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Dead Sea Scrolls

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Background Information

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The Dead Sea Scrolls consist of roughly 1,000 documents, including texts from the Hebrew Bible, discovered between 1947 and 1979 in eleven caves in and around the Wadi Qumran (near the ruins of the ancient settlement of Khirbet Qumran, on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea) in the West Bank. The texts are of great religious and historical significance, as they include practically the only known surviving copies of Biblical documents made before 100 CE, and preserve evidence of considerable diversity of belief and practice within late Second Temple Judaism.

Fragments of the scrolls on display at the Archaeological Museum, Amman
The caves in which the scrolls were found


The scrolls were found in 11 caves, ranging in distance of 125m (Cave 4) to about 1000m (Cave 1) from the settlement at Qumran, located 1km off the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. None of them were found at the actual settlement. It is generally accepted that a Bedouin goat- or sheep-herder by the name of Mohammed Ahmed el-Hamed (nicknamed edh-Dhib, "the wolf") made the first discovery toward the beginning of 1947.

In the most commonly told story the shepherd threw a rock into a cave in an attempt to drive out a missing animal under his care. The shattering sound of pottery drew him into the cave, where he found several ancient jars containing scrolls wrapped in linen. Another theory was that two young boys were looking for a lost goat and came upon some of them.

Dr. John C. Trever carried out a number of interviews with several men going by the name of Muhammed edh-Dhib, each relating a variation on this tale.

The scrolls were first brought to a Bethlehem antiquities dealer named Ibrahim 'Ijha, who returned them after being warned that they may have been stolen from a synagogue. The scrolls then fell into the hands of Khalil Eskander Shahin, "Kando", a cobbler and antiques dealer. By most accounts the Bedouin removed only three scrolls following their initial find, later revisiting the site to gather more, possibly encouraged by Kando. Alternatively, it is postulated that Kando engaged in his own illegal excavation: Kando himself possessed at least four scrolls.

Arrangements with the Bedouins left the scrolls in the hands of a third party until a sale of them could be negotiated. That third party, George Isha'ya, was a member of the Syrian Orthodox Church, who soon contacted St. Mark's Monastery in the hope of getting an appraisal of the nature of the texts. News of the find then reached Metropolitan Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, more often referred to as Mar Samuel.

After examining the scrolls and suspecting their age, Mar Samuel expressed an interest in purchasing them. Four scrolls found their way into his hands: the now famous Isaiah Scroll ( 1QIsa), the Community Rule, the Habakkuk Peshar (Commentary), and the Genesis Apocryphon. More scrolls soon surfaced in the antiquities market, and Professor Eleazer Sukenik, an Israeli archaeologist and scholar at Hebrew University, found himself in possession of three: The War Scroll, Thanksgiving Hymns, and another more fragmented Isaiah scroll.

By the end of 1947, Sukenik received word of the scrolls in Mar Samuel's possession and attempted to purchase them. No deal was reached, and instead the scrolls found the attention of Dr. John C. Trever, of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR). Dr. Trever compared the script in the scrolls to the Nash Papyrus, the oldest biblical manuscript at the time, finding similarities between the two.

Dr. Trever, a keen amateur photographer, met with Mar Samuel on February 21, 1948, when he photographed the scrolls. The quality of his photographs often exceeded that of the scrolls themselves over the years, as the texts quickly eroded once removed from their linen wraps.

In March of that year, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War prompted the removal of the scrolls from the country for safekeeping. The scrolls were removed to Beirut.

In early September 1948, Mar Samuel brought Professor Ovid R. Sellers, the new Director of ASOR, some additional scroll fragments that he had acquired. By the end of 1948, nearly two years after the discovery of the scrolls, scholars had yet to locate the cave where the fragments had been found. With the unrest in the country, no large scale search could be undertaken. Sellers attempted to get the Syrians to help locate the cave, but they demanded more money than Sellers could offer. Cave 1 was finally discovered on January 28, 1949 by a United Nations observer.

After some time, the Dead Sea Scrolls went up for sale in a June 1, 1954 advertisement in the Wall Street Journal.



Biblical manuscripts dating back to at least 200 B.C.
are for sale. This would be and ideal gift to an educational
or religious institution by an individual or group.

On July 1, after some delicate negotiations, the scrolls, accompanied by the Metropolitan and two others, came to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. They were purchased for US$250,000. Only some of this Mar Samuel actually got: due to a mix up in paperwork, the US government received most of the money, due to taxes.

Cave 2

Bedouins discovered 300 fragments of other scrolls in Cave 2, including Jubilees & Ben Sirach in the original Hebrew.

Cave 3

One of the most curious scrolls is the Copper Scroll. Discovered in Cave 3, this scroll records a list of 67 underground hiding places throughout the land of Israel. According to the scroll, the deposits contain certain amounts of gold, silver, aromatics, and manuscripts. These are believed to be treasures from the Temple at Jerusalem that were hidden away for safekeeping. The Copper Scroll is currently being translated and the first two sections reveal the location of gold ingots and silver in the form of Shekels (a coin used in Israel in ancient times). According to Biblical Currency is equal to .364 oz. (troy). In a value of silver, it is equal to $7.28. As for gold, it is equal to $364.

Cave 4

80% of all the scrolls were found here and 90% were published. Cave 4 had 15,000 fragments from 500 different texts.

Caves 5 and 6

Caves 5 and 6 were discovered shortly after cave 4. Caves 5 and 6 yielded a modest find.

Caves 7–10

Archaeologists excavated caves 7 through 10 in 1955, but did not find many fragments. Cave 7 contained seventeen Greek documents (including 7Q5, which would be the subject of controversy in the succeeding decades). Cave 8 only had five fragments and cave 9 held 18. Cave 10 contained nothing but a single ostracon.

Cave 11

The Temple Scroll, so called because more than half of it pertains to the construction of the Temple of Jerusalem, was found in Cave 11, and is the longest scroll. Its present length is 26.7 feet (8.148 metres). The total length of the original scroll may have been over 28 feet (8.75m). The Temple Scroll document, sectarian in nature, was regarded by Yigael Yadin as the Torah according to the Essenes. Hartmann Steggemann, a contemporary and friend of Yadin, believed that the Temple Scroll was not to be considered as the Torah of the Essenes, but that it was just another record or document without any special significance. Steggemann notes that the Temple Scroll is not once mentioned or referred to in other Essene writings found to-date (2008).


Some of the documents were published in a prompt manner: all of the writings found in Cave 1 appeared in print between 1950 and 1956; the finds from 8 other caves were released in a single volume in 1963; and 1965 saw the publication of the Psalms Scroll from Cave 11. Translation of these materials quickly followed.

The exception to this was the documents from Cave 4, which represent 40% of the total finds. The publication of these had been entrusted to an international team led by Father Roland de Vaux, a member of the Dominican Order in Jerusalem. This group published the first volume of the material entrusted to them in 1968, but spent much of their energies defending their theories regarding the materials, instead of publishing them. Geza Vermes, who had been involved from the start in the editing and publication of these documents, blamed the delay—and eventual failure—on de Vaux's selection of a team unsuited to the quality of work he had planned, as well as relying on "his personal, quasi-patriarchal authority" to control the completion of the work.

As a result, a large part of the finds from Cave 4 were not made public for many years. Access to the scrolls was governed by a "secrecy rule" that allowed only the original International Team or their designates to view the original materials. After de Vaux's death in 1971, his successors repeatedly refused even to allow the publication of photographs of these materials, preventing other scholars from making their own judgments. This rule was eventually broken: first by Ben Zion Wacholder's publication in the fall of 1991 of 17 documents reconstructed from a concordance that had been made in 1988 and had come into the hands of scholars outside of the International Team; next, in the same month, by the discovery and publication of a complete set of photographs of the Cave 4 materials at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, that were not covered by the "secrecy rule". After some delays these photographs were published by Robert Eisenman and James Robinson (A Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, two volumes, Washington, D.C., 1991). As a result, the "secrecy rule" was lifted.

Publication accelerated with the appointment of the respected Dutch-Israeli textual scholar Emanuel Tov as editor-in-chief in 1990. Publication of the Cave 4 documents soon commenced, with five volumes in print by 1995. As of 2007 two volumes remain to be completed, with the whole series, Discoveries in the Judean Desert, running to thirty nine volumes in total.


The significance of the scrolls relates in a large part to the field of textual criticism. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible were Masoretic texts dating to 9th century. The biblical manuscripts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls push that date back to the 2nd century BC. Before this discovery, the earliest extant manuscripts of the Old Testament were in Greek in manuscripts such as Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus. Although a few of the biblical manuscripts found at Qumran differ significantly from the Masoretic text, most do not. The scrolls thus provide new variants and the ability to be more confident of those readings where the Dead Sea manuscripts agree with the Masoretic text or with the early Greek manuscripts.

Further, the sectarian texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls, most of which were previously unknown, offer new light on one form of Judaism practiced during the Second Temple period.

Frequency of books found

Books Ranked According to Number of Manuscripts found (top 16)

Books No. found
Psalms 39
Deuteronomy 33
1 Enoch 25
Genesis 24
Isaiah 22
Jubilees 21
Exodus 18
Leviticus 17
Numbers 11
Minor Prophets 10
Daniel 8
Jeremiah 6
Ezekiel 6
Job 6
1 & 2 Samuel 4

Conspiracy and other theories

Because they are frequently described as important to the history of the Bible, the scrolls are surrounded by a wide range of conspiracy theories. There is also writing about the Nephilim related to the Book of Enoch. Theories with more support among scholars include Qumran as a military fortress or a winter resort; see above (Abegg et al 2002).

Digital Copies of the Dead Sea Scrolls

High resolution images of all discovered material are not available online for public examination. However, they can be purchased in inexpensive multi-volumes (on disc media or in book form) or viewed in certain university libraries.

According to Computer Weekly (16th Nov 2007), a team from King's College London is to advise the Israeli Antiquities Authority, who are planning to digitise the scrolls.

The text of nearly all of the non-biblical scrolls has been recorded and tagged for morphology by Dr. Martin Abegg, Jr., the Ben Zion Wacholder Professor of Dead Sea Scroll Studies at Trinity Western University in Langley, BC, Canada. It is available on handheld devices through Olive Tree Bible Software - BibleReader, on Macs through Accordance, and on Windows through Logos Bible Software and BibleWorks.

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