McLaurin Memorial

Blog #305: Why the Dead Sea Scrolls are So Important

John Cline

Dr. Will Varner is a Professor of Old Testament at The Master’s College in Israel. For the christiananswers.net website he wrote an article entitled, “What is the Importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls?” In part, below is that article, beginning with an account of the actions of a young Bedouin goat-herder named Juma:

“Juma was beginning to get nervous. Some of his goats were climbing too high up the cliffs. He decided to climb the face of the cliff himself to bring them back. Little did Juma realize as he began his climb on that January day in 1947 that those straying goats would eventually involve him in “the greatest archaeological discovery in the twentieth century.” Such thoughts were far from his mind when he saw two small openings to one of the thousands of caves that dot those barren cliffs overlooking the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. He threw a rock into one of the openings. The unexpected cracking sound surprised him; what else could be in those remote caves but treasure? He called to his cousins, Khalil, and Muhammed, who climbed up and heard the exciting tale. But it was getting late, and the goats had to be gathered. Tomorrow they would return—perhaps their days of following goats would come to an end once the treasure was uncovered! The youngest of the three, Muhammed, rose the next day before his two fellow “treasure-seekers” and made his way to the cave. The cave floor was covered with debris, including broken pottery. Along the wall stood a number of narrow jars, some with their bowl-shaped covers still in place. Frantically, Muhammed began to explore the inside of each jar, but no treasure of gold was to be found… only a few bundles wrapped in cloth and greenish with age. Returning to his cousins, he related the sad news—no treasure.

No treasure indeed! The scrolls those Bedouin boys removed from that dark cave that day and the days following would come to be recognized as the greatest manuscript treasure ever found—the first seven manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls! Such was the discovery of a group of manuscripts which were a thousand years older than the then-oldest-know Hebrew texts of the Bible (manuscripts, many of which were written more than 100 years before the birth of Jesus). These manuscripts would excite the archaeological world and provide a team of translators with a gigantic task that even to this day has not been completed.’

Dr. Varner goes on, ‘The initial announcement about the scrolls prompted feverish searches in the area of the original discoveries. An official archaeological expedition was begun in 1949 which eventually resulted in the discovery of ten additional caves in the surrounding area also containing scrolls. The archaeologists then directed their attention to a small ruin nearby called “Khirbet (ruins of) Qumran,” which had been thought of as the remains of an old Roman fortress. After six seasons of intensive excavation, the scholars were sure beyond any reasonable doubt that the scrolls found their origin in this community which flourished between 125 BC and AD 68. The scrolls had been stored in haste in the caves as the community fled the encroaching Roman army, which was in Judea to put down the Jewish Revolt of AD 66-70.

The ruins of Qumran, which can be visited today, revealed that a substantial group of Jewish ascetics inhabited this community. Storehouses, aqueducts, ritual baths, and an assembly hall were all uncovered. One of the most interesting rooms uncovered was a scriptorium, identified by two ink wells discovered there along with some benches for scribes. It was in this room that many, if not all, of the discovered manuscripts were copied.

As soon as the announcement of the scrolls’ discovery was made, the scholarly debates about their origin and significance began. The debates increased when the amazing contents of the scrolls was successfully revealed. The seven original scrolls, from what came to be called “Cave One,” comprised the following:

1.    a well-preserved copy of the entire prophecy of Isaiah—the oldest copy of an Old Testament book ever to be discovered (this 24-foot long scroll is known as “The Great Isaiah Scroll”)

2.    another fragmentary scroll of Isaiah

3.    a commentary on the first two chapters of Habakkuk—the commentator explained the book allegorically in terms of the Qumran brotherhood

4.    the “Manual of Discipline” or “Community Rule”—the most important source of information about the religious sect at Qumran—it described the requirements for those aspiring to join the brotherhood

5.    the “Thanksgiving Hymns,” a collection of devotional “psalms” of thanksgiving and praise to God

6.    an Aramaic paraphrase of the Book of Genesis

7.    the “Rule of War” which dealt with the battle between the “Sons of Light” (the men of Qumran) and the “Sons of Darkness” (the Romans?) yet to take place in the “last days,” which days the men of Qumran believed were about to arrive.

Those seven original scrolls were just the beginning. Over six hundred scrolls and thousands of fragments have been discovered in the 11 caves of the Qumran area. Fragments of every Biblical book except Esther (note: possibly because God is not mentioned once in Esther, thus rendering it to be not on a par with the other scriptural books) have been found, as well as many other non-Biblical texts.’

Dr. Varner concludes: ‘One of the most important contributions of the Dead Sea Scrolls is the numerous Biblical manuscripts which have been discovered. Until those discoveries at Qumran, the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures were copies from the 9th and 10th centuries AD by a group of Jewish scribes called the Massoretes. Now we have manuscripts around a thousand years older than those. The amazing truth is that these manuscripts are almost identical! Here is a strong example of the tender care which the Jewish scribes down through the centuries took in an effort to accurately copy the sacred Scriptures. We can have confidence that our Old Testament Scriptures faithfully represent the words given to Moses, David, and the prophets.”

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