A Primer on the Dead Sea Scrolls

One of the most important archaeological achievements of the Twentieth Century was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the largest and oldest repository of ancient Jewish texts currently available. The discovery of these scrolls has provided scholars with ground breaking information regarding Judaism and Christianity during the Late Second Temple Period (200 BCE – 70 CE).

What Are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of writings that include both complete texts and several fragmented texts. The majority of the scrolls were written between 150 BC and 70 CE, predominantly in Hebrew, although some are in Aramaic and Greek. The scrolls were produced by the Essenes – a Jewish sect that resided in the JudeanDesertnear the Dead Sea, in the ancient town of Qumran. The scrolls were kept in eleven caves and placed inside ceramic jars for safekeeping.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered in 1947 by an Arab shepherd. After a series of long and complicated negotiations, Israeli Archaeology Professors Elazar Soukenik and Benjamin Mazar succeeded in purchasing some of the most important scrolls. Many of the remaining scrolls and scroll fragments were put in the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, which was under Jordanian control from 1949 to 1967. After Israel took control of the area in 1967, the scrolls were moved to the Jerusalem Museum, in the Shrine of the Book Museum, where they reside today.

What Do the Dead Sea Scrolls Contain?

The Dead Sea Scrolls, unlike the vast majority of ancient writings done on parchment, remained partially or completely intact for centuries, until the modern era. This is part of the reason why the Dead Sea Scrolls were a unique and important discovery. The preservation of the scrolls was due to the natural arid desert climate where the scrolls were held, which made it more difficult for them to disintegrate.

The scrolls include complete texts and excerpts from almost every book in the Jewish Bible, with the exception of the Book of Esther. They provide valuable insights into the different known versions of religious Jewish texts from the Second Temple Period (538 BC – 70 AD). These unique Biblical interpretations have helped teach scholars about the formation process the Bible went through, before it reached the final form which we have today.

Other important pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls include excerpts from non-Biblical Jewish books, such as the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigraphia. The Apocrypha contains texts written during the Second Temple Period (538 BC – 70 AD) about Biblical figures and periods of Jewish history, not present in the Bible.

The Pseudepigraphia contains texts attributed to First Temple Period (1000-586 BC) Jewish authors, even though the texts were written during the Second Temple Period (538 BC-70 AD). This attribution was meant to add authority to the theological and social messages of the books. The Pseudepigraphia is very important due to the information it provides on the lives of Jews during the Second Temple Period (538 BC-70 AD).

Sectarian Outlook

Historians of the late Second Temple Period (~200 BCE-70 AD) have discovered that Jewish society in the land of Israel was divided into a number of sects, each of which had their own interpretations and practices of religious law. The first sect was the Saducees, who believed that only the written Torah is binding, and there is no such thing as an Oral Torah—interpretations of the Torah which can be adaptable to different periods of time. There were also the Pharisees, the precursors of Rabbinic Jewry of the Mishna and Talmud period. These Jews both believed in and developed the idea of the Oral Torah.

Aside from these sects, which held large followings, there was a third sect, or philosophy, known as the Essenes. These were Jews who practiced extreme piety, advocated a form of pacifism, and, in general, considered themselves to be the “children of light” as opposed to the rest of the Jewish people who they saw as the “children of darkness”.

The attitudes and history of the Essenes are recorded in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls both as sectarian texts, and also “sectarian commentaries” on Biblical texts, known specifically as Pesharim. The Pesharim include Essene interpretations of Jewish prophecies, in accordance with their sectarian world-view.

Understanding the beliefs of the Jewish people in the landof Israel during the late Second Temple Period (~200 BC – 70 AD) is not just important for the study of Jewish history, but for the study of Christian History as well. During the first century CE, Jesus and the first Apostles lived and worked alongside the different segments of the Jewish population. The Dead Sea Scrolls provide information regarding how the beliefs of the Jewish people influenced the founders of Christianity, namely Jesus and the Apostles.


The Dead Sea Scrolls serve as an extensive resource into the study of Second Temple Era Judaism (538 BC-70 AD) and the founding of Christianity. This massive trove of ancient documents continues to attract scholarly and lay curiosity. The Dead Sea scrolls have been on display in many museums, and at each exhibition they attract a wide array of visitors. Discovered over 60 years ago, the scrolls continue to be of fascination today.

For more information on the Dead Sea Scrolls, see the following websites:

Online Display of Dead SeaScrolls

The Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Library of Congress Exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead SeaScrolls Foundation

Published: 04-12-2011