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View of the Dead Sea
View of Dead Sea from within Qumran cave, ? IAA

Dead Sea Scrolls

By Risa Levitt Kohn, Ph.D., Curator
All photos courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

On June 29, 2007, the San Diego Natural History Museum opens Dead Sea Scrolls, a unique exhibition of authentic Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient biblical manuscripts. Owing to the generosity of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, 27 Dead Sea Scrolls—ten exhibited for the first time ever—will be displayed along with over 100 artifacts and other important manuscripts. The 24 scrolls from the Israel Antiquities Authority will be exhibited in two sets of 12, the first from June through September and the second October through December. The Department of Antiquities of Jordan has graciously allowed the Museum’s exhibition two parchment scrolls as well as a section of the renowned Copper Scroll, a fascinating and puzzling find from the Qumran caves, for the duration of the exhibition.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient texts discovered initially by Bedouin goat-herders and subsequently by archaeologists, primarily between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves near Khirbet Qumran on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea in Israel. For 2000 years, the Dead Sea Scrolls lay dormant, hidden from all human contact in the well-camouflaged caves of the barren wilderness of what was known in ancient times as the Greco-Roman province of Judaea. Once discovered, they prompted a large number of the finest scholars to engage in the pursuit of unraveling their meaning.

These scrolls constitute a profoundly rich religious library. Thousands of fragments have been pieced together, revealing over 900 separate documents that include biblical books, hymns, prayers, and other important writings. Widely acknowledged to be among the greatest archaeological writings ever found, the scrolls link us to the ancient Near East and the formative years of Judaism and Christianity and have opened a doorway to an ancient culture and its traditions. They connect us to the period that laid the foundations of Western traditions, beliefs, and practices.

Detail of small insectivore from Baja California Dinosaur mural the the San Diego Natural History Museum Fossils Mysteries Exhibition
11Q14, Book of War Scroll Fragment

Among the scrolls, dating from 250 BCE to 68 CE, are some 207 biblical manuscripts representing nearly every book in the Hebrew Bible. Significantly, these manuscripts are 1000 years older than any previously discovered copies of these texts. There are also numerous apocryphal manuscripts (texts not included in the biblical canon) that had previously been known only in translation or not at all.

Many, though not all, scholars believe the scrolls were copied and composed by a group that broke away from mainstream Judaism to live a communal life at Qumran, the site closest to the scroll caves. These people, known to us through ancient writers, are believed to have perceived themselves as the true “seed of Israel” while viewing those living in Jerusalem—including the priesthood at the Temple—as corrupt and distant from the true faith. The Dead Sea Scrolls provide rare, fascinating insights into this community’s views, rituals and practices.

Although there was no recognized canon for the Hebrew Bible during the time of Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls library may illustrate what the community considered most important: the laws of Moses (Deuteronomy), the prayers and poems of King David (Psalms), and the prophesies of the end times (Isaiah). These books were the most popular among the scrolls, surviving in numerous copies.

The non-biblical scrolls—the majority of those discovered— reflect a wide variety of literary genres: commentary, religious legal writings, liturgical (prayer) texts, and compositions that predict a coming apocalypse. They reveal a fascinating transitional stage between the ancient religion of the Bible and that of early Judaism and Christianity. These scroll texts illustrate profound concerns of the community that wrote them, considering questions such as: Where do we fit into God’s plan? How should we live our lives? How and when will the world end? What will happen to us when the end comes?

Many scholars believe that when the Romans invaded around 68 CE, the Qumran community may have taken steps to hide their manuscripts in nearby caves. The group and their particular brand of Judaism did not survive the Roman destruction, though many of their beliefs, practices, and rituals have ultimately influenced Judaism and Christianity.

There are those scholars who reject the Qumran community theory in favor of other possibilities, but there is a broad consensus within the academic world that these scrolls present a spiritual map of the Judaea of 2000 years ago and reveal the emphasis that early Jews and Christians placed upon biblical and other texts. Interestingly, many of the biblical texts discovered are written in the same languages as their modern descendants, having been passed down through generations with little modification.

The opportunities to learn from the Dead Sea Scrolls continue to evolve as technologies progress and enable researchers to uncover new details and information.

Dead Sea Scrolls is a joint production of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation, and the San Diego Natural History Museum.