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DALL·E 2024-04-23 15.05.43 - The scene captures a young Bedouin man standing at the entran
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Your Instructor: Jeff Spence, B.Ed, M.A. M.Sc

(About the Author)

Module One

The Discovery

The discovery of the first Dead Sea Scrolls is one of the most gripping stories in archeology. The story began late in 1946 or early in 1947, near the ancient settlement of Qumran. Qumran is located on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, in what is now called the West Bank.

The discovery was made by a young Bedouin shepherd named Muhammed edh-Dhib, or "Muhammad the Wolf." While tending to his flock, Muhammad noticed an animal was missing. While looking for it, he threw a rock into one of the limestone caves in the area, in case it was hiding in the cool shade inside. Instead of hearing the bleating of a startled sheep, or the crack of echoing stone on stone, he heard the sound of breaking pottery. Curious about the noise, he entered the cave and found a collection of large clay jars, some of which were sealed with pitch.

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"Muhammad the Wolf."

Muhammed edh-Dhib, the Bedouin shepherd who found the first scroll cave. This picture was taken some years after the discovery.

He immediately thought he had found treasure – gold or silver, maybe something even more precious!

To his disappointment, instead of finding the treasure he hoped for, Muhammad found scrolls wrapped in linen inside the jars. It was still treasure though, as these scrolls were later identified as some of the oldest known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible and other religious texts, dating from the third century BCE to the first century CE. That is 300 years before the birth of Jesus, to some a few years after he lived.

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One of the scroll jars from Qumran.

Pottery jar from Qumran, before 68 AD, h. 43 cm, diam. 21 cm. 3 horizontal lugs on the shoulders pierced with holes through which a string could be passed to retain the lid in position, lid now missing.

Initially, the significance of the scrolls was not recognized. Muhammad and his fellow Bedouins removed the scrolls from the cave, hoping to sell them for a modest sum. The first scrolls he found were the Isaiah Scroll (a book later included in the Torah and Christian Old Testament), the Habakkuk Commentary (a scholar or leader’s comments on a book later included in the Torah and Christian Old Testament), and the Community Rule Scroll, a document written by the people who hid the scrolls, and which details the rules they lived by… but more on that later!

The scrolls changed hands several times before coming to the attention of scholars. One of the first to recognize their value was Khalil Iskander Shahin, known to most as Kando. Kando was a cobbler and antiques dealer in Bethlehem. He bought the scrolls from the Bedouins for seven Jordanian pounds (approximately $28, or $382 in 2023 dollars), and then sold them to Archbishop Samuel, the head of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem. The purchase value of the scrolls quickly rose into six figures and would now fetch much more, though it is extremely rare that an owner is willing to sell one.

The scrolls attracted scholarly attention in 1947 when they were shown to Eliezer Lipa Sukenik of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who immediately recognized their approximate age and significance. He was able to acquire some of the scrolls for the university. Meanwhile, John C. Trever, a scholar from the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), became aware of the scrolls owned by the Syrian Orthodox Church. He compared them to the Nash Papyrus, the oldest known biblical manuscript at the time, and saw some intriguing similarities. He also photographed them extensively, which helped in their identification and study.


The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is considered one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. It has provided invaluable insight into the history of the Hebrew Bible, the early Jewish movements and communities of the Second Temple period, and the development of early Christianity.


The initial find led to further explorations, eventually uncovering a total of 12 caves in the area and around a hundred thousand fragments from nearly 1,000 different manuscripts.

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The Site of the First Discovery

The first of 12 caves in which scrolls have thus far been found. This one, the one into which Muhammed edh-Dhib "The Wolf" threw the stone, is known as Cave 1.


Importance of the Scrolls to Biblical Scholarship


The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered between 1947 and 1956 in the Qumran Caves near the Dead Sea, represent one of the most significant archaeological finds of the 20th century for biblical scholarship and the study of the Second Temple period. These ancient manuscripts have dramatically impacted our understanding of the Bible, the history of Judaism, and the context of early Christianity.

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The Community Rule

This is a copy of the Community Rule, a document that details many of the beliefs and expectations of the Essene men that are beleived to have lived at Qumran. It is thought by most scholars that these men wrote some of the scrolls (Sectarian Scrolls), and collected the rest.


The importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls to biblical scholarship cannot be overstated. Before their discovery, the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible dated to around 1000 AD. The Dead Sea Scrolls pushed this date back by a millennium, to the 2nd century BC, providing scholars with texts that were closer to the original autographs. This was revolutionary, as it allowed for a comparative study between the received Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible and the textual variants present in the Scrolls. Through this comparison, scholars have gained insights into the transmission process of the biblical text, noting where it has remained remarkably consistent and where variations have occurred.

The Scrolls contain every book of the Hebrew Bible except the Book of Esther, offering a wealth of data for textual criticism. For example, the Isaiah Scroll from Qumran is essentially identical to the Masoretic Text, affirming the reliability of the traditional Hebrew text. However, variations in other texts, such as the books of Exodus and Samuel, have shed light on how scribes transmitted texts throughout the centuries. This has allowed biblical scholars to better understand the development of the biblical canon and the textual history of the Old Testament.

Beyond the biblical texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls include a vast array of sectarian writings, commentaries, apocalyptic literature, and works that were previously unknown. These documents provide a window into the religious beliefs, practices, and community life of a Jewish sect, often identified as the Essenes, who lived in the Qumran region during the Second Temple period. The sectarian texts, such as the Community Rule, the War Scroll, and the Thanksgiving Hymns, offer insights into the theological perspectives, eschatological expectations, and communal regulations of the group, highlighting the diversity of Jewish thought and practice in this era.

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The historical context of the Second Temple period, a time of significant religious development and political change, is crucial for understanding the background of both the Scrolls and the New Testament. This era saw the rise of various Jewish sects, including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and the early Christian movement, each with its own interpretation of Jewish law and tradition. The Dead Sea Scrolls provide firsthand evidence of the religious diversity that characterized this period, showing a range of beliefs about messianism, the afterlife, ritual purity, and the interpretation of Scripture.


The West Bank and the Second Temple Period

Jeff Spence explains the location of the West Bank, the reason the Qumran Essenes were likely living there, and the meaning of the term Second Temple period.

The Scrolls have also illuminated the Second Temple period's socio-political landscape, marked by the Hasmonean dynasty and the Roman occupation of Judea. They offer insights into the community's views on these political powers, including their resistance to foreign rule and their hope for divine intervention in history. This context is essential for understanding the New Testament, as the early Christian texts were written against the backdrop of these same socio-political and religious dynamics.

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Jesus in the Desert with Disciples

An artistic rendition of Jesus walking in the deserts around Judea.

In terms of the historical Jesus and early Christianity, the Dead Sea Scrolls have provided valuable comparative material. Scholars have noted parallels in language, themes, and religious practices between the Qumran community and the New Testament writings, suggesting commonalities in the broader Jewish milieu from which Christianity emerged. For example, the emphasis on community life, shared meals, and ritual purity in the Scrolls has parallels in the practices of the early Christian communities.

Moreover, the apocalyptic and messianic themes found in the Scrolls echo the New Testament's eschatological expectations, providing a broader context for understanding Jesus' teachings and the apocalyptic fervor of the time. The Scrolls have thus enriched our understanding of the beliefs and expectations that shaped the world of Jesus and the early Christians.

The study of the Dead Sea Scrolls has also influenced theological reflections on Scripture's authority and interpretation. The textual variations found in the Scrolls have led to discussions about the nature of scriptural inspiration and the process of canonization, prompting scholars and theologians to consider how divine revelation is transmitted and preserved in human language.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been indispensable to biblical scholarship and our understanding of the Second Temple period. They have provided unprecedented textual and historical data that has deepened our understanding of the Bible, the development of Jewish religious thought, and the historical context of early Christianity. The Scrolls continue to be a treasure trove for scholars, offering fresh insights into the ancient world and prompting ongoing reflection on the origins and meanings of the biblical texts.

DALL·E 2024-04-27 15.04.08 - A detailed, photographic-style image of a scholar carefully examining a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The setting is a well-lit, modern laboratory.webp


Overview of the Contents of the Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls, comprised of thousands of fragments from hundreds of manuscripts, contain a rich collection of texts that include biblical manuscripts, apocryphal or pseudepigraphal works, and sectarian documents, which we will look at in more detail in the following modules. These texts, dating from the third century BCE to the first century CE, provide a multifaceted view of Jewish religious life and thought during the Second Temple period.


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Important Dates?

The date of their placement in the caves is important. They were buried during the time of Jesus and in the preceding few hundred years. This means that they reflect the world as Jesus saw it, before the conflict between the Christians and the Jews split the religion into two separate (common) religions. After this point, the "Before Common Era" (BCE) became the "Common Era" (CE) of Judaism and Christianity.

Since that time there have been arguments, debates, and scholarly disagreement as to how much the Scriptures have changed over the years, which version is "original," and which ones are in error.

The answer may be surprising to many.

We'll look into this further in Module 2, when we explore the manuscripts that became part of modern bibles.


The Dead Sea Scrolls are a vast and diverse collection of texts that together illuminate the religious, cultural, and textual history of the Second Temple period. Through the biblical manuscripts, they provide a critical foundation for textual criticism and the study of the Hebrew Bible. The apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works expand the horizons of Jewish literature and thought, while the sectarian writings offer an unprecedented look at the life and beliefs of a unique Jewish community. Collectively, these texts not only enrich our understanding of Jewish history and religion but also offer profound insights into the roots of Christian origins and the broader Judeo-Christian tradition.


Refresh your memories...

Complete the content questions in Module 1 of the workbook.

This can be done in writing, or aloud as a group.


Useful for Next Time:

  • Familiarize yourself with the books of the modern Old Testament.

  • Compare the table of contents between Catholic and Protestant Old Testaments, and the Hebrew Bible. (You can find this information online.

You don't need to memorize any of this; just notice the differences. We will discuss it in the next module.


Once you are finished this module, you are ready to move on to Module 2.

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