In March of 2021, archaeologists unveiled newly discovered Dead Sea Scroll fragments. This was an exciting discovery because many of the caves along the Dead Sea had been looted and valuable historical artifacts have been lost. This was the first discovery in fifty years of ancient manuscripts that are part of the Dead Sea Scroll collection.
What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?
The Dead Sea Scrolls are the most significant ancient manuscript discovery of modern times. These are ancient scrolls produced by the Essene Community, a group of monastics who lived in the Dead Sea region from the second century BC until the 1st century AD. The Essenes were a group of devoted Jews who were disillusioned with the religious system of Israel and chose to live a communal life in the desert awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. They spent their time in prayer, worship, study, and copying Old Testament books, theological works, commentaries, and rules of the community. Their goal was to live lives of complete dedication and purity as they awaited the arrival of the Messiah. Jewish historian Josephus estimates there were approximately four thousand Essenes in Israel. Scholars believe that between one hundred fifty to two hundred members lived in the Qumran community at a time.
When the Jewish-Roman War broke out in 66 AD, they hid their scrolls in the mountain caves of the Dead Sea. The scrolls remained hidden until they were discovered in 1947 by Bedouins. 15,000 fragments of manuscripts were found in nearly a dozen caves. Fragments from every book of the Old Testament (except for Esther) dating from the third century BC to the first century AD were among the excavations. One of the most important discoveries was the Isaiah Scroll. This scroll contained the entire book of Isaiah and was dated to 125 BC.
The Significance of the Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a significant historical find that gives us insight into the culture of first century Israel, but they also affirm the Christian faith in several ways. First, the scrolls confirmed that the Old Testament messianic prophecies were written well before Christ. Second, the scrolls confirmed the accurate preservation and transmission of our Old Testament. Third, the scrolls gave us insights into the Jewish expectations of their Messiah. (For more on the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, read my article “The Dead Sea Scrolls” at evidenceandanswers.org)
The Recent Discovery
Beginning in 2017 two dozen fragments were found in a cave named the “Cave of Horror” because 40 human skeletons were found there in the 1960s. Jewish insurgents hid in this cave during the Bar Kokhba rebellion against the Romans in 133-136 AD. It is believed that it was at this time these scrolls were hidden in the cave.
What fascinated scholars was that these fragments were copies of the Old Testament books written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic as the other scrolls. Scholars believe these may be copies from the Septuagint, the Greek Translation of the Old Testament, that was completed between 250 and 150 BC. The fragments are from Zechariah 8:16-17 and Nahum 1:5-6. These fragments appear to be part of a scroll that contained all the minor prophets. This may be part of the oldest Greek Old Testament scroll.
There are several unique traits about these fragments. The Zechariah passage uses the Hebrew Tetragrammaton YHWH for the name of God. In the Greek translations, YHWH is replaced with the Greek word Kurios, which means Lord. The Jews considered the name of God, YHWH, too holy to speak out loud so they often instead substituted the Hebrew word Adonai, meaning Lord. The Greek equivalent is Kurios. However, in this scroll the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, YHWH is used.
There is a slight difference in translation. The older Greek translation of Zechariah 8:16-17 reads, “Do not plot evil against each other.” This fragment reads, “As for a man, do not plot evil against his neighbor in your heart.”
The passage from Nahum 1:5-6 reads, “The mountains quake because of Him, And the hills melt. The earth heaves before Him, The world and all that dwell therein. Who can stand before His wrath? Who can resist His fury? His anger pours out like fire, and rocks are shattered because of Him.”
The slight differences in the text reveals that the translators updated the translation to give it a more contemporary reading that matched its time. This is similar to the process translators go through as they update our modern translations today to match the modern vernacular. This find gives us insight into the translation process. Scholars conclude that the translation process was not static but dynamic, like the updating of translations that are done today.
There were additional discoveries alongside the manuscript fragments. Archaeologist discovered a 6,000-year-old skeleton of a mummified child between the ages of six and twelve. They also discovered a twenty-six-gallon basket that was 10,500 years old. Other items include a collection of coins imprinted with Jewish symbols, including a harp and a date palm. There were also arrowheads, spearheads, woven fabric, sandals, and combs. These artifacts are dated to the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-136 AD).
The Dead Sea Scrolls give us valuable insights into the first century life of Israel. The scrolls expand our understanding of the culture, theological beliefs, customs, and the history of the nation. Also, this discovery gives us some insights into the translation process of the Old Testament. There will be more scrolls uncovered in the future along with other discoveries. Each discovery expands our understanding of the intertestamental period as the Jews were anticipating the coming of the Messiah. Archaeological discoveries like these increase our understanding of the biblical world and grow our Christian faith.
© Copyright Evidence and Answers, March 2021.
1. Joe Holden & Norman Geisler, The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible (Eugene, OR.: Harvest House Publishers, 2013), 41.
2. Livia Gershon, “Dozens of Dead Sea Scroll Fragments Found in Israeli Cave,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 16, 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/first-dead-sea-scroll-fragments-decades-found-cave-180977251/
3. Holden & Geisler, 40.
4. James Vanderkam and Peter Flint, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, (San Francisco, CA.: Harper Collins Publishers, 2002), 131.
5. Gershon, “Dozens of Dead Sea Scroll Fragments Found in Israeli Cave.”
6. Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Egypt, Egyptians,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 662.
7. Chip Hardy, “Dead Sea Scrolls Discovery Reveals New Details About the Bible’s Earliest Translations,” Christianity Today, March 18, 2021, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/march-web-only/new-dead-sea-scrolls-discovery-bible-translation-israel.html
8. Hardy, “Dead Sea Scrolls Discovery Reveals New Details About the Bible’s Earliest Translations.”
9. Hardy, “Dead Sea Scrolls Discovery Reveals New Details About the Bible’s Earliest Translations.”
10. Patrick Smith, “Dead Sea Scrolls Discoveries are First Ancient Bible Texts to be Found in 60 Years,” NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/dead-sea-scrolls-discoveries-are-first-ancient-bible-texts-be-n1261182