History: 900 Documents Recovered from 11 Caves

Mozelle Martin

In 1947, while rounding up a stray animal in Israel, Mohammed el-Hamed discovered several pottery jars. Mohammed was a Bedouin shepherd. The jars contained scrolls with messages written in Hebrew.

Even though the news was not as it is today, Mohammed's discovery caused great excitement within the archaeological community. Over a nearly ten-year span, the remains of 900 documents were recovered from 11 caves near the same area. Qumran, where Mohammed made his discovery, is a plateau community on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea.

These scrolls are known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Upon the testing by the scientists, all but one of the documents was created between the 2nd century B.C. and 1st century A.D. Nearly all the documents were written in three dialects of Hebrew, and almost all were written on "animal hide paper."

  • These scrolls represent the most ancient surviving copies of biblical documentation because researchers estimate 30% of the content is from the Hebrew bible.
  • Each book in the Old Testament is covered in these documents except for the books of Esther and Nehemiah.
  • Another estimated 30% contains essays of content in blessings, war, community laws, and established membership rules for Jewish sects.
  • 25% of the content refers to Israelite religious texts.
  • The remaining 15% of the content remains unidentified.

Since their discovery, the debates about these scrolls have been controversial at best. One theory states the scrolls were created in the Village of Qumran and hidden by the residents. If you subscribe to this theory, then you believe the Essenes hid the scrolls during the Jewish Revolt of 66 A.D. right before Roman troops massacred them.

Another theory was made famous by a Professor of Jewish History at the University of Chicago, Norman Golb. He believes the scrolls were originally housed in Jerusalem libraries and spirited out of the city when the Romans besieged the capital in 68-70 A.D. If you subscribe to this theory, you believe the copper scrolls could have only been held in Jerusalem and that the scroll's words are copies of literary texts.

Regardless, the documents were sorted into categories according to the cave it was found in and then secondarily sorted via biblical or non-biblical context. Cave numbers 1 and 11 yielded the most intact documents. However, cave number 4 held the most overall, with 15,000 fragments or 40% of the total discovery.

Multiple copies of the Hebrew Bible have also been found. In these documents...

  • there were 19 copies of the Book of Isiah
  • there were Psalms dedicated to King David, and stories of Noah and Abraham
  • there were 25 copies of Deuteronomy

Most of the documents appeared in print form between 1950 - 1964... except for the documents found in cave number 4. Publication of the manuscripts was given to Father Roland de Vaux of the Dominican Order based in Jerusalem for his international team. However, his team was required to adhere to the governmental 'secrecy rule". This meant that only Father de Vaux's team members were allowed to see them.

  • In 1971, 17 documents were released except for the cave number 4 discoveries.
  • By 1995, all copies were released to print.

The documents are now securely kept in the Shrine of the Book which is located in the Israel Museum in Western Jerusalem. The museum rotates the displays every three to six months. So, if you want to see them all, you'll have to visit them at least two times.

Dead Sea ScrollsPhoto byWikipedia

However, these scrolls are NOT the oldest written documents. Instead, archaeologists believe that THIS IS.

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