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The contemporary significance of the dead sea scrolls

Many people have heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but few know what they are or the significance they have for people today. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it gives us an opportunity to ask what are these scrolls and why they should matter to anyone.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 and consist of 900 plus copies of Jewish manuscripts of biblical books, sectarian compositions, and other writings. Several of these scrolls are thought to belong to a Jewish sect or school of philosophy called the “Essenes” who lived two thousand years ago. Some of these Essenes once resided at the site now called the ruins of (khirbet) Qumran, close to the location of the eleven caves where scrolls were found. Recently, there was an announcement of the discovery of the “12th Dead Sea Scrolls cave”, but the evidence of an uninscribed scroll fragment, linen wrappings, and pottery shards found in the cave is insufficient to support the claim.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has often been hailed as “the greatest manuscript discovery” for the scholar, but what significance do they have for the public? When the scrolls were first discovered, public interest was particularly piqued when it came to the light that the scrolls might shed on the origins of Christianity. Theories that posited a direct connection of the scrolls to Christianity, especially the messianic belief in Jesus, grabbed the headlines.

These sensationalist claims, however, turned out to be unpersuasive and highly speculative. It is now widely recognized that the communities reflected in the scrolls and the earliest followers of Jesus belonged to a subset of ancient Jewish society that shared ideas, cited the same biblical texts, and used the same terminology, all the while giving them different meanings. They are various groups that belonged to the sectarian matrix of late Second Temple Judaism.

More recent scrolls scholarship has also emphasized the Jewishness of these manuscript finds. They show that legal and interpretative traditions found in later Rabbinic Judaism were already present in Jewish writings before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.

The contemporary significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, lies not in the association to early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, but to the Bible. The Old Testament or Hebrew Bible is the canon of sacred scriptures of Jews and Christians alike, and it is also highly respected by Muslims.

There are some 220 biblical Dead Sea Scrolls that give us unprecedented insight into what “The Bible” was like two thousand years ago, and underscore the point that the writing, transmission, and selection of the books of the canon was a thoroughly human activity. Despite the claim of divine inspiration by communities of believers, then and now, the Bible did not drop down from heaven, nor is it inerrant as assumed by fundamentalists of different faiths. The composition of each book of the Bible grew over centuries as it was revised and transmitted by groups of anonymous scribes.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has often been hailed as “the greatest manuscript discovery” for the scholar, but what significance do they have for the public?

Before the first century CE, the biblical books were characterized by textual fluidity. There were different versions of a particular book. For instance, there were two versions of the same prophecy of Jeremiah, differing by as much as 14% with varying internal arrangements of the oracles. Other examples include the addition or absence of phrases and clauses, large and small, in the corresponding biblical texts.

The sectarian communities reflected in the scrolls were not troubled by the textual variants of their biblical texts. They saw different readings of the same biblical text to be indicative of the many meanings of scriptures that they considered authoritative.

The sectarians also did not have a clear delineation of the boundary between “biblical” and “non-biblical” books. For them, authoritative scriptures consist of the traditional biblical books, but also other ones that were left out of the Protestant and Jewish canons, but included in the Catholic and Orthodox canons (e.g. book of Jubilees, book of Enoch). Moreover, there were other scriptures, not included in any contemporary canon, that they considered authoritative.

Featured image credit: Dead Sea Scroll Bible Qumran Israel by Windhaven1077. Public domain via Pixabay.

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