Psalms Scroll (Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority/Wikimedia Commons)
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)
In 1947, when a Bedouin shepherd threw a rock into a cave near Qumran on the northwest shores of the Dead Sea, that rock shattered a 2,000-year-old clay jar. It also destroyed the argument that the Old Testament books had been written much later.
The broken jar contained the first of 900+ Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek documents discovered in 11 caves between 1946 and 1956. These documents became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Qumran Cave Scrolls. Among the documents was a complete copy of the Book of Isaiah and fragments of every book in the Hebrew Bible, except Esther. The fragments, which researchers estimate were penned between 150 BC and AD 70 were dated 1,000 years before the earliest then known copy of the Hebrew Bible. (Source: Wikipedia Biblical Manuscript and Dead Sea Scrolls)
Caves of Qumran (Photo Credit: Shmuel Bar-Am/Times of Israel)
Comparing the fragments of scripture found in the Qumran Caves with the copies of the Hebrew Bible previously considered to be the earliest, scholars found only minor variations. Most differences were in the spelling of certain words.
Not only did the Dead Sea Scrolls push back by a millennium the date by which these scriptures were known to have been written down, they also confirmed the careful process of reproduction (meticulous copying by trusted scribes) which transmitted these sacred writings across the centuries.
In short, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls confirmed that the text used for the basis of today’s Bibles essentially matches the text from over 2,000 years ago.
Who was responsible?
Genizah, the Jewish practice of hiding or preserving worn-out copies of the holy writings in caves or in the earth, continues to this day. (Source: Wikipedia Genizah) But who was responsible for preserving and perhaps even reproducing these scrolls discovered in caves about a mile inland from the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea?
The recent excavation of a graveyard in the ancient community of Qumran, adjacent to the caves, lends fresh support to a popular theory in this debate. Some scholars have long believed that the scrolls were a product of a celibate Jewish sect known as the Essenes, who flourished from the 2nd Century BC to the 1st Century AD.
Two ancient observers, the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius and the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, inform us of the Essenes. Both men wrote of the Essenes during the 1st Century AD, presumably from first hand-experience.
Bust of Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, conserved in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Josephus referred to the Essenes as the smallest of three sects of Jewish philosophy, the others being the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He said they were strict in their religious observance, did not marry, and owned all things in common. Pliny (also a geographer) wrote that the Essenes lived on the northwest shores of the Dead Sea—near where the scrolls were found. (Source: Wikipedia Essenes)
From the descriptions given by these writers, the Essenes might be just the type of pious, focused people who could be counted on to preserve and venerate the sacred Hebrew writings, if not carefully hand-copy scrolls for future generations.
Until now, archeology had no hard evidence the Essenes ever existed. However, with the excavation of 33 new graves at Qumran, researchers are closer to proving they did exist. Using Carbon 14 dating, archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority place the skeletons they’ve dug up at around 2,200 years old—similar in age to the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Anthropologist Yossi Nagar has said that 30 of the skeletons newly excavated at the Qumran graveyard were “definitely or probably males” ranging from 20 to 50+ years old. He also said there is insufficient evidence to identify the sex of the three remaining skeletons. Nagar presented this study during the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) as reported in Science News.
“The skeletal remains were examined using a variety of well-established age and sex estimation methodologies, and past estimates were re-inspected.” said the Times of Israel, quoting the same study authored by Nagar and his associate anthropologists Hanania Hizmi and Yevgeny Aharonovich.
According to Science News, Nagar said 53 skeletons unearthed earlier had been re-inspected. Six of these skeletons had originally been classified female, but five of those six were reclassified male.
“Infants and women are absent from the skeletal sample; the population is composed of adult males and only a few children are represented,” said the Times, quoting the study.
This fits what Josephus had to say in his writings two millennia ago. According to the Times, he described the Essenes as having a disdain for marriage, which could account for the absence of women and infants. He also wrote, “They adopt the children of outsiders while they are still malleable enough for the lessons.” Hence, the small number of youth unearthed at Qumran.
Qumran as seen from the cliffs. (Shmuel Bar-Am/Times of Israel)
What the physical evidence plus the testimony of the ancient observers seems to have told researchers of the Israel Antiquities Authority is that the Essenes, a celibate monastic sect, may well have inhabited Qumran.
“I don’t know if these were the people who produced the Qumran region’s Dead Sea Scrolls,” Science News quotes Nagar as saying, “but the high concentration of adult males of various ages buried at Qumran is similar to what has been found at cemeteries connected to Byzantine Monasteries.”
The discovery of a monastic clan of males at the site of the oldest-known copies of the Hebrew Bible should encourage all seekers. Whether the purpose of this clan was to archive and preserve these manuscripts or to re-copy them for future generations, this most recent archaeological discovery goes a long way toward confirming the veracity of the ancient text and the faithfulness of the people who possessed it 2,000 years ago.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. – Hebrews 4:12 (ESV)