The Dead Sea Scrolls: How Were They Discovered and Why are They Important?

by John Bergsma January 08, 2019


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In the early spring of 1947, three Bedouin shepherds were, as it were, pastoring their flock along the shores of the Dead Sea. Now that seems a little bit oxymoronic because it really isn’t pasture on the shores of the Dead Sea, it is one of those most barren wastelands you will ever encounter — something like downtown Steubenville.  But anyway, there's nothing to eat and everything is noxious and the water is bad.  So it is a curiosity, why were these Bedouin shepherds watching over their flocks along the shores of the Dead Sea?  But, nonetheless they were for some reason, and to amuse himself, one of the shepherds, by the name of Muhammed edh-Dhib, started throwing stones into the cave mouths that lined the hills.  There were these large bluffs, as we will see in a moment, large limestone bluffs along the shores of the Dead Sea.  There are caves and openings, both natural and man-made up there, and he liked to throw rocks so he started throwing rocks into the cave entrances. 

He threw a rock into one of the caves and he heard something shatter inside the cave.  That was unusual because it wasn't expected that there would be anything in there to shatter.  Well he didn't investigate right away but the following day they were in a different location and he had some time so he went back to that cliff face and crawled into the case to investigate.  Inside the cave he found around a dozen clay jars.  Most of the jars were empty, one was full of dirt, the last jar contained three ancient scrolls.  These he pulled out not recognizing what they were, within a few months it became evident that one of the scrolls was a nearly complete manuscript of the book of Isaiah from around 200 BC.  Now the shock that that sent through the world of Bible scholarship was incredible, because prior to the discovery of that manuscript of Isaiah from this cave, the oldest Hebrew copies that we had had of any significant part of the Hebrew Bible was from around the late 900s AD.  So suddenly we have a manuscript nearly complete in almost perfect preservation of the entire book of Isaiah that's 1,200 years earlier than anything we have seen before. 

The other two scrolls that Muhammed edh-Dhib found were also very interesting in their own right.  One was a religious rule for community life, a document that has come to be called 1Q Serekh haYahad, that is Hebrew for rule of the community.  We are celebrating the feast day of St. Benedict today, like the rule of St. Benedict, this was their rule for their communal life.  As we are going to see, they were very much what we would think of as a monastic order.  The third scroll that he discovered was a commentary on Genesis, which we will talk about in a moment.  Okay, so that was 1947, that was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  It took several years for the initial scrolls to be published and then for all the scrolls to see the light of day, a total of 800 manuscripts.  It took all the way until the late 1990s for all the scrolls to be published and made available to scholars.  It was an enormous find and a lot of work had to go into that.

John Bergsma
John Bergsma