The Dead Sea Scrolls

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Podcast Transcript

In early 1947, a teenage Bedouin herder was looking for a lost goat from his flock when he came upon a cave near the Dead Sea. 

Randomly, he threw a stone into the cave and was surprised to hear not the sound of the stone hitting a cave wall but rather the breaking of pottery. 

He found a collection of clay jars, some of which were still sealed, containing scrolls wrapped in linen. 

This accidental discovery began one of the greatest archeological discoveries of the 20th century. 

Learn more about the Dead Sea Scroll, how they were found, and what they contain on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The story of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is one of the greatest in the history of archeology. 

One of the things which makes the story great is that it starts with a couple of young goat herders. 

The story begins with three men members of the Palestinian Ta’amireh tribe: Muhammed edh-Dhib, his cousin Jum’a Muhammed, and their friend Khalil Musa. They were tending their goats in an area known as Qumran, just northwest and overlooking the Dead Sea sometime in late 1946 or early 1947. 

The details of the story differ slightly depending on which of the men tells it.

One of Muhammed’s goats went missing, so he went to look for it when he came across a cave located on the side of a hill. The cave was actually first identified by his cousin. 

Thinking that his goat might have gone into the cave and not being able to see inside, he threw a stone.

What he heard was not what he was expecting. 

Instead of the rock hitting a wall or even hitting the ground, he heard the sound of clay pots breaking. 

Curious about what he had found, Muhammad entered the cave and discovered several ancient clay jars containing scrolls. Not recognizing their significance, he took seven of the scrolls back to his camp, showed them to his family, and stored them in a sack. The scrolls were mostly made of parchment and papyrus and were wrapped in linen cloth.

The boys hung the scrolls in a bag attached to a tent pole, occasionally showing them to other people. 

Eventually, it was suggested that the boys take the scrolls to an antique dealer in the nearby town of Bethlehem.

The first took the scrolls to an antique dealer by the name of Ibrahim ‘Ijha, who claimed that the scrolls were worthless.

They took the scrolls around until it was suggested they visit Khalil Eskander Shahin, aka “Kando,” who was a cobbler and a part-time antique dealer. 

Kando saw the value in the scrolls, or at least he realized that there were scholars out there who would pay good money for the scrolls.

He paid the boys 28 Jordanian Pounds, or the equivalent of a little under $400 US dollars today. 

Kando then turned around and sold the scrolls to two other buyers. 

Four of the scrolls were sold to Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, a Christian and the Syrian Orthodox archbishop of Jerusalem. 

The other three were sold to Eleazar Sukenik, an Israeli archeologist who purchased them on behalf of the new government of Israel. Sukenik was one of the founders of the Department of Archaeology at Hebrew University and was one of the first people to recognize the importance of the discovery. 

Another scholar who had early access to the scrolls was John C. Trever of the American Schools of Oriental Research, now known as the American Society of Overseas Research.

Trever was able to analyze the scrolls and realized that they were very similar to the Nash Papyrus. 

The Nash Papyrus were four papyrus fragments with Hebrew writing that were found in the Egyptian desert in 1906. They were the oldest Hebrew manuscript known at that time and the oldest known biblical texts.  

The four scrolls purchased by Athanasius Samuel were eventually taken to the United States during the 1948 war, where he tried to sell them to various universities. 

Having not found a buyer after several years of trying, in 1954, he put out a classified ad in the Wall Street Journal that read: “THE FOUR DEAD SEA SCROLLS – Biblical Manuscripts dating back to at least 200 B.C. are for sale. This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group.”

The classified ad caught the eye of Yigael Yadin, an Israeli archeologist and the son of Eleazar Sukenik. He secretly negotiated the purchase of the remaining original scrolls on behalf of the Israeli government. 

These seven original scrolls were only the start. 

As of 1948, the implications of the discovery of the scrolls were becoming apparent as word about them began to spread. However, no one knew where exactly the cave was where they were discovered. 

The West Bank, at that time, was controlled by the government of Jordan. The Jordanians gave permission for a search for the cave to take place. The search was successful, and on January 28, 1949, the original cave where the Bedouin boys found the first scrolls was rediscovered. 

This cave was dubbed Cave One.

An excavation of Cave One began in the months that followed, leading to the discovery of more scroll fragments and other artifacts. 

This, however, was just the beginning of excavations and explorations at the Qumran site. 

Here I should note that the area around the Dead Sea is particularly well suited to the preservation of materials like parchment and papyrus due to its very dry conditions.  It is the same reason why so many fragile artifacts have been discovered in the Egyptian desert. 

The dry air prevents the growth of mold and decomposition of organic materials, which otherwise don’t last very long.

In 1951 a large-scale excavation of the site began. The biggest discovery was that of more caves. Cave Two was discovered in February 1952, which eventually yielded over 300 fragments from 30 different texts.

In March of 1952, cave three was found, and before the year was done, they had also discovered caves four, five, and six. 

Eventually, by 1956, eleven caves had been discovered, which at the time was thought to be the last one in Qumran.  

However, there proved to be even more. In 2017 a twelfth cave was discovered, but it appeared to have been looted back in the 1950s. 

In 2021, the discovery of more scroll fragments was announced from a cave several kilometers away from the Qumran site. 

The big question is, why was the discovery of some scrolls and scroll fragments so important? 

It was because about 40% of the texts which were found were from the Old Testament. Almost the entire Old Testament or Torah is represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls. These include the books of Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Numbers, Ezekiel, Samuel, Isaiah, Judges, Psalms, Daniel, Job, Ruth, Kings, and Proverbs. 

Another 30% of the texts were from non-canonical religious texts which were not included in the Hebrew Bible. These include the Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, the Book of Tobit, and the Wisdom of Sirach.

The remaining 30% of texts found in the caves were not biblical but dealt with the communities and sects that lived there and created the texts. One was a manual for military strategy and organization. One was a set of rules for the community that created the scrolls. 

One scroll called the Habakkuk Commentary gives details on people who lived at the time but only uses titles to describe the people, not names. One person is known as the ‘righteous teacher,’ and he has enemies known as the ‘Wicked Priest’ and the ‘Man of the Lie.’

Most of the texts are written in Hebrew, with some in Aramaic and a few in Greek. Most of the texts were written on parchment, which is made from the skin of animals, usually sheep or goats. There are some on papyrus and one scroll which was engraved in copper. 

There are several reasons why this discovery was important.

The first was that it is very rare to find any writing that is this old, for the reasons I previously gave. 

Second, is that it is the biggest discovery in the history of biblical scholarship. It allowed researchers to compare ancient texts to contemporary versions to see how changes in translation might have changed the texts over time.

Third, the texts provide a great deal of insight into life during what is known as the Second Temple period of history, roughly from 516 BCE to the year 70. 

One big question is, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

As the scrolls were written over a period of several centuries, there likely wasn’t a single group that was responsible for their creation. They were likely created by different groups over time and then deposited there for safekeeping.

The most popular theory attributes the creation of most of the texts to a group called the Essenes. 

The Essenes were a Jewish sect that emerged around the 2nd century BCE and continued until the 1st century. They are mentioned in historical texts by writers such as Josephus and Pliny the Elder. 

They were known for being a very strict messianic religious sect that lived communally. They also tried to discover hidden meanings in religious texts. 

Authors from other groups may have contributed to the texts, including scribes of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

One of the biggest challenges in interpreting the Dead Sea Scrolls was the fact that so many of them were nothing more than fragments. 

There were over 30,000 different fragments that have been found. Some of them are quite large and intact. Some are only a couple of millimeters in diameter.  In many cases, just a few characters are enough to know what book of the bible it belonged to.

There has been an ongoing quest to analyze and, if possible, assemble all 30,000 pieces. Imagine 30,000 jigsaw puzzle pieces belonging to an unknown number of jigsaw puzzles, with an unknown number of pieces missing. 

Advances in technology have been used to analyze better and understand the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

Photos were originally taken of the scrolls and fragments, but eventually, infrared photos were taken to capture details not seen by the naked eye. 

In the 1990s, NASA participated used multi-spectral imaging with technology taken from interplanetary probes. 

DNA analysis of individual parchment fragments has been conducted so it is possible to find which fragments are part of the same piece of parchment. 

Digital photography began in 2011 with Google taking ultra-high-resolution images of all the scrolls and fragments. These images are up to 1.2 gigapixels in size and provide researchers the ability to see things that cannot be seen with the naked eye. 

The digital images will also allow the public to be able to view the entire collection. 

The most recent technology which has been used to analyze the fragments is artificial intelligence. AI is being used to analyze ink and handwriting to determine the number of authors on some of the scrolls. 

The Dead Sea Scrolls have not been without their share of controversy. 

When the scrolls were discovered and when most of the excavations took place, the West Bank was controlled by the Jordanian government. 

Most of the scrolls and fragments found, other than the original seven, were held at the Palestine Archaeological Museum in East Jerusalem. 

During the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and took control of the Palestine Archaeological Museum. They moved the scrolls and fragments to the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem, in a special facility known as the Shrine of the Book. 

Today, some of the scrolls are on public display at the Shrine of the Book. The scrolls on display are rotated so they do not suffer from exposure. 

Currently, both the Government of Jordan and the Palestinian Authority dispute the ownership of the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

In 1967, some of the scroll fragments were stored in bank vaults in Amman, Jordan, where they still reside today. 

The Dead Sea Scrolls were unquestionably one of the most significant archeological discoveries of the 20th century, alongside The Palace of Knossos in Crete, the Tomb of King Tutankhamun in Egypt, and the Terracotta Warriors in ??Xi’an, China.

Our understanding of ancient Jewish life and of the origins of the bible was greatly advanced all because of a young man in search of his missing goat. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Meredith over on Podcast Addict. She writes:

I am really enjoying this podcast! My child likes it, and it doesn’t bore parents. I’m learning things, too! Update: We’re about two-thirds of the way to joining the completionist club. It is a great podcast for anyone who is curious about a wide variety of topics. 

Many episodes have spurred us into research topics more deeply, others have simply reinforced things we’ve already learned, and some are just fun little tidbits that are fun to hear. Thanks!

Thanks, Meredith! I’m always glad to hear when parents and their children listen to the show together. While the show isn’t designed for kids per se, it is suitable for kids so long as they are sufficiently curious. 

…and as I always like to say, the show is as child safe as history will allow. 

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