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What Are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

What Are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Professor Lawrence Schiffman discusses the Qumran Scrolls

Jugs found in Qumran.
Jugs found in Qumran.

It was probably the worst time to have to deal with ancient manuscripts. In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd tossed a stone into a cave close to the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, in Qumran. Rather than the sound of rock or earth, he heard the sound of breaking pottery. Peering into the cave, he saw a number of tall clay jars. Together with a cousin, he entered the cave, where he found one jar containing some scrolls. The two began showing them to people, looking for a buyer. Eventually, they sold some of the scrolls to Kando, a local cobbler who dealt in antiques. As word of the scrolls spread, institutional buyers became interested.

Although hostilities between the Jews of the area and Arabs were obviously imminent, archaeologist Eleazar Sukenik managed to buy three for the Hebrew University. The head of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, Mar Athanasius Samuel, purchased the remaining four.

It was probably the worst time to have to deal with ancient manuscripts The scrolls, which would turn out to be some of the most famous archaeological finds of all time, sold for negligible amounts. The original Bedouin finders got less than $35 for the set. Samuel smuggled his four scrolls to America, and placed an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal offering the scrolls as an “ideal gift to an educational or religious institution.” And who wouldn’t want a gift of a priceless ancient manuscript?

Because of the political situation in the Middle East, Jewish scholars could not directly approach Samuel to purchase the scrolls. Professor Harry Orlinsky of Hebrew Union College, calling himself Mr. Green, dealt with Samuel, eventually purchasing the scrolls on behalf of archaeologist Yigal Yadin, the son of Eleazar Sukenik, for $250,000, which would be over $2 million today. The scrolls were brought back to the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, where they remained under Jordanian control until the Six-Day War.

Following the Bedouin shepherd’s discovery, the Qumran area saw a gold rush of sorts, as archaeologists vied with local tribesmen to recover the leather fragments from nearby caves. In total, 972 documents were found in 11 local caves.

The Dead Sea Scrolls include three types of documents: the earliest existing copies of books from the Hebrew Bible, known in Hebrew as the Tanach; copies of other early works that are not part of Tanach; and works related to a specific sect that existed among the Jews at the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. There were also ancient tefillin scrolls and archaeological artifacts, such as mikvahs, ritual baths.

The Dead Sea Scroll Scholar

Professor Lawrence Schiffman.
Professor Lawrence Schiffman.
Professor Lawrence Schiffman, a tall, genial man, with a pronounced New York accent and an infectious sense of humor, was recently appointed Vice-Provost of Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University. Previously he worked at New York University for 39 years, where he was chair of the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies.

Schiffman has been working on the Dead Sea Scrolls ever since he was a senior in college. In fact, even his doctorate was on the Scrolls, although at that time not all of the Scrolls had been published or were available for study.

The professor explained that Middle East politics delayed the Scrolls’ publication. “First, some scrolls were found before the ’48 war. But then there were a tremendous number of fragments found in the ’50s in Qumran, which was then part of Jordan. In ’67 Israel took control of East Jerusalem, where these unpublished fragments lay at the Rockefeller Museum.

“The problem was that the Israelis gave the job of publication to a team of Christian scholars, who kept saying, ‘We’re almost done, we’re almost done, we’re almost done.’ That deal turned out to be a mistake. It was clear that they just weren’t doing it. The Israeli government overturned the whole arrangement in 1990, and within a short time the Scrolls were published and exhibited. I was a member of the new publication team.”

Unfortunately, the original work on the Scrolls actually caused a great deal of damage to the fragile parchment Schiffman first discovered the scrolls when he was studying biblical history at Brandeis University in Boston, Mass., when someone suggested, “Why don’t you try the Dead Sea Scrolls?”

According to Schiffman, “Besides for a few Israelis here or there, most of the work was being done by people who had no real training in Jewish texts. They might have had training in Bible, taught from either an academic or a Christian point of view, but they knew nothing about rabbinic Judaism, Jewish law or Talmud.”

Professor Schiffman explained that study of the Scrolls usually doesn’t involve study of the physical objects themselves. “There is a stage where you need the physical scrolls, because of letters around the edge or other things like that. But mostly, the photos are much better, because of the use of infrared technology. Some of the Scrolls have become completely brown and are not decipherable to the naked eye.”

Unfortunately, the original work on the Scrolls actually caused a great deal of damage to the fragile parchment. Scholars smoked while studying the fragments, and taped them together using regular tape. Part of the ongoing conservation work seeks merely to reduce the damage done by scholars of the past, who may have destroyed more in a few years than had been lost over the previous 2,000. As such, access to the Scrolls is quite limited.

How to View the Scrolls

Schiffman explained that the scholarly approach to the Scrolls has changed with time. Originally, “they analyzed the Scrolls as proto-Christianity.” But the approach to the Scrolls in recent years has become much more nuanced, he said. “Younger scholars understand that they need to be familiar with the history of Judaism during the Second Temple era to understand later developments.”

For example, many scholars think that the Qumran sect believed in celibacy. “I personally don’t agree with that interpretation,” says Schiffman, “but even if you do, there are two ways to look at it.” Previously, scholars interpreted it as a proto-Christian idea. However, “if you come at it objectively, you can try to figure out if there were some Jews who thought celibacy was a good idea in the pre-Christian period, and why they might have thought that.”

Schiffman sees the Scrolls as a valuable repository of information about Jewish life and thought during the era of the Second Holy Temple.

“My focus is predominantly on how the Scrolls fit into the history of Judaism, and what they tell us about the Second Temple period. Until the Scrolls were discovered, we relied on the books of Josephus and the books of Maccabees. The Scrolls give us a tremendous amount of further information about that period.

“People like to discuss which sect originally compiled the Scrolls. Most scholars attribute them to the Essenes, described by Josephus. But irrespective of that, from my point of view, I’m not so interested in the people who gathered the Scrolls. I’m more interested in the contents of the Scrolls, because they shed light on the beliefs of all the Jews of the time.”

Interesting for Jews?

I asked Professor Schiffman what the average Jew can find of interest in the Scrolls.

“There is an emotional component,” the expert explained, pointing to a piece of Psalm 121 on display: “Esa einai el heharim”—“I shall raise my eyes to the mountains . . .”

“When you realize that these very words were recited directly from this scroll by our forefathers 2,200 years ago, it’s very moving.”

Schiffman added that he finds that Jews generally have an intense interest in archaeology and their history.

According to Schiffman, there are certain differences between the books of Tanach found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and those that we have.

“There are some texts that are slightly different, usually just in the spelling of a word here or there.” He explained that ultimately the differences were expunged; a scroll found in the courtyard of the Holy Temple “corrected all the other texts.”

More to Investigate?

I asked Professor Schiffman: “You have a finite number of scrolls that have all been found and published. What is there still to investigate?”

He explained, “Until recently the main task involved editing and publishing the Scrolls. But now, the research possibilities are endless.

“For example, one of the fundamental ideas in Jewish mysticism is that the angels praise G‑d in Heaven. When you open up the Dead Sea Scrolls, there are poems, not the same poems we have, and they describe the angelic praise of G‑d.

“So now, if a person were to write a book about angelic praise of G‑d in Judaism, they have a wider resource field available.”

Controversy and the Curse of the Scrolls

The physical Scrolls have been the subject of some political debate. Jordan has claimed ownership of the Scrolls, but its protests of Dead Sea Scroll exhibits have not been recognized by hosting countries.

According to Schiffman, “The Palestinians have also made claims on the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Oslo Accords stated that there would be a settlement of the claim, which the Israelis assume would be financial.

“They can make all the claims they want. The notion that the Israeli government is going to give away Torah scrolls, or a Bible, or however you would look at the Scrolls—it’s not going to happen. They could be the most wonderful people in the world and it wouldn’t happen. The reality is that we are not going to give these manuscripts away.”

Schiffman sees the Scrolls as a valuable repository of information about Jewish life and thought during the era of the Second Holy Temple Professor Schiffman himself has been hit by a controversy concerning the Scrolls. In August 2010, Raphael Golb, a real estate lawyer, was convicted of 30 criminal counts related to his online impersonations of Professor Schiffman and other Dead Sea Scroll scholars who disagreed with his father, Norman Golb of the University of Chicago, about the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Raphael Golb was sentenced to six months in prison, but has appealed the verdict.

Professor Schiffman explained that among 150 leading scholars there is a strong consensus about the origin and content of the Scrolls. There are, however, a number of theories backed by only several of the scholars.

“I have no problem with that, until they start impersonating other scholars. They should come to conferences and get up and explain why their theory is right, and people will argue with them, and we’ll have a good time.

“There’s something that we call the ‘Curse of the Scrolls.’ It’s like Jerusalem Syndrome, when people go there and think they are biblical figures. “The problem with some of these theorists is that they refuse to accept certain basic facts, and then no one is willing to consider what they have to say. If these theorists were to say, ‘Here are the facts, as we all know, but I have a different interpretation,’ the scholars would be happy to listen.

“It’s not that we don’t want to hear alternative theories. We just don’t want to hear theories that are baseless.”

The extreme passion, and even craziness, has a name, says Professor Schiffman.

“The Scrolls generate a lot of genuine interest and enthusiasm, and I get e‑mails from people worldwide. Sometimes it’s a pain in the neck to have to answer all the questions, but they are usually intelligent ones.

“But there’s something that we call the ‘Curse of the Scrolls.’ People lose balance, even scholars, or in my case, the son of a scholar. It’s like Jerusalem Syndrome, when people go there and think they are biblical figures. From the moment that the Scrolls were found, there have been people who have gone completely overboard.”

Getting the Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls are currently on exhibit, through April 2012, at the Discovery Times Square museum.

“I don’t think the public is going to read through the scrolls,” the professor says, “but that they can look at the them—it gives you a special feeling.

“It’s true even for me, although I’ve been doing this for years. I was [at the museum on] the Monday before the exhibit opened, going over the show with the curators, making sure that there were no mistakes. While I was there, they were putting the Leviticus Scroll into its case. It’s about two-and-a-half feet long. I had never seen that scroll so close. And I was seeing it before they had put it in the case. So I was three inches away from this particular scroll. It’s a great thrill to realize that here is the Torah from 2,200 years ago. There is a tremendous feeling of continuity.

“That’s why I think Jewish schools should bring their students to this exhibit. They, of course, have to prepare them beforehand, but I’m sure they do that before any trip.”

Leaving my meeting with Professor Schiffman, I too felt some of the excitement that he radiated. It was surprising to realize that such ancient texts, wrapped long ago in earthenware pots and hidden in desert caves, could still inspire excitement, madness, awe.

Watch a lecture on The Tefillin of Qumran:

This article was reprinted with permission of Ami Magazine.
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ALF Sydney June 10, 2016

Do the Scrolls contain unique writings? I have been told the Dead Sea Scrolls are only copies of earlier books. Nothing new. My question is are there any scripts or books relating to war that are not merely a copy/paste of say old torah books? Reply

L Monroe New York, NY September 5, 2013

Carbon-14 dating is not used to date the earth (response to Chris) Carbon dating is not used to find the date of the earth. If it were, it would show a very new earth. In fact, scientists have used carbon dating to try to date dinosaur bones - and the dating came back to several thousand years. Because many scientists now believe the earth is much older, they resort to other methods of dating the earth (another form of radiometric dating that they say is more accurate).

So basically scientists assume the earth is millions of years old, and when carbon dating proves them wrong, they use a different method that fits more into their preconceived theories (something they accuse us religious people of doing :).

In regard to the Dead Sea Scrolls, I believe most of the scrolls have much to tell about the roots of Judaism - and very little to say about other religions - and it would be of great value to study these and be encouraged by knowing how well our people have preserved our traditions and our faith. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma May 5, 2013

Return: at a time of spring, when other scrolls too, unfurl... it's interesting I got this post today. Because the scrolls are coming here and there will be, and probably are, right now, many learned people talking about them. I visited The Shrine of the Book, a beautifully designed building in Israel to house the Dead Sea Scrolls.

There is a question about the identity of The Teacher. I think everything points to Jesus. It's not a big leap. Now a turkey outside is unfurling, a peacock's fan of feathers. Lately turkeys seem to be all over, proliferating. I have to wonder, since I am following a language based story, in which metaphor predominates in my life, why it is, The Turks have never acknowledged the Armenian genocide. A subtext to all that is happening that is so totally visible to me.

The 23rd Greek letter is psi and I see a relationship, between the hidden, mysterious Hebrew letter. In fact, when I pondered what was gifted me, I saw a street sign that was aurally same, so I knew, the gift came my way & from WHOM. Reply

Norman Orr May 5, 2013

dead sea scrolls calendars i have been doing some research into the calendars of the dead sea scrolls. This is for both the solar calendar and the lunar calendar.

I believe that I have been able to reconstruct the solar calendar for a period of 12 years, including 2 intercalendation weeks, and the lunar calendar for a period of 6 years.

The lunar calendar in particular has held my attention. I believe I have been able to match the lunar calendar cycle with a historical 19 year lunar cycle which can be found in the lunar date data of the elephantine papyrus.

i also believe that these 2 calendars can be reconciled with that historical 19 year lunar cycle and with the roman proleptic julian calendar in the year 44bc

I would be most interested in discussing my findings with any one who has an interest in these things.


ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 3, 2012

Ancient Jewish Scrolls found in N. Afghanistan It certainly seems to be "coming up" scrolls in my life. I just came to this article on line which is fascinating. Apparently there are l50 or so documents dating from the 11thC that were found in Samangan Province about this "mystery culture" of medieval Jewry. The scrolls are in the hands of private antique dealers in London and apparently information about content is slowly being released... over the past two years.

I am thinking people may be interested in this. I certainly AM, and this seemed to be the right place to post this. Reply

john trenton, ontario January 31, 2012

What was Qumran? I visited the museum (ROM) and observed the artifacts (at ROM) found at Qumran. Here are some facts: The site was filled with baths, scrolls, places to go to the bathroom outside the camp, and jewish relics such as tefilin. The communities rule states a code of dicipline such as penances, temporary suspensions, or permanent expulsions for sins (crimes). members had a 3 year initiation process, one of which was a probation periode. The community had a hierarchy: "Teacher of righteousness (who I believe was an Essene prophet) a guardian, a mini priest sanhedrin, full members, and initiates. They gave up all their possessions to the common comunity, they ate common meals. (this pictures a kind of university, where students and teachers actually live, sleep, and eat, in the premises itself). One thing that is most fascinating is the identity of "the liar" and "the wicked priest". My bets are on the herodian dynasty, and the series of false Messiah's around these times. Reply

Anonymous Santiago, Dom. Rep. January 27, 2012

Dead Sea Scrolls I remember visiting the caves many years ago; was only able to view the "openings" from afar. Fascinating though...simply being there. Reading the basic story was very interesting and provided me with some information I hadn't been aware of before. Thanks! Reply

Yochanan Ezra de'Hurst The Dalles, OR January 26, 2012

Copper Scroll - Megillat haNechoshet The Qumran and the Qumran Antiquities should be viewed as a Geniza and the Copper Scroll returned to the Jewish People and the State of Israel!
While these antiquities are cultural - theological treasures of immense value to all, they are the Heritage of the Children of Jacob. The Hashemites possession of the C.S. as "war booty" under sharia constitutes a severe war crime - under 4th Geneva Convention Article 147!
The Greek letters on the copper scroll have been transliterated by myself and unique to Qumran scribal style and tradition, have revealed the statute for sukkot in Hebrew transliteration : "Yes, Establish it (Their Festival [Sukkot of Praise] Praise is Enough" [for anointing] ! Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma January 26, 2012

The Dead Sea Years ago, when my world was young, I took a trip to Israel and we went swimming in the Dead Sea. I have very thick curly hair, totally unmanageable at times and when I submerged in the Sea and came out, my hair was entirely straight, naturally, for the very first time ever in my life. I felt beautiful. I had been so marginalized and teased for my hair, something wild, something perhaps beautiful.

I never forgot. Now that I am so much older it's possible to look down the years with perspective. The words themselves have taken on new ring for me, the dead see, the dead sea. Perhaps they do. I have taught songs of The Grateful Dead, and think, maybe, yes, maybe...

Perhaps we're like those birthday candles that go out, trick candles, and then burn brightly again, and will not extinguish.

I think we are. We are scrolls, as in a poem I wrote, published on Chabad, and our stories will all shine, as I see a Divine story that covers all, and the Dead Sea Scrolls are holy, part of heritage. Reply

Midget01 La Porte, In. /USA January 26, 2012

Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran A quick question. I remember when they first discovered them. The question then was whether the scrolls were considered accurate or whether had been stored in vases to dispose of them; because it was understood that a scroll was not to be used if it had an error printed on it. What do your Scribes do with the scrolls they spend a year and a half re doing if they make a mistake. Are they destroyed in a specific way and if so is that a recent way of disposing them or are there traditions ways to dispose of them? I am not Jewish but I am fascinated with the knowledge we learn from them as well. Reply

Anonymous Yerushalayim, Israel January 25, 2012

qumran scrolls Although one must take Josephus' writings as self serving and not entirely honest, he wrote about spending time in the reclusive celibate community there. Also the burial area for the Qumran community has almost only male bones. The very few bones of females may have been cooks or other servants. So I think we should accept that the community was probably celibate. This does not mean it was a monastery type of place though! It may have served most as a nonpermanent residence for study and contemplation. That is what Josephus did and then went on with his life. Currently, young Jewish men spend a celibate year in yeshiva in Israel :-) No one would characterize the study period in yeshiva by emphasizing it as celibate! Reply

Chris Sterling Heights , MI January 25, 2012

Dead Sea scrolls and carbon dating How do we know if these scrolls are older or newer than what was being printed before 1947? The answer to the question unlocks the secrets of the universe itself. The paradox is that the words on the scroll itself would indicate only about 6000 years of man's existence. But we know that carbon dating date objects back millions of years, a process that, in and of itself, is in conflict with the scrolls. As such, I do not believe the Dead Sea scrolls to be more accurate, but rather a lost attempt to change the word of God. Reply

Anonymous Pacific Grove, CA/USA January 24, 2012

The Dead Sea Scrolls These mystical parchment scrolls were discovered the year I was born. They were such a big deal in the 1950's. This article has reminded me of how their discovery was taught about in our superior public schools. This was totally appropriate, and we were all quiet, as all of it was a great story! So, thanks for filling in a lot of information that I wasn't aware of, regarding them. There's just something about these scrolls. You've brought back the feelings I had about The Dead Sea Scrolls, when I was just a little child. Reply

john trenton, ontario January 24, 2012

dead sea scrolls I happen to be re-reading them. Based on their contents, as well as the comments bt both Philo and Josephus, I am convinced the people of Qumran where in fact Essene jews. According to the sources, their where two kinds of Essenes. 1) Those who where devoted to patriarchy (family life) and 2) Those who practiced celibacy. These ancient jews where considered a special elite group, some of which where prophets. (this pre-dates john the baptist, and early christian monks and monasticism). Qumran seems to have been a primitive school which very much resembles a monastery as well, since the community clearly lived by a community rule, they gave up all their personal property to "the gaurdian" (who seems to have been a type of primitive abbot). They had their duties, common meals, and had a very strict view of women. Intimate relations with women, was strictly for marriage and pro-creation, rather than for pleasure. This and other passages in regards to women strongly suggest celibacy was practiced. Reply

Midget01 La Porte, Indiana USA January 24, 2012

Tefillin of Quamran I found the talk very interesting. Because I am not a Jew at times also confusing; because I have been trying to follow the meanings of the Parchments in Quamran as a possible lead to understanding not only the Jewish Faith but where my Catholic Faith crosses into that area since Scholars believe that John the Baptist was a member of the Essenes I truly believe we cannot totally come to any understanding without a Jewish Scholar assisting a Catholic Scholar in the discovery. But I do believe it is a shame that those who first discovered it did not view anything beyond the Dead Sea Scrols as important enough to spend more time on investigating. Thank you for sharing your view. Peace/Shalom Midget01 Reply

Val Durban, South Africa January 24, 2012

The book of the Maccabees Has anything been different from the book of the maccabees. Is anything added or removed (Im referring to the actual writings on the dead sea scrolls) Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma January 24, 2012

The Dead Sea Scrolls It's an astounding story, and a story that does involve some important characters in the history of discovery and archaeology in Israel. The Shrine of the Book is a beautiful, holy place. The architecture itself is redolent of these important holdings, these manuscripts. There are still mysteries to unfold, as in WHO is the "teacher" referenced so often but unnamed in these scrolls?

Who really were the ESSENES Our word Essential has an echo of essence, and what's seen.

I think there's more coming and that more could be quite beautiful. To find them in vessels, scrolled up in vessels, to preserve them, too, for me, is a deep metaphoric connect with our Kabblah, as we are all surely seen as vessels.

There are deep clues in the letters, and I do totally believe G_d wrote the entire script. Not part of it. Reply