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The Dead Sea Scrolls: What They Are and Why You Should Care

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls are possibly the most famous set of ancient documents ever discovered.

They’re also one of the most perplexing.

Who wrote them, and why?

What do they say?

And how did they stay hidden for so long?

These intriguing writings were discovered between 1946 and 1956 in several locations throughout the Judaean Desert.

They are mostly Hebrew texts from the Old Testament (with a few New Testament epistles mixed in), mostly from the first century CE but with some fragments dating back to the third century BCE.

But who buried them and why, and what do we know about their discovery today?

Read on to find out…

Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls have remained a mystery for decades.

We know who wrote the scrolls but not who buried them in the Judean Desert, or why.

This hasn’t stopped scholars from trying to put the pieces together, of course.

Several different schools of thought exist on the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and each has its proponents and detractors.

The Essenes

This is the most widely accepted theory.

According to this, the scrolls were written by members of the Essene community, a Jewish ascetic sect that lived in the area around the Dead Sea.

The Essenes were a fairly common community in first-century Judea and were known for living a very strict life of celibacy, vegetarianism, and communal living.

Dead Sea Scrolls expert, English theologian, and scholar of ancient Judaism, James H.

Charlesworth, notes that

Scholarly image

The scrolls themselves mention the names of known Essene figures, such as the founder of their movement, a man named Essene.

If the theory that the Essenes wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls is true, it certainly makes sense.

The Essenes were an ascetic community who lived in and around the Dead Sea and were known to write a lot of religious texts.

Additionally, the Essenes were known to be at odds with the mainstream Jewish community of the time, so they may have chosen to hide their writings in the desert to keep them hidden from others.

The Sadducees

Another school of thought is that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written by the Sadducees, a Jewish sect that had a lot of political power in and around the time the scrolls were written.

The Sadducees were part of the priestly class in Judea and had a lot of sway with the Roman government as well.

The Sadducees are thought to have written other religious texts, as well.

Their version of the Ten Commandments, for example, differs quite a bit from the one written by the main branch of Judaism of the time.

If the theory that the Sadducees wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls is true, it certainly makes sense.

The Romans 

Another theory is that the scrolls were written by the Roman government, or by someone working with them.

This theory holds that the scrolls were written not by the Essenes or the Sadducees, but by the Romans themselves.

This theory makes sense, in a way.

After all, the scrolls contain information that is at odds with the traditional Jewish view of their history and religion.

This would have been useful to the Romans, as it would have helped them control the Jews by presenting a new version of their history and religion that the Jews would have been unable to refute.

Where are the Dead Sea Scrolls now?

The Dead Sea Scrolls are kept in a secure facility in Israel.

It’s not open to the public, so those who wish to see the scrolls in person need to request permission from the Israeli government.

What the scrolls look like depends on which scrolls you’re talking about.

The Copper Scroll

This scroll was discovered in Cave 3 near the Dead Sea in 1952.

It’s made of copper and is completely coated in a green patina that came from being in the desert for so long.

The patina has also made the scroll quite fragile.

It’s currently being kept in a special climate-controlled chamber due to its fragility.

The Silver Scroll

This scroll was discovered in Cave 5 in 1956.

It’s made of silver (as its name suggests) and is kept in a special climate-controlled chamber as well.

What do the Dead Sea Scrolls say?

The Dead Sea Scrolls are actually a collection of thousands of different texts.

But we’re going to focus on the handful whose translations are most well known.

The Big Three

The Big Three texts that have been most frequently published and translated are as follows.

  • The Great Isaiah Scroll
  • The Great Psalms Scroll
  • The Rule of the Community

All three of these date from the first century CE and are believed to have been copied in the third or fourth century, making them the oldest copies of the texts in existence.

  • The Great Isaiah Scroll: Of course, the Book of Isaiah.
  • The Great Psalms Scroll: A scroll containing selected Psalms.
  • The Rule of the Community: A document that outlines the organization and structure of the Essene community.

Others

There are many other Dead Sea Scrolls that have been less frequently translated in the past.

However, as technology improves, more and more of these scrolls are being translated, and they’re yielding new and exciting insights into Jewish life and religion in ancient times.

Why are the Dead Sea Scrolls so important?

The Dead Sea Scrolls are important because they offer a glimpse into life in Judea and the practices of Judaism in the first century CE.

They are also important because they help us put the New Testament writings in context for the time period in which they were written.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were written during a time when Judaism was in upheaval.

The Romans had conquered the land, and there were many different schools of thought within Judaism itself.

This was the period of time leading up to the development of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.

The Dead Sea Scrolls help us understand what was happening during this time and why these events unfolded the way they did.

All of this makes the Dead Sea Scrolls an invaluable resource for understanding the history of Judea and the origins of Christianity.