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Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls November 13, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Philosophy and Religion, Travel.
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Caves at Qumran

We had traveled south from Jerusalem along the Jordan River to the Dead Sea to get to Masada, which is on the west side of the southern part of the sea. Driving back north along the western shore of the Dead Sea, we stopped at Khirbet Qumran. This is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947 by a young Bedouin shepherd boy who, while searching for a lost sheep, threw a stone into a cave in the limestone cliffs near Qumran. He heard something shatter, investigated, and found several of the clay jars that contained the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls contains hundreds of pieces of Biblical text, as well as extrabiblical writings. Naturally, they get their name from the fact that they were found near the Dead Sea. Soon after the boy’s discovery, hundreds more scrolls were found in ten additional caves nearby. We saw from a distance to a number of these caves, and we toured through the archeological site where the scribes — likely the Essenes, a monk-like sect alongside the Sadducees and Pharisees — copied the scrolls, handing them down from generation to generation.

The Dead Sea Scrolls contained ancient copies of the Bible, in fact several copies of almost every book of the Old Testament. Many people think that the Bible has changed over time or that there isn’t much evidence to support the authenticity of scripture. Without reading the Bible or doing any research for themselves, they assume that it is unreliable as an historic non-fictional text. This is simply isn’t true. The Bible has passed more historic, literary, archeological, and other tests by far than any other book in the history of mankind – fiction or non-fiction – in terms of determining its authenticity. Tens of thousands of manuscripts exist, all nearly identical. Differences and discrepancies are all noted in the Biblical text even today. If you pick up a Bible and casually flip through it, you will notice that debated words and phrases are all footnoted and alternate possible words / phrases are included in the footnotes. I’m aware of no other book like that. In my mind, this underscores the reasonableness of belief in the authenticity of Scripture, but you have to be willing to believe it. Many don’t believe in God or Jesus or the Bible because they choose not to, not because there isn’t evidence or because reason to believe doesn’t exist.

More than 15,000 fragments of manuscripts where found in Qumran from 1947-1955 and are now called the Dead Sea Scrolls. These were assembled into 530 separate and distinct scrolls, a few of which were complete scrolls, but most were just larger overlapping fragments. Until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, the oldest Biblical manuscripts dating back to the 7th or 8th century AD or so. For decades, historians routinely questioned these documents claiming that they were likely quite different from the original texts of Scripture, if not made up all together. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls proved that these manuscripts existed over 1,000 years earlier (back to ~ 150 BC) and were virtually identical to the Septuagint and other Masoretic texts that were found earlier but dated to times much later than the DSS. Again, no other ancient text enjoys this level of authentication. For comparison, there are 24,000 copies of New Testament manuscripts. Compare that with the following other ancient non-fictional texts…

Work When Written Earliest Copy Time Span Copies
Caesar’s
Gallic Wars

100-44 BC

900 AD

1,000 yrs

10
Plato’s
Tetralogies

427-347 BC

900 AD

1,200 yrs

7
Tacitus’
Annals

100 AD

1100 AD

1,000 yrs

20
Pliny’s
Histories

61-113 AD

850 AD

750 yrs

7
Herodotus’
History

480-425 BC

900 AD

1,300 yrs

8
New Testament
40-70 AD

180 AD

120 yrs

24,000

I’ve always heard that Homer’s “The Odyssey” was second place to the Bible in terms of number of manuscripts, but I was unable to find that information online when I searched for it. But compare any of the above texts to the Bible, and it’s clear that the Bible stands in a league of its own. At some point, it seems like the historicity of the Bible would be no longer questioned, but that’s not going to happen. The Bible itself predicts that there will always be false prophets (those who claim to speak for God but really don’t or who interpret His Word falsely, with or without malicious intent). See Matthew 24, 2 Peter 2, and 1 John 4, for example.

But I digress. Back to Qumran…

I took several pictures of placards at Qumran describing what archeologists had discovered there. They described how the discovery of benches, tables, and ink wells clearly indicated the rooms where monks had spent their lives copying Scripture. The Essene monks worked their entire lives to make only a few copies of the Bible in their lifetimes. In 68 BC, when Roman troops marched against Qumran during the First Jewish-Roman War, the scribes placed their scrolls – literally their lives’ work – in clay jars and hid them in secret caves in the hills of Qumran.

Scholars believe that a Roman soldier discovered at least some of the scrolls during the war, and purposefully tore them into smaller pieces, accounting for the many thousands of fragments. Of course, the ravages of time and animals likely contributed to this phenomenon as well. Even after the discovery of the scrolls, it took a while for scholars to effectively apply a process of chemically bathing the scrolls to restore them to a state that they could be unrolled and read. Imagine a 1,000 year old piece of parchment and how elaborate the process of simply unrolling such a scroll (without its crumbling to bits) would be! In fact, it took almost 50 years for scientists to fully process all 15,000 fragments found in Qumran. This unbelievably massive archeological task was completed in 2001.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the entire experience for me was thinking about the dedication and diligence of the monks. Can you imagine spending your whole life – day after day after day – copying the Bible? I thought about how I would feel such a weight of responsibility to work with precision – how careful I would want to be in my work – as worship to God. But isn’t that how all our work should be? God calls us to the careful study of His Word and the careful execution of our daily responsibilities in our jobs, whatever they are. Both can and should be worship to God. Unfortunately, I rarely take such care in my work, and I feel like I’m doing well when I even just read the Bible consistently for a few days in a row.

Being at Qumran and thinking about the Scribes who copied Scripture there makes me want to be more faithful in my study of God’s Word and in worshipping God through my work. May it be so for all of us.

For more information about the Dead Sea Scrolls, see: http://mi.byu.edu/dss/

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