On a day in 1947, toward evening, some Beduin teenagers were rounding up their flock on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Muhammad a-Dib, 14 years old, threw a stone into a cave to scare out any goat that might have taken shelter there. He heard something break. The next morning, moved by thoughts of treasure, Muhammad went back and made the most exciting archaeological discovery of all time.

In the cave were jars, and in one or two of them bundles, which proved to be leather scrolls dating from about 150 BC to 68 AD. Thus began the modern saga of the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

Coordinating with Beduin, an archaeological team explored the other caves of the region, finding scrolls from this period in a total of eleven. In the fourth cave, under layers of dirt and guano, the Beduin found about 15,000 pieces of manuscript, from which the scholars have reconstructed parts of 500 documents so far. 

The dry air near the Dead Sea preserved the scrolls for two thousand years. Those of Cave 4 were in pieces because, unlike the ones in the first cave, they had not been stored in covered jars. 

Why was this find so exciting? Ordinarily, archaeologists have to make do with interpreting artifacts. When they are lucky, these include inscriptions. But here they had a whole library, opening a window on a way of thinking and experiencing that characterized a Jewish sect, the Essenes, from around the time of Jesus. 

There are also biblical texts. Until this discovery, our earliest extant Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible dated from medieval times. Here, suddenly, were manuscripts a thousand years older, including pieces of every book in the First Testament except Esther, even a complete Isaiah. These cast new light on the development of the Bible. More...

A kilometer south of the first cave was a modest ruin called in Arabic khirbet qumran, the ruin of Qumran. (This Arabic name may refer to the whiteness of moonlight. Nights in the Syro-African rift are often cloudless because of the heat.) 

In 1951, Jordan (which then controlled the area) authorized an expedition to dig here. Archaeologists hoped the site would be connected to the scrolls. The present scholarly consensus, sometimes disputed, may be summed up thus:

  1. Qumran was the community center of the group that produced the scrolls. The latter have now been independently dated, based on the handwriting, to the same time as the ruin, which contained coins minted between 140 BC and 68 AD. Most of the scrolls were found in the immediate vicinity of the ruin: Caves 4 through 10 are right there.

  2. The Qumran group is the same as a sect which Josephus, Philo and Pliny the Elder refer to as the Essenes. True, the writers of the scrolls did not use this term. Yet there are many striking correspondences (though a few discrepancies) between the descriptions of the classical historians and the scroll material. The latter does not fit what we know about the other two major Jewish groups of the period, the Pharisees or the Sadducees.

In his Natural History (Book V 18.73), published shortly before 77 AD, Pliny the Elder quotes an unknown source that links the Essenes to the area:

On the west side of the Dead Sea, but out of range of the noxious exhalations of the coast, is the solitary tribe of the Essenes, which is remarkable beyond all other tribes in the whole world, as it has no women and has renounced all sexual desire, has no money, and has only palm-trees for company. Day by day the throng of refugees is recruited to an equal number by numerous accessions of people tired of life and driven thither by the waves of fortune to adopt their manners. Thus through thousands of ages -- incredible to relate -- a race in which no one is born lives on forever; so prolific for their advantage is other men's weariness of life! 

Lying below these (Essenes) was the formerly town of Engedi . . .

Pliny's brief paragraph raises key questions: Why did the Essenes live in this desert place? Why were they celibate? Why did they "have no money"? The answers can help us grasp who they were.

The site itself, though modest, offers much to those who bring knowledge and imagination.

The Scrolls and the Biblical Text

The caves around Qumran have yielded 170 Hebrew scrolls of books that also appear in the First Testament. Represented are all except Esther. Frank Moore Cross gives an example of one case where a scroll enables us to fill a gap, and solve some puzzles, in the biblical text (Shanks, ed. pp. 156-161.)

The scroll in question contains the books of Samuel. It was found in Cave 4 and dates from the 1st century BC. Until this find, Cross points out, there was something puzzling about 1 Samuel 11:1-5. In the standard biblical text, it goes like this:

Now Nahash the Ammonite came up and besieged Jabesh-gilead; and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, "Make a covenant with us and we will serve you." But Nahash the Ammonite said to them, "I will make it with you on this condition, that I will gouge out the right eye of every one of you, thus I will make it a reproach on all Israel." The elders of Jabesh said to him, "Let us alone for seven days, that we may send messengers throughout the territory of Israel. Then, if there is no one to deliver us, we will come out to you." Then the messengers came to Gibeah of Saul and spoke these words in the hearing of the people, and all the people lifted up their voices and wept.

Now behold, Saul was coming from the field behind the oxen, and he said, "What is the matter with the people that they weep?" So they related to him the words of the men of Jabesh.

(In the sequel, Saul gathers an army and defeats Nahash, rescuing the people of Jabesh.) 

There are two puzzles here. First, Jabesh Gilead was not in the domain of Nahash: he had no claim to it. Mutilation, however, was standard treatment for rebels within one's realm (long-standing enemies or treaty violators), not for newly-conquered territory. 

Second, in the books of Samuel and Kings, whenever a king is introduced, we hear his title in the form, "x, King of y." Here, uniquely, we bump into "Nahash the Ammonite" without royal title.

In the version of Samuel assembled from the fragments of Cave 4, however, the passage cited above has an introduction, absent from all extant versions of the Bible:

[N]ahash, king of the children of Ammon, sorely oppressed the children of Gad and the children of Reuben, and he gouged out a[ll] their right eyes and struck ter[ror and dread] in Israel. There was not left one among the children of Israel bey[ond the Jordan who]se right eye was no[t put o]ut by Naha[sh king] of the children of Ammon; except that seven thousand men [fled from] the children of [A]mmon and entered [J]abesh-Gilead. About a month later Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-Gilead.

The rest follows as in 1 Samuel 11:1-5, quoted above. (Quoted from Shanks, ed. p. 161.)

(Note: Gad and Reuben were within the domain that Nahash claimed as his. When Jabesh-Gilead sheltered the refugees, he threatened its men with the same punishment he had inflicted on those within his realm.)

How did this passage get left out of our Bible? A scribal eye, moving back and forth between the original and the copy he was making, jumped from the first "Nahash" to the third, inadvertently omitting a section. 

When did the mistake occur? The passage from Cave 4 is also missing from the Septuagint. The scribal lapse must have occurred before then. Quite apart from the faulty version, however, the more complete text of 1 Samuel 11 still existed two centuries later -- and found its way into Cave 4, disappearing under guano and dirt for 2000 years.

Why didn't this passage find its way into some other Hebrew version of the Bible? Because there was none. There was only the standard. Josephus, writing in the 90's AD, recognizes just one version, which he calls immutable. (Against Apion, I. 37-41.) In expeditions south of Qumran, archaeologists found biblical scrolls dating from between the revolts (70 AD-132 AD); only one version is represented: the texts are basically those of the First Testament as we know them. By this time, in other words, one Hebrew version had become definitive, sweeping all others into oblivion until 1947. 

Here we can appreciate the importance of the Dead Sea scrolls for biblical scholarship. Until 1947, there were, broadly speaking, only two versions of the Bible in manuscript: the Greek Septuagint and the standard Hebrew text (the Masoretic). Where these differed, scholars assumed that the Hebrew was the more authoritative. (Both Origen and Jerome, for example, changed their copies of the Greek translation to fit the Hebrew.) With the 170 biblical scrolls from the caves, we now see that in the places where the Septuagint differs, the Greek translators were working from Hebrew versions that varied from those that later became the standard. 

On the basis of the scrolls from the Book of Exodus, Cross has distinguished three Hebrew textual "families." All derive from a common archetype of the 6th century BC, the turbulent time of exile and return. Then different versions began to appear.

  1. One he calls the "Babylonian textual family," because he thinks it arrived from there. Under the influence of the sage Hillel, who immigrated to Palestine from Babylon in the early 1st century BC, this version became definitive for the Hebrew Bible as we know it.

  2. Another he calls the "old Palestinian textual family." This was the dominant group at Qumran. The Samaritan Pentateuch also derives from it.

  3. Out of the Palestinian textual family grew a third, which took hold in Egypt in the 3d century BC, becoming the basis for the Greek translation (Septuagint).

See Cross in Shanks, ed. p. 148.

As to why the Rabbis insisted on standardizing the Hebrew version, Cross points out that the time of the Maccabean victories coincided with expulsions of Jews from Mesopotamia by the Parthians. Jews swarmed to Jerusalem from Babylonia and Syria, as well as from Egypt. They brought competing local texts of the sacred books, "causing considerable confusion, as reflected in the library at Qumran" (Ibid., p. 149). When party strife developed among Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, each group adducing proofs from different versions, it was clear to the rabbis that an authoritative text was needed. When the Temple too went up in smoke (70 AD), there was only scripture to hold the Jewish people together. For the sake of unity in dispersion, the founders of normative Judaism could no longer tolerate variant texts. 

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(r), (c) Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. (www.Lockman.org)

© 2003 Near East Tourist Agency (NET)
Text © 2003 Stephen Langfur