In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd boy was in the Judean wilderness southeast of Jerusalem near the Dead Sea, taking care of some of his family’s flock of goats, when one of the goats wandered off. The limestone cliffs there are studded with dozens of small caves, and the boy didn’t feel like climbing up there to look in every cave, so he started throwing rocks into the caves, figuring he could hit the goat and drive it out. But he was startled when one of his throws brought a “crash” of breaking pottery.
He had just made the most important historical find of the 20th century: the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The scrolls opened for us a window into the past, to a Jewish sect known as the Essenes, who lived in the desert community of Qumran, near the NW corner of the Dead Sea. Not as large as other, better-known groups from the time of Christ like the Pharisees or Sadducees, the Essenes believed in strict personal holiness, sexual purity, and rejected wealth and worldly pursuits. They practiced daily immersion as a symbol of purity, and lived as a separate community, calling themselves the “Sons of Light” and looking for the Messiah.
John the Baptist may well have been their most famous member.
They had a large collection of Biblical and non-Biblical scrolls, which they studied regularly. So, when they saw Jerusalem being destroyed in AD 70, they took their precious scrolls, put them in large clay jars, and hid them in the caves above their community. The Essenes were pretty much scattered by the Roman occupation, and so the scrolls sat in those jars, in that dry desert heat, for nearly 2000 years.
The scrolls are important for Biblical scholarship because before their discovery, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts only dated back to about AD 1000 – that’s over 1400 years since the last book of the Old Testament was written. That’s a long time, skeptics said – too long to have any faith that the Old Testament (or Tanakh, in Jewish terms) could be trusted to be reliable.
Most of the Qumran scrolls, with a few notable exceptions, had deteriorated to being no more than fragments, a few inches in size. But scholars were still able to read them, to piece them together, and to determine which OT books they represented. And they found parts of every book of the Hebrew scriptures except Esther. Carbon dating and other methods confirmed that some of the scrolls dated back to about 200 BC.
When they compared the text of the scrolls to that of known Hebrew manuscripts, they found, even after 1,200 years of hand-copying, there was over 95% agreement between the documents! And a majority of the differences represented only variations in spelling or other minor changes; none of the variations involved any texts with doctrinal significance.
I’ve been to the Museum of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem, and I have to say how thrilling it is to actually see some of these ancient fragments of scripture. One of the most fascinating parts, to me at least, was to notice the wrinkling and cracking of the ancient leather parchment; it looked just like the wrinkling of an old leather glove.
One final thought: perhaps the single most important discovery of the DSS was a near-perfect copy of the complete book of Isaiah. So hear again the words of the ancient prophet, from Isaiah 40:8 – “The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”