History.com | Secrets of New Dead Sea Scrolls Come to Light

Nearly 70 years ago, young Bedouin shepherds tending their flocks near the ancient settlement of Qumran, on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, stumbled on what has been called one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century. Inside a cliff-side cave, they found a number of large clay jars, some containing leather and papyrus scrolls later determined to be more than 2,000 years old. Over the next decade, archaeologists and treasure hunters would turn up thousands of fragments of more than 900 documents in the Qumran caves, including the world’s oldest known biblical manuscripts. Now, two new books have revealed the contents of more than 25 previously unpublished Dead Sea Scroll fragments. Though some scholars fear the scrolls could be forgeries, others believe there may be many more undiscovered gems still to be found.

Though the term “Dead Sea Scrolls” has been applied scrolls found in other caves around the Judean Desert, it is more specifically used to refer to the scrolls first discovered in the caves near the ancient settlement of Qumran between 1947 and 1956. After the teenage shepherds made their fateful discovery, they sold the initial set of scrolls to an antiquities collector. But after scholars determined the documents were more than 2,000 years old, archaeologists and treasure hunters descended on Qumran, combing the area for additional scrolls. Eventually, they found thousands of fragments, from more than 900 manuscripts, in 11 different caves at Qumran.

Many historians, archaeologists and theologians consider the Dead Sea Scrolls—conventionally known by the numbers of the cave in which they were found—to be the most significant find of the 20th century. They include the world’s oldest known biblical manuscripts, and shed light on the region’s history, the emergence of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism and the interaction of early Christian and Jewish customs. Covering a broad time span (from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D., just before the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70), the scrolls have helped scholars reconstruct the history of Palestine going back to the fourth century B.C., and enabled them to push back the date of the Hebrew Bible to no later than A.D. 70.

No one knows exactly who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, but many scholars believe they are the work of the Essenes, a devout, communal Jewish sect who lived in Judea during the time it was part of the Roman Empire. The scrolls may have been hidden in the caves around A.D. 70, during a Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire.

For more than half a century, controversy has hovered around the Dead Sea Scrolls. Though the longer, more complete scrolls were published in their entirety soon after their discovery, the majority of the rest consisted of fragments, which were published more slowly and to which access was strictly limited. To make things more complicated, Qumran is located in the West Bank, a territory Israel won from Jordan during the Six-Day War in 1967. Jordan has asserted on different occasions that it is the rightful owner of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In recent years, two separate collectors have amassed a total of more than 25 previously unpublished scroll fragments. The first collector, Steve Green, bought 13 fragments between 2009 and 2014. The owner of the arts and crafts retail chain Hobby Lobby, Green donated the documents and thousands of other artifacts to the Museum of the Bible, scheduled to open next year in Washington, D.C. (Green is helping to fund the museum’s construction.)

Read more at Secrets of New Dead Sea Scrolls Come to Light.