The Location The ruins called Khirbet Qumran are located eight miles south of Jericho and three-fourths of a mile west of the northwestern edge of the Dead Sea. After the first discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, Qumran became the focus of archaeological investigation and was thoroughly excavated between 1953,1956. Among the areas excavated (a cemetery, extensive water system, refectory, kitchen, and prayer and study rooms), a room was discovered complete with the ruins of plaster benches and inkwells from the Roman period demonstrating that this was probably the “scriptorium” where the scrolls were copied.
The Qumran Community The Qumran site was inhabited from about 130 b.c. to a.d. 70 by a sect so similar in nature, theology, and practice to a Jewish sect known as Essenes, that most scholars believe it was one variety of this sect. Ritual baptism, monastic life, and manual labor characterized the life of the Qumran Essenes. Although they allowed marriage, they shunned any contact with the outside world. Their main concern in life was complete and strict devotion to God. They expressed this through their scribal activity, the copying and studying of Scripture. In a.d. 70, with the Roman army posing a major threat to their existence, the Essenes of Qumran made a hasty exit, hiding their manuscripts in the surrounding caves as they left.
The Scrolls and Their Value In 1947 a young Bedouin shepherd boy found an ancient scroll in a cave on the face of one of the sandstone cliffs in the Qumran area. In the following weeks and months a careful search of the area yielded 40,000 fragments of ancient manuscripts from eleven caves. Some 800 manuscripts are represented, of which 170 are fragments of Ot books (including manuscripts of each Ot book except Esther). The most important may be a nearly complete text of Isaiah. The rest of the scrolls include commentaries on Habakkuk and Micah, Jewish extrabiblical documents from the interbiblical and Nt time periods, and extrabiblical writings specifically related to the community at Qumran such as the Genesis Apocryphon , Temple Scroll , and Manual of Discipline . Scrolls were found in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and the scroll material included both parchment and papyrus. (Two copper scrolls were also discovered.) While the content of many of the scrolls extends to a much earlier date, the scrolls themselves have been dated to about 200 b.c. to a.d. 70.
The value of the Dead Sea Scrolls to biblical studies is twofold. First, they provide Ot Hebrew manuscripts that are one thousand years older than any other extant Ot manuscripts. Before 1947 the earliest Hebrew Ot manuscripts known to exist dated to the late ninth century a.d. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, biblical scholarship now has access to Ot manuscripts dating from about 200100 b.c. The significance of this is heightened by the fact that these are copies, which presuppose originals, thus offering another verification of an early date for the actual writing of the Ot. Second, the scrolls provide a glimpse into the Jewish theological and cultural milieu of the time of Christ and also provide examples of verbal expressions contemporary with the Nt time period. See Dead Sea Scrolls; Essenes .
Marsha A. Ellis Smith