Dead Sea Scrolls Are Composed

The Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest extant copies of the Hebrew scriptures, describe the life and thought of a sect of Judaism that lived on the shores of the Dead Sea more than two thousand years ago.

Summary of Event

In 1947, some Bedouin shepherds entered caves along the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea and discovered large jars containing numerous ancient texts. Their find has been described as the greatest archaeological discovery of the twentieth century. Subsequent exploration of other caves in the area yielded more texts. In all, eleven caves in the vicinity were found to hold around nine hundred different (and mostly fragmentary) scrolls.

Nearby the caves, a set of ancient building ruins was also discovered. The excavation of the ruins was undertaken in the winter of 1951. The excavations were directed by Father Roland de Vaux of the Ecole Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem and G. Lankester Harding, the chief inspector of antiquities for Jordan. The excavations uncovered a small compound that included a central hall, a dining hall, a possible scriptorium, a watch tower, an extensive aqueduct system, ritual bathing facilities, kilns for manufacturing pottery, and a cemetery. The ruins were called Qumran after the area of the Dead Sea where they were located. De Vaux concluded that Qumran was a monastic-type settlement of the Essenes, a strict Jewish sect whose scribes had written the texts that had been discovered in the caves. De Vaux’s conclusion linking the Dead Sea Scrolls with Qumran is still widely supported, given the compelling evidence of the close proximity of the caves to the ruins, the discovery of inkwells among the artifacts discovered at Qumran, the close identification of pottery found at the site and the jars holding the scrolls, and the identification by ancient author Pliny the Elder (23/24-79 c.e.) in book 5 of his Naturalis historia (77 c.e.; Natural History, 1938-1963) of a splinter Jewish community—the Essenes—located near the Dead Sea.

The scrolls themselves were mostly made of parchment (processed animal hide). A small number (about one hundred texts) were composed of papyrus. One, known as the Copper Scroll, is written on sheets of bronze. The writing was done on one side of the sheet, using a reed pen dipped in ink. There are no books or codices (wherein parchment or papyrus is written on both sides and bound together—a method adopted later by the Christian community for the New Testament). The scrolls are written mostly in Hebrew, although Aramaic and a small amount of Greek are also present. A variety of methods have been employed to date the scrolls, including paleography (analyzing styles of letter formation), carbon-14, and accelerator mass spectrometry (a more refined form of carbon-14 dating). With minor exceptions, the dating techniques were consistent in establishing dates that ranged from 250 b.c.e. to 70 c.e. In sorting out the manuscripts, a standard method of designation was agreed upon whereby a scroll is given a Q-number indicating which cave it came from; for example, 4Q means it was discovered in cave four. Then a number is added to the site designation: 4Q224 was the 224th text from cave 4. There are some exceptions to this method, including the scrolls found in cave 1 which were identified before the standard method was introduced. The scrolls from cave 1 are identified by a letter indicating the type of text represented: 1QpHab is the Pesher (Commentary) on Habbakuk from cave 1.

There are several genres of literature present in the large corpus of scrolls. All the books of the Hebrew scriptures (at least in fragments—the most complete is the scroll of the Book of Isaiah) with the exception of the Book of Esther are to be found. In addition, several books of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha were found. Apocrypha is a Greek word that means “hidden books.” The word is used to designate religious texts not included in the Hebrew Scriptures but found in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) and included in Catholic but not the Protestant Old Testament. The Apocrypha present among the scrolls include Tobit and Sirach (Ecclesiastes). Pseudepigrapha, also a Greek term meaning “false writings,” are religious texts, sometimes written under fake names or pseudonyms. Pseudepigrapha are also not included in the Hebrew scriptures nor in the Septuagint and thus do not appear in the Catholic or Protestant Old Testament. Pseudepigrapha found among the scrolls include Jubilees and Enoch.

In addition to the biblical, apocryphal, and pseudepigraphal texts, there are numerous texts written by and for the community itself. These sectarian texts include manuals for governing the community (such as the Community Rule, 1QS), halakhic or legal discussions (such as Miqsat Ma’aseh HaTorah or the Sectarian Manifesto, 4QMMT), biblical interpretations of various kinds and on various books of the Hebrew scriptures (the Pesher on Habbakuk, 1QpHab) religious poetry (Thanksgiving hymns, 1QH), calendars (the Calendar of Heavenly Signs, 4Q319), liturgical texts (the Liturgy of Blessings and Curses, 4Q286-289) and astrological texts (the Divination Text or Brontologion, 4Q318). The Copper Scroll (3Q15) tells of the hiding places for caches of precious metals and other scrolls.

The content of the sectarian scrolls is wide ranging and complex but the core message is one marked by a strong sense of determinism, the necessity of rigorous practice to ensure the purity of the elect community, the expectation of a cataclysmic struggle between forces of good and evil in the near future, and the importance of the Teacher in revealing the way to victory over evil. The community (called in the scrolls the yahad, or unity) that stands behind the scrolls refers to itself as “the community of those who entered into the renewed covenant,” and understands itself as the sole legitimate representative of biblical Israel. Imposing on itself rigorous rules of initiation, ritual purity, and sexual abstention, the community is prepared for the inevitable final war of cosmic dimensions. The community is led by the Teacher of Righteousness who, in the tradition of prophetic teaching, is led by the divine spirit and renders decisions and interpretations that are beyond debate and unconditionally binding.

The question of the identity of the community behind the scrolls has eluded a sure answer. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (c. 38-93 c.e.) described Judaism in Palestine in the first century b.c.e. and first century c.e. and gave the impression of a religious community broken into several competing sects. Among the several sects he identified, the one most often associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls are the Essenes. The Essene hypothesis has a number of supporters not only because of Pliny’s identification of an Essene group living on the Dead Sea but also because of the striking convergence at many points of Josephus’s description of the sect’s beliefs and practices and the beliefs and practices evident in the scrolls. There are two significant challenges to the Essene hypothesis. One argues that the scrolls did not come from Qumran at all but are the work of priests in Jerusalem who were persecuted and forced to flee. The other argues that the residents of Qumran and the authors of the scrolls were Sadducees rather than Essenes.


The recovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has proven significant for several reasons. The scrolls are the oldest Jewish texts in Hebrew or Aramaic that have been found. They have provided biblical scholars with texts that were far more ancient than had previously been the case. For example, the oldest Hebrew text of Isaiah had been the Ben Asher codex, dated to 895 c.e. The Isaiah scroll found among the Dead Sea Scrolls is around one millennium older. The scrolls have brought about a whole new period in the textual history of the Hebrew Scriptures. The scrolls have also provided apocryphal and pseudepigraphal texts that were either not known or known in different versions.

Having come to modern scholars directly from their hiding place in the desert, the scrolls have proven invaluable in reconstructing the Jewish world in the first centuries b.c.e. and c.e. The scrolls have provided direct evidence of the diversity of Judaism in this period. Moreover, as the scrolls are contemporary with the genesis of Christianity, they have provided a critical resource for understanding the origins of Christianity within Judaism in this era.

Further Reading

  • Golb, Norman. Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? New York: Scribner, 1995. The book that presents Golb’s argument for a Jerusalem provenance for the scrolls.
  • Magness, Jodi. The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 2002. An assessment of the architecture and the material culture of Qumran and its bearing on understanding the scrolls. Illustrations, photographs, and an annotated bibliography.
  • Schiffman, Lawrence. Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994. Schiffman offers the argument for a Sadduceean identification of the community responsible for the scrolls.
  • Schiffman, Lawrence, and James Vandercam, eds. Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A comprehensive guide to the scrolls and Qumran.
  • Vanderkam, James C. The Dead Sea Scrolls Today. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1994. A clear discussion of Qumran and a helpful introduction to the scrolls.
  • Vermes, Geza. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. New York: Penguin, 1997. A discussion of the Qumran community along with the English translations of the scrolls.

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