The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by accident. In early 1947 a Bedouin shepherd boy, Muhammed ed-Dib, was searching for a lost sheep in the vicinity of the Wadi Qumran in the north-west corner of the Dead Sea. Thinking it might have hidden in one of the many caves in the area he was systematically throwing stones into them. In one he heard pottery break. The entrance was very small, and he was afraid to enter alone. Next day, however, he returned with two companions. In the cave they found jars containing rolls of leather. The only leather-worker they knew was Kando, the shoe-maker of Bethlehem. He bought the scrolls for a few cents.
When Kando looked closely at the brittle scrolls he noticed faint traces of letters. This greatly increased their value, and to find a market he brought them to his bishop, Mar Samuel, who touted them around the academic institutions of Jerusalem. There were no takers. No one could believe that ancient document could have survived the extreme conditions of the Dead Sea area. Moreover, everyone remembered the famous Shapiro forgeries of the beginning of the 19th century which cost the British Museum over one hundred thousand pounds.
As time went on, however, evidence for the authenticity of the Scrolls began to accumulate. It then became important to determine exactly whence they had come. The cave was found by a detachment of the Arab Legion. The broken jars confirmed the story of the Bedouin shepherds. The Director of Antiquities of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Lankester Harding, organized a search of the cliffs around the Wadi Qumran by the foreign archaeological schools in Jerusalem. Traces of occupation were found in several caves. More importantly fragments of other scrolls were beginning to filter into the market.
Roland de Vaux
Harding was too preoccupied setting up the Department of Antiquities in Amman to give his full attention to what were becoming known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. He entrusted the responsibility to Father Roland de Vaux, Director of the Dominican Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. Not only was he an eminent archaeologist, but he was also well known for his work on the Old Testament. He could not be deceived by any forgeries. Thus he became the buying agent for the Jordanian Government of any new scroll fragments that came on the market. In order to stop unscrupulous Bedouin tearing up documents to sell more fragments, he established a flat price of three American dollars per square centimetre. Once the area was established in square centimetres it was just a matter of multiplication, and there was no advantage to tearing a manuscript apart. On several occasions, by astute diplomacy de Vaux got the Bedouin to reveal the locations from which new fragments were coming.
De Vaux was the first to realize that an historical context was necessary to understand the Dead Sea Scrolls completely. Who had written them? Why had they been hidden? At this point his skills as an archaeologist came into play. There was a dusty mound on the edge of the Wadi Qumran, a very short distance from the caves in which scrolls had been found. He decided to excavate there.
After several campaigns in the early 1950s he brought to light a building that had gone through several phases of construction. In the 8thcent BC it had been a little desert fort to protect farmland. After it had been long abandoned, about 150 BC it was taken over by a group of Essenes. These were Jews but their vision of Judaism differed from that of the authorities in Jerusalem, and they had decided that it would be less disturbing to live in isolation on the banks of the Dead Sea. They were devoted to prayer and study. About 100 BC there was an influx of newcomers and the settlement had to be greatly expanded. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 31 BC, but the inhabitants returned and rebuilt. That edifice survived until AD 68 when it was destroyed by the Romans. They were engaged in putting down a Jewish rebellion, and thought that the building was a fort. The Essenes, however, had advance knowledge of the Roman advance and had hidden their precious manuscripts in the nearby caves.
The most curious feature of the building at Qumran was that there were no living quarters. All the rooms served communal purposes, e.g. a dining room, a pantry, a council chamber, a room where manuscripts were copied, etc. The Essenes lived outside. Some in caves in the cliffs, others in tents, and still others in underground chambers cut into the soft marl. The building was a community center.
From the scrolls we know that the Essenes studied the Old Testament. There were copies of every book except Esther. They also wrote commentaries on books of the Old Testament in which they saw their own history prefigured in prophecy. Finally, they composed rules and regulations which guided the life of the community.
Once Father de Vaux became aware of the volume of fragments coming out of the Qumran area, he realized that it was too much for the professors of the Ecole Biblique to deal with. Thus he organized an international and interconfessional team to publish the manuscripts. The political situation precluded the selection of Israeli scholars. All the official editors, therefore, were Christians almost equally split between Catholics and Protestants. They came from France, England, Germany and the USA.
This group, whom we shall call the editors, were able to work full time on the scrolls until 1960. Then the grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, which had supported them, came to an end. The editors had to get teaching jobs at various universities, and their work on the scrolls was relegated to leisure moments. They also felt no sense of urgency. At this stage they knew that the scrolls contained nothing world-shaking, and in consequence they were in no hurry to publish. Moreover, they had to work with a mass of small fragments. There was always the hope that through some miracle of long acquaintance they could join some of them together to make a coherent text.
The delay in publication of the scrolls was not to everyone’s liking. Scholars at all levels felt that their research was being compromised by their not having access to material which might affect their conclusions. This generated an atmosphere of hostility. Enemies of the Catholic Church were encouraged by this to proclaim that Church was hiding the scrolls because of the damage they would do to Christianity. They made great play of the fact that the head of the editorial team, Father de Vaux, was a Dominican, the Order that had connections with the Inquisition. They believed that he had been inserted at the very beginning of the publication process precisely in order to subvert it on the orders of the Vatican. This was the sort of stuff that tabloids delight in. The publicity was immense, and many people were disturbed by such accusations.
In fact, as we have seen above, de Vaux’s involvement was purely an accident of history. His aid had been called upon by Lankaster Harding, an English Protestant. Moreover, no one ever produced a specific instance where the Church would be injured by material from the scrolls. Vague insinuations were the order of the day.
Eventually academic resentment at the delay in publishing the scrolls ran so high that the Huntington Library in California published photographs of all the scrolls. Fearing war in the Middle East De Vaux had sent them a full set for security reasons, and on the strict condition that they not be made public. Once all the material was in the public domain the conspiracy theories collapsed.
The Essenes and Christianity
There is no evidence of any direct contact between the Essenes and the first Christians in Palestine. At the beginning it was thought that John the Baptist might have been a bridge. He did preach within sight of the Essene establishment at Qumran, but what is specific to his teaching is lacking at Qumran and vice versa.
The most direct influence of Essene teaching is in the letters to the Ephesians and to the Hebrews, and on the third level of the Gospel of John. All of these were written in western Asia Minor, and the influence stems from a branch of the Essenes who were never in Palestine.
The real importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls is on two levels. First, they greatly improve our knowledge of the text of the Old Testament. Not only are the copies a thousand years older than any others, but they highlight the scrupulous accuracy of Jewish scribes, and also the fact that the text of some books was not yet fully fixed.
Second, the scrolls reveal to us what a segment of the audience of Jesus and his first disciples were thinking. They are the only contemporary Palestinian Jewish documents that we have. They are all securely dated before AD 68, whereas other first century Jewish material was incorporated into the great rabbinic collections, which were edited and augumented for several hundred years. The scrolls, therefore, give us a glimpse into the intellectual world in which Jesus lived and worked.
A viewing platform at the excavations with a
vague outline of some of the caves.