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The Dead Sea Scrolls

The story of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

On a Spring day in 1947, as he was pursuing a lost sheep, Muhammed ed Di’b absent-mindly tossed stones into openings on the steep cliff face a mile from the western shore of the Dead Sea. One stone found a mark, and the young shepherd turned at the sound of something breaking. Upon investigating, he discovered that the opening formed an entrance to a hollow in the rock. Today that hollow is known as the cave where the famous Dead Sea scrolls were found. Subsequently it was named Cave I of Qumran.

Upon entering the cave, Muhammed noticed a number of earthenware jars lying on the floor. Some jars were intact and others shattered, one most likely by his stone. Near the fragments the boy saw rolls of leather wrapped in cloth which later proved to be manuscripts of sacred Hebrew writings which had been painstakenly recorded in an incredibly durable black ink.

Muhammed gathered some of the scrolls and ran excitedly back to his tribe. A long discussion took place among the tribesmen, who came to the conclusion that the scrolls might be worth something. They brought them to a Syrian dealer in Bethlehem who later mentioned the sale to his colleagues in Jerusalem. The news quickly reached the ears of Mar Athanasius Samuel, the Syrian Metropolitan of St. Mark in Jerusalem who then purchased the four best-preserved of the scrolls. Since the Metropolitan could not read Hebrew he was unsure of the scrolls meaning and sought an interpreter. In the Fall of the same year, Professor E.L. Sukenik of Hebrew University was informed of the find at the Dead Sea, but because of the partition of Palestine and increased Arab-Jewish tension, he was not able to meet with the Metropolitan or anyone else from St. Mark’s until January of 1948. At that time he was handed three scrolls to translate, and immediately recognized one of them as the biblical book of Isaiah, and another as the Rule of an old Jewish monastic sect.

Meanwhile, members of Muhammed’s tribe, now aware that the scrolls could yield income, continued their plundering of many of the caves around the initial discovery site. By January of 1951 the Department of Antiquities took over the administration of the excavations and hired the Bedouins to assist in the work.

Since 1951, almost all the caves in the area, more than 267, have been explored. A full library of scrolls has been discovered containing almost all the books of the Bible, many apocryphal works, and the writings of an early sect which proved to be the Essenes (the Greek word for pious or holy).

Before the time of Christ there were a number of movements and sects among the Jews, the Sadducees and Pharisees were two of the larger ones. Sectarianism had been a problem in Judaism for centuries ever since the split between the northern and southern kingdoms. Some of these sects were monastic or semi-monastic in character, and their purpose seemed to be to return to the simple life of the ancient desert Israelites in protest against the modern Judaic practices in the cities. The Essenes had their own calendar, a set of laws, and many sacred writings. They were hostile to the practices of the Pharisees in the Temple at Jerusalem.

While exploring the caves, archaeologists also excavated ancient ruins as well as a cemetery containing more than a thousand graves. The principal ruin known as Khirbet Aur Qumran, (Qumran is the Arabic word for Wadi or ravine) is between Cave I and the Dead Sea. Another ruin, called Ain Feshkha lies three miles to the south. Khirbet Qumran was once a stone building which had the appearance of a monastery. It contained 20 to 30 rooms, and cisterns for holding water. The cemetary was located between the building and the sea. Today, only stones remain to outline the site.

It is believed that these ruins are the remains of an Essene monastery and that the scrolls form a part of the sect’s library which were hidden in caves for safety purposes during the time of the first Jewish Revolt in 64-70 A.D.

The Rule of the community at Qumran was embodied in the scroll called the Manual of Discipline which had all the hallmarks of monastic life. The Essenes held property in common, celibacy was observed as was voluntary obedience, and there was a period of probation similar to the postulancy and novitiate found in both Eastern and Western Christian monastic orders.

Much was written about the Essenes previous to the discovery at Qumran. Three first century writers, Pliny the Elder, Josephus, and Philo gave descriptions of the Essene way of life. Pliny described the location of the community which perfectly coincided with where the Qumran building and library were discovered. He called the Essenes “…a solitary people and extraordinary.” Josephus, who is believed to have been a member of the order, described the Essenes as a brotherhood who renounced riches and marriage, ate only the simplest foods and wore their shoes and white clothing to shreds before using new ones.

Josephus also identifies a book bearing a striking similarity to the Manual of Discipline found in the cave near the monastery.

Philo noted that they supported themselves as shepherds, cowherds, farmers, beekeepers, artisans, and craftsmen who refused to make instruments of war, had no slaves and no masters. He also writes that they believed that brotherhood is the natural relationship of men and is destroyed only by greed. He goes on to say that they were scrupulously clean. Their entire life bespoke monastic discipline. Many scholars believe that Christian monastic traditions were derived from the Essenes.

Members of the Qumran community did not speak before the sun rose, and upon rising prayed together. They then began their work which lasted until about 11 am at which time they washed and silently proceeded to a common refectory where they were served freshly baked loaves of bread. After this meal they would return to their work in the fields or shops until the evening meal which they took with any guests who were visiting the monastery.

One of the interesting things about the discovery of the monastery is the speculation that John the Baptist and perhaps even Jesus spent a part of their lives at Qumran. John lived and worked around the area of the Jordan and the Dead Sea.

After Jesus was baptized by John he was led by the Spirit through the wilderness, being tempted by the devil there for 40 days. Tradition has it that this occurred in the area of Qumran.

At the very least, John the Baptist must have been familiar with the Essene community and have had respect for their lives of commitment to God. It isn’t a great stretch of the imagination to assume John or Jesus may have at some time actually visited the Essene monastery.

It is indeed interesting that an area as barren as the Dead Sea would yield one of the richest finds in archaeological history.

Thirty-five years later there are still echoes from that stone Muhammed ed Di’b threw as scholars decipher the priceless scrolls revealing life in the first century.

Veronica Treanor is a freelance writer and doctoral student in anthropology.

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