The finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been called the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century. The Scrolls were discovered by Bedouin teenagers in late 1946 or early 1947 in an area located on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea (near the present-day West Bank).
One of the young shepherds tossed a rock into a cave opening on the side of a cliff and was surprised to hear a shattering sound when the rock landed. Curious to know what was in the cave, the teenagers climbed into the opening and found several large clay jars that held scrolls made of leather and papyrus.
Eventually eleven caves were found, containing thousands of additional pieces of scrolls. Scholars have estimated many of the texts to be around two thousand years old. To date 825-870 separate scrolls have been identified by scholars from those that were uncovered. Among them are nineteen copies of the Book of Isaiah, thirty copies of Psalms, and twenty-five copies of Deuteronomy. The Isaiah Scroll, which was found relatively intact, is a thousand years older than any previously known copy of Isaiah. Other manuscripts were found to be relatively intact in Caves 1 and 11. In 1952 Cave 4 was discovered, and it produced the largest find—five hundred manuscripts that contained fifteen thousand fragments.
The area where the Scrolls were hidden is very arid with low humidity, making the climate very conducive to their preservation. Even so, many of the Scrolls survived only as tiny fragments. Many are so brittle and fragile, that great care must be taken in handling them. Direct light is not allowed to shine on them.
The Copper Scroll, discovered in Cave 3, contains records of sixty-four underground hiding places located throughout Judea (none of which have been found!). Unlike all of the other scrolls made of leather or parchment, it is made entirely of copper and had to be cut in strips to be opened. It could be the greatest treasure map in history. The monetary value of the Copper Scroll is close to $3 billion—its historical value is priceless.
The hiding places contained treasures from the Temple of Jerusalem, like gold, silver, aromatics and other manuscripts. They were hidden away for safekeeping. One of the editors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Stephen Pfann, has said: “This is a tremendous witness to history. To actually have a list of treasures from the temple itself from the first century is just amazing. We have nothing better than the Copper Scroll now for telling us what was really there.”
The majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls are written in Hebrew. Several are written in Aramaic, and a few texts are written in Greek. Aramaic was the common language of the Jews during the last two centuries B.C. and the first two centuries A.D. Jesus most likely spoke Aramaic. The Scrolls were written between 150 B.C. and 70 A.D., and they contain both biblical and non-biblical content. Except for the book of Esther, fragments of every book of the Old Testament have been found.
Who wrote them is still debated among scholars. However, the prevailing theory is that they were written by a communal group of devout and ascetic Jews called the Essenes. There is evidence the sect lived in Qumran (the area where the scrolls were found) until the Romans destroyed their settlement around 70 A.D. Descriptions in the Scroll mention a sect living then. A historical description of the Essenes by the Roman historian, Flavius Josephus, further verifies their existence.
A study of the Scrolls has revealed that the Bible has not changed in content down through the ages as many skeptics had surmised. “The words of the Lord are pure words; as silver tried in a furnace on the earth, refined seven times. You, O Lord, will keep them; You will preserve him from this generation forever” (Psalm 12:6-7).
Many of the Scrolls are housed in the world-class Israel Museum, which opened in May, 1965. Its most popular section is the dimly-lighted Shrine of the Book. American architects Kiesler and Bartos designed it with a distinctive onion-shaped top, meant to resemble the covers of the jars in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The dome sits atop a structure which is two-thirds below the ground. This structure is reflected in the pool of water that surrounds it. The Shrine of the Book houses the “best preserved and most complete Dead Sea Scrolls ever discovered”, states Israel Museum director James Snyder. Its featured showcase is located beneath the dome and is shaped like a wooden Torah rod. It contains a facsimile of the Great Isaiah Scroll, thought to be written in 100 B.C. Sixty-six chapters are displayed on a twenty-three foot long, sewn-together piece of parchment. Also on display are the Psalms Scroll and the Temple Scroll. The artifacts are displayed on a rotational basis to minimize damage from exposure.
Since their discovery the Dead Sea Scrolls have created a heated controversy among antiquities scholars about access to the scrolls and the push to speed up their publication. The staff of the Department of Artefacts’ Treatment and Conservation at the Israeli Antiquities Authority want to be responsive to the intense interest, but must limit the time a scroll is exposed to light, humidity and heat to prevent further deterioration. Even without exposure there is continued deterioration because of the ink used on some of the Scrolls, as well as harm done by some scholars in the 1950s who attempted to piece fragments together with the use of Scotch tape.
Infrared cameras were used in the 1950s to photograph the entire collection. These photographs are stored in a climate-controlled room. They verify that some things have already been lost from the Scrolls.
On September 27, 2011, an announcement was made about a $3.5 million joint project between the Israel Museum and Google to put five of the eight Scrolls housed in the museum on-line! These five Scrolls, containing some of the oldest-known surviving biblical texts, have been digitized with the latest technology. This makes them available on-line for anyone to see. The ancient texts that have been digitized are: The Great Isaiah Scroll; the Community Rule Scroll, the Commentary on Habbakuk, the Temple Scroll, and the War Scroll.
When on-line and viewing the Scrolls, one can simply scroll over the phrases of one of the Scrolls and the words are instantly translated into English!! The official Google blog stated, “It’s taken 24 centuries, the work of archaeologists, scholars and historians, and the Internet to make the Dead Sea Scrolls accessible to anyone in the world.” Besides providing an English translation tool, Google also has an option for users to submit translations of verses in their own languages. A Chinese translation is also in the works. Additionally, there are plans to scan in and make available for viewing the old infrared pictures of the 1950s.
God has indeed preserved the integrity of His Word through generation after generation. Previously these important archaeological documents were only available to a privileged few. Now He is spreading the Word to all by making viewing of the Scrolls more easily accessible on any computer, anywhere in the world. They are viewable on the web site http://dss.collections.imj.org.il/. The twelve hundred megapixels resolution offers amazing clarity that has made the images much sharper than any that could be made by today’s best professional cameras. It is even possible to see how thin and fragile the parchment and animal skin of the original scrolls are.
There are plans to make more of the Dead Sea Scrolls available through this technique. This is another special and fantastic way that God is spreading His unchanging, mighty Word and working in today’s world.
“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” Isaiah 40:8