Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist
The following notes are from Rev. Nancy Donnelly's presentation of April 30, 2006.
THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS
Isaiah 40:8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
In the Dead Sea Scrolls, we have some of these words that have survived,
if not forever, at least for over 2000 years
Story of Finding the Scrolls
It was February 1947.
A young Bedouin shepherd is searching for a lost goat
among the dry riverbeds
of the arid wilderness northwest of the Dead Sea.
He tosses a stone into a cave and hears a cracking sound.
It is the sound of a jar breaking.
We are never told if the shepherd found his missing goat,
a valuable possession.
But the 7 scrolls found the next day were priceless.
The Bedouin shepherds,
did not know what they had found,
so they took their findings to Bethlehem,
to a cobbler nicknamed Kando,
who dealt with antiquities in the back of his shop.
At that time Kando was not very knowledgeable,
but he started looking for ways to sell the scrolls.
Several months later,
when scholars saw them, they asked. “Are they authentic?”
This was settled when American archeologist, William Albright,
saw a photo of a fragment of the scrolls,
recognized the writing,
and declared that the scrolls were genuine and about 2000 years old.
Getting possession of the scrolls was another story;
a real cloak and dagger story.
Do you remember November 1947?
It was a time of great tension in the Middle East.
The nation of Israel was being formed.
Jerusalem was under siege by the Arabs.
and war was immanent.
Dr. Sukenik, one of the Hebrew scholars who had seen the scrolls,
wanted to buy them for the Hebrew University.
He raised the money; he even mortgaged his own home.
The problem was that he would have to travel to Bethlehem,
an Arab city.
“No,” said his son, Yigdal Yadin, the head of the Israeli shadow army,
“it is too dangerous. Don’t do it.”
Did the father listen? Thankfully no.
He got a pass to go through the line,
to the Arab part of divided Jerusalem.
There he boarded a bus to Bethlehem,
the only Jew on the bus,
and he returned safely,
carrying three scrolls in a brown paper wrapper.
The very next day, the UN, by a 2/3 majority,
voted to make Israel an independent state.
The other 4 scrolls ended up in the possession of an Assyrian cleric,
the Metropolitan Samuel,
and Israeli scholars were unable to negotiate their purchase.
In 1954, the Metropolitan took them to New York,
where he eventually placed a blind ad in the Wall Street Journal.
It so happened that Yadin was in New York.
He knew that the Metropolitan would not sell to an Israeli,
so he negotiated through a front, a fictitious Mr. Green.
and bought them for $250,000.
So finally, all 7 scrolls were in Israeli hands.
After the first seven scrolls were found, a year passed
before a systematic search of the area began.
In 1949, the original cave was located in Qumran.
1951 to 1956 was a time of intense searching for caves
as well as excavation of sites.
Eventually 11 caves yielded manuscripts.
Most of these scripts are now in Jerusalem,
but the unique copper scroll is in Jordan.
The scrolls and their contents
What are these scrolls?
There are over 900+ fragments of the scroll manuscripts.
They come in all sizes, from the 28 foot long Temple Scroll
to minute pieces.
There are multiple copies of Isaiah, Psalms, Deuteronomy, Genesis, and Jubilees.
The language of the scrolls is primarily an ancient Hebrew,
which was used mostly in priestly circles.
and was different from the ordinary Hebrew used at the time.
Second in frequency is Aramaic,
which had become
the common language after the exile.
Thirdly, a small number are written in Greek.
Most of the writings can be dated
by their characteristics and shapes
to between 167 BCE to 70 CE.
The texts were mostly written on leather parchment,
Some were rolled up, wrapped in linen,
and stored in pottery jars sealed with covers.
Other fragments were found lying on the ground.
A few were written on papyrus.
One text was even written on a pottery shard.
There are also 2 unusual scrolls written on copper.
The scroll contents consist of 4 kinds of materials.
except Esther has been found.
(Esther, you may know, is the only book which does not contain the name
There are complete texts of Isaiah.
There are also commentaries on scripture.
The apocrapha are books not in the canon but are a kind of supplement.
(ex. Jubilees, which was very important to them, Testament of the 12
Pseudepigrapha are books written in somebody else’s name;
often the biblical heroes were used. (ex. Noah, Enoch)
about the life of the community. (ex. War Scroll, Damascus document, Manual of Discipline, Temple Scroll)
and are written in a Hebrew dialect and writing
that is different from any other scroll.
Scholars think it was written by someone other than an Essene.
Although found in Cave 3, they were not in jars,
nor were they near the others.
They were rolled up and found lying on a rock shelf in the back.
The contents are a list of 64 locations,
followed by a quantity of valuables.
Mostly these valuables are silver or gold,
and it’s a huge quantity;
it is truckloads of material—tons.
Most scholars believe that this is a map to
the Jerusalem temple treasures,
hidden just before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 68 CE.
However, no one has been able to locate the sites.
A sample direction:
“In the funerary shrine of Ben Rabbah the Shalishite,
100 bars of gold.”
How can you find that?
Who wrote the scrolls, and who are they?
Nobody really knows.
Many scholars believe the writers were Essenes,
but were not necessarily living nearby.
However Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots have all been considered.
More and more scholars now believe that the scrolls
did not originate in Qumran, even though inkwells were found there.
Some think that during the mid 1st century,
the scrolls were hidden in the caves,
by Jews fleeing Jerusalem at the time of the Roman invasion,
who hoped to save their precious libraries.
Let me give you a little historical background …
About 200 BCE,
Palestine was taken over by their neighboring Greek Selucids
There was a lot of conflict between the Jews who took different sides,
and between the Jews and the Hellenistic rulers.
The conflict was both political and religious.
It eventually led to the Maccabean war.
The Romans conquered Palestine in 63 BCE.
The Jews hated the Romans,
and eventually this led to war,
which ended with the destruction of Jerusalem
and complete control of the country in 68-70 CE.
At the time of the Maccabean rule,
there was a lot of religious turmoil,
and from this, different religious movements developed.
One was the Essenes.
The Essenes were a very devout, conservative Judaic sect,
who were greatly disturbed
that the hereditary office of high priest was usurped
by the ruling Maccabean princes,
who had no right to it.
Because of their opposition,
they were persecuted,
and this influenced their theology and writings,
and eventually drove them into the desert,
where they could be
“separate from the congregation of perverse men.”
The Essenes followed the Torah closely,
and believed they were the only ones of God’s people
who were true believers,
thus they were anti-temple, and anti-establishment.
Their community persisted for the next 2 centuries,
busy with study and a communal life that included
prayer, worship, and work.
They pooled their resources,
and turned over all property when they joined,
but only after a probationary period.
Every year they held a covenantal ceremony
when they took in new members.
At this time the old members renewed their pledge.
It seems that some were celibate,
but the cemetery containing both
female and children’s bodies,
points to marriage as accepted to some degree.
So do scroll writings referring to wives and mothers.
Listen to what Josephus says. (Read Josephus quote)
After the scrolls were found,
archeologists located a community settlement at Qumran,
on a plateau above the caves,
and began excavations.
They discovered several layers,
the most recent was founded in the second half of the 2nd century BCE,
during the time of the Maccabean dynasty,
and destroyed in 68 CE.
Both Josephus and Pliny the Elder attest to Essenes
living near the Dead Sea. (read Pliny quote)
Originally most scholars thought this was the site of the Essenes,
but there has always been disagreement,
since there is no firm archeological evidence confirming that.
Some think Qumran was a manor house; others a military fort
Some think Qumran was a publishing house of sorts,
because of the great diversity of material found.
People did not live at Qumran,
it was a communal center for work and meetings.
Numerous caves in the area show signs of habitation,
and scholars think this is where they lived,
and perhaps they also utilized tents.
Some caves contained pottery,
made from the same clay as found in Qumran,
thus confirming the link between the two.
But it is not known exactly what this link means.
There were other settlements along the banks of the Dead Sea,
and scrolls have also been found in other caves,
and some scholars think they are what Josephus and Pliny attested.
Essenes also lived in towns and cities.
Jerusalem had a gate called the Essene gate,
and it is believed there was an Essene section of the city.
The Significance of the Scrolls
Why are these scrolls so important?
They have made a great impact on studies
in Judaism, Christianity, and the inter-testamentary period,
(the time between the end of the Hebrew scriptures and the NT)
For Judaism: the Scrolls have been revolutionary in understanding early Judaism
Prior to the Scrolls,
it was thought that there was 1 normative stream of Judaism
from the time of Ezra, when the Jews returned from Babylon,
to the time of the rabbis.
The Scrolls revealed that instead there were diverse strands of Judaism
in this period, with diverse religious beliefs and practices.
There were bitter controversies over Law and the Temple.
There were concerns with how Israel was to be holy,
and the Essenes tried to be even more holy than the rest.
There was a wider belief in the end of the world than had been thought before.
There was not a uniform belief in one sort of Messiah.
The Essenes had a solar calendar,
as opposed to the prevailing lunar calendar.
The festivals and Sabbaths of the 2 calendars would fall on different days.
How were the 2 calendars reconciled?
We don’t know.
So scholars have had to rethink their concepts and theories
of what is now seen as a critical time.
No New Testament writings have been found in the Scrolls,
nor is there any mention of Jesus.
That was disappointing for Christians.
The major importance is that the writings
give background to words and ideas in the NT.
There is a shared culture.
Like the Essenes the NT has a vision of an ideal Israel
and they are both messianic.
They share an ideal of a communal lifestyle,
and they regarded poverty as a value, instead of a disgrace.
They interpret events pertaining to the end time in a similar fashion.
particularly the book of Revelations and the New Jerusalem text
from caves 1 and 4.
There is some shared language.
Both the Gospel of John and the scrolls
refer to sons of light and sons of darkness.
Some think that John the Baptist, and James,
the brother of Jesus, probably were Essenes.
Some of Jesus’ thought was similar to the Essenes, ex. Divorce.
However the Essenes were an inward focused group,
while the Christians turned outward to the Gentiles.
Prior to the scrolls, Christianity was described as having developed from
Judaism was the parent, and Christianity the daughter.
Now we know there was no normative Judaism;
there was diversity.
Christianity and Judaism are both descended from the same matrix
of early Judaism.
The Scrolls are the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures,
1000+ years older than the scriptures at Leningrad and Aleppo.
They have been used to verify the translations of the LXX,
the Hebrew Scriptures written in Greek about 300 BCE.
The newer versions of the Bible have used some of the scroll
translations in the texts.
The perspective of scholars has changed and has broadened.
No serious Biblical or Jewish scholar can ignore the scrolls.
The riddles of the scrolls have not been solved
and understanding these texts still remains for the future.
Scholars will be busy a long time.
Last year, Tom and I saw an exhibition of the Scrolls in Mobile AL. They were encased in lucite boxes that had controlled humidity and temperature, which were monitored both in Mobile and remotely in Jerusalem. The light in the area was dimmed, and harmful light rays were screened out. No photography, no bags or purses were allowed. We saw a large fragment of Dt, with the ten commandments, about 3-4 feet long, a complete psalm, and a number of other smaller fragments. It was very moving. People had tears in their eyes. I had tears in my eyes. We saw samples of pottery, a scroll type jar, and a leather sandal from the caves that had been excavated. It was a memorable experience for us.
It cost the museum $2 million dollars to mount the 90 day exhibition. The scrolls were brought unannounced in sections at different times, and were accompanied by an armed guard for every curator. Of course Mobile had armed security about. We also passed through a security check, like at the airports.
Invite them to view the table.
Pliny the Elder: from Natural History
On the west side of the Dead Sea, but out of range of the noxious exhalations on the coast, is a solitary tribe of the Essenes, which is remarkable beyond all the other tribes in the whole world, as it has no women and has renounced all sexual desire, has no money, and has only palm trees for company. Day by day the throng of refugees is recruited to an equal number by numerous accessions of persons tired of life and driven thither by the ways of fortune to adopt their manners. Thus through thousands of ages—incredible to relate—a race in which no one is born lives on forever. So prolific for their advantages is other men’s weariness of life!
Josephus: from War
Those desiring to enter the sect do not obtain immediate admittance. This person waits outside for one year. The same way of life is taught to him and he is given a hatchet, the loin-cloth which I have mentioned, and a white garment. Having proven his continence during this time, he comes closer to their way of life and participates in the purificatory baths at a higher level, but he is not yet completely integrated. But after he has demonstrated his constancy, his character is tested for two more years, and if he appears holy he is accepted into the group. But before touching the common food, he makes solemn vows before his brothers.
We receive fragments of holiness,
glimpses of eternity,
brief moments of insight.
Let us gather them up
for the precious gifts that they are,
and renewed by their grace,
move boldly into the unknown.