Column: History of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls


Today, in our continuing tour of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, we come to Qumran National Park, about 10 miles south of Jericho.

Qumran National Park lies at the foot of a cliff in the Judean Desert, about a mile northwest of the Dead Sea. In 1946, Bedouins exploring caves in the cliff found the first of what became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Archaeologists then explored the nearby area, discovering more than 950 complete manuscripts and fragments in 11 additional caves, with Cave 4 yielding the largest cache. The scrolls include at least portions of all the books of the Hebrew Scriptures except Esther, pushing the dates of the oldest known copies of those books back about 1,000 years. Others contain recognized books not in the Hebrew Scriptures, including Jubilees and 1 Enoch.

After finding the scrolls, archaeologists excavated the nearby ruins of Qumran, unearthing a narrow room, ceremonial baths, pottery and inkwells. Some scholars are convinced Qumran was home to the Essenes, a strict first-century Jewish sect who wrote or copied the scrolls in their “scriptorium.” Qumran guides recite this idea, speculating that John the Baptist may have been an Essene. Others argue, with equal conviction, that Qumran was a villa, a fortress or perhaps a pottery factory having no connection with the scrolls, which they claim were hidden by people fleeing Jerusalem before its fall in A.D. 70. Others believe the scrolls were written at Qumran, but not by Essenes.

No matter who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, their discovery has added greatly to understanding the diversity of Jewish thinking about the Messiah at the time of Jesus. Their discovery has also spurred a new interest in Essenes, known from the writings of first-century historian Josephus but previously ignored because of the biblical emphasis on the Sadducees and Pharisees.