The Joyce Hill Column

May 2022

The Dead Sea Scrolls


My recent article on the Codex Sinaiticus has led a few people ask if I would also write about the Dead Sea Scrolls because, like the Codex, they have been discovered in modern times and have similarly advanced our understanding of the history of biblical texts. The Codex Sinaiticus is a complete Christian bible, but its greatest impact has been on our understanding of the evolution and textual history of the New Testament, for reasons that I explained back in March. The Dead Sea Scrolls, by contrast, are important for the study of the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, and what we know as the Old Testament Apocrypha, found in bibles of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition, but which was a collection of texts initially not carried over into the Protestant biblical tradition  — clearly a topic that would be worth writing about on another occasion!

It was in late 1946 or early 1947 that a Bedouin shepherd came across a large collection of rolled up scrolls in the Qumran caves, close to the north shore of the Dead Sea. Their importance was quickly recognised and extensive searches were made, leading to the discovery of many thousands of fragments and some texts that are complete or nearly so, variously in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Nabataean. Although they have survived by being in a very dry climate and away from the sun, they are exceedingly fragile. A great deal of work remains to be done on them, not least in identifying what works the fragments are from and in safely unrolling and reading those that still exist as scrolls. However, it is now clear that the manuscripts — a few written on papyrus, but most on parchment — are a collection over a wide expanse of time: from the third century BCE to the first century CE.

About 40% are copies of books from the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament). Before this discovery, the oldest surviving Hebrew-language Scriptures were from the tenth century CE, such as the Aleppo Bible. But the Dead Sea Scrolls are a thousand years earlier. Interestingly, the Scrolls have shown that these texts have remained very stable over a long period: they do not show evidence of textual change that might have been expected. Rather, they witness to an extraordinarily persistent tradition of very careful copying, placing the preservation of holy texts  in an altogether different league from the copying of other material.

A further 30% of the texts are works from the Second Temple period (516 BCE to 70 CE) which did not finally make it into the approved collection of Hebrew Scriptures. These include the Book of Tobit and Ecclesiasticus or the Wisdom of Sirach, books that remain in the Christian Old Testament Apocrypha.

The remaining 30% are previously unknown texts which were evidently for the use of a sect which had developed from within Judaism, and which had similarities in some of its thinking with aspects of Christian teaching, itself, of course, coming out of Judaism.  This community seems to have held possessions in common and to have lived together according to a rule. Most scholars identify them with the Essenes, who are alluded to in a number of texts from around the time of Christ.

Almost everything found is held by Israel, since 1965 in the specially constructed Shrine of the Book, which also houses the Aleppo Bible and other early manuscripts. It is here that the painstaking research is carried out and the Scrolls are displayed in rotation.


Joyce Hill