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The Dead Sea Scrolls Q&A

By Eric Johnson

Check out a week-long series on The Dead Sea Scrolls and Mormonism on Viewpoint on Mormonism that originally aired on Feb. 19-23, 2018 Part 1  Part 2   Part 3   Part 4  Part 5  

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Dead Sea Scroll from Cave 1, the Great Scroll of Isaiah

What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The Dead Sea Scrolls are copies of ancient documents discovered in caves along the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea in Israel. These scrolls date from 2,000 (or more) years ago and were discovered between November 1946 and February 1947. There are more than 40,000 fragments and contains most of the books of the Bible. It has been called the greatest archaeological discovery of all time.

Where exactly were they found?

They were located in a series of 11 caves in the hills of Qurman, several of which were located just a stone’s throw away from the village where an ancient group of Jews known as Essenes lived. Some were housed in pottery jars, with the linen-wrapped leather scrolls inside. Those scrolls housed in jars ended up being the best preserved, although they have greatly deteriorated in the years following their discovery since they were exposed to the elements.

What were they written on?

Some were written on parchment (untanned sheepskin) as well as papyrus (a paper-like material made from river reeds in Egypt). The better preserved texts were written on parchment. A special carbon ink was used. One scroll was actually composed on pure copper sheets. This “Copper Scroll,” as it is called, contained a treasure map supposedly leading to riches. Scholar debate whether there was a real treasure involved.

Which languages were used?

Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek.

What dates were the scrolls produced?

Between 250 B.C. and A.D. 68

Who produced these scrolls?

The traditional view is that the Essenes copied biblical texts two millennia ago. These Jewish people did not agree with the Hasmonean rule and rebelled against the Maccabean priesthood. Thus, they didn’t get along very well with either the Pharisee or Sadducee sects. The Essenes were known as being  outcasts in the desert, part of what they called the Yahad (the Community). They believed they were preparing themselves for the coming of the Messiah and considered themselves followers of the “Righteous Teacher,” with a major emphasis on eschatology (end times).

What were some of their rules?

To join the sect, a person had to be male and be willing to fully commit to the group. The process took several probationary years before full acceptance was earned. He also had to swear oaths, even oaths that were secret. It was necessary to share all worldly possessions, renounce pleasures of the flesh, live with brotherly love, and follow the teachings of Moses.

Where did they copy the scrolls?

In the 1950s, archaeologists excavated a two-story scriptorium in the village where the scrolls were copied and stored. Archaeologists found remains of clay benches used by the scribes as seats to do their work, and a variety of writing implements and inkwells were found. Much of the scroll production was probably done in this building.

Why did they end up hiding their work in the caves?

The Jewish Revolt against Rome began in AD 66. Many scholars believe that these Jews saw the writing on the wall, so to speak, and decided to hide the scrolls (possibly hoping to come back) from harm by the Romans. In AD 68, the Roman Tenth Legion destroyed the Qumran settlement and rebuilt it as a Roman garrison.

Where did the Essenes go?

Some believe a number of them ended up at Masada, which was south of Qumran and also near the Dead Sea. Masada, of course, is the place where, by tradition and history–as detailed by the Jewish historian Josephus–a thousand Jews committed suicide when they were going to be taken over by the Romans. When archaeologists did excavation work at Masada, they found a fragment from Ezekiel chapter 37 (Dry Bones). When they did analysis of the pottery, the clay matched the kilns at Qumran. It doesn’t seem like this was a coincidence.

What were the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls?

About half of the scrolls contain extrabiblical Jewish literature, including the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. So far, this amounts to more than 400 manuscripts. In addition, a quarter of the scrolls were made up of sectarian texts, with the other quarter featuring the biblical texts.

Which books of the Bible did they find?

Whole books or fragmentary copies of every book of the Old Testament were found, with the exception of one book. (Can you guess which one? The answer: Esther. This makes sense because the Essenes were very male-oriented, and Esther was female; also, Esther never once mentioned the name of God.)

Were there any differences in the text?

A few. For instance, the Qumran community had a 151st psalm as well as an additional introductory paragraph in Samuel (chapter 11). Of the two scrolls of Isaiah found in Cave 1, there were differences as different types of Hebrew were used. Generally, though, most of the texts found coincide with the Masoretic text starting in AD 900.

Of the 200 scrolls and fragments, which biblical books had the most representation?

No surprise here: The Pentateuch, also known as the Torah (Law), contains the first five books of the Old Testament and represented about half of all the finds!  Deuteronomy (33) had the most, followed by Genesis (24), Exodus and Leviticus (18 each), and Numbers (11). This makes sense because this is most important part of the scripture for an observant Jew. Other popular books were Psalms (39), Isaiah (22), minor prophets (10), and Daniel (8).

So what is the significance for students of the Bible?

The Dead Sea Scrolls are the earliest witness of the original texts, which are called autographs. Of course, no autograph (the original) of any biblical book is available. Before the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest texts we had of the Old Testament dated no earlier than the 10th century AD (the Masoretic text). This means that the discovery of the entire book of Isaiah in Cave 1—dated about 125 BC—predates the Masoretic text by a millennium.

Why is this important?

Many critics of the Bible had been claiming that there many errors had crept into the Bible’s text over hundreds of years. In fact, many Mormons who believe in Article 8 (“the Bible is true as far as it is translated correctly”) too often have discounted the Bible for this very reason. However, when Dead Sea Scroll text of Isaiah was compared with the Aleppo Codex from about AD 900, it was discovered that they are about  95% identical. The major change involved accent marks that worked their way into the language over this long period of time. In addition, there were some obvious slips of the pen and spelling alterations. There were no changes to main doctrines…at all. This conclusion stunned textual critics all over the world, as it verified that the careful process of copying scripture really did preserve the biblical text. For Christians, knowing that our Old Testaments have undergone so little change over the past 2,000+ years is an incredible discovery!

Did the Dead Sea Scrolls shed light on any particular biblical text?

Additional light has been shed. For example, Psalm 22:16 in the Masoretic text reads, “Like a lion are my hands and my feet.” When texts similar to the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the Bar Kokhba caves (5/6HevP) from the AD 130 timeframe, Psalm 22:16 showed that the word originally translated “lion” was not a noun but a verb (“pierced”). This coincided with the LXX (Septuagint), the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, and made perfect sense; a one-letter difference ended up making all the difference in the world, changing a verb into a noun. This makes sense in light of Jesus’s crucifixion and a fulfilled prophecy.

What were some of the doctrines found in the Dead Sea Scrolls?

We must keep in mind that the Essenes were not standard Jews, and make no mistake that they were early Christians. When it comes to their concept of God, the believe that God is:

  • the God of Israel (1QS 10:8-11)
  • the Lord of Creation (1QM 10:11-15)
  • the God of History (1QM 11:1-4)
  • the God of the Qumran covenant community (1 QM 11:9-15)
  • sovereign (1QS 4:25)

What was their view on man and sin?

  • Man has a propensity to sin (1 QH 38:29-31) and will return to the dust
  • Man is sinful by nature (1QH 1:21; 3:21) and is carnal (1QH 15:21; 18:23)

How about salvation?

They believe in predestination. For example, 1QH 15:14 says, “You alone have created the righteous and from the womb. You have predestined him for the appointed time and Your choice.” Righteousness was based on the merit of the individual (4Q397 26-32). The Essenes looked for a Messiah who would be both priest and king and deliver Israel as well as hold the prophetic office.

Are the scrolls evidence for Mormonism?

Personally, I have had Mormons refer the scrolls a number of times as support for their religion, though not as often as a decade or two ago. BYU professor Stephen E. Robinson is exactly right when he said in 1991, “So far the plain and precious things have not been restored to us in the Dead Sea Scrolls. If Latter-day Saints would jsut get a good English translation of the [already] published scrolls, they would discover that the people of Qumran are not [Latter-day] Saints of former days.” (“LDS Scholars Renew Interest in Mysterious Dead Sea Scrolls,” Salt Lake Tribune, Dec. 7, 1991, p. A5. Brackets in original.)

What should I say if a Latter-day Saint refer to the scrolls in support of Mormonism?

If a Mormon attempts to use the scrolls, including their other writings (besides copies of the Bible) in such a way, remind them:

* The Essenes believed in celibacy and were not fans of marriage–don’t Mormons value marriage and families?

* The Essenes did not believe in typical temple worship–isn’t that important in Mormonism?

* The Essenes focused much of their energy on eschatology (end times)–is this something emphasized in Mormonism?

Consider the following story related by BYU professor Robert L. Millet:

“I was asked some years ago by a mission president to speak to his missionaries at a zone conference. We had a lovely gathering and a fine exchange of ideas. I was invited to stay for lunch and visit with the missionaries. I did a great deal of listening and learned much. One of the most interesting conversations revolved around a young couple who were being taught by the missionaries but who were not progressing. ‘They’re golden people,’ one elder said, ‘ripe and ready for membership in the Church. They just won’t commit to be baptized.’ Several suggestions were made by the missionaries listening in–fasting with them,having the bishop meet with them, intensifying the freindshipping effort, etc., to all of which the first elder said, ‘We’ve tried that.’ After a long pause, one elder spoke up: ‘Have you given them the Scrolls Discussion?’ The first elder responded: ‘No, do you think this would be a good time for the Scrolls Discussion?’ “Sounds like a perfect time to me,’ the second came back. Now I had never heard of the Scrolls Discussion. I was dying to know what it was so I blurted out: ‘What’s the Scrolls Discussion?’ The second elder looked quizically at me and said: ‘Surely, Brother Millet, you’ve heard of the Scrolls Discussion?’ I indicated that I had not. ‘The Scrolls Discussion,’ he said, ‘involves showing the people how the Dead Sea Scrolls prove the truthfulness of the Church!’ I asked: ‘How do you do that?’ ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘as you know, the Dead Sea Scrolls contain information about a group of Christians out in the deserts of Judea.’ I said: ‘No, they don’t. The Dead Sea Scrolls were written by a group of hyperreligious Jews.’ He said: ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ Then the elder followed up: ‘Well, you do know that they had three presiding high priests at the head of their church.’ I indicated that the leaders of their group were Aaronic priests, not Melchizedek. He went on: ‘Well, there’s much doctrine within the Dead Sea Scrolls that proves our church to be true.’ I commented that the Scrolls were interesting historical documents but did very little for us doctrinally. This exchange went on for about ten minutes, the elder providing what he thought to be airtight ‘proofs’ and me trying to gently let him know that most of what he understood about the Dead Sea Scrolls was simply untrue. I could see the frustration in his eyes. He breathed a sigh and then concluded the conversation with: ‘Well, I’ll just say this–the Scrolls Discussion has always worked perfectly for me!’ I thought then (and have since) about all the people who may have come into the Church as a result of what they learned in the famous Scrolls Discussion. I shuddered.” (Selected Writings of Robert L. Millet: Gospel Scholars Series, pp. 400-401).

So how were the Dead Sea Scrolls first discovered in 1947 in Israel?

Would you believe that a teenaged Bedouin shepherd made the initial discovery? Muhammad edh-Dhib (nicknamed “The Wolf”) and his cousin Juma’a Abu-Hashaba were tending their goats while they were supposedly looking for a lost member of their flock in the hills of Qumran. Apparently the “Wolf” threw a rock into a cave and heard the sound of breaking pottery. The story differs depending on who tells it, but as one version goes, it was dark and the two decided to return to the cave the next day. The Wolf got up before his cousin and raced to the cave, climbing in through the hole. Hoping for treasure, he was disappointed when he found scroll jars arranged along the cave wall. He counted 37 scroll jars and removed at least 7 of them, including a scroll containing the entire book of Isaiah, a commentary on the book of Habakkuk, and a scroll known as the Community Rule.

What happened next?

Three of the Cave 1 scrolls were purchased by Eleazar Sukenik for the new country of Israel. A cobbler and part-time antiquities dealer named Kando ended up buying four of the scrolls from the shepherds.; in turn, Kando sold four of them to the head of his church—the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan—for about $100 equivalency in today’s money. An American photographer named John Trever heard about the discovery and was allowed to take pictures of the scrolls in 1948. These pictures were seen by scholars in the United States, who determined that these scrolls were authentic.

What happened to those scrolls?

Samuel kept them until 1954, when he placed an ad in the Wall Street Journal advertising “The Four Dead Sea Scrolls” as “an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group.” The Jewish government did not want to lose possession of these valuable four scrolls, including the great scroll of Isaiah, so they paid $250,000 for them! (That’s millions of dollars in today’s economy.)

What was Kando like?

This man was fascinating and quite a businessman. One of my professors from seminary—Dr. Ronald Youngblood—met  Kando and had good conversations with him at his Bethlehem shoe/antiquities shop several times. Kando collected other Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered by the Bedouin; sort of like the “Pawn Stars,” Kando paid the shepherds pennies for what he could resell for dollars. One scroll, the famous Cave 11 Temple Scroll, was kept under his floorboards in his Bethlehem home. When war broke out in 1967, Sukenik’s son Yigael Yadin raided Kando’s Bethlehem home and reclaimed the scroll for Israel, even though it suffered water damage. Kando died a few years ago, and his children have been selling pieces of his remaining collection, to the ire of the Israeli government.

After the discovery of the initial Dead Sea Scrolls, what excavations did the scholars do?

These began in 1948-49. At this time, scholars still had not found the original Cave 1 where the scrolls were first found.  There was enough unrest in the country to make a full-blown effort dangerous. Cave 1 was finally discovered in January 1949. This gave them an area from which to work, and from February to March, the Jordanian Department of Antiquities excavated the area. Additional fragments, jars, and artifacts were found in this first cave. From 1951-56, Roland de Vaux and his team began to excavate. The excitement of possibly finding new scrolls spread to the Bedouin, and they started to search for these treasures, as they were more valuable than gold or jewels. In fact, as the next ten caves were discovered, the scholars were often second in discovery to the Bedouin, which caused all sorts of problems with valuable pieces of scrolls being sold on the open market. Today, the Israeli government believes it owns 99 percent of all scroll fragments.

What are all the letters and numbers that identify the scrolls and fragments?

A numbering system was put into place to help identify the thousands of fragments along with the complete scrolls. For example, suppose you visit the exhibit and see this: 4Q521 2:6. This states for:

  • 4 = the number of the cave (of 11) where this fragment was found
  • Q = Qumran
  • 521 = The designated number of that particular scroll
  • 2 = The column number
  • 6 = The line number

Thus, this scroll is Text 521 from Cave 4 at Qumran, column 2 and line 6. Simple!

How many caves were there?

After the initial discovery, a total of 11 caves were found containing at least one scroll fragment. Scholars believe that there are more in the hills of Qumran, and perhaps a new discovery will be made after an earthquake.

Which cave had the most scrolls?

While it contained no complete scrolls, a huge number of fragments (40,000+) were discovered in Cave 4. These included 400 manuscripts, a quarter of which were biblical texts.

For more articles on the topic of the Bible, go here.



The Great Scroll of Isaiah discovered in Cave 1 of Qumran

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