A project I am currently working on had me doing a little research about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Found in caves near Qumran (on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea), the first scrolls were discovered by a Bedouin sheep/goat herder in early 1947. According to the most frequently told account of the discovery of these ancient religious texts, he threw a rock into a cave into which one of his animals had wandered. The sound that echoed out of the cave was that of breaking pottery. When he went inside to investigate, he discovered the first set of scrolls. They were wrapped in linen and stored in clay pots.
Over the next 9 years, additional scrolls were found in eleven different caves. Most of the scrolls had decayed leaving behind little more than fragments of what had once been a large collection of texts. In total the fragments represent portions of more than 800 texts.
According to scholars who have studied the scrolls, 30% of the texts are from books of the Hebrew Bible. Other fragments are from religious texts and commentaries not included in the Hebrew Bible Canon, and about 15% are from documents that cannot be identified. Those 11 caves were a giant library of sacred texts. A Giant Library Of Ancient Religious Texts
The library nature of this collection of texts was what caught my interest. Modern people are familiar with the Bible in its post-printing press form. In the minds of the contemporary reader, it is a single entity: neatly organized into books, chapters, and verses. Because of this, many people misunderstand the nature and history of the texts that come together to form the Bible. Add to this the fact that nearly everyone’s exposure to the Bible is in a translated version, and the opportunities for confusion grow.
The Bible is a book of books. Over many years, religious communities, like the one in Qumran, gathered and preserved their sacred texts. Those deemed to be most important were set apart. Over time, the larger religious community collected the texts that were widely acknowledged as ‘essential writings’ and they became the canon – an authoritative list of books that are accepted by the religious community to be Holy Scripture.
Back in the days when the Dead Sea Scrolls were first placed in those caves near Qumran, the Bible was a physically large collection of special scrolls. It is important to note that no part of what is now known as the New Testament had even been written when the earliest Dead Sea Scroll texts were made.
Many more years passed before the Christian community had gathered together an authoritative list of writings that were accepted as Holy Scripture, and which were added to the exisitng texts of the Hebrew Bible Canon. A New Understanding Of The Bible
The Bible as we know it today did not fall from the sky – indexed, cross-referenced, printed, and bound with a nice leather cover stamped with a gold cross. It grew out of the experiences of a living breathing community of people as an authoritative expression of their understanding of, and relationship with, God.
It is fascinating to imagine the history of these texts and the people who preserved them. Their form, and our understanding and relationship to it, have shifted over time. Knowing this history can open up a new level of understanding of the stories that have been preserved. Additional Dead Sea Scroll Resources
If you would like more information about the Dead Sea Scrolls, these sites are recommended by the authors of the Wikipedia entry on this subject:
- 25 Fascinating Facts About the Dead Sea Scrolls
- Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
- Basic Facts Regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls
- Timetable of the Discovery and Debate about the Dead Sea Scrolls
- Dead Sea Scrolls & Qumran
- The Dead Sea Scrolls (FARMS)
- Some of the scrolls can be seen inside the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem
- Library of Congress On-line Exhibit
- Guide with Hyperlinked Background Material to the Exhibit Ancient Treasures and the Dead Sea Scrolls Canadian Museum of Civilization
- Biblical Archeology – Articles about Biblical Archeology and Dead Sea Scrolls
- Open Scrolls Project – An ongoing effort to bring all the scrolls online in English translation.
- The Dead Sea Scrolls and Their Significance for Christianity (MP3), by Jim Hamilton (Evangelical presentation)
- The Importance of the Discoveries in the Judean Desert Israel Antiquities Authority
- Dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls by the University of Arizona
- F.F Bruce, Second Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls (1956) On-line book (PDF).