Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Posted by foryourfaith on February 1, 2010

One day early in 1947 a Bedouin youth named Muhammad adh-Dhib was searching for a lost goat along the cliffs that border the Dead Sea. He threw a stone into one of the small caves there and was startled by the sound of breaking pottery. Going in to explore, he could not have known that he was probably the first human in nearly two millennia to set foot in the cave. Its last visitors had left behind several clay jars leather scrolls, some covered with linen cloth. Although dried up and decayed by the centuries, seven of the scrolls were largely intact. Thus Muhammad’s stone unearthed what many now consider the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times.

The discovery eventually set off a “scroll rush” by both archaeologists and Bedouins that ultimately led to the discovery of documents in 10 other caves and to the excavation of the ruins of a monastery at Qumran abut a half mile south of the original find. It became apparent that a substantial library had long been hidden. In just one cave slightly west of the ruins, perhaps as many as 40,000 fragments of scrolls were found. So far, at least 520 documents have been identified from that cave alone, but the majority of fragments remain unpublished. All told, the caves have produced scrolls and fragments from every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther – manuscripts a thousand years older than the oldest previously-known copies. In addition, hundreds of non-biblical documents were found, including many that could be traced to the Essenes, a monastic community of Jews.

Who were the people who hid these manuscripts and why did they do it? The Essene sect – whose existence was long known through descriptions of Josephus, Philo, and Pliny – now became visible from the inside. The scrolls provided copies of, among other things, their detailed monastic rule books, their hymns and prayers, and their plans for the final battle between the “sons of light” and the “sons of darkness.”

Like the Pharisees, the Essenes probably had their historic roots among the Hasideans, “the pious” Jews who fought for the Torah in the Maccabean revolt. Unlike the Pharisees, however, they completely rejected the priesthood in Jerusalem led by the Hasmonean high priests. The leader of the Essenes, a priest known in the scrolls only by his designation as “the Teacher of Righteousness,” was persecuted by “the Wicked Priest,” possibly Jonathan, the Hasmonean high priest. The Teacher and his numerous followers abandoned the polluted temple and set out to establish a pure community in their desert enclave.

The Essenes considered themselves to be the true people of God living in the troubled times before the last days. They created a strict monastic community that committed each member to a life of worship that would join them as “sons of light” on earth to the angels of God in heaven.

The Essenes at Qumran were mostly celibate men who renounced all their possessions to the community and lived a life of exacting standards both in ethical practice and ritual purity. Any act of extreme disobedience brought permanent expulsion. Every aspect of life – from their white clothing to their ritual meals, from their prayers to their copying of scrolls – was organized to prepare them for the final conflict and the new age that they expected.

The movement that the Teacher of Righteousness began lasted for generations. The Qumran community continued to thrive for about 200 years until it was overrun by the Roman army during the Jewish War, between AD 68 and 70. Probably at that time, some of the Essenes hid their precious library in various caves around the monastery. There the scrolls remained, waiting through the centuries for the stone of a Bedouin youth.

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