Dead Sea Scrolls Are Unearthed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls provided archaelogists and religious scholars with primary and secondary biblical sources that were about one thousand years older than any previous such documents. They therefore illuminated one thousand years of Hebrew and Christian textual history, revolutionizing the study of both Judaism and early Christianity.

Summary of Event

Accounts of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls do not always agree. The number of people involved and the political upheaval at the time seem to have clouded the event, leading to both exaggeration and omission. In the spring of 1947, young Bedouins of the Taՙamireh tribe watched their goats and sheep graze among the cliffs in the wilderness near Khirbat Qumran. Some of the flock had climbed up the cliffs by the end of the day. As Muḥammad adh-Dhib and a friend climbed after the animals, they found a cave. Without much thought, one of the shepherds threw a rock inside and was surprised by the sound of breaking pottery. The lateness of the day and awkward entry prevented further exploration, but with hopes of hidden treasure, the shepherds resolved to return. Dead Sea scrolls Religious texts, ancient Bible Hebrew Scriptures Judaism;ancient texts [kw]Dead Sea Scrolls Are Unearthed (Apr. 26, 1948) [kw]Scrolls Are Unearthed, Dead Sea (Apr. 26, 1948) Dead Sea scrolls Religious texts, ancient Bible Hebrew Scriptures Judaism;ancient texts [g]Middle East;Apr. 26, 1948: Dead Sea Scrolls Are Unearthed[02450] [g]Palestine;Apr. 26, 1948: Dead Sea Scrolls Are Unearthed[02450] [g]Israel;Apr. 26, 1948: Dead Sea Scrolls Are Unearthed[02450] [c]Archaeology;Apr. 26, 1948: Dead Sea Scrolls Are Unearthed[02450] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Apr. 26, 1948: Dead Sea Scrolls Are Unearthed[02450] Dhib, Mu{hmacr}ammad adh- Kando Burrows, Millar Sukenik, Eliezer Samuel, Mar Athanasius Yeshue Vaux, Roland de Strugnell, John

One of the Dead Sea scrolls, telling the story of the “war of the sons of light against the sons of darkness.”

(Library of Congress)

Days later, they returned and with effort lowered themselves into what would become known as Qumran Cave 1. The floor was covered with debris, but along one wall were several narrow jars. They looked into one and tore the cover from another but found nothing. Another contained dirt. Finally, from one they pulled out three smelly, old leather scrolls wrapped like mummies. They could not read them. Hopes for hidden treasure faded.

The Bedouins could not know that the Hebrew and Aramaic scrolls they had found were the oldest known copy of the biblical book of Isaiah Isaiah (biblical text) in Hebrew, a commentary on the biblical book of Habakkuk, and a religious sect’s book of guidelines, called the Manual of Discipline. Manual of Discipline, The (ancient text) A few weeks later, one of the young men returned with other Bedouins to find and remove four more scrolls. These included a second scroll of Isaiah; a damaged but fascinating narrative in the first person, called Genesis Apocryphon Genesis Apocryphon (ancient text) ; a book of thanksgiving psalms; and a work titled The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness. War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness, The (ancient text) The Bedouins could only hope that perhaps some scholar or collector of antiquities might want the writings on these rolled-up sheepskins.

The political unrest in Palestine did not favor trade or archaeological investigation. British rule was ending, and the Jews desired to establish an independent state of Israel. The British, Jews, and Arabs turned against one another. Acts of terrorism were common, and war was looming. In the middle of this upheaval in early 1947, two of the Bedouins brought the first three scrolls and two of the jars to Bethlehem with hopes of selling them. They contacted two Syrian Orthodox Christians, George Isaiah Isaiah, George and Kando (Khalil Iskander Shahin), who agreed to handle the scrolls for one-third of the eventual sale price.

During Holy Week, George Isaiah mentioned the scrolls to the Syrian Orthodox archbishop, Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, at St. Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem. Within the week, the Manual of Discipline was brought to the archbishop. Samuel could not read the language of the leather scroll but decided to buy the lot. Kando agreed and left with the sample. Weeks passed, and the clergyman began to wonder if he would hear more of the scrolls.

Despite increased violence, Kando and the Bedouin shepherds brought the scrolls to Jerusalem in July. One of the fathers at St. Mark’s, however, not realizing his archbishop’s interest, turned Kando away, and some of the scrolls transferred to yet another dealer. This dealer contacted Eliezer Sukenik, a professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University. Sukenik eventually was shown four pieces of leather inscribed in a type of Hebrew script used between 100 b.c.e. and 100 c.e. In November, Sukenik risked traveling to see more scrolls and two of the jars from the cave. He recorded in his diary that this was one of the greatest finds ever made in Palestine. Sukenik was able to purchase three of the seven scrolls. He correctly judged them at a time when faked documents were common.

Archbishop Samuel, in the meantime, had purchased the other four scrolls from Kando but had not been able to determine their value. In late January, 1948, Sukenik asked to see them. He recognized the scrolls as belonging with those he had already purchased. Assurance was given that he would have the first chance to purchase them. Archbishop Samuel, still not sure of the scrolls’ value, called on John Trever Trever, John at the American School of Oriental Research. Trever excitedly sent photographs to William Foxwell Albright Albright, William Foxwell of Johns Hopkins University. Albright airmailed his reaction: “incredible . . . there can happily not be the slightest doubt in the world about the genuineness.” The discovery of the scrolls was confirmed by Millar Burrows, the Winkley Professor of Biblical Theology in the Yale Divinity School, who was serving as the director of American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem for the 1947-1948 academic year. Burrows announced the discovery of the scrolls to the world on April 26, 1948.





With thoughts of reaping more profits, Bedouins began to comb the hills around Khirbat Qumran, and in 1952 they found a second cave at Murabbaat. By 1956, Bedouins and archaeologists had found eleven caves with approximately eight hundred scrolls. Clearly, an ancient library was being discovered. Interesting, all books of the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, were represented at least in part, except for Esther. Many copies of some books seemed to indicate favorite writings. About one-third of the scrolls were biblical. Others included commentaries on the books of the Bible, a copper scroll that told of hidden treasure, religious writings, a marriage contract, and correspondence by Simeon ben Kozibah (Bar Kokhba), the leader of the second revolt against the Romans. The manuscripts were in Aramaic, Hebrew, and even Greek. Each writing was given a code that indicated cave number, geographical area, and title. For example, the “4QSam” scroll was taken from cave 4, near Qumran, and contained the book of Samuel.

Many scrolls were damaged and incomplete. The Bedouins were not as careful as the archaeologists. There was even evidence of deliberate destruction during ancient times. Cave 4, the main library, contained fifteen thousand postage-stamp-sized scraps of some seven hundred different writings. Professor Frank Cross rightly called the situation “the ultimate in jigsaw puzzles.”

Restoring some of the scrolls required the latest technologies available. For example, the gooey, black Genesis Apocryphon scroll looked as though coffee had been spilled all over it. Nevertheless, when heated with back lights, the carbon-based ink on the scroll absorbed more heat than the surrounding leather, so the scroll’s writing became visible on infrared film. Noah’s words after the Flood appeared: “. . . we gathered together and went . . . to see the Lord of Heaven . . . who saved us from ruin.”

Father Roland de Vaux, an archaeologist who also explored the caves, excavated the nearby ruin of Qumran. Pottery from the caves matched pottery found at Qumran. Coins found at Qumran allowed dating. Things began to fall into place. Qumran was occupied shortly before and during the life of Jesus. The Manual of Discipline (a book of rules for a sect) and the Damascus Documents (found in both Qumran and Cairo) indicated that a group of Jews had split off from the sect. The ancient historians Pliny, Josephus, and Philo had recorded that a group called the Essenes lived near the Dead Sea. Many scholars concluded that the scrolls were the library of this group. Qumran evidently functioned as a religious center that emphasized baptism, a facility where scribes copied scrolls, and a pottery center to make storage jars.


The Dead Sea Scrolls have proved extremely important for understanding the text of the Hebrew Scriptures, the background to early growth of Christianity, and the nature of Judaism at that time. Before the discovery of the scrolls, scholars had to be content with ninth century medieval texts of the Hebrew Scriptures, called Masoretic texts. Comparisons were often made, however, to an older Greek translation called the Septuagint, which dated from 285 to 246 b.c.e., and a third reference source was the Samaritan Pentateuch. Actual original manuscripts of the Bible are lacking. The scrolls at Khirbat Qumran, however, allowed investigators to see a thousand years beyond the previous Hebrew texts and opened a new era in textual studies and comparisons.

Many questioned if the scrolls would change religious belief; however, no major or widespread changes in theology or doctrine occurred. Judging by the scrolls and the later extent texts, the standards for making copies of the Scriptures were high. The scrolls thus did not seem to differ in important respects from the Scriptures as they were known at the time of the scrolls’ discovery. Minor variant readings were found that excited scholars, however, and new theories that explained the relationships of the texts were developed.

Insights into the time during which Jesus lived were also gained. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots were relatively familiar figures, but not the Essenes. Ethelbert Stauffer of Erlangen University points out that the Manual of Discipline taught to “love all sons of light” and “hate all the sons of darkness.” Jesus may have been thinking of Essene teaching when he proclaimed, “You have heard that it was said, ’Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, always love your enemies and always pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43). There is no evidence, however, of any direct connection or contact between Jesus and the Essenes.

Most have concluded that the Essenes operated the settlement and caves at Qumran, but serious questions still remain. Some Essene doctrines, such as celibacy, divorce, and monogamy, parallel teachings of the early Church. Publication of the Damascus Documents, which correlate with documents found in Egypt, promises further understanding of Qumran teachings.

Slow publication of the remaining scrolls led restless scholars to criticize the exclusive assigning of documents to one investigator. Editor John Strugnell believed that funds and war were partly to blame for the delay. Even after every single scroll is published, the full theoretical implications of the document discovery of the twentieth century will not be clear for years to come. Dead Sea scrolls Religious texts, ancient Bible Hebrew Scriptures Judaism;ancient texts

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coss, Thurman L. Secrets from the Caves: A Layman’s Guide to the Dead Sea Scrolls. New York: Abingdon Press, 1963. A question-answer approach to the subject of the scrolls provides quick, nontechnical information on various basic issues that are often raised by the discoveries. Good introduction to the scrolls.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, Philip R. “How Not to Do Archaeology: The Story of Qumran.” Biblical Archaeologist 51 (December, 1988): 203-207. Davies cites slowness in publication, lack of objectivity, jumping to conclusions, and preoccupation with dating as problems at Qumran. He objects to Qumran being called a religious center and suggests that it looks more like an agricultural settlement that was strategically placed for defensive purposes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gaster, Theodor H. The Dead Sea Scriptures. 2d ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976. Gaster furnishes English translations with notes on some of the scrolls that have not been known previously through the Bible or Apocrypha. The Memoirs of the Patriarchs (also known as Genesis Apocryphon) is particularly interesting. The hymns (psalms) show strong reflections of the familiar Scriptures and are thought by Gaster to be the most original literary work found in the scrolls.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Geisler, Norman L., and William E. Nix. From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1974. Two recognized scholars review the history of both testaments of the Bible. Chapter 17 discusses the differences among the Septuagint, the Masoretic text, the Samaritan, and the Dead Sea Scrolls and how scholars have interpreted these differences. They conclude that the meaning of the passages is not affected by variants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Golb, Norman. “The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Perspective.” American Scholar 58 (Spring, 1989): 177-207. Not all investigators believe that the Essene sect was involved with the Qumran artifacts. Golb calls for consideration of an alternative hypothesis that the Jews generally hid their writings because of Roman oppression. He lists his arguments. His initial objection was also reported and summarized in Scientific American 242 (June, 1980): 85.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lim, Timothy H. The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Overview of all the issues and problems related to the scrolls. A useful introduction to orient further exploration. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mathews, K. A. “The Paleo-Hebrew Leviticus Scroll from Qumran.” Biblical Archaeologist 50 (March, 1987): 45-54. Shows and discusses an example of variant readings with resulting English translations among the Masoretic, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Greek Septuagint, and the Leviticus (11QpaleLev) scroll. Hebrew practices such as placing dots between words, “hanging” the letters on lines made with a sharp instrument, and using different script for the name of God (which was not to be read) are explained.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schuller, Eileen. The Dead Sea Scrolls: What Have We Learned? Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006. Summarizes the state of scholarship, including the relationship between the scrolls and the Christian Scriptures (New Testament), as well as their importance to Judaism. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shanks, Hershel. “Leading Dead Sea Scroll Scholar Denounces Delay.” Biblical Archaeological Review 16 (March/April, 1990): 18-25. Recognized scholars expressed their frustrations with the slowness of the publication of “4Q” materials and especially the lack of access they have had to the scrolls. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in biblical archaeology. The approach is nontechnical and the illustrations are excellent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tushingham, Douglas A. “The Men Who Hid the Dead Sea Scrolls.” National Geographic 64 (December, 1958): 784-808. The illustrations by Peter V. Bianchi are very well done. Findings of the excavations by Father Roland de Vaux at Qumran are explained. Provides background on the environment of the settlement and its people. The difficult sorting of the scroll fragments at the museum is shown.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wise, Michael. “The Dead Sea Scrolls, Part 1: Archaeology and Biblical Manuscripts.” Biblical Archaeologist 49 (September, 1986): 140-154. This two-part article discusses the site of Qumran and reviews the biblical and nonbiblical texts found there. Details abound concerning inkwells, the long work tables for scribes, the number of copies of each book of the Bible found, pottery types, and the areas of historical research that are affected by the scrolls.

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