What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?



By P.J. Schwartz

In 1947, perhaps one of the greatest discoveries in modern history was made in the caves of Israel’s Judean Desert. The story goes that a young Bedouin boy was wandering in the desert and began throwing rocks at the cave. Startled, the boy heard the sound of a scroll cracking, only to find a ceramic pot that contained the earliest known copies of both biblical and non-biblical texts. This amazing find provides some of the best insight into what life was like during the Second Temple period (520 B.C.E.–70 C.E.), a time leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple and the split between Judaism and Christianity.

Most scholars attribute the writings of the scrolls to one of the major Jewish sects of this period, the Essenes. This community had formed itself when the Greeks controlled Judea, fearing that living in that society would force community members to assimilate and lose their Jewish identity. These pious individuals completely separated themselves from the rest of the world and fully engaged in study, prayer, and work. However, because the Dead Sea Scrolls make no direct reference to this group, other scholars suggest that this diverse collection of texts was not necessarily written in the Dead Sea Valley or by this sectarian group. Some scholars even point to the texts as precursors to the Jesus movement, the early Jewish-Christians, who remained faithful to most of Jewish law.

Regardless of its origins, the library found in the Qumran caves contains what are now considered to be the earliest copies of biblical and extra-biblical texts in existence. The majority of the books found in the Hebrew Bible are part of the collection, but the collection also offers various commentaries to the Hebrew Bible itself. These texts provide great insight into how the writers view the teachings and words of the prophets as well as how they interpret the Torah.

Among the texts found are detailed manuals and guides that provide a great deal of information about the community members who wrote the scrolls. The Manual of Discipline, The War Scroll, and the Copper Scroll all reveal the mysteries of this secret community.

What is also amazing about these texts is that they contain numerous writings not included in the Hebrew canon. Many of these texts contain information previously not available to us: prophecies from Daniel, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah not found in the Hebrew Bible are included among the fragments of texts, as well as psalms attributed to King David and Joshua. In addition, we learn of new stories about Abraham, Noah, and Enoch. Many of the non-canonical books offer better insight into the apocalyptic worldview of the community that wrote them.

Important to note is that Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, our Reform rabbinical, cantorial, educational, and communal service institution is part of the story; faculty and administration were part of—and continue to be engaged in—efforts to preserve the scrolls. Today, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been digitized by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and are housed in the Shrine of the Book at the museum. A selection of these ancient documents, and artifacts found in the cave, have travelled throughout the United States as well.

Currently, they are on exhibit through mid-April 2013 at the Cincinnati Museum Center.

For further reading:

Herschel Shanks, The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, (Vintage Publishing, UK, 1999)

Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English: Seventh Edition (Penguin Classics, New York, 2012)

James Vanderkam and Peter Flint, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity (Harper One, New York, 2004)

Dr. Jason Kalman, Hebrew Union College and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 2012)

Dead Sea Scrolls Project, Israel Museum

P.J. Schwartz is in his final year of Rabbinical school at the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In addition to his rabbinical studies, P.J. received a Master’s degree in Educational Administration with a Specialization in Jewish Education at Xavier University. P.J. is currently a rabbinic intern at Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, as well as serves as a Rabbinic Chaplain at Jewish Family Services. His thesis, Kavannah: From Tradition to Today, explores traditional and contemporary understandings of the tension between keva and kavannah in Jewish worship, as well as provides a reflective guide to aid the service leader in being more intentional in his or her worship visioning, planning, and implementation. P.J. is married to his wife, Michelle, a Special Education teacher in Kenton County, KY, and is a proud father of Teddy, their 7-year-old cocker spaniel.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah, a daily e-mail on a topic of Jewish interest. Sign up now to add 10 minutes of Jewish learning to your life each day!

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3 Responses to “What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?”

  1. avatar

    One must also reference the late HUC-JIR professor Dr. Harry Orlinsky, who, hiding behind the name “Mr. Green,” was secreted into Israel to authenticate the scrolls. His essay about this (in a volume of his collected essays) is a riveting account of the scrolls’ initial discovery.

  2. avatar

    The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation should be on the reading list because it includes the translated texts that are unique to this find. The significance of the scrolls cannot be appreciated until one reads them. Copies are available on amazon.com, used ones at low cost.

    The non-sectarian scrolls tend to confirm the accuracy of our modern versions of canonical texts, pushing back their authenticity another millenium past the Aleppo Codex. The sectarian scrolls reveal the religious turmoil created by the Hasmonean dynasty and reflect the beginning of the end of an era dominated by the priesthood and the return of decentralized worship and the onset of the importance of teachers, ie the rabbinic era.

    Beyond all this, the sectarian scrolls adopt an apocalyptic, messianic view that makes for fascinating reading. Highly recommended.

  3. avatar

    James H. Charlesworth has put out some great resources in the Princeton Symposium on the Dead Sea Scrolls Series.

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