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Dead Sea. A large salt-water lake into which the River Jordan empties. Since the Greek era Western civilization has referred to this mysterious body of water as the “Dead Sea.” However, the frequent OT term for this sea is the “Salt Sea” (Gn 14:3; Nm 34:3, 12; Dt 3:17; Jos 3:16; 12:3; 15:2, 5; 18:19), the name deriving from that most important and valuable commodity traded in antiquity. It is also designated the Sea of the Arabah (kjv “Plain”; Dt 3:17; 4:49; Jos 3:16; 12:3; 2 Kgs 14:25) and the Eastern Sea (Ez 47:18; Jl 2:20; Zec 14:8). Apocryphal, classical, and Talmudic authors make reference to the Sea of Sodom, Sea of Asphalt, and Sea of Lot. The NT makes no reference at all to the sea.
Location and Description. The sea lies in the great trough of the Jordan Valley, known also as the Rift Valley. This valley forms part of the longest and deepest crack in the earth’s crust, extending from the Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey, through Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, the Gulf of Aqaba, the Red Sea, and East Africa to Mozambique (there called the Great African Rift Valley). The chasm measures between 2 to 15 miles wide, and in its deepest spot, along the shoreline of the Dead Sea, it plummets to about 1,300 feet below sea level, marking this as the lowest area on the earth not covered by water. The sea itself is oblong in shape, measuring approximately 53 miles from the mouth of the Jordan River in the north to the Sebkha region in the south, and some 10 miles in width, enclosed on both sides by steep, rocky cliffs. It is divided into two basins by the 8½-mile Lisan peninsula, which juts out from the eastern shore. The northern basin is larger, and at its deepest point (in the northeast sector), a water depth of about 1,300 feet has been measured by W. F. Lynch. The southern basin is flatter, and its water depth ranges between 3 and 30 feet.
The forces of nature seem to have conspired against the Dead Sea. Fed by the Jordan River, four or five perennial streams, and numerous wadis (an average daily inflow totaling some seven million tons has been computed by J. Neumann), the sea possesses no outlet for this water except evaporation. This condition, coupled with aridity (with an average annual precipitation of two to five inches) and enormous heat (with the mercury sometimes soaring as high as 125° F in the summer), quite often creates an extremely high rate of evaporation and a dense haze virtually impenetrable to human eyesight. Most of the streams that feed the Dead Sea are unusually saline, flowing through nitrous soil and sulfurous springs. At the same time, springs under the waters of the sea pump chemicals (especially bromine, magnesium, and calcium) into the sea. And along its shores are extensive sulfur deposits and petroleum springs. In the southeast corner, there is a 300-foot-thick rock-salt ridge, which is only the tip of an estimated 4,500-foot salt plug stretching some five miles. Finally, the bed of the sea contains salt crystals. All these factors combine to produce a total salinity of approximately 26 percent, the average ocean salinity being only 3.5 percent. This makes the Dead Sea the earth’s most saline water body, completely devoid of marine life, with an ever-increasing solidity.
Mineral Extraction. In ancient times the Dead Sea was valued for its salt and bitumen (a commodity prized for waterproofing properties, consisting of petroleum hardened by evaporation and oxidation). During the NT era, the Dead Sea bitumen trade was apparently controlled by the Nabataeans, who also exported the product to Egypt for use in embalming. It has been suggested that Cleopatra’s desire to govern the Dead Sea region was stimulated by her desire to regulate the bitumen trade.
The 20th century has witnessed the importance of yet another mineral in the Dead Sea: potash (an essential element in the production of chemical fertilizer). In 1932 the Palestine Potash Ltd. began extracting potash from the northern shore of the sea. In 1937 a second factory, constructed along the southern shore, began production. But the obstacles of intense heat and aridity, limited fresh water supply, and transportation inaccessibility hindered large-scale production. Then in the 1948 War of Independence, both plants were seized by Jordanian forces, and all potash operations ceased. However, in 1952, the State of Israel decided to resume potash extraction, founding the Dead Sea Works and undertaking to construct a highway from Beersheba to the Dead Sea. This undertaking has signalled both the revitalization of potash production at the sea and the foundation of numerous new towns in the Negeb, Israel’s last frontier. In this context, it may be stated that the Dead Sea is coming to life for the first time in its modern history.
Historical Role. The ominous desolation and barrenness of the Dead Sea apparent to the gaze of the modern onlooker is also reflected in the pages of history. The events of Genesis 19, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, transpired in this vicinity. Mt Sedom, the salt plug located at the southeast corner of the sea, obviously reflects the name Sodom. The archaeologist Nelson Glueck affirms that the region surrounding Sedom was occupied by as many as 70 towns dating back to about 3000 B.C. The exact nature of the destruction rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah is variously interpreted either as a volcanic eruption or as the spontaneous explosion of subsurface pockets of bitumenous soil. Karstic salt pillars, known as “Lot’s wife,” are a frequent phenomenon in this locality.
The howling wilderness which surrounds the sea provided a suitable refuge for the fugitive David (1 Sm 23:29–24:1ff), the contemplative company of Qumran Essenes, and the disenfranchised Jewish insurgents of the second Jewish rebellion. On the other hand, Ezekiel envisioned (47:1–12; cf. Zec 14:8) a time when even the brinish waters of the Dead Sea would be re-created afresh and the stark, lifeless character of the sea would issue forth in life.
Dead Sea Scrolls. Collection of biblical and extrabiblical manuscripts from Qumran, an ancient Jewish religious community near the Dead Sea. The discovery of the scrolls in caves near the Dead Sea in 1947 is considered by many scholars to be the most important manuscript discovery of modern times.
Before the Qumran finds, few manuscripts had been discovered in the Holy Land. The early church father Origen (third century ad) mentioned using Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that had been stored in jars in caves near Jericho. In the ninth century a patriarch of the eastern church, Timothy I, wrote a letter to Sergius, metropolitan (archbishop) of Elam, in which he too referred to a large number of Hebrew manuscripts found in a cave near Jericho. For over 1,000 years after that, however, no other significant manuscript discoveries were forthcoming from caves in that region of the Dead Sea.
Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The history of the Dead Sea manuscripts, both of their hiding and of their finding, reads like a mystery-adventure story.
Discovery by Scholars: February 1948. The modern drama of the Dead Sea Scrolls began with a telephone call on Wednesday afternoon, February 18, 1948, in the troubled city of Jerusalem. Butrus Sowmy, librarian and monk of St. Mark’s Monastery in the Armenian quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, was calling John C. Trever, acting director of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR). Sowmy had been preparing a catalog of the monastery’s collection of rare books. Among them he found some scrolls in ancient Hebrew which, he said, had been in the monastery for about 40 years. Could the ASOR supply him with some information for the catalog?
The following day Sowmy and his brother brought a suitcase containing five scrolls (or parts of scrolls) wrapped in an Arabic newspaper. Pulling back the end of one of the scrolls, Trever discovered that it was written in a clear square Hebrew script. He copied several lines from that scroll, carefully examined three others, but was unable to unroll the fifth because it was too brittle. After the Syrians left, Trever told the story of the scrolls to William H. Brownlee, an ASOR fellow. Trever further noted in the lines he had copied from the first scroll the double occurrence of an unusual negative construction in Hebrew. Translating the passage with the use of a dictionary, he discovered it was from Isaiah 65:1:
I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me;
I was found by those who did not seek me.
To a nation that did not call on my name,
I said, “Here am I, here am I” (niv).
The Hebrew script of the scrolls was more archaic than anything he had ever seen.
Trever then visited St. Mark’s Monastery. There he was introduced to the Syrian archbishop Athanasius Samuel, who gave him permission to photograph the scrolls. Trever and Brownlee compared the style of handwriting on the scrolls with a photograph of the Nash Papyrus, a scroll inscribed with the Ten Commandments and Deuteronomy 6:4 and dated by scholars in the first or second century B.C. The two ASOR scholars concluded that the script on the newly found manuscripts belonged to the same period. When ASOR director Millar Burrows returned to Jerusalem from Baghdad a few days later, he has shown the scrolls, and the three men continued their investigation. Only then did the Syrians reveal that the scrolls had been purchased the year before, in 1947, and had not been in the monastery for 40 years as first reported.
Discovery by Bedouin: Winter 1946–47. How did the Syrians come to possess the scrolls? Before that question could be answered, many fragmentary accounts had to be pieced together. Sometime during the winter of 1946–47 three Bedouin were tending their sheep and goats near a spring in the vicinity of Wadi Qumran. One of the herdsmen, throwing a rock through a small opening in the cliffs, heard the sound of the rock evidently shattering an earthenware jar inside. Another Bedouin later lowered himself into the cave and found 10 tall jars lining the walls. Three manuscripts (one of them in four pieces) stored in two of the jars were removed from the cave and offered to an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem.
Several months later the Bedouin secured five more scrolls from the cave and sold them to another dealer in Bethlehem. During Holy Week of 1947, St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Monastery in Jerusalem was informed of the scrolls, and Metropolitan Athanasius Samuel offered to buy them. The sale was not completed, however, until July 1947, when the scrolls were bought by the monastery. They included the complete Book of Isaiah, a commentary on Habakkuk, the Genesis Apocryphon (originally thought to be the apocryphal book of Lamech, but actually an Aramaic paraphrase of Genesis), and two scrolls making up a manual of the discipline of an ancient religious community.
Discovery by Other Scholars: November 1947. In November and December of the same year an Armenian antiquities dealer in Jerusalem informed E. L. Sukenik, professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, of the first three scrolls found in the cave by the Bedouin. Sukenik then secured the three scrolls and two jars from the antiquities dealer in Bethlehem. They included an incomplete scroll of Isaiah, the Hymns of Thanksgiving (containing 12 columns of original psalms), and the War Scroll. (That scroll, also known as “The War of the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness,” describes a war, actual or spiritual, of the tribes of Levi, Judah, and Benjamin against the Moabites and Edomites.)
Publication: April 1948. On April 11, 1948, the first news release appeared in newspapers around the world, followed by another news release on April 26 by Sukenik about the manuscripts he had already acquired at the Hebrew University. In 1949 Athanasius Samuel brought the five scrolls from St. Mark’s Monastery to the United States, where they were exhibited in various places. Finally, on July 1, 1954, they were purchased in New York for $250,000 by Sukenik’s son for the nation of Israel and sent to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Today they are on display in the Shrine of the Book Museum in Jerusalem.
Wadi Qumran. Because of the importance of the initial discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, both archaeologists and Bedouin continued their search for more manuscripts. Early in 1949 Lankester Harding, director of antiquities for the kingdom of Jordan, and Roland de Vaux, of the Dominican École Biblique in Jerusalem, excavated the cave (designated Cave I or 1Q) where the initial discovery was made. Several hundred caves were explored the same year. So far 11 caves in the Wadi Qumran have yielded treasures. Almost 600 manuscripts have been recovered, about 200 of which are biblical material. The fragments number between 50,000 and 60,000 pieces. About 85 percent of the fragments are leather; the other 15 percent are papyrus. The fact that most of the manuscripts are leather has contributed to the problem of their preservation.
Probably the cave next in importance to Cave I is Cave IV (4Q), which has yielded about 40,000 fragments of 400 different manuscripts, 100 of which are biblical. Every book of the OT except Esther is represented in those manuscripts.
In addition to the biblical manuscripts, the discoveries have included apocryphal works such as Hebrew and Aramaic fragments of Tobit, Ecclesiasticus, and the Letter of Jeremiah. Fragments were also found of pseudepigraphal books such as 1 Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, and the Testament of Levi.
Many sectarian scrolls peculiar to the religious community that lived at Qumran were also found. They furnish historical background on the nature of pre-Christian Judaism and help fill in the gaps of intertestamental history. Manuscripts of the Zadokite Fragments, or the Damascus Document, a writing which had first come to light in Cairo, have now been found at Qumran. The Manual of Discipline was one of the scrolls found in Cave I; fragmentary manuscripts of it have also been discovered in other caves. The document gives the group’s membership requirements, plus regulations governing life in the Qumran community. The Thanksgiving Hymns include some 30 hymns, probably composed by one individual. There were also many commentaries on different books of the OT. The Habakkuk Commentary is a copy of the first two chapters of Habakkuk in Hebrew, accompanied by a verse-by-verse commentary. The commentary gives many details about an apocalyptic figure called the “Teacher of Righteousness,” who is persecuted by a wicked priest.
A unique discovery was made in Cave III (3Q) in 1952. It was a scroll of copper, measuring about 8 feet long and a foot wide. Because it was so brittle, it was not opened until 1966, and then only by cutting it into strips. It contained an inventory of some 60 locations where treasures of gold, silver, and incense were hidden. Archaeologists have been unable to find any of this. Those treasures, perhaps from the Jerusalem temple, may have been stored in the cave by Zealots (a revolutionary Jewish political party) during their struggle with the Romans in A.D. 66–70.
During the Six-Day War in June 1967, Sukenik’s son, Yigael Yadin of the Hebrew University, acquired a Qumran document called the Temple Scroll. That tightly rolled scroll measures 28 feet and is the longest scroll found so far in the Qumran area. A major portion of it is devoted to statutes of the kings and matters of defense. It also describes sacrifices, feasts, and rules of cleanliness. Almost half of the scroll gives detailed instructions for building a future temple, supposedly revealed by God to the scroll’s author.
Wadi Murabba‛at. In 1951 Bedouin discovered more manuscripts in caves in the Wadi Murabba‛at, which extends southeast from Bethlehem toward the Dead Sea, about 11 miles south of Qumran. Four caves were excavated there in 1952 under Harding and de Vaux. They yielded biblical documents and important materials, such as letters and coins, from the time of the Second Jewish Revolt under Bar Kochba in A.D. 132–35. Among the biblical manuscripts was a magnificent Hebrew scroll of the Minor Prophets, dating from the second century A.D.
Khirbet Mird. Another watercourse, lying between the Wadi Qumran and the Wadi Murabba‛at, is the Wadi en-Nar, a continuation of the Kidron Valley extending southeast toward the Dead Sea. There about nine miles southeast of Jerusalem lie the ruins of a Christian monastery of the Byzantine period called Khirbet Mird. In 1952 the same Bedouin discovered further manuscripts having a later date than the documents found in the other valleys. The Khirbet Mird fragments were written in Arabic, Syriac, and Greek, and date from the fifth to the eighth centuries A.D. They include Greek fragments of Mark, John, and Acts, and Syriac fragments of Matthew, Luke, Acts, and Colossians. All of the biblical fragments found there were of Christian origin, whereas those found at Qumran and Murabba‛at were of Jewish origin.
Date of the Scrolls. Early conclusions about the antiquity of the first scrolls were not accepted by everyone. Some scholars were convinced that the scrolls were of medieval origin. A series of questions related to the dating problem. When were the nonbiblical texts at Qumran composed? When were the biblical and nonbiblical manuscripts copied? When were the manuscripts deposited in the caves? Most scholars believe the manuscripts were placed in the caves by members of the Qumran community when Roman legions were besieging Jewish strongholds. That was shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Internal Evidence. A careful study of the contents of a document sometimes reveals its authorship plus the date when it was written. An example of internal evidence for dating the nonbiblical works is found in the Habakkuk Commentary. It reveals the people and events in the days of the author of the commentary, not in the days of the prophet Habakkuk. The commentator described the enemies of God’s people as “the Kittim.” Originally that word denoted Cyprus but later came to mean more generally the Greek islands and the coasts of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. In Daniel 11:30 the term is used prophetically, and most scholars seem to identify the Kittim with the Romans. Thus the Habakkuk Commentary was probably written about the time of the Roman capture of Palestine under Pompey in 63 B.C.
External Evidence. An important item to consider is when a manuscript was copied. Although the vast majority of manuscripts are undated, it is often possible to use paleography, the study of ancient handwriting, to determine the date a manuscript was written. That was the method initially employed by Trever when he compared the script of the Isaiah Scroll with the Nash Papyrus. His conclusions were confirmed by William F. Albright, then the foremost American archaeologist. During the time of the Babylonian captivity, the square script became the normal style of writing in Hebrew (as well as in Aramaic, a cousin of Hebrew). The evidence of paleography clearly dates the majority of the Qumran scrolls in the period between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200.
Archaeology provides another kind of external evidence. The pottery discovered at Qumran dates from the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods (200 B.C.–A.D. 100). Earthenware articles and ornaments point to the same period. Several hundred coins were found in jars dating from the Greco-Roman period. A crack in one of the buildings is attributed to an earthquake that, according to Josephus, a first-century A.D.. Jewish historian, occurred in 31 B.C. The excavations at Khirbet Qumran indicate that the general period of occupation there was from about 135 B.C. to A.D. 68 (the year the Zealot revolt was crushed by Rome).
Finally, radiocarbon analysis has contributed to the solution of dating the finds. (Radiocarbon analysis is a method of dating material from the amount of radioactive carbon remaining in it; the process is also known as carbon-14 dating.) Applied to the linen cloth in which the scrolls were wrapped, the analysis gave a date of A.D. 33 plus or minus 200 years. A later test bracketed the date between 250 B.C. and A.D. 50. Although there may be questions concerning the relation of the linen wrappings to the date of the scrolls themselves, the carbon-14 test agrees with the conclusions of both paleography and archaeology. The general period in which the Dead Sea Scrolls can be safely dated is from about 150 B.C. to A.D. 68.
The Qumran Community. On the north side of the Wadi Qumran, about one mile south of Cave I, lie the ruins of a Jewish monastery known as Khirbet Qumran. The ruins had been noted by travelers for years.
Excavations at Khirbet Qumran. Preliminary investigations of Khirbet Qumran were made in 1949 by Harding and de Vaux. Systematic excavations were carried out, beginning in 1951, under the auspices of the Jordanian Archaeological Museum and the École Biblique. They uncovered the main building in the complex, concluding that it was the center of a well-organized community. An estimated 200 to 400 people lived at Qumran at one time, most of them in tents outside the buildings or in nearby caves. A large cemetery, with smaller secondary graveyards, was located to the east toward the Dead Sea. De Vaux concluded that Khirbet Qumran was the headquarters of a Jewish sect called the Essenes.
Investigations at the site have shown that it had been occupied at various times in antiquity. The earliest level of occupation dates back to the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. Some have suggested that the buildings and cisterns may have been built during the reign of King Uzziah (cf. 2 Chr 26:10). Evidence of occupation of the site in the Greco-Roman period is abundant. A major settlement began shortly before 100 B.C., probably in the time of Hyrcanus I (the first ruling priest of the Hasmonean dynasty, 134–104 B.C.), and ended with an earthquake in 31 B.C. The site was probably reoccupied about the time of the death of Herod the Great (4 B.C.). That occupation ended when the area was captured by the Romans in A.D. 68. A Roman garrison remained there until about A.D. 90. Finally, Jewish rebels used the site in the second revolt against the Romans (under Bar Kochba in A.D. 132–35).
The largest building was the main assembly hall, with adjoining rooms. Pottery was found in abundance, not only for kitchen use, but also probably for housing the scrolls, which were copied in the writing room, or scriptorium. Although no manuscripts were found in the ruins of Khirbet Qumran, the pottery was similar to that in which the scrolls were found in Cave I, thus establishing a link between the ruins and the manuscripts. Low plaster tables or benches, together with ink wells dating from Roman times, were found in the scriptorium.
An interesting feature of the area was an elaborate water system, with many round and rectangular cisterns supplied with water from the mountains to the west. The cisterns were probably used for ritual purification and baptismal ceremonies of the Qumran sect. Hundreds of coins from the Greco-Roman period have also helped in dating the various layers of occupation. An oasis and spring known as ‛Ain Feshka, about two miles to the south, appears to have been an agricultural outpost of Khirbet Qumran.
Identity of the Qumran Sect. The Qumran community was a sectarian group of Judaism. It originated in the second century B.C., probably as a result of the imposition of Greek culture on the Jews by rulers of the Seleucid dynasty. The community repudiated the temple at Jerusalem and withdrew into the desert. “Damascus” was probably the designation of their community at Qumran. As the “community of God,” the members believed they were obedient to God’s will and were keeping his covenant.
The sect has been identified with various groups, including the Hasidim, Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Ebionites, and others. The best identification seems to be with the Essenes, a sect mentioned by such first-century writers as Josephus, Philo, and Pliny the Elder. They described the Essenes as an ascetic group then living along the western shores of the Dead Sea. In addition to the geographical and chronological arguments in favor of that identification, a more important argument is based on similarities in beliefs and practices between the Qumran community and the Essenes. Both had a probationary period of about two years for entrance into the group, ranked the members in their community, held their property and wealth in common, ate communal meals, practiced immersion and ritual cleansings, and were subject to the discipline and examination of overseers.
The Qumran sect was composed of both priests and laity. The council of the community consisted of 15 men: 3 priests and 12 laymen. A superintendent or examiner was over the whole group. There are some discrepancies and alleged differences between the Qumran sect and the Essenes. Unlike the Essenes, the Qumran members were allowed to marry, and women were permitted entrance into the sect. Although the Essenes were pacifists, the people of Qumran were not.
Beliefs of the Qumran Sect. Like both orthodox Jews and Christians, the Qumran sect held the Scriptures in high esteem. Considering themselves God’s covenant people, they separated themselves from the mainstream of Jewish life to study the Law of God and prepare the way of the Lord. As Jews, they believed in the God of the OT: the Lord of creation, sovereign over all things, predestining human beings to either salvation or condemnation. Angels played an important role in their theology as spiritual creatures who would fight beside the “elect” in a final war against evil and darkness. The sect strongly emphasized knowledge and, within their basic framework of monotheism, viewed the world as evil and good, but God as the author of both.
Qumran teachings pictured humans as frail creatures of dust who were utterly sinful and who could be saved only by God’s grace. Cleansing came only as one obeyed God’s ordinances and the community’s teachings as given by the Teacher of Righteousness. The anonymous Teacher of Righteousness described in the Habakkuk Commentary and other scrolls was not the founder of the sect but had been raised up by God to teach the community the way of life. He had been given special insight into God’s purposes, which would be accomplished in the end times. He was a priest who had received understanding from God to interpret the words of the prophets, but he was not the Messiah. The Teacher was opposed and persecuted by a “Wicked Priest.” Attempts to identify the Teacher of Righteousness and the Wicked Priest with specific historical figures, as some scholars have tried to do, are purely conjectural.
The Qumran sect had a strong messianic hope. They believed that they were living in the last days before the coming of the Messiah (or Messiahs) and the final battle with wickedness. The Damascus Document used the expression “the anointed ones [messiahs] of Aaron and Israel.” Many scholars see in the expression a reference to two messiahs: a superior priestly messiah (descended from Aaron) and a lesser kingly messiah (descended from Israel). Some scholars even see three messianic figures: one descended from David, a messianic king; one from Aaron, a messianic priest; and one from Moses, a messianic prophet (cf. Dt 18:18). The Teacher of Righteousness may even have had the role of the anticipated prophet. Members of the community believed in the resurrection of the dead and the immortality of the righteous. The wicked, they taught, would be punished and annihilated by fire. The righteous would enjoy God’s blessings, which they regarded as essentially “this-worldly” and material.
Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls
Importance for OT Studies. Before the Qumran discoveries, the oldest existing Hebrew manuscripts of the OT dated from about A.D. 900. The oldest complete manuscript was the Firkowitsch Codex from A.D. 1010. The greatest importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, therefore, lies in the discovery of biblical manuscripts dating back to only about 300 years after the close of the OT canon. That makes them 1,000 years earlier than the oldest manuscripts previously known to biblical scholars. The most frequently represented OT books are Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Isaiah. The oldest text is a fragment of Exodus dating from about 250 B.C. The Isaiah Scroll from Cave I dates from about 100 B.C.
The Dead Sea Scrolls show that the OT text has been handed down along three main lines of transmission. The first is the Masoretic text, which was preserved in the oldest Hebrew manuscripts known before the Qumran discoveries. The Masoretes, whose scholarly school flourished between A.D. 500 and 1000 at the city of Tiberias, standardized the traditional consonantal text by adding vowels and marginal notes (the ancient Hebrew alphabet had no vowels). Some scholars dated the origin of the consonantal Masoretic text to the editorial activities of Rabbi Akiba and his colleagues in the second century A.D. The discoveries at Qumran, however, proved them wrong, by showing that the Masoretic text went back several more centuries into antiquity and had been accurately copied and transmitted. Although there are some differences in spelling and grammar between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic Text, the differences have not warranted any major changes in the substance of the OT. Yet they have helped biblical scholars gain a clearer understanding of the text.
A second line of transmission of the OT text has been the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT known as the Septuagint. The majority of OT quotations in the NT are from the Septuagint. That translation was made about 250 B.C. and ranks second in importance to the Masoretic text for reconstructing an authentic OT text. Some scholars used to attribute differences between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text to imprecision, subjectivity, or laxity on the part of the Septuagint’s translators. Now it seems that many of those differences resulted from the fact that the translators were following a slightly different Hebrew text. Some Hebrew texts from Qumran correspond to the Septuagint and have proved helpful in solving textual problems. Septuagint manuscripts have also been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
A third line of OT transmission has been in the Samaritan preservation of the Hebrew text of the Pentateuch dating from the second century B.C. The copies of the Samaritan Pentateuch were written in the same script used in some of the Qumran documents. Some of the Hebrew biblical texts found at Qumran have closer affinities with the Samaritan version than with the one handed down by the Masoretic scholars. All of the manuscripts have shed new light on grammatical forms, spelling, and punctuation.
Whatever differences may have existed between the community at Qumran and the mainstream of Jews from which they separated, it is certain that both used common biblical texts. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is thus a witness to the antiquity and accurate transmission of the biblical text.
Importance for NT Studies. Continuing investigations around the Qumran area have become increasingly important for NT studies. Because Qumran was a Jewish, not a Christian community, scholars were not expecting to find NT documents there. The 1955 discovery of Cave VII (7Q), therefore, caused some surprise.
The contents of Cave VII, not made known until 1962, were unique in that they yielded only Greek fragments, whereas most of the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in Hebrew. Of the 19 papyrus fragments found in Cave VII, only two—one from the Book of Exodus and the other from an apocryphal book known as the Letter of Jeremiah—had been deciphered and identified by 1962. The remaining 17 unidentified fragments were assumed to belong to the OT. In 1972, however, José O’Callahan, a Spanish Jesuit scholar and papyrologist from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, suggested that certain fragments found among the scrolls should be identified with various NT writings. Using the science of paleography he deciphered nine NT fragments, including four from Mark’s Gospel and one each from Acts, Romans, 1 Timothy, James, and 2 Peter. The dates assigned to those fragments are in the range A.D. 50–100. O’Callahan’s report has shaken the scholarly world. If true, it means that the fragments are the oldest NT documents so far discovered. (The earliest, before that announcement, was the John Rylands fragment of the Gospel of John, dating from about A.D. 130.)
One problem is how to account for the scrolls’ presence in Cave VII if the Qumran community disbanded about A.D. 68. One possible explanation is that they were placed there by someone fleeing from the Romans during the Second Jewish Revolt (A.D. 132–35). There is no evidence that the NT fragments are necessarily connected with the Qumran community or its scrolls found in other caves.
Many suggestions and widely differing opinions have been offered on the relationship of the earlier Qumran discoveries to Christianity. Most scholars agree that some NT references give evidence of a background similar to that furnished by the documents from Qumran.
Because of John the Baptist’s ascetic life in the wilderness (Lk 1:80; 3:2), his use of OT Scripture (Lk 3:4–6; cf. Is 40:3–5), and his rite of baptism by water, some have suggested that he was a member of the Qumran community. In spite of such comparisons, no evidence proves that John had any contact with Qumran. One clear difference is that John’s baptism was a single rite, whereas the Qumran sect practiced repeated washings and baptisms.
Comparisons have been made of the Teacher of Righteousness with Jesus Christ, but more differences than similarities exist. Qumran was an ascetic, separationist, and legalistic group. Christ’s teaching, on the other hand, struck at the religious formalism and hypocrisy of the religious leaders. Far from being separatist, Jesus sent his disciples into all the world to preach the gospel (Mk 16:15). No evidence from Qumran suggests that the sect regarded their Teacher of Righteousness as divine, as having redeemed humanity from their sins by his death, or as having been the Messiah who was also a priest “after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 7:17). There is no indication of crucifixion, burial, resurrection, or ascension. Parallels can be made between the teachings of Christ and the Qumran teachings, but there are serious gaps and differences between the two.
Many parts of the NT have received new light from the Qumran discoveries. Some scholars have thought that John’s Gospel owed some of its alleged dualistic language (e.g., its “light versus darkness” imagery) to Hellenistic influences; consequently, they have dated the book in the second or third century A.D.. Now it can be shown that the same kind of language appears in 1st-century anti-Hellenistic Jewish writings. Thus John’s ideas and writings can now be confidently placed in a 1st-century Palestinian Jewish background.
Some similarities also surface between the writings of the apostle Paul and the Qumran texts. They include baptism, Communion (the Lord’s Supper), the concept of the “new covenant,” and elements of interpretation of biblical ideas of sin, the flesh and the spirit, the sabbath, and so on. In the life of the early church, similarities to Qumran may be seen in the communal society’s life, order, and discipline.
The Dead Sea Scrolls provide a new background against which one can study the NT and the beginnings of Christianity with greater understanding. They also furnish valuable material for the study of a sectarian Judaism at Qumran. Many similarities between the two may be accounted for largely by their common environment and by the fact that both drew from a common source, the OT. Yet the differences outweigh the similarities, leaving a definite chasm between Qumran and the Christian faith.
Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel
Bibliography. M. Burrows, The Dead Sea Scrolls; and More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls; F.M. Cross, The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies; J. Daniélou, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Primitive Christianity; R. de Vaux, Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls; J.T. Malik, Ten Years of Discovery in the Wilderness of Judea; H. Ringgren, The Faith of Qumran; G. Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English.
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