A Closer Look: The Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls
by Peter W. Flint
The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient manuscripts that were found at several sites near the western shore of the Dead Sea. The most important site was near Qumran, where eleven caves containing scrolls or artifacts were discovered from 1946 to 1956. Also notable are discoveries at Murabba’at (1951), Nahal Hever (1951 or 1952), Wadi Seiyal (1951 or 1952), and Masada (1963-65). Professor W. F. Albright, America’s foremost archaeologist, described the scrolls as "the greatest archaeological find of modern times."
At least 941 scrolls were discovered in the Qumran caves (715 in Cave 4 alone). They are dated on paleographic and radiocarbon grounds to between ca 250 b.c. and a.d. 68, when the site was destroyed by the Romans. The Qumran library is divided into two basic categories: 240 biblical scrolls and 701 nonbiblical scrolls. The nonbiblical scrolls are further divided into: Apocryphal scrolls (such as Tobit), Sectarian scrolls (such as the Rule of the Community), and Pseudepigraphic scrolls (such as the Prayer of Nabonidus).
Most scholars agree that the Sectarian scrolls were produced by a group of Essenes who had a settlement at Qumran. Proposals to the contrary may be discounted due to lack of firm evidence.
Five Reasons Why the Dead Sea Scrolls Are Significant
The scrolls were discovered and copied in Palestine (Israel). In fact, they are virtually the only manuscripts that survive from the Second Temple period (which ended in a.d. 70). It is even possible– though not likely–that Jesus or some of His followers handled some of these manuscripts before they were brought to Qumran.
The scrolls were written in the three languages of Scripture. Of the 240 biblical scrolls from Qumran, 235 are written in Hebrew and 5 in Greek, and of the 701 nonbiblical scrolls, 548 are written in Hebrew, 137 in Aramaic, and 5 in Greek. This means that at least some Jews could speak Greek in late Second Temple Palestine, and reinforces the idea that Jesus and His followers knew Greek.
The biblical scrolls both affirm and enhance the Hebrew Bible used by scholars. Prior to their discovery, the oldest complete Hebrew Bible was the Leningrad Codex (a.d. 1008), on which most scholarly editions are based. Even older medieval manuscripts are the Aleppo Codex (early tenth century), part of which is missing, and some fragments from the Cairo Genizeh (ninth century onwards). In contrast, the oldest Bible scroll found at Qumran (4QExod-Levf) is dated from about 250 b.c., and the latest ones to a.d. 68. This puts scholars much closer to the time of the texts’ origins…
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