrew to "this remote setting... as a deliberate exile, both a physical and spiritual retreat from the mainstream of Jewish life".[15]

Many were drawn to the rigid life of the Community and it is "estimated that 200-400 persons lived at Qumran at one time".[16]. Most of these people would have lived in huts and tents outside the buildings and some even in the nearby caves. These people included women and children, as we can see from the graves in the Qumran cemetery and from texts such as the 'Damascus Document' "where provision is made for marrying women and begetting sons".[17]. The women played no real part in the Community and it was a "sort of monastery without celibacy".[18]

They were a group who devoted themselves to the Law and the Prophets. Like other Jewish sects of their day, they had their own way of interpreting the Scriptures. However, in contrast to "most other Jewish groups, they even believed that they had been granted a new revelation that made clear the true meaning of the Scriptures".[19] The correct interpretation of the Law was more than just important to them, it was their very existence. Their whole purpose was "to prepare the way of the Lord by the study of the Law".[20] They looked at the Pharisees as having a 'smooth' interpretation of the law where theirs was stricter and their lives were of rigid discipline and purity. Their eschatological beliefs were also very important to them.

They looked forward to the dawn of a new age when they, as the elect of God, would be his agents in the destruction of the ungodly and the restoration of acceptable worship in a purified temple, served by a worthy priesthood. The new age would be inaugurated by the rise of the Davidic Messiah, accompanied by an anointed priest (who would be head of state) and a prophet (the prophet like Moses of Deuteronomy 18:15-19) who would declare unerringly the mind of God.[21]

The scrolls themselves teach us about the Qumran Community, and provide insights to both the Old and New Testaments.

The extent of the find is quite staggering! Hershel Shanks writes that "caves 1, through 3 and 5, though 10, yielded 212 complete or fragmentary texts. Cave 11 contained 25 texts... Fitzmyer has concluded that either 520 or 521 texts from cave 4 have been identified".[22]

There are documents written in both Phoenician and Aramaic script, and a small amount in Greek. There are some fragments from the Book of Daniel that show the change from Hebrew to Aramaic, and Aramaic to Hebrew. Ernst Wurthwein writes, "Qumran experts are agreed today that the texts in the Old Hebrew script come from the same period as the texts in the square script. It is possible that this script which was preserved from the pre-exilic period enjoyed a renaissance in the Maccabean period with its surge of nationalism".[23] The forms of the letters represented in the texts are from "a period in the history of the alphabet"[24] from which we have few specimens and certainly none written on leather or parchment. There are certain peculiarities in the spelling and grammar that perhaps reflects the pronunciation of Hebrew at the time when the manuscripts were copied.

Palaeography, the study of the script employed by the scribes, can date "the earliest Qumran fragments from about 200 B.C.,"[25] but this is only the date of the copy of the manuscript. The dating of the composition of the book itself is much more difficult to determine. Yet the copies can and do have some historical and scholarly significance. It would be impossible to look at all the texts represented by the fragments found in the Qumran caves within the limits we have, especially as "there was no single form of the text which was regarded and transmitted as exclusively authoritative. These texts presented us for the first time with a large number of variants"[26]

A team of eight scholars worked for several years to try and piece together the thousands of pieces to discover the texts from which they came. This included every book in the Hebrew Bible except Esther, some commentaries, apocryphal works and various other non-biblical works, many of them previously unknown. Despite the variety of manuscripts owned by the community at the Dead Sea "one of the chief concerns of the Qumran sect was the diligent study of the Hebrew Scriptures."[27]

It is not possible to comment on all the fragments of OT texts, however, I will mention a few to show the value of this archaeological discovery.

Firstly, there are two Isaiah scrolls, one of which contains all sixty-six chapters of Isaiah dating from 150 BCE. This scroll is made of leather strips sewn together and is approximately 24 feet long . It is considerably worn and was obviously much used. There are places where mistakes in the copying have been erased or crossed out, and even points where another hand has noted omissions in the margin.

There are some points where this text differs from the Masoretic Text (MT) of Isaiah, but on the whole, it has helped bring understanding on some minor difficulties of interpretation, but "by and large the wording of the text is substantially the same as that of the Masoretes".[28] It is an exciting find because it is approximately one thousand years older than the oldest Isaiah manuscripts available before 1947, and the fact that it is not split into three parts (as some have attempted to do with this book) shows that the unity of Isaiah (if it was ever disunited) was established by scribes around 175 BCE.

The other Isaiah scroll, though more fragmentary, due to the leather having disintegrated, is important because, unlike the 'St. Mark's Monastery Isaiah Scroll', this one "does not differ essentially from the Masoretic text any more than do its representatives in the late medieval tradition."[29]

Another important book to the Qumran Covenanters was Daniel. F.F. Bruce writes, "there are grounds for thinking that a century before the beginning of the Christian era at least one group of Jews - the men of Qumran - gave serious thought to the study and interpretation of the book of Daniel."[30] It is fortunate that in one of the manuscripts, we have both Daniel 2:4 and 8:1, the passages that show the change from Hebrew to Aramaic and Aramaic to Hebrew respectively. This shows that the change "was a characteristic of the text in its earliest extant form."[31] There is also a fragment containing Daniel 3:23, which in the Septuagint contains "a long addition; a prayer, a prose description of their deliverance and a hymn, commonly known as the Benediate."[32] That this is not included in the Qumran fragment shows that the addition would not have been part of the original.

As with almost all the "hand-written texts of Bible books found at Qumran"[33] the text of Daniel was very close to the 10th century CE Masoretic text. However, perhaps the most important point about this book, as with several others, is that it contains information about its own date of composition. The texts found at Qumran are a serious problem for those who would try to assign Daniel a second century BCE dating. As we compare Qumran Daniel fragments with some of the non-biblical manuscripts found in the Dead Sea caves, we would expect to see, if the second century dating is correct, similarities in "vocabulary, morphology and syntax".[34] Yet the documents written in Hebrew do not "show any distinctive characteristics in common with the Hebrew chapters in Daniel".[35] Comparisons between the Aramaic in Daniel and the Aramaic of the Genesis Apocryphon indicate that the language of Daniel 2-7 is several centuries older.

Another interesting manuscript (MS) is the Psalms scroll, found in cave 11, which has 28 reasonably complete columns. It contains 34 Biblical psalms, but in a different order to that of the Masoretes. There are also seven non-canonical poems or psalms interspersed with the canonical in the last third of the MS. These include the alphabetical acrostic poem of Ecclesiasticus 51,[36] and three which were previously unknown. It is also noteworthy that the scroll ends with Psalm 151, one that is missing from the Masoretic text, but is included in the LXX. Again the discovery of this MS is significant for the dating of the Psalms and would argue against a "Maccabean dating of certain Psalms".[37] Yamauchi writes, "The discoveries at Ugarit on the one hand and Qumran on the other have shown that the Psalms are to be dated early rather than late in Israel's history."[38]

There have also been comparisons made between such books as Zechariah and Ecclesiastes and the sectarian literature of the Qumran community that have indicated earlier datings for these books. Some finds, such as those pieces from the book of Leviticus, which are some of the oldest fragments of Biblical books that we have, agree almost entirely with the Masoretic Text of Leviticus, and support the authority of the MT. "Even when the Dead Sea fragments of Deuteronomy and Samuel which point to a different MS family from that which underlies our received Hebrew text do not indicate any differences in doctrine or teaching."[39]

Finally a fragment that concerns us as Evangelical Christians is from a MS written in a third century BCE cursive hand, containing portions of the 12 Minor Prophets. The part in question contains Micah 5:2, where the prophet names the birthplace of the Messiah as being Bethlehem. That this copy of the book of Micah can be dated over two hundred years earlier than the birth of Christ totally refutes scholars claims that it was written after His birth. This find has been described as "one of the greatest manuscript discoveries of all time".[40] As can be seen from the above examples, the scrolls of Qumran have indeed aided us in our Biblical scholarship.

Before the discovery of the DSS, the oldest text of the OT was the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible. It can be seen that there is a large extent of agreement between the MT and the Qumran scrolls. Yamauchi writes that, "thanks to Qumran, we know that the M.T. goes back to a Proto-Masoretic edition antedating the Christian era, and we are assured that this recension was copied with remarkable accuracy. This means that the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible must be treated with respect and not freely emended".[41]

The DSS also tell us some things concerning the Septuagint - the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Biblical fragments have been found in the Qumran caves, which have a Hebrew text that is closer to the LXX than to the MT. This tells us that around the turn of the century there were various Hebrew texts in existence, and the LXX may have come from "a different Hebrew Text belonging to what we may call the Proto-Septuagint family".[42] This would explain some of the differences between the MT and the LXX. Most notable, however, are two scrolls that were part of the original find in cave 1. The first of these is the Habakkuk Commentary that is a verse by verse exposition of chapters one and two of this book.

There are many historical allusions in this scroll, though they assume understanding of events at the time and they are "exasperatingly vague references".[43] It has been possible to understand some of what this scroll says and it is "of special religious and historical significance, because like the Manual of Discipline and other Qumran texts, it is a source of new information about a religious movement in pre-Christian Judaism".[44]

The Manual of Discipline contained a combination of liturgical directions, rules and disciplines to be administered. There was also the War of the Sons of Light With the Sons of Darkness, which contained directions for a war between the tribes of Levi. Judah and Benjamin (Sons of Light) and the Edomites (Sons of Darkness). The Thanksgiving Psalms which contain about twenty Psalms, show that at this time (c. 1st century BCE) "the practice of composing hymns of praise was by no means extinct".[45]

There has also been much debate about the archaeological find at the Dead Sea, many scholars have put pen to paper to express their views and complaints about fragments that remain unpublished over forty years after the discovery of the first scrolls. Opinions vary from such as that expressed by M. Burrows, who writes: "for the interpretation and theology of the Old Testament they have relatively little value".[46]. to those who agree with Edwin Yamauchi that

the flood of literature that has emerged following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is eloquent testimony to the importance which scholars have attached to this remarkable phase of archaeology. No work dealing with the Bible generally can now be regarded with any seriousness if it fails to take into account the significance of the Qumran discoveries for its own particular area of study.[47]

Although some of the finds at the Dead Sea merely confirmed previous theories, there have been some finds at Qumran that have given new understanding and information to our study of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish people. "The covenanters rendered a service to Biblical scholars by making and preserving manuscripts of the Bible, even though most of these have survived only in small scraps".[48]

To complete this look at the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls, I would like to finish by quoting Phillip Davies, who says that"

...the story of the scrolls is even now not quite over. Numerous fragments remain to be sorted, identified and published though it is unlikely that they will provide us with any more surprises. Yet even today, rumours circulate of scrolls long since recovered, but still hoarded. The story of the scrolls is bizarre enough to make such improbabilities both appealing and, at first glance plausible. But such rumours appear to be much more the product of wishful thinking than informed speculation.[49]

© 1992 William Priestly

[Note that this is an essay written by an undergrduate at Mattersey Hall Bible College. It is therefore not appropriate to cite it directly as a source.]


[1] Edwin Yamauchi, The Stones and the Scriptures. Leicester: IVP, 1973, p.11.

[2] Yamauchi, p.12.

[3] Yamauchi, p.13.

[4] P.R. Davies, Qumran. Lutterworth Press, 1982, p.21.

[5] Davies, p.32.

[6] Davies, p.32.

[7] Davies, p.74.

[8] M. Burrows, The Dead Sea Scrolls. Secker & Warburg, 1956, p.262.

[9] Burrows, p.298.

[10] Burrows, p.45.

[11] E.M. Blaicklock, & R.K.Harrison, New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983, p.156.

[12] Davies, p.72.

[13] Yamauchi, p.142.

[14] W.S. LaSor, "Dead Sea Scrolls," G.W. Bromiley, gen. ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised, Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979, p.889.

[15] Davies, p.18.

[16] Yamauchi, p.134.

[17] LaSor, p.890.

[18] Blaiklock & Harrison, p.156.

[19] Burrows, p.271.

[20] Burrows, p.250.

[21] S.B. Ferguson, J.I. Packer, & D.F. Wright, eds. New Dictionary of Theology. Leicester: IVP, 1988, p.187.

[22] H. Shanks, "The Dead Sea Scrolls - Variation," Biblical Archaeology Review, 16:2. (March/April 1990), 24.

[23] E. Wurthwein, The Text of the Old Testament. London: SCM, 1980, p.148.

[24] Burrows, p.29.

[25] Würthwein, p.3.

[26] Würthwein, p.30.

[27] G.L. Archer, Jnr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago: Moody Press, 1974, p.513.

[28] Burrows, p.107.

[29] Würthwein, p.16.

[30] J.G. Baldwin, Daniel, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Leicester: IVP, 1978, p.71.

[31] Baldwin, p.69.

[32] Baldwin, p.106.

[33] Baldwin, p.69.

[34] G.L. Archer, Jnr., Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982, p.283.

[35] G.L. Archer, Jnr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago: Moody Press, 1974, p.400.

[36] G. Vermes, "Biblical Studies and the Dead Sea Scrolls: 1947-1987," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 39. (October 1987): 121.

[37] Baldwin, p.45.

[38] Yamauchi, p.60.

[39] Archer, Survey, p.25.

[40] LaSor, p.883.

[41] Yamauchi, p.130.

[42] Yamauchi, pp.130-131.

[43] Burrows, p.23.

[44] Würthwein, p.146.

[45] Burrows, pp.27-28.

[46] Burrows, p.345.

[47] Yamauchi, p.143.

[48] Burrows, p.345.

[49] Davies, p.27.