The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls

A major investigator of the Scrolls since their discovery explains why after 60 years they still have not made their full impact on the general public


If the proverbial opinion pollster accosted passers-by in London or New York, asking them for a definition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, apart from the don’t knows, half of his clients would mutter: “The Scrolls…Hmm…Aren’t they old religious books kept locked away in the Vatican?” More than 60 years after their discovery in 1947, the Scrolls still have not made their full impact on the general public.

I was enormously privileged to witness from its initial stages the story of the Scrolls and to play an active part in their investigation and in their communication to the world. I first learned about them in 1948, the year after an Arab shepherd accidentally stumbled on seven rolls in a cave by the Dead Sea in British mandatary Palestine, not yet divided into Israel and Jordan. I was reading biblical studies in Louvain (Belgium) and keenly followed the press reports about Jewish manuscripts purported to date to the end of the pre-Christian era. The story seemed unbelievable: it flatly contradicted the accepted wisdom according to which no ancient document written on leather could survive in the Palestinian climate.

The decisive moment came one sunny morning, still in 1948. My professor of Hebrew turned up in class with the photograph of one of the manuscripts: it arrived that morning from Jerusalem and represented chapter 40 of the book of Isaiah. I stared at the picture, slowly deciphered the strange script, and felt in my bones that the document was genuine. At once I became captivated, and after tasting sweet novelty for a few months, I decided with youthful recklessness to devote my life to the study of what was immediately proclaimed “the greatest ever Hebrew manuscript find of all times”. Against advice, I resolved to write my doctoral dissertation on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Ever since then they and my life have been intertwined.

The scrolls, discovered by the Bedouin Mohammed the Wolf, were acquired for peanuts by the Syrian monastery of St Mark in Jerusalem and by Eleazar Sukenik, the Hebrew University’s professor of archaeology. On the eve of the outbreak of the first Jewish-Arab war in 1948, the Syrian archbishop, head of St Mark’s, smuggled his scrolls to America and advertised them in the Wall Street Journal. In due course, an anonymous buyer, secretly representing the new State of Israel, purchased them for $250,000, a quarter of the asking price. Thus, all seven scrolls were reunited and housed in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. Their publication (facsimile edition of the original text with facing transliteration, but without translation or commentary) swiftly followed. American scholars, commissioned by the Syrian monastery, issued in 1950-1951 the complete manuscript of Isaiah and two unknown documents, a Commentary on the Book of Habakkuk and the Community Rule, giving the regulations of an ancient Jewish sect. They were followed in 1953 by Professor Sukenik’s posthumous edition of a fragmentary Isaiah Scroll, a collection of Hymns and the Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness. The most legible parts of the poorly preserved seventh scroll, an apocryphal paraphrase of the Book of Genesis written in Aramaic, was published in 1956 by Sukenik’s son, Yigael Yadin. By the mid-1950s, literary Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship was successfully launched.

Meanwhile, the archaeologists had entered the scene. In 1949 a bored Belgian member of the United Nations Observer Corps persuaded the Jordanian Arab

Legion to look for the cave of the Scrolls. They found the hole in the cliff and the French Dominican Roland de Vaux, director of the Ecole Biblique et Archéologique of Jerusalem, collected from its floor hundreds of manuscript fragments, some of which belonged to the Scrolls that the Arab shepherd had removed from there two years earlier. Between 1951 and 1956, ten further caves containing five more scrolls and tens of thousands of fragments were discovered, mostly by clandestine Arab treasure hunters. The fragments, some large, some small, originally belonged to 900 scrolls, about one quarter of them biblical. They were written mostly on leather, 15 per cent on papyrus, a few on potsherds and one on copper sheets. The texts are chiefly in Hebrew with some Aramaic and a handful of Greek manuscripts. With the help of palaeography, carbon 14 analysis, archaeological data and, when possible, the examination of their content, the texts are dated from the end of the third century BC to the first century AD.

The work of the archaeologists was not exhausted by the 11 manuscript caves. Having first ignored the nearby ruins, known as Qumran, in the mistaken belief that they were the remains of a fourth-century Roman fortlet, Roland de Vaux and his colleagues set out to excavate this ancient settlement as well as a nearby farm further south at Ein Feshkha. The ruins lie within a stone’s throw from Cave 4, which yielded nearly two-thirds of the Qumran fragments. De Vaux concluded that the main period of occupation of the site fell between the late second century BC and its destruction by the Romans in AD 68; that the communal character of the establishment was indicated by a large assembly hall and dining room and over a thousand pots, bowls, plates, etc; that the adjacent cemetery of some 1,200 graves contained mostly male skeletons (but only five per cent of the tombs have been examined); and that numerous reservoirs, several furnished with steps, served for ritual purification. The site revealed also a manuscript workshop with inkwells and a potters’ installation. Hence, de Vaux’s surmise that Qumran was a religious settlement and that its occupiers were members of the Jewish sect of the Essenes. The first-century AD Jewish writers Philo and Flavius Josephus report their daily purificatory baths, male celibacy and religious communism and their Roman contemporary, Pliny the Elder, places the Essenes to the western shore of the Dead Sea, between Jericho and Ein Gedi. The Essene theory adopted by de Vaux – it was already guessed in 1948 by Eleazar Sukenik and strongly argued by the French scholar André Dupont-Sommer – quickly gained general acceptance, although during the last 30 years it has been contested, in my opinion largely on questionable grounds.

The latest assault on the Essene origin of the sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls comes from Professor Rachel Elior, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her views, not yet published but given in interviews, have been loudly trumpeted in the media and may be summed up as claiming (according to the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz of 13 March) that the scrolls were written by Jerusalem Sadducee priests and not by Essenes; and that the Essenes never existed, but were invented by Flavius Josephus.

While a proper assessment of Professor Elior’s ideas will have to wait until she backs them with scholarly argument in a forthcoming book, the following points need to be made. Josephus was not the first, let alone the only, author to describe (in great detail) the Essenes. He gives two separate accounts of the sect in his Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities and refers to various Essene individuals involved in Palestinian Jewish history from the mid-second century BC to the war against Rome in AD 66-70. Moreover, in his autobiography he states to have himself joined for a time the Essene community. These texts do not look like the figment of someone’s imagination. Furthermore, Josephus was preceded by two other first century AD writers, the Jew Philo of Alexandria and the Roman Pliny the Elder, both providing a picture of the Essenes essentially the same as that of Josephus, and listing the uncommon features of religious communism and renunciation of marriage. (The Qumran Community Rule also refers to common ownership of property and lays down a way of life unsuitable for married people. Both are contrary to what we know about Sadducee priests.) Finally, Pliny the Elder asserts that the Essenes lived on the western shore of the Dead Sea somewhere between Jericho in the north and Ein Gedi and Masada in the south (corresponding to the area where Qumran lies). The two unique characteristics (common ownership and male celibacy) and the geographical location remain the solid grounds on which the theory of the Essene identity of the Dead Sea sect continues to stand.

After the release of the original scrolls between 1950 and 1953, the publication of the fragments from Cave 1 in 1955 promptly inaugurated the collection Discoveries in the Judaean Desert (DJD), the final volume of which has just appeared.

The snail’s pace progress of this series over more than three decades up to 1991 constitutes what I once called the academic scandal of the century.

Let me return to 1951. While I was furiously working on my doctorate, I received a visit from one of de Vaux’s young Jerusalem collaborators, Dominique Barthélemy, who informed me about the yet unrevealed novelties resulting from the start of the archaeological excavation of Qumran and the discovery by the Bedouin of further scroll caves. On the promise that his identity would be kept secret, he let me use the valuable information he disclosed. So I completed the first ever doctoral thesis on the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1952, which among many other things identified the mid-second century BC Maccabee brothers, Jonathan and Simon, as the opponents of the Teacher of Righteousnes, founder of the Qumran community, a theory that soon became mainstream opinion among scholars. However, before sending my manuscript to the printers, I set sail for Israel to gain first-hand experience of the Scrolls.

The great adventure started badly. I was unable to inspect the manuscripts of the Hebrew University; Professor Sukenik was by then gravely ill and died the following year. So I was forced to opt for the riskier alternative, which entailed an illegal crossing from Israel to Jordan with false documents. I spent four weeks in Arab East Jerusalem at Roland de Vaux’s Ecole Biblique. At the school, I was greeted by my “secret informant”, Barthélemy, and also made friends with the man who was to become the greatest decipherer of Qumran manuscripts, the Pole Joseph Milik. The two young scholars were engaged on editing the fragments discovered in Cave 1. They generously permitted me to study the texts and we shared our ideas about the Scrolls. While there, I also witnessed Bedouin nervously approaching de Vaux and pulling out from under their burnous matchboxes filled with freshly looted scroll fragments which they tried to sell to him. Before leaving Jordan, I had the privilege of making my first pilgrimage to Qumran. After only a single season of digging, the site was very different from what it looks like today. Throughout my stay, Father de Vaux appeared kind and helpful. I was soon to discover his other face.

My book, Les Manuscrits du Désert de Juda (The Manuscripts of the Judaean Desert), published at the end of 1953, was warmly acclaimed in the French press. I was floating in the clouds, but was soon catapulted down to earth by Father de Vaux, the top man in the field. On receiving the copy of the book I sent him and reading in the foreword my thanks to the school and himself, he bitterly reproached me for publishing “friendly” information that was not for release. He even added that simply by mentioning my visit to the school, I gave undue authority to my statements, some of which were inexact. Totally shattered, I asked him to point out my errors as the second edition of the book was shortly due to appear, but he declined to do so as it would have taken up too much of his time. This reaction of de Vaux gave a foretaste of things to come during his dictatorial tenure as chief editor of the Scrolls. Nothing was ethical or correct unless it bore his seal of approval.

When with the help of the indefatigable Bedouin, ten further caves disgorged their manuscripts, the Barthélemy-Milik cottage industry could no longer cope with the accumulated material. So in 1953/54 de Vaux’s brainchild, the “international and interconfessional” (though Jew-free) team of editors was created. Its privileged members were to take charge of the fragments, including the colossal heap retrieved in Cave 4. Barth-élemy having pulled out, the brilliant Milik became the pillar of the group and seven further, mostly young, researchers were recruited two from France, two from the US, two from Britain and one from Germany. There was no supervisory body to oversee the performance of the team. They and de Vaux were a law unto themselves. Last, but not least, no proper funding was raised for the continuation of the project. Worst of all, de Vaux set up a “closed shop” – access to the unpublished texts was denied to Hebraists from the outside world until the team had completed their editorial work. This far from satisfactory arrangement did not bode well for the future.

Yet at the beginning the prospects were not gloomy. During the 1950s, the still enthusiastic team assembled, transcribed and largely identified the hundreds of original works and a word concordance was prepared on index cards. Preliminary publications filled the pages of scholarly journals and by 1962 the contents of the “minor” caves (2-3, 5-10) appeared in DJD III. It comprises insignificant texts with the exception of the Copper Scroll with its list of 64 hiding places crammed with silver and gold. A maverick member of de Vaux’s team promptly undertook a treasure hunt, but came back empty-handed. Two factors had a deleterious effect on the editorial project. The lack of finance obliged the members of the team to seek academic appointments away from Jerusalem and turn into part-time or hardly-any-time editors. (Two Harvard University professors practised slow-motion editing by proxy, subletting their unpublished texts to clever graduate students.) In June 1967, the Israeli victory in the Six Day War completely altered the political circumstances. De Vaux and most of the members of the editorial team were pro-Arab, and at the prospect of the Israeli archaeological establishment becoming the chief authority in Scroll matters, de Vaux withdrew to his tent and until his death in 1971 the project remained at a standstill. Only one slim and poor-quality volume dealing with the massive Cave 4 material was published during de Vaux’s life.

In 1972, the ill-qualified Pierre Benoit, another French Dominican who was not a Hebraist, inherited de Vaux’s editorial mantle. Playing the gentlemen, the Israeli archaeological establishment short-sightedly abstained from interfering. I felt it was my turn to step into the breach. By then, I held the senior post in Jewish Studies at Oxford. Having since 1962 The Dead Sea Scrolls in English to my credit, I was in a position to approach Oxford University Press, a body with real muscle as they were the publishers of the Scrolls. The head of the press, the great Greek papyrologist C.H. Roberts, was convinced at once and told Benoit to get a move on. The weak chief editor made a semblance of effort. Half of his collaborators simply did not reply and the other half politely promised delivery of the goods between 1974 and 1976, but nothing happened. In despair, I uttered in 1977 my oft-quoted soundbite about “the academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century”.

Nothing much happened during Father Benoit’s reign: only two further Cave 4 volumes trickled in. In 1984, he resigned and was replaced by John Strugnell, an academically capable Oxford graduate, but a highly inefficient person. Publishing was not his forte. In 1987, on the 40th anniversary of Qumran, two British colleagues and I tried to breath fresh life into the moribund editorial process. We organised an international conference in London to which we enticed the editorial team. The aim was to shame them into action. With one exception, they all turned up, made further promises, but my proposal at a public meeting that the photographs of the unpublished documents should be released at once met with blunt refusal from Strugnell. By then, general dissatisfaction with the editorial delays had reached boiling point and media speculation was rife. Instead of blaming the team, journalists and popular writers dished out a conspiracy theory: the Vatican had decided to prevent the publication of the Scrolls because they contained compromising material for Christianity.

While revolution was brewing, Strugnell was finally demoted on account of an unforgivable faux pas. Neither his team-mates nor the Israeli archaeological establishment could stomach his characterisation of Judaism, in an interview with a Tel Aviv daily, as a horrible religion which should not exist. He was relieved of his office on health grounds – he suffered from manic depression aggravated by alcoholism. The sensational opening move of the next chief editor, Emanuel Tov of the Hebrew University, chosen by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), was to appoint 60 new members (myself included) to the team. But sadly the IAA carried on with de Vaux’s “closed shop”: no one except the selected editors could as much as peep at unpublished texts. This was intolerable, but de Vaux’s policy was already doomed. Its downfall was caused by the IAA and Strugnell.

Following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, photographic archives of the Scrolls were deposited in “safe” countries: two in the US (in Cincinnati and in Claremont, California) and one in the UK (at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies). The institutions were obliged to keep the unpublished documents under lock and key. Strugnell, in turn, published privately for the use of his editorial team 25 copies of a handwritten word concordance of the Qumran texts. Both of these leaked.

The concordance came into the hands of a professor in Cincinnati, who with the assistance of a computer-savvy graduate student succeeded in reconstructing from the word list several complete Qumran texts. The Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS) of Washington published them in September 1991. The photo archive given to Claremont was the other source of the leak. All hell broke loose after the unauthorised publication by BAS, and Jerusalem threatened legal proceedings. Meanwhile, in secret, the director of the powerful Huntington Library of Pasadena was getting ready to announce that its photographic collection of the Scrolls would be placed on open shelves. How did it obtain these photos? Elizabeth Bechtel, a Californian philanthropist and founder of the Claremont Centre for Ancient Manuscripts, was given by the IAA two sets of Scroll photos, one for the centre under the usual conditions of inaccessibility, and the other for her private collection of memorabilia. After a quarrel with the trustees of her institute, she donated her own archive to the Huntington with no restrictive clauses. A press conference was called in New York on 21 September 1991 to announce the end of the Scroll embargo, but the news came out earlier. The archaeology correspondent of The Times interviewed me on 19 September and next day, 24 hours before the American press, he broke the story, quoting my warm approval of the Huntington. The IAA soon threw in the towel and after four decades of restrictive practices, freedom of inquiry finally triumphed. Hostilities ceased and the images of the manuscripts were made available in photographic, microfiche and CD-Rom form. DJD also obtained a new lease of life.

In 1956, Joseph Milik, de Vaux’s right-hand man, promised a yearly output of two to three DJD volumes. De Vaux, Benoit and Strugnell managed a bare eight volumes in 35 years. Tov and his team produced 32 from 1992 to 2009. To mark the completion of the magnum opus, Tov has been awarded the much-coveted Israel Prize in Biblical Studies. As for my 250-page Dead Sea Scrolls in English of 1962, it became in 2004 The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, a more than 700-page volume installed among the Penguin Classics.

To begin with the Hebrew Bible, 200 mostly fragmentary Qumran manuscripts represent the whole Old Testament except possibly the Book of Esther. They agree in substance with the traditional Scripture, the oldest complete Hebrew copy of which dates to AD 1008. But the Qumran Bible discloses numerous stylistic differences, textual additions or omissions and changes in the order of the passages. The Scrolls prove that the unified traditional text of the Bible was preceded by countless variations and that we owe the definite form of Scripture to the authoritative intervention of Jewish religious authorities around AD 100.

In addition to the Bible, a large collection of further religious books circulated among Jews prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Before Qumran, we knew some of these from translation into Greek, Syriac, Ethiopic, etc. The Scrolls have revealed several works in their original form and language, in Hebrew or Aramaic. Previously unknown religious writings have also turned up, considerably enlarging our knowledge of Jewish literature from the age of Jesus.

Many of these works, though present among the Dead Sea Scrolls, are thought to have been written by Jews unconnected with the Qumran community. The caves also produced a large number of hitherto unknown compositions, religious rules, poetry, biblical interpretation and a peculiar liturgical calendar, the literary legacy of a sect founded by dissident priests who turned their backs on the Temple of Jerusalem. The rulebooks present an ideal picture of the community next to practical descriptions. The idealised portrait identifies the group as a miniature Israel. The members believed they were living at the end of times and prepared themselves as sons of light to confront the sons of darkness in a final battle under the leadership of several Messiahs.

On the practical level, the majority of the documents legislate for a community of ordinary Jewish families who followed a stringent regime concerning ritual purity and sexual morality. Members owned property, but were obliged to contribute monthly to a charitable fund. Children born within the community received a strict sectarian education and became full members at the age of 20.

The Community Rule, legislating only for male members, substitutes communal existence for family life. Fresh recruits came from the outside Jewish world. They were subjected to an initiation lasting more than two years. Their life was characterised by secrecy in regard to the esoteric teachings of the community, by religious communism entailing the obligatory transfer of private property to the sect, and by the adoption of celibacy. The two distinctive characteristics, life out of the common purse and the unmarried state, have persuaded the majority of scholars that the sect was identical with the Essenes, known through the writings of Pliny, Philo and Josephus. Josephus, the author of the most detailed account, mentions two Essene branches, one celibate and the other married, echoing the Scrolls.

Qumran has shed fresh light on primitive Christianity, too. Fringe opinion has advanced the theory that Cave 7 housed Greek papyrus fragments of the New Testament, but the weightiest mainstream scholars reject this. The parallelism between Qumran and Christianity is subtler. Both the Dead Sea community and the early church considered themselves the true Israel, heirs of the biblical promises. Messianism flourished in both groups, but at Qumran two if not three messianic figures were expected, royal, priestly and prophetic, while in the New Testament, as in mainstream Judaism, these various figures coalesced into one person.

In my view, the most significant contribution of Qumran to the understanding of the New Testament is in the expectation of the instant coming of the Kingdom of God in the two communities. Both the Essenes and the early church believed that their respective Masters, the Teacher of Righteousness and Jesus, received from God all the mysteries concerning the final age and passed them on to their followers. They both considered the biblical prophecies fulfilled in the persons and events of their communities. Qumran Bible interpretation, especially the fulfilment exegesis, has thrown invaluable light on the Gospels. Both Essenes and Christians eagerly expected in their own days the appearance of the two Messiahs of Aaron and Israel and the reappearance of the Christ respectively. When they had to admit that their eschatological hopes had failed, both attempted to justify the delay, the Essenes through invoking the impenetrable mysteries of God, and the Christians through the comforting idea that the deferred Second Coming provided more time for repentance and was in fact a blessing in disguise.