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Today’s question. Dead Sea Scrolls completed 75 years after their historic discovery. What can we learn from them?
It has been 75 years since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are amazing things we can learn from these mysterious documents. They were discovered in the Qumran region on the northwest bank of the Dead Sea. They were found starting from the year 1947. They were originally written between the 3rd century BC to the first century AD.
I would like to share 10 interesting things about the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Why are they so precious? They are among the greatest discoveries ever in the history of archaeology. They give us a glimpse into the lives of ancient Jews and their neighbors. They help us understand the beginnings of early Christianity. They gave us the oldest manuscripts of the books of the Bible. Over 981 manuscripts with over 100,000 pieces were found in 11 caves in the Qumran. This precious treasure was discovered accidentally when a young Bedouin shepherd stumbled over it in 1947.
Then, look at the place of the discovery. You can see cave number 4 behind me. Over 90 percent of the manuscripts were found in this cave. When the Bedouin shepherd entered the cave, they found the manuscripts in jars. This land, its temperature, its humidity played a great role in their preservation. You can see the magnificent Dead Sea from this place. It has the lowest elevation on Earth and highest saltiness. Because of the high density of this water, you can just lie down on the water on your back and enjoy the views.
Why is the Dead Sea so unique? Look on the shores of this sea. You will see the mountains of Moab. Who was this Moab? He was the incestuous son of Lot. We read in Genesis 19. Lot was Abraham’s nephew. He was living in Sodom and Gomorrow with his wife and two daughters. These twin cities became synonymous with sin and debauchery. The sins of Sodom and Gomorrow were so abominable that God decided to destroy them with fire and brimstone. But God in his grace wanted to preserve the lives of Lot and his family members. When the angels visited them and warned them to leave, they left these sinful cities. But Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt immediately. The salt and asphalt of this Dead Sea also helped the preservation of these documents. The Egyptians took the asphalt from this sea for the mummification of their dead kings and queens. Most likely, the Dead Sea was formed after God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrow. In the near future, archaeologists may find the remains of those cities in this region.
Sodom and Gomorrow…..the judgment of God that came upon those cities. In the excavations carried out in this region, archaeologists found a village that existed in the first century before Christ. In 31 BC, there was an earthquake in this region. In 9 BC, there was a big fire. These events and the history of the destruction of Sodom weighed a lot on the psyche of the people of Qumran.
Take a look at Herculaneum, the ancient town located in Italy far from Qumran. In AD 79, Herculaneum was buried under volcanic ash in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Hundreds of people were buried alive in melting lava. Archaeologists excavated many buildings of this town. The most famous of these was a villa called ‘Villa of the Papyri’. Astonishingly, many papyrus scrolls were recovered from this villa.
How did these scrolls survive in the midst of the fire? Ironically, the enormous heat produced from the volcano contributed to their preservation. Similarly, the heat produced by volcanoes, earthquakes and climate conditions in the Qumran region helped in the preservation of dead sea scrolls.
Next, who were these people who preserved these documents? They were passionate to preserve the Word of God. They put the scripture and other books in the jars and toiled to come to these mountains. They left these jars inside the caves. They thought that these documents better stay in the caves than in the outer world. They lived through tumultuous times in the history of Israel.
Back in 586 BC, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Judea and burnt down the temple of God in Jerusalem. The Jews were taken into Babylonian Captivity for 70 years. Then the Persian emperor Cyrus gave a decree which allowed the Jews to return to Judea. In 516 BC, the Jews built the Second Temple. They preserved their scriptures in this temple. But sadly, there was no political unity among the Jewish factions. The Maccabeans and the Hasmonean dynasty brought some peace but that was short lived. After the death of Queen Salome Alexandra in 67 BC, their infighting became worse.
Around the same time, the Romans started to meddle in Jewish affairs. In 63 BC, Roman general Pompey wanted to dominate Judea. When some leaders rebelled, he violently oppressed them. He did not spare even the leaders of the temple of God in Jerusalem. After Judea was subjugated by the Romans, King Herod took control of this region. He built many palaces across Judea. In Masada nearby he built a magnificent palace over a hill. Herod also renovated the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
During this time period, our blessed Savior, Lord Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Galilee, preached the gospel in Galilee, Judea and Samaria; then crucified, buried and resurrected in Jerusalem. After his Ascension, the Jewish rebellion against Roman occupation became intense. The Romans mercilessly destroyed Jewish homes, synagogues and properties.
In AD 66, Roman Emperor Nero sent his armies to Judea. Around the same time, apostle Paul and apostle Peter became martyrs for Christian faith. Roman general Vespasian, later his son Titus led the charge against Jerusalem. In AD 68, they destroyed the towns in Qumran. In AD 70, they put the temple of God to flames.
Some scholars like Norman Golb think during those turbulent years, some Jews gathered their precious documents from the region and fled to Qumran. They probably wanted to escape the Roman persecution which was rampant in urban areas like Jerusalem. They came to Qumran, settled on the banks of the Dead Sea and made copies of the scriptures and of other important books.
Recently, some scholars have made more shocking assertions. The people who preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls were actually the early Christian Jews or Messianic Jews. For example, Spanish scholar Jose O’Callaghan Martinez identified 7Q5 papyrus of Qumran with a text from the Gospel of Mark, Mark chapter 6:52-53.
7Q5 stands for Cave 7, Qumran, Papyrus 5.
7Q5: Cave 7, Qumran, Papyrus 5
While the non-Christian Jews put all their efforts to fight the Romans to protect the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the Christian Jews did not fight the Romans. While they valued the Temple, it was not their priority. They probably fled to the mountains with these scrolls. It is highly plausible that Christian Jews gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Whether they were non-Christian Jews or Christian Jews, one thing is clear: They lived a very conservative lifestyle. If you look at the remains of their homes, you will see that they devoted their life to spiritual activities. You can see the bathrooms where they took their ritual baths. You can see the tables on which they copied their manuscripts. Their remains were hidden from the world for over 2000 years.
After the Roman persecution, the Jews dispersed into all corners of the world. In the 20th century, their immigration back to their ancient homeland took momentum. The Arabs who settled in Judea after the Muslim conquests of this region did not welcome the Jews. Violent conflicts broke out between the Jewish returnees and Arabs. Then the Second World War came. After the War, plans to establish a Jewish homeland took shape.
On May 14, 1948 – The nation of Israel was established
Just a month before,
On April 11, 1948 – Formal announcement was made about the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls
I find that very interesting. The Dead Sea Scrolls came out just around the time of the formation of a new independent state of Israel. Immediately after its birth, Israel had to fight with its neighbors for its survival. Dead Sea Scrolls went inside the caves while Jews were fighting the Romans. They came out of the caves while they were fighting the Arabs. The motif of war looms large over these documents. The scribes who penned these documents viewed the world as a war between forces of good and of evil, between the light and darkness. And the war followed the documents they left behind. I don’t think that is just a coincidence. I think God brought these scrolls to light just as the new nation of Israel was formed because He wanted to show the world the historicity of the Jewish claim to this region.
Behind me you will see the Shrine of the Book. It is a beautiful building that now houses the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is located inside the Museum of Israel in Jerusalem. Take time to visit this place if you come to Jerusalem. Looking at these wonderful ancient treasures of Biblical archaeology would be worth your time.
The most sensational news about the Dead Sea Scrolls is it has all the books of the Old Testament except the Book of Esther. Most of these scrolls were written on parchments made from the skins of sheep and goats. Paper was not known to the world outside China. It was a tedious process. Preparing the parchments from animal skins, mixing the ink, then copying letter by letter under the candle light in the sweltering heat of the place. They wrote mostly in Hebrew, but some in Aramaic and in Greek. Around 40 percent of these Scrolls were the books of the Bible. They are in 225 parts. The rest are commentaries and books which are not recognized as part of the canon.
Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest known documents of the Old Testament were from 10 th century in Christian era. Some skeptics even charged Christians with changing the Old Testament to make sense of their Christian claims. They said, ‘Christians made lots and lots of changes in the books of the Old Testament during the last ten centuries. How can we believe this Bible?’
What happened to the Old Testament before the 10th century AD? Did Christians really corrupt the Bible? There were no answers to those questions for a long time. After the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we got great answers to those questions. We got manuscripts of the Old Testament from the second century before Christ. Overnight the date of the oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament moved from 10th century AD to 2nd century BC. So, today we have the Bible from 200 BC, with the age of 2200 years. If you compare today’s Old Testament to this ancient Old Testament, there are no significant differences. The Bible has been preserved to the highest degree humanly possible. The critics who said that Christians intentionally changed the Old Testament have been silenced.
Then the price of these documents. Curiously, when the Bedouin shepherds found these documents, there was not much interest in those scrolls. The shepherds were probably disappointed to see them. There was no gold or silver inside the jars. People who got them wanted to sell them off as soon as possible. We can still see the ads they published in newspapers like the Wall Street journal. ‘Buy these scrolls, they can be a great birthday gift day to a history buff’. They did not realize that what they had on their hands were invaluable treasures from the ancient Jewish world. They were more valuable than gold and silver. In the coming decades, they would fetch millions of dollars in the open market. Their ignorance led to carelessness. Scrolls that had been preserved for over 2000 years faced the possibility of rapid extinction. Finally, in 1991 the Government of Israel took the initiative to preserve them in this special building.
We should be glad that Dead Sea Scrolls are now well protected in this Shrine of the Book. There are over 15,000 manuscripts here. The Government of Jordan, Christian colleges and universities around the world also possess some of the scrolls. The Bible Museum in Washington DC was deceived into buying some fake Dead Sea Scrolls. Recently, they realized their mistake and made the corrections.
Dead Sea Scrolls became the focus of intense study since their discovery. ‘Really? The manuscripts of the Bible dating back to the time before Christ?’ Prominent historians, archaeologists, theologians rushed to Israel to study them. They excavated around the caves of Qumran and found very interesting facts about the people and the place.
Some of the world’s best scholars devoted their lives to study these scrolls. William F Albright, Yigael Yadin, Geza Vermes, Norman Golb, Jodi Magness to name a few.
Even modern technology came to the aid of the Bible study. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory invested its infrared technology in the study of Dead Sea Scrolls. This technology that has been useful in understanding objects and phenomena in the outerworld now helps us to make sense of some undecipherable parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are special websites for the study of these scrolls. Go to www.deadseascrolls.org.il to see many of these documents in digital format.
Even DNA technology is being used in the study of Dead Sea Scrolls. We’ve seen that the parchments were made from animal skins. Scientists have been conducting experiments on the DNA fragments of these animal skins to date them and to understand the nature of their preservation.
Next, we should look at the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls. What books of the Bible were preserved? There are 39 copies of the Book of Psalms. Obviously they gave a lot of importance to singing Psalms and praising God.
There are 24 copies of the Book of Genesis. The Book of Genesis is about the beginnings. God created the universe, then specially created the first humans. God called Abraham and made a covenant with him. The people of Qumran saw themselves as inheritors of this covenant.
There are 18 copies of the Book of Exodus. It shows us how the people of Israel were enslaved in the land of Egypt, how God sent his servant Moses to liberate them, how God led them through the wilderness and gave them his Law at Mount Sinai.
Then there are 33 copies of the Book of Deuteronomy. 33 copies. This Book is all about God’s covenant with Israel and His commandments they must follow as they live in Israel. The people of Qumran took the Laws and Commandments of God with utmost seriousness.
Dead Sea Scrolls also gave a lot of importance to the books of prophecy. There are 22 copies of the Book of Isaiah, 8 copies of the Book of Daniel, 6 copies of the Book of Jeremiah, and 6 copies of the Book of Ezekiel.
My favorite is the Great Scroll of the Book of Isaiah. It was found in cave number 1 in the year 1947. It is the oldest manuscript of the Book of Isaiah.
It puts to rest the modern myth that there were 3 Isaiahs. It is one complete book by one Isaiah as its author. It was written over 17 parchments.
The people of Qumran realized the significance of the Book of Isaiah. It speaks about God’s covenant with Israel, about God’s righteousness in his dealings with humanity, God’s judgments over sin, and God’s promise of a Messiah and a glorious future kingdom of Israel.
The Book of Isaiah is also the source of many Messianic prophecies.
The Messiah would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14)
He would preach the good news of God (Isaiah 42:1-4)
He would be crucified, buried and resurrected (Isaiah 53)
He would usher the kingdom of God (Isaiah 2:1-4)
He would bring Golden Age to Israel (Isaiah 1:24-27)
He would be a blessing to the whole humanity (Isaiah 49:5-6)
These great Messiah prophecies would be fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ. Some of them were already fulfilled in His first coming. The remaining will be fulfilled during His second coming. We have seen how the specter of war hanged over the Dead Sea Scrolls and their authors throughout history. But the Messiah will bring peace to our world. Under His rule, there will be no more war and destruction.
Finally, we see the promise of God. From a secular point of view, these scrolls give us a glimpse into the ancient world and circumstances around the birth of Christianity. But let us not miss the forest for the trees. Step back and take a panoramic view of these ancient documents.
God revealed these documents to a few shepherds. I don’t think that was accidental to God. Two thousand years ago, God revealed the news of his Son to a few shepherds. God promised that He would preserve His Word at any cost. Empires came and gone, kingdoms came and gone, kings and queens came and gone, and there were famines, battles and wars. Yet, God preserved His Word for us. We see God as our Great Shepherd faithfully preserving His Word for us.
Two thousand years ago, Lord Jesus Christ, his disciples and apostles preached the Word of God from the Old Testament. Dead Sea Scrolls show us the fact that God preserved that Old Testament for us. They show the trustworthiness of the Bible.
Next, the people of Qumran lived a life of separation from the world. Their beliefs, practices, lifestyle were distinct from the surrounding cultures. Some historians think that even John the Baptist was influenced by them. As you know, John the Baptist lived a life of separation from the world and preached a gospel of repentance to the masses. ‘Repent of your sins, turn to God and live a life consistent with the righteousness of God’. The people of Qumran emphasize the truth that God’s people must live a distinct life from the surrounding cultures.
Next, the people of Qumran wanted to preserve the Word of God at all costs. They thought that the Word of God was the most important treasure to bequeath to the next generations. The Roman emperors were busy extending their power, Herod was busy in building new palaces, the priests in Jerusalem were busy in making more money, but the people of Qumran put all their energies in preserving the Word of God.
Finally, the most important theme of the Dead Sea Scrolls is the Kingdom of God. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ gave his famous sermon on the Mount of Beatitudes focusing on the Kingdom of God. That is our greatest hope: the kingdoms of this world will crumble and the Kingdom of God will come with Jesus Christ as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
References and Image Credits:
-By Department of Archaeology, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem – National Library of Israel, Schwadron collection, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8125288
-By NASA – http://www.nasa.gov/images/content/139495main_frag.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19681719
-By Abraham Meir Habermann, 1901-1980 – https://archive.org/details/scrollsfromdeser00habeuoft, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19883991
-By ho visto nina volare from Italy – Ercolano 2012Uploaded by tm, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24352578
-By Guido Bertolotti – Lavoro personale (foto presa con permesso della guida nella giornata di Porte Aperte del FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano) il 20 Marzo 2005), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2223542
-The Dead Sea Scrolls, Jean-Pierre Isbouts, National Geographic.