Over 50 years ago, a stone thrown by a Bedouin shepherd into a cave ( The cave is not far from Khirbet Qumran, near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea ) led to what some have called the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century. The Bedouin heard the stone crack open an earthenware jar. Upon investigating, he found the first of what came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
THESE scrolls have been the focus of attention and controversy both in scholarly circles and in the general media. Among the public, confusion and misinformation abound. Rumors have circulated about a massive cover-up, prompted by fear that the scrolls reveal facts that would undermine the faith of Christians and Jews alike. But what is the true significance of these scrolls? After more than 50 years, can the facts be known?
The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient Jewish manuscripts, most of them written in Hebrew, some in Aramaic, and a few in Greek. Many of these scrolls and fragments are over 2,000 years old, dating to before the birth of Jesus. Among the first scrolls obtained from the Bedouins were seven lengthy manuscripts in various stages of deterioration. As more caves were searched, other scrolls and thousands of scroll fragments were found. Between the years of 1947 and 1956, a total of 11 caves containing scrolls were discovered near Qumran, by the Dead Sea.
When all the scrolls and fragments are sorted out, they account for about 800 manuscripts. About one quarter, or just over 200 manuscripts, are copies of portions of the Hebrew Bible text. Additional manuscripts represent ancient non-Biblical Jewish writings, both Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.*
Some of the scrolls that most excited scholars were previously unknown writings. These include interpretations on matters of Jewish law, specific rules for the community of the sect that lived in Qumran, liturgical poems and prayers, as well as eschatological works that reveal views about the fulfillment of Bible prophecy and the last days. There are also unique Bible commentaries, the most ancient antecedents of modern running commentary on Bible texts.
These were the Dead Sea Scrolls, which included the prophecy of Isaiah. This is beautifully written in well-preserved pre-Masoretic Hebrew and is some 2,000 years old, from the end of the second century B.C.E. Its text is thus about a thousand years older than the oldest existing manuscript of the Masoretic text, on which modern translations of the Hebrew Scriptures are based. There are some minor variations of spelling and some differences in grammatical construction, but it does not vary doctrinally from the Masoretic text. Here is convincing proof that our Bibles today contain the original inspired message of Isaiah. Moreover, these ancient scrolls refute the critics’ claims of two “Isaiahs,” since chapter 40 begins on the last line of the column of writing containing chapter 39, the opening sentence being completed in the next column. Thus, the copyist was obviously unaware of any supposed change in writer or of any division in the book at this point.
In the years following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, various publications were produced that made the initial finds readily available to scholars around the world. But the thousands of fragments from one of the caves, known as Cave 4, were far more problematic. These were in the hands of a small international team of scholars set up in East Jerusalem (then part of Jordan) at the Palestine Archaeological Museum. No Jewish or Israeli scholars were included in this team.
The team developed a policy of not allowing access to the scrolls until they published the official results of their research. The number of scholars on the team was kept to a set limit. When a team member died, only one new scholar would be added to replace him. The amount of work demanded a much larger team, and in some cases, greater expertise in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic. James VanderKam put it this way: “Tens of thousands of fragments were more than eight experts, however skilled, could handle.”
With the Six-Day War in 1967, East Jerusalem and its scrolls came under Israeli jurisdiction, but no policy change for the scroll research team was instituted. As the delay in publishing the scrolls from Cave 4 extended from years to decades, an outcry was heard from a number of scholars. In 1977, Professor Geza Vermes of Oxford University called it the academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century. Rumors started to spread that the Catholic Church was deliberately hiding information from the scrolls that would be devastating to Christianity.
In the 1980’s, the team was finally expanded to 20 scholars. Then, in 1990, under the direction of its newly appointed editor in chief, Emanuel Tov, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the team was further expanded to over 50 scholars. A strict schedule was set up for publishing all the scholarly editions of the remaining scrolls.
A real breakthrough came unexpectedly in 1991. First, A Preliminary Edition of the Unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls was published. This was put together with computer assistance based on a copy of the team’s concordance. Next, the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, announced that they would make available for any scholar their complete set of photographs of the scrolls. Before long, with the publication of A Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, photographs of the previously unpublished scrolls became easily accessible.
So for the last decade, all the Dead Sea Scrolls have been available for examination. The research reveals that there was no cover-up; there were no hidden scrolls. As the final official editions of the scrolls are being published, only now can full analysis begin. A new generation of scroll scholarship has been born.
In the present, Dead Sea Scrolls have been included in a daring project to become available for online research. This project of digitalizing the Dead Sea Scrolls was made possible by the cooperation between the Israel Museum and Google. Anyone who is interested in thesescrolls can do so on the website dedicated to the Dead Sea Scrolls( http://dss.collections.imj.org.il/). The images offer an unique experience.
So far, 5 scrolls have been completely digitalized and are already available online, the others remaining to be included, depending on the working pace of the team that deals with the photocopying, editing and rendering into digital format operations.
Of course, this project concerns people who have knowledge of the languages these scrolls were written in, but the fact that they have been made available online is another confirmation of the fact that there is nothing to hide within their contents.The scrolls are available in high resolutions, Google making it possible to study them with the help of tools such as magnifying portions of the documents, or organizing their content according to the modern Bible numbering of chapters and passages.
*Both the Apocrypha (literally, “hidden”) and the Pseudepigrapha (literally, “falsely attributed writings”) are Jewish writings from the third century B.C.E. through the first century C.E. The Apocrypha are accepted by the Roman Catholic Church as part of the inspired Bible canon, but these books are rejected by Jews and Protestants. The Pseudepigrapha are often in the form of expansions on Biblical stories, written in the name of some famous Bible character.
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