During the Roman invasion, a community of Essene Jews safeguarded their greatest treasures in almost inaccessible caves in the desert, fully expecting to come back and recover them after the troubles ceased. That day would not come; their settlement was destroyed and their way of life ended. Yet their treasures remained secure in the dry desert air, and finally discovered in the middle of the twentieth century. We call their treasures the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) represent a collection of almost a thousand fragments or texts of scrolls spread throughout eleven caves in the Judean wilderness east of Jerusalem and near the northern end of the Dead Sea. Near these caves a settlement was discovered, called Khirbet Qumran or simply Qumran, dating from between 125 BCE to the Roman invasion around 68 CE. While alternate theories exist, scholarly consensus associates the scrolls found in the caves with the community that lived at Qumran.
The Dead Sea Scrolls have been dated to the Seleucid/Hasmonean and Roman periods, ca. 200 BCE – 50 CE; most are written in Hebrew, although some are written in Aramaic or Greek. While some of the most prominent scrolls have been given their own names (e.g. the Temple Scroll, the War Scroll, the Copper Scroll), all the scrolls are categorized according to the cave in which they were discovered, Q for Qumran, and a number assigned to each scroll or fragment in each cave (e.g. the Temple Scroll is 11Q19, thus, the 19th fragment/scroll from Cave 11).
As might be expected a large percentage of the scrolls are copies of Biblical books. Every book of the Old Testament save Esther are preserved in part or in whole, and they represent the oldest existing Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament. There are very few variances between these scrolls and copies of the Hebrew Old Testament (also called the Masoretic Text, or MT) which date from 1000 CE, demonstrating how effectively the Jewish scribes preserved the text for a thousand years. Many of the variants that do exist are attested in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint, or LXX), reaffirming the value of the Septuagint as preserving a very ancient edition of the Old Testament. Some of the scrolls preserve other texts of Second Temple Judaism, mostly apocryphal or pseudepigraphal works like 1 Enoch, Jubilees, Tobit, and the Wisdom of Sirach (also known as Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus).
The Dead Sea Scrolls also preserve texts unique to the Qumran community. From them we learn that the Qumran community were likely Essenes, a Jewish sect not mentioned in the New Testament but described by Josephus (The Wars of the Jews 2.8). The Essenes in general were known for withdrawing from the world, practicing asceticism, poverty, and occasionally celibacy. The group at Qumran, according to the scrolls, seems to have been established in the days of the Hasmonean John Hyrcanus around 100 BCE as a sectarian community that believed the Temple in Jerusalem had been defiled by the current priestly administration. They regimented themselves according to a strict rule (The Rule of the Community) and looked forward to the day on which God would judge their enemies, both Roman and Jewish, and re-establish purified religion in Jerusalem. Yet that day would not come; the Qumran community met its end, as with so many other Jewish communities, at the hands of the Romans during the First Jewish War (68-74 CE).
The Dead Sea Scrolls are an important discovery, illuminating aspects of Second Temple Judaism not well known to us beforehand. Despite many sensationalist claims, no fragments of the New Testament were found among the Scrolls, and there is no reason to believe that the Qumran community was influenced by Jesus or the early Christians or vice versa. Yet the Dead Sea Scrolls remain of great importance: their witness to the Hebrew Bible inspires confidence in our text of the Old Testament, and the other texts are important for the study of early Christianity, helping us better understand Second Temple Judaism in the days immediately before and during the time of Jesus of Nazareth and the early church, and demonstrating that the apocalyptic aspects of Jesus’ ministry and the proclamation of the early church made sense in its context.