What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of documents found in caves along a plateau above the Dead Sea in Israel, called Qumran. There are over 850 documents found in 11 different caves. Many retell parts of the Old Testament and have been dated as scribed before 100 AD.

The Dead Sea Scrolls retell parts of the Old Testament.
The Dead Sea Scrolls retell parts of the Old Testament.

A goat herder named Mohammed Ahmed al-Hamed in 1947 found the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Legend has it that he was looking for an animal that had strayed and stumbled across the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, several people claiming to be al-Hamed have called this tale into question. So like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the legend of their discovery is shrouded in mystery.

The Dead Sea scrolls were found in caves overlooking the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea scrolls were found in caves overlooking the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea Scrolls changed hands from antiques dealers to churches. Some were sold on the open market. Further search in the locations around Qumran found more scrolls in more caves. Some scrolls were published immediately, while others were published much later. Some alleged that the Roman Catholic Church wanted to suppress the publication of certain scrolls. However, with all scrolls now published, little evidence has been found that any of the works cast negative light on the Church.

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain writing, by at least three different scribes, and in at least three different dialects of Hebrew. Initially, the Dead Sea Scrolls were considered as a way of unlocking mysteries about Hebrew and possibly Early Christian beliefs. Most often today, they are used by biblical scholars to analyze differences in text, and compare interpretations and translations of certain disputed words.

The Dead Sea Scrolls do offer some illumination on the period of Jewish history when the Second Temple was built, from 570 BCE to 70 CE. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls are scribings of several Old Testament Books, like Psalms, Isaiah and Deuteronomy. There are some texts written in Greek, which many thought proved evidence of early Christian influence.

The theory the scrolls contain evidence of early Christian belief structures is flimsy. Many estimate the scrolls date back to 90 BCE. Thus Christians could not have written them.

Exactly who kept or secreted the Dead Sea Scrolls remains mysterious. In the 1990s, many believed the Dead Sea Scrolls were once in the possession of the Essenes, who lived near Qumran from approximately the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE. During the Jewish Revolt in 66 AD, the Essenes hid the scrolls in the caves to prevent their destruction. Many now discredit this theory because the Essenes were a small community and would not have supported so many scribes.

Other theories have since emerged, but no one can exactly say who wrote, held, or hid the Dead Sea Scrolls. Archaeologists and theologians still continue to study the scrolls in hopes that some interpretation will be made that sheds more light on their origins. Many of the scrolls have also been printed and are available for examination by the public.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Thanks for this interesting post. The Dead Sea Scrolls became one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century because of the relevance of these texts to biblical studies. These are among the best-known and most essential old documents discovered in years. These scrolls should be properly preserved like the biggest collection in the Israel museum.


@Grivusangel -- I wasn't able to get to that exhibit when it came to my part of the country, and I wish I had been able to go.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, to me, confirm that the Old Testament has been around for a long, long time, and certainly upholds the authenticity of the Scriptures.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were written long before some people say they were, and obviously, by different hands. They do not contradict anything in Scripture. On the contrary, they confirm or illuminate some concepts.


One of the most fascinating exhibits I've ever been to was the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at a local university. Seeing the artifacts was fantastic. Not only did they have one of the scrolls on display, but also examples of cuneiform from the Phoenecian era. The little tablet I saw was a receipt for nine cows.

The exhibit also featured early examples of the English bible, and even a page from a Gutenberg Bible! It was amazing. It was like seeing a history book come to life. I couldn’t look at everything long enough and I was sad when it was time to leave.

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