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The Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran's Hidden Wisdom

Few archeological finds have provoked more controversy about or revealed more insight into the ancient world than the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

Qumran caves of the Dead Sea ScrollsThe Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered in 1947 in a desolate warren of caves at Qumran by Bedouin shepherds. Chasing a wayward goat into the caves, the Bedouin discovered several ancient clay jars sealed with wax. Inside the jars were scrolls of leather and papyrus. The Bedouin knew such items fetched good prices from the antiquarian dealers of major cities. They brought the jars and scrolls to Bethlehem and sold several of them to a cobbler called Khalil Eskander Shahnin, known to his friends as “Kando.”
Kando recognized that the writing of the scrolls was both Hebrew and Aramaic, and surmised that they might be very old indeed. He sold three to the Syrian Metropolitan Samuel of St. Mark’s Church in Jerusalem. At the same time, an archeologist of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, Eleazar Sukenik also purchased two of the scrolls. Unlike the Metropolitan, Sukenik did not have to guess or hope; he immediately recognized that the manuscripts were the oldest surviving Hebrew texts by almost a thousand years.
The Curse of Bad Timing for the Dead Sea Scrolls
Unfortunate timing and bad coincidences seem to dog the fate of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Their initial discovery in 1947 coincided with the United Nations Resolution to create the State of Israel, causing an immediate upset in the delicate peace forged in the region by the British Mandate. The ensuing street-by-street battle for Jerusalem, which broke out between the nascent Israelis and their neighbors, made it difficult for dealers such as Kando and their potential clients to travel throughout the city, let alone to the caves at Qumran. 
Attempts by the Metropolitan to contact American scholars at ASOR, The American School of Oriental Research, were beset with mishap. Cooperation was hindered by mutual mistrust, and the two parties pursued separate paths to publishing the findings, with ASOR making the first announcement in 1948. 
Over the next decade, the Bedouin ransacked the caves at Qumran, finding more scrolls and tens of thousands of fragments of former scrolls. Some, as The New Yorker’s Edmund Wilson reported in 1955 “…range in size from morsels as large as your hand, which may include a whole column, to crumbs with a single letter.” British officials carried out a systemic 72-hour search of the Qumran Caves. An international team of Biblical scholars and archeologists, under the leadership of Père Roland de Vaux of the French Catholic Ècole Biblique was assembled at the Palestine Archeological Museum. Today it is known as the John D. Rockefeller Museum, named for the millionaire philanthropist who initially donated the funds to research the scrolls.
Dating and Interpreting the Dead Sea Scrolls
De Vaux and his team carried out the painstaking process of fitting fragments together and analyzing those scrolls, which had been preserved intact in the sealed jars. What began to emerge was a group of documents (800-950 in total) from three distinct periods of Jewish history: The Archaic (250-150 B.C.E.), the Hasmonean (150-30 B.C.E.) and the Herodian (30 B.C.E.-70 C.E.). The contents of the scrolls contain canonical Biblical writings, such as the Isaiah Scroll, the only one to survive completely intact. Other scrolls are part of an Apocrypha - works of a religious nature which do not form part of accepted Scripture. The most intriguing scrolls to historians are those of a Jewish sect who made their home at Qumran. These include the members’ interpretation of Scripture, and their Community Rule.
The Vatican Casts a Wary Eye
Scholars initially believed that the scrolls would contain far more relevant information for the study of early Christianity than that of the history of the Jews or Judaism, and the Vatican watched Père de Vaux’s research with a wary eye.  The discovery of Egypt’s Nag Hammadi Library in 1945 had brought to light 52 Gnostic texts, many not part of the accepted canon of Scripture as established in the 4th Century at the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. and Synod of Hippo in 393 C.E.  The Vatican feared that the Dead Sea Scrolls might contain material of the same controversial nature. What they found, however, was far more explosive - calling into question the very foundations of Christianity.
Who were the Essenes of Qumran?
Scholars identified the Qumran sect as the Essenes, a splinter group of Jews who removed themselves from Jerusalem and the Second Temple to avoid moral and spiritual contamination. The Essenes preferred to engage in the “peaceful arts” of farming, bee-keeping, craftsmanship and animal husbandry, devoting their remaining time to study of Scripture, contemplation, and prayer. Their Judaism differed from that of the Jerusalem Temple: they followed a solar, rather than the accepted lunar calendar, and many of their traditions and rituals were unique to their community, including the importance of ritual baths as a spiritual cleansing.
Pliny the Elder observed in his Historia Naturalis that the Essenes practiced celibacy, and concluded that “…thus, unbelievable though this may seem, for thousands of centuries a race has existed which is eternal yet into which no one is born.”  This is not strictly true: though some Essenes lived in traditional family units in urban centers, the more stringent of the sect organized themselves into communities of monastic-like brotherhoods scattered along the deserted coastline of the Dead Sea. Archeologists examining regularly-spaced holes in the walls of one of the Qumran caves concluded that the Essenes had an extensive library of both biblical texts and their own writings. It is in this library and/or scriptorium that the Dead Sea Scrolls were housed, studied, and copied. 
It is the sectarian writings that provoked — and still provoke today — the concern in Christian quarters because they describe a community dedicated to principles and values uncannily similar to those of Jesus Christ, but predating Jesus’s life and ministry by several centuries. The scrolls tell of “The Children of Light” and a “Teacher of Righteousness” pursued by a “Wicked Priest” who died somewhere between 65-63 B.C.E, decades before Christ’s birth. There is mention of a Messiah, who will die and be reborn. 
John the Baptist, Jesus’s close relation, was associated with the Essenes, which begs many questions: was Jesus himself schooled in the Essene traditions? Was his baptism by John actually an Essene ritual of purification? Did Jesus agree with the Essene rejection of the corrupt Temple practices in Jerusalem? Could he have been one of their number, perhaps recruiting for the Essenes when he called the fishermen of Galilee to join him? Did the Essene Community Rule, with its marked similarity to Jesus’s message of love and forgiveness mean that Jesus’s teachings were rooted in a much older strain of Judaism, already extant in Judea for centuries?
What the Essenes Left Behind
Had the Essene community at Qumran survived, we might know a very different story and possibly a different New Testament, but bad timing intervened once again. In 66 C.E. the occupying Roman forces began their repression of Judea, and the Essenes were forced to abandon their community at Qumran. In haste, they hid the most precious of their manuscripts, including their Community Rule, into sealed clay jars, leaving the remainder of the Library scrolls in their pigeon holes. Over centuries in the arid dusty desolation of the lowest point on earth, the scrolls lay untouched but growing more brittle by the day. Many turned to dust and fell to the floor of the cave, taking their wisdom with them. 
Vatican and other Christian attempts to wrest control of the Dead Sea Scrolls and prevent their wider distribution came to naught. In 1967 during the Six-Days-War, Israeli forces captured the territory of the Palestine Archeology Museum and the Dead Sea Scrolls. They are now housed in the Israeli Museum as the centerpiece of the Shrine of the Book, a building designed to look like the top of one of the ancient clay jars in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were preserved. In 1991, the Dead Sea Scrolls finally emerged from the shadow of academic journals and scholarly periodicals to be published to a wider audience. Today, they are considered the leading source for both Old Testament scholarship as well as Jewish history from the time of Alexander the Great (4th Century B.C.E.) and the third century C.E. writing of the Mishnah, the oral commentary of the Talmud. 

Visit both the Qumran Caves and the Shrine of the Book on Alexander + Roberts popular itinerary,
The Holy Land, a journey into the timeless lands of the Bible.

Posted: 3/12/2019 11:31:28 AM by Alexander + Roberts