The Dead Sea Scrolls have captivated public imagination since their discovery over 70 years ago.
There are numerous theories about the origins of the scrolls and the community that produced them and how they relate to Christianity.
The Scrolls are no stranger to headline news. In the last year alone, a flurry of articles hit the press on topics ranging from hopes that new scrolls might be found to the shock of five scrolls from Museum of the Bible being deemed forgeries to, most recently, scientists discovering unusual chemical properties in the longest Dead Sea Scroll (read the scientific article or popular press article).
Given the importance of the scrolls for biblical studies alongside the somewhat sensational nature of information about the Scrolls on the web, this page aims to provide you with a balanced introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls, resources to help in further study, and a series of links to reliable information.
What Are the Dead Sea Scrolls?
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of over 100,000 fragments of papyrus and leather (sheep and goatskin), even forged copper, that scholars have pieced together into over 900 documents. The Dead Sea Scrolls are witness to an ancient library, which many scholars believe belonged to the Essenes (a Jewish sect living at Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea, about 8 miles south of Jericho and 15 miles east of Jerusalem). This library contained both biblical and non-biblical materials. Among the biblical manuscripts were a complete scroll of the prophet Isaiah (1QIsaa) as well as fragments of every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther.
Explore the complete scroll of Isaiah (1QIsaa) at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem by clicking the image below:
How does the Dead Sea Scrolls labeling system work?
Though the manuscript names can appear a formidable jargon, they are actually rather straightforward. Using the example of 1QIsaa: 1Q refers to the site (Qumran Cave 1), Isa refers to the name of the composition (Isaiah), and the final a, which is often superscript, means this is the first manuscript of the composition catalogued from this cave. Thus, if you were to come across 1QIsab, you now know that this is the second manuscript of Isaiah catalogued in Qumran Cave 1. Similarly, 4QDeutd, indicates that this is the fourth manuscript of Deuteronomy catalogued from Qumran Cave 4. It is important to remember that most manuscripts only contain smaller sections of text (e.g., in 4QDeutd we find only sections of Deuteronomy 2–4). The Great Isaiah Scroll, however, is called this because it’s a complete scroll, containing nearly the entire book of Isaiah. Other notable scrolls are commonly referred to by names relating to their content (e.g., “The Rule of the Congregation”) instead of their manuscript identifier (e.g., 1QS).
What does the Hebrew script of the Dead Sea Scrolls look like?
The two alphabetic rows are extrapolations from the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsa) as excerpted from Solomon A. Birnbaum, "The Qumran (Dead Sea) Scrolls and Palaeography" in American Schools of Oriental Research, Supplementary Studies 13–14 (1952).
How were the Scrolls discovered?
The first scrolls and fragments were discovered by two young Ta’mireh Bedouins while searching for a lost sheep or goat in a cave close to the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. The story goes that one of the boys, Muhammed ed-Dhib, threw a stone into the cave and heard the sound of pottery shattering. This led to the discovery of the first seven scrolls in what later became known as Cave 1.
For a brief introduction and some stunning aerial imagery of Qumran where the Scrolls were discovered, click above image.
Take a tour of Qumran with Archaeologist Jodi Magness (Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill): http://virtualqumran.huji.ac.il/index.htm
Which biblical texts were found at Qumran?
The highest numbers of Old Testament fragments come from the following books:
- Psalms (36)
- Deuteronomy (30)
- Isaiah (21)
- Genesis (20)
- Exodus (17)
- Leviticus (13)
As of 2019, there are 87 manuscripts that contain texts of the Torah, 54 manuscripts with texts from the Prophets, and 67 with material from the remainder of the Old Testament (the Writings).
What other materials were discovered at the Dead Sea?
In addition to the above Hebrew manuscript evidence, copies of Greek translations of the Old Testament and several manuscripts identified as targums (Aramaic translations of the Bible) have also been found at Qumran. Commentaries on biblical books (known as Pesharim) add to our knowledge of the text of the Old Testament at this stage of development.
In addition to fragments of biblical books, many important non-biblical texts of a sectarian nature were found in the Dead Sea Region. These reflect biblical interpretation and practices from a form of Judaism that did not survive the first Jewish revolt (in which the Second Temple was destroyed in AD 70). They also provide crucial background information for the study of early Christianity and early rabbinic Judaism.
Why are the Dead Sea Scrolls important?
- The Dead Sea Scrolls are now the oldest form of the Hebrew Old Testament. Prior to the discovery of the Scrolls in 1947, the oldest complete Hebrew manuscript of the Old Testament was the Leningrad Codex (which was copied in Cairo in AD 1008, often called the Masoretic Text or “MT”). The texts of the Hebrew Old Testament discovered at Qumran date from the third century BC to the first century AD. This transports us an entire millenia closer to the actual composition of the Scriptures themselves. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls contain a relatively small portion of the Hebrew Old Testament (compared to, for example, the Leningrad Codex). For this reason, though the Dead Sea Scrolls have improved our reading of the Old Testament, the Leningrad Codex (reflecting the Masoretic Text) remains our primary source for the text of the Old Testament.
- The Dead Sea Scrolls helped confirm that the Masoretic Text is more reliable than once thought. At one time, scholars imagined the Masoretic Text (our earliest Hebrew manuscript of the Bible before the Scrolls’ discovery) to be riddled with scribal errors and editorial changes. However, the differences between the biblical texts found at Qumran and the MT only rarely affect the meaning of a passage—such as differences in spelling or the addition or subtraction of a conjunction. This suggests that the greatest care was taken by the scribes who copied the Scriptures.
- The Dead Sea Scrolls led to a greater recognition of the importance of the Septuagint. There was once far greater debate about whether the Septuagint (an important Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) was an accurate, literal reading of a Hebrew text of the Old Testament or a paraphrase. The Dead Sea Scrolls helped confirm that the Septuagint is a literal translation of a Hebrew text that is somewhat different from the Masoretic Text.
Video Lectures about the Dead Sea Scrolls
An Introduction to the Biblical Material Found at Qumran
Presentation by Dr. Emanuel Tov (Oklahoma Christian University; April, 2014). Dr. Tov is a world renowned expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, has authored the award-winning Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible and served as editor of the “Discoveries of the Judaean Desert.”
Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls
Presentation by Dr. James C. VanderKam (Horn Museum Lectureship)
Dead Sea Scrolls Part 1: Voices of the Deserts (Biblical History Documentary)
A somewhat dated and dramatized but interesting introduction to the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Includes interviews with scholars such as Prof. Immanuel Tov (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Dr. Stephen Pfann (University of Holy Land, Jerusalem), Dr. Emile Puech (Ecole Biblique, Jerusalem), Dr. Marilyn Lundberg (West Semitic Research Project), and many others.
Jesus, the Scrolls, and the Divine Messiah
Presentation by Craig A. Evans, Professor of Christian Origins, Houston Theological Seminary
The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament
Presentation by Dr. Peter Flint, Professor of Religious Studies and Co-Director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at Trinity Western University
See how the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls can enrich biblical interpretation:
Biblical Dead Sea Scrolls
This interlinear edition of the biblical Hebrew Dead Sea Scrolls brings a new level of user-friendly functionality to this priceless collection of ancient texts.Learn More
This database provides transcriptions, morphological tagging, and English glosses for each word in every biblical Dead Sea Scroll (including the Greek fragments).Learn More