How to Read a Dead Sea Scroll

The Dead Sea Scrolls were first found in 1947 in Qumran by a Bedouin shepherd boy. He had tossed a stone into a cave and heard a clinking noise—the rock had hit a clay pot containing some of the scrolls. Since then, scrolls have been discovered in 11 caves in the area with tens of thousands of fragments dating between 300 BC and AD 70.

The Scrolls provided Old Testament manuscripts about 1,000 years older than the previous oldest manuscript.1 Some say it’s the most important archaeological discovery of all time.

In this video from the Mobile Ed Course The Dead Sea Scrolls, Andrew Perrin discusses how the Scrolls are named and numbered, so the next time you see that information, you’ll know which cave the scroll was found in, how many copies were found, and more.

Watch the video, or jump to the transcript below.

Before we get started on the actual content of the course, I want to just give you a brief crash course on how to read a Dead Sea Scroll. Of course, we’ll be reading all of these in translation, so I don’t mean how to read it in terms of their original language, but as we’ll see very quickly, even in our first sessions of the course, these scrolls are very fragmentary, and that means the way that translators and scholars present them to you requires certain nuances and creativity, but if you don’t know what you’re looking at, it can be very confusing.

So we’ll be reading a lot of these primary texts in translation. But what are some things you need to know about how to look up or reference a Dead Sea Scroll, as well as how to make sense of the translation?

Scroll names

So let’s talk first about scroll names. For scroll names, you might see a variety of different things. The scrolls, we’ll find out, were found in a number of different caves in the Judaean Desert. Most of them were associated with or [nearby] the site of Qumran. There’s about 930 scrolls, so scholars developed a system of numbering these scrolls that help[s] us understand which specific scroll we’re talking about and which cave it was found in.

So let’s look at one example: 1Q20. 1Q20—that scroll. That sigla means—that 1 means it was found in Qumran Cave 1, the first cave. Q stands for Qumran, so Qumran Cave 1. And 20 means it was about the twentieth manuscript assigned or found in that cave. So those four short figures, 1Q20, tell you a lot about where that scroll was found and where. Then, you need to go to look that up in software or in a resource.

But the scrolls not only have those kind of coded numbers [or] kind of their inventory numbers, [but] most of them also have a modern title. So 1Q20 is also known as the Genesis Apocryphon. And the Genesis Apocryphon is something that you’ll see described in this course or in the literature. A scholar or writer might say, “Go and read the Genesis Apocryphon”—it’s the same [as] saying, “Go look at 1Q20.” So know that for every scroll, we’re going to have that inventory archival number, like 1Q20, that’s telling about the cave, where it’s found, near Qumran (Q), as well as the number of manuscripts or the number of that manuscript from that specific cave, as well as a more kind of complete English contemporary title, like Genesis Apocryphon.

Reconstructed text

So let’s say we’ve gone out and we’ve found 1Q20 or the Genesis Apocryphon in a translation, and we want to go read it. What we’ll find there is a number of different things scholars are using to try to communicate to you certain things about the manuscript itself. Now, the scrolls are very fragmentary, so the way that this works out is a number of different ways in a translation.

Anytime that you see square brackets in the translation, that’s important. Things inside of the square brackets are reconstructed—that means that there’s something in the manuscript that was damaged or lost, and scholars had to either guess what words would have been there or they would have had to reconstruct them from another known manuscript. So for example, for a biblical scroll—let’s say we’re looking at a scroll of Isaiah—material from within those square brackets is reconstructed, probably on the basis of either another manuscript from Qumran or other biblical manuscripts we knew about:

This refers to the Lion of Wrath [. . . ven]geance against the Flattery-Seekers, because he used to hand men alive, [as it was done] in Israel in former times, for to anyone hanging alive on the tree (Deut. 21:22) [the verse app]lies: “Behold, I am against [you,] sa[ys the LORD of Hosts”].

—4Q169 Frags. 3–4 i:6–9

But for now, the most important thing to know is things within those square brackets are reconstructed; they’re not found on that specific manuscript if you were to go look at it in a museum for yourself.

Major gaps

Now, what if the text is lost completely [or if] there’s a major gap or a hole or something missing in the fragment, and we had no idea, either by guess or reconstruction, what words to put in that place?

Here’s where you’ll find ellipses—three dots, typically, or a series of dots—because that’s the way a given scholar or a translator is trying to communicate to you that the text is continuous [but] then there’s a gap, a break, a hole, [or] something’s missing [or] to be continued, and then the text picks up again:

This refers to the Lion of Wrath[. . . ven]geance against the Flattery-Seekers.

—4Q 6–7

Fragmentary material

So as you’re reading a Dead Sea Scroll, quite often it can feel a little bit glitchy. It can feel like you’re reading a bunch of sentence fragments, and the reason for that is [that,] at times, we deal with complete scrolls, but most often we’re dealing with fragments of scrolls. So if it feels like sentence fragments, it’s because it’s literally fragmentary material behind the translation.

So when you’re reading the text for this course on your own, just be aware of some of those things. As you look them up, you might be looking them up either by that number 1Q20, for example, or you might hear text referred to from time to time by a more complete title like Genesis Apocryphon.

[Those are] a few things to know about when we are now trying to understand how to read a scroll.

Multiple copies

But what about those scrolls that were found in more than one copy? We only have one example of the Genesis Apocryphon, but as we’ll see later in the course, we have, like, 22 copies of fragmentary scrolls of Isaiah. How do scholars deal with that? Well, we would still have the same number-Q-number approach to the actual sigla—and that just means the actual archival number—but then scholars would use, in that English title, a more complete referencing system. So let me show you what I mean by that.

Sometimes those English titles for, like, Isaiah would say 4QIsaiaha with the “a” superscripted, or 4QIsaiahb or c or d. And what that’s telling you there is, again, Cave 4, Q from Qumran, Isaiah—the book of Isaiah—and those superscripted [letters] are telling you, this is copy one, copy A, copy 2, copy B, C, D—all the way down to as many copies were found in that cave.


So when we are talking about reading a Dead Sea Scroll, part of our challenge is actually reading the words on the page. But honestly, part of the bigger challenge is trying to find the text that you’re looking for at times because these scrolls are so many and so fragmentary, it can be a little bit difficult—even daunting—knowing where to start. Now again, we’re going to be reading all the texts for this course in English translations. You don’t have to worry about what, then, goes into reading a Dead Sea Scroll in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, but hopefully, that gives you a better sense of how to fare through these readings in a way that you can actually read them on your own without being just confused by some of these symbols throughout and around the text and in the referencing system.


This excerpt has been adapted from the Mobile Ed course The Dead Sea Scrolls by Andrew Perrin.




Related articles

Ad reading "Free Course. The Gospel Message in the Early Church"

  1. Wood, Bryant. Associates for Biblical Research, “What is the most important discovery in the history of biblical archaeology?” 05 September 2017.
Written by
Guest Author

This post was written by a Logos guest author. Logos Bible Software helps pastors, scholars, and other Christians get more out of their Bible study.

View all articles

Your email address has been added

Written by Guest Author