Dead Sea Scrolls offer real view of ancient Judea

The Dead Sea Scrolls are perhaps the most significant archaeological find of the 20th century. The scrolls present us with a picture of life in Judea from about 250 B.C. to 70 A.D. The period encompasses the Greek takeover of Judea; the insurrection of the Maccabees, who restored Judaism; the life of Jesus; and the destruction of Jerusalem to terminate the terrible Roman-Jewish war.

The scrolls were found in a series of caves near the top of the Dead Sea in the forbidding Judean Desert, near the ruins of the ancient city Qumron. A Bedouin shepherd boy searching for lost sheep tossed a rock into one of the many caves in the area. To his surprise, he heard something break. Investigating further, he found some scrolls. The year was 1947.

Seven intact scrolls were found by the Bedouins. They knew that antiquities were valuable, so they brought the scrolls to Bethlehem and sold them to an Arab antiquities dealer. Once word of the find spread, archaeologists and Bedouins began a frantic search of all the caves. In all, 800 scrolls in 25,000 mostly fragmented pieces were found. One more intact scroll was found, and it was sheathed in copper.

Two hundred were books of the Hebrew Bible, including a complete book of Isaiah. Fragments from apocryphal books, such as Enoch and Jubilees, and other holy texts not included in the Bible also were found. The book of Psalms contained many that are not found in the Bible.

There also were mystical texts, as well as texts on purity and proper liturgy.

The story of how Israel obtained seven scrolls is fascinating. You recall, in 1947 the United Nations was debating whether to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Sporadic warfare between the Arabs and Jews was in full swing.

Eleazar Sukenik, a professor of archaeology at Hebrew University, contacted his sources in the underground antiquities market and learned that three of the scrolls were in Bethlehem, which was under control of the Arabs. Disregarding warnings, Sukenik met with the dealer. He described the moment: “My hands shook as I started to unwrap one of them. It was written in beautiful biblical Hebrew.” He took two of the scrolls back to Hebrew University, where they were carbon-dated to 250 to 100 B.C.

(The four remaining scrolls that ended up in Israel were offered for sale in the United States. They were purchased by American Jews and sent to Israel. The seven scrolls are housed in the “Shrine of the Book” in Jerusalem.)

While Sukenik was examining the scrolls, the United Nations voted for partition, an action that led seven Arab states to formally declare war six months before the country of Israel was actually declared.

As part of the outcome of the war, Jordan had taken the West Bank, which surrounded Jerusalem. Thus, all the new findings (25,000 pieces of 800 scrolls) reverted to Jordan, which set up a committee of prominent Christian scholars to study the scroll pieces. The scholars were meticulous in their studies, but did not publish their findings for decades. In 1967, Israel conquered the West Bank, and all the 25,000 fragments now belong to Israel. They are housed in the Jerusalem Archeological Museum.

The scrolls provide us with an authentic picture of life in Judea of that time period. For example, the Manual of Discipline gives the rules and regulations for a devout but separatist Jewish group, one that did not obey the priests in Jerusalem.

This is evidence that the practices of the people were more diverse than originally thought. The scrolls give authenticity to the Septuagint, the Greek-language version of the Bible, translated from Hebrew by a group of Jewish scholars in the 3rd century B.C. The Septuagint was generally not considered reliable because of the great differences between the two languages, but the scrolls, written in perfect Hebrew, confirm the validity of the translation. The scrolls serve as a base to compare the differences in Bible translation.

There is also a great deal of material in the scrolls relevant to the New Testament. Much of Jesus’ teaching, such as the Sermon on the Mount, is similar to, but not exactly like, material in the scrolls. Some of the theological issues discussed in the scrolls are those same issues that concerned Jesus and early Christians. Therefore, it is evident that Jesus was fully immersed in the ideas of his time, which were rooted in Judaism. The similarity has rekindled a search for the historical Jesus.

Only a sample of all the developments arising from the scrolls can be presented in this short column. Scholars will spend generations studying the scrolls and their meaning for us. I am indebted for much of the information on the scrolls to Hershel Shanks’ book The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Random House, 1998).

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