Archaeology and Ancient Religions

The Dead Sea Scrolls: History, Challenges, New Directions

PBS website

Naila Razzaq, USA

Accidental discovery, political intrigue, decades of academic secrets, black market trade and ancient forgeries — this may sound like the next Indiana Jones installation, but it is in fact all part of the true story of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Now researchers are using DNA testing and 3D reconstruction to identify the provenance of parchments in the collection and are working to digitally enhance even the faintest ink marks that were unimaginable even a few years earlier.                                    

(From Leon Levy Digital Library of DSS)

Introduction and History of the Scrolls: 

But first, a bit of background is necessary: the story of the scrolls begins in early 1947 when a young Arab Bedouin named Muhammad Ta’amirah accidentally broke a clay pot containing some parchment in a cave on the north end of the Dead Sea at a site now known as Wadi Qumran while looking for his goat. [1] Over the next decade, thousands of new documents and fragments were found in and around the same location, dating from the 2nd century BCE to the first century CE and written primarily in Hebrew and Aramaic. Over 25,000 fragments and a total of 1,000 documents were found in about eleven caves at Wadi Qumran and several other sites along the Dead Sea. 

The post-war political instability coupled with the creation of the state of Israel in 1947 on the eve of the discovery created lasting hostilities between scholars and their countries of origin. The sites around the Dead Sea border – Jordan on one side and what is now the West Bank on the other and the scrolls became deeply embedded in the cultural heritage wars. Early scholarship was deeply influenced by political and religious allegiances and scholars from various groups fought to take hold of the documents. The scrolls passed through many hands: first a Syrian Orthodox Christian leather cobbler in Bethlehem called “Kando,” then to the Syriac Archbishop in Jerusalem, an Israeli military general and archeologist, two scholars from Yale University at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, an English antiquities dealer in Jordan, and three French Catholic priests, to name a just a few. At one point, several scrolls even ended up for sale under a “miscellaneous” heading in the Wall Street Journal! [2]

By the early 1960’s, most of the scrolls had made their way to Jerusalem and a select group of scholars began working on deciphering them. A few of the early scrolls found in Cave 1 were in relatively good condition and were published early on in academic journals. The vast majority of the scrolls, however, were actually fragments of parchment or leather that needed to be deciphered, translated, and pieced together like a puzzle. This was just the first of many challenges scholars would face in the decades ahead. Academic squabbles meant teams of scholars competed and hid their results from others, often manipulating translations and readings to reflect their political or religious allegiances rather than sharing and working together to uncover the truth. Several American scholars, for example, began assigning unpublished texts to their doctoral students so they could monopolize interpretations, denying access rather than sharing fragments and collaborating with international colleagues. [3]

Moreover, several translation controversies fueled even more secrecy around the scrolls. One of the Hebrew sectarian scrolls from cave 1 contained a line about the messiah (1QSa). The sentence begins, “when God [     ] the messiah with them.” The ink had faded to the point of being illegible and the Hebrew word in the blank could either be reconstructed as yolid (he begets) or yolik (he brought). Naturally, some scholars wanted to promote the former reading to forward claims that the text was proto-Christian or at least evidence for the divine nature of the messiah. Others argued that even if the word was “begets”, it was clearly referring to a metaphorical begetting of a human messiah. It was a biblical idiom with roots in Psalm 2 and 103, and therefore not evidence of a divine messiah, but only of a metaphorical turn of phrase with a human referent. It was easy to align proposed textual emendations with differing theological inclinations. Dating of the scroll eventually revealed that it was from the first century BCE, well before any Christian ideas of a divine messiah would emerge and therefore should simply be understood as an expression of Jewish messianic expectation. [4]

Another scholarly dispute involved the interpretation of a fragmentary Aramaic text was discovered in cave 4 in the early 1950’s, which mentions a figure as “the son of God” (ברה די אל). This text, also known as 4Q246, initiated a scholarly debate which is still ongoing. Part of the controversy arose from parallels with the Gospel of Luke but debates primarily revolved around the identification of the figure either as the awaited Davidic messiah or as a political ruler of some kind. Scholars have come to the consensus that the term is a symbolic sobriquet but identification of the named figure remains contested. [5] Controversies like this further exacerbated the already challenging state of fragment decipherment, fueling scholarly divisions and innumerable misleading theories in the public imagination.   

A photograph of the fragmentary 4Q246 (from Leon Levy DSS Digital Library)

It was only in the 1990’s that most of the collection of Dead Sea Scrolls were made more widely available to academics outside the select few and to the general public at large. Since then hundreds of purportedly “new” and “authentic” scroll and parchment fragments have appeared in headlines, museums, auctions, and black markets. The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. is by now a notorious example. The Museum, which is owned and operated by a conservative evangelical Christian family claimed that they had new and unique fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls that were not available anywhere else in the world. [6] Only a few scholars were allowed to examine the new documents, but none were allowed to publish their studies in journals. This of course raised greater suspicion, but the scrolls remained in the Museum attracting thousands of visitors for years. It was only in March of this year that Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines confirmed that all of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Museum of the Bible were forgeries! [7]

 1Q Isaiah (from the Leon Levy Digital DSS Library)

Textual and Archaeological Importance:          

So what makes the Dead Sea Scrolls so important that even museums would scramble at any cost just to claim they’ve attained authentic scrolls from this collection? Why did William F. Albright, a renowned American scholar and archaeologist famously proclaim soon after their discovery that the Dead Sea Scrolls were the “greatest manuscript discovery of modern times”? And why do academics and religious groups continue to fight over its contents and translation? 

Firstly, the Dead Sea Scrolls contain the oldest versions of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, to date, still centuries after their original date of composition but more than a millennium older than the Leningrad and Aleppo Codices, which biblical scholars and theologians had used as the basis for their Bibles since the early medieval period. Every biblical book from the Hebrew Bible was found (with the exception of the book of Esther), and many were found in multiple copies with variations that indicate that (a) biblical texts had not been standardized even at that late point, and (b) multiple textual variants existed side by side.   

What few people know, however, is that only about 25% of the collection of documents found around the Dead Sea are parchments of recognizable Hebrew Bible texts. The remaining 75% of the collection contains a trove of other writings including interpretive and commentary material, legal codes and rules for a sectarian community, letters written from local leaders to the Jerusalem Temple, apocalyptic writings expressing messianic expectation, and many other texts that were clearly authoritative and important but that did not finally make it into the canonised version of the Hebrew Bible, a process that took several centuries and was finally decided by rabbis in Palestine sometime in the first century CE. [8] Ultimately, the scrolls have reshaped the way scholars approach the critical period before the rise of early Christianity and the development of Judaism in the first century. Prior to the Scrolls, scholars knew little of Judaism in this period and relied on later rabbinic sources like the Mishnah or Talmud (which were composed from the 2nd century CE through the 6thcentury) to reconstruct earlier trends. We now have glimpses of how Jewish groups would have prayed and interacted with each other, for example, and how ideas and theological debates traveled across and intersected spaces that were once thought to be isolated or moribund. 

On a linguistic level, scholars have been able to learn more about the development and changes in Hebrew and Aramaic both paleographically and grammatically. The choice to use Aramaic instead of Hebrew in many of the scrolls indicates that it was in fact Aramaic that had become the lingua franca in the region and would have been spoken not only by the sectarian communities of Wadi Qumran, but also by Jesus (as) and his early followers some time later and would become the original primary language of the New Testament as well. 

The various apocalyptic and legal writings also help us understand the development of ideas like that of the afterlife, angelology, messianic expectation, and purity laws, among others. Many theological and interpretive perspectives found among the scrolls were not known from Hebrew Bible itself. There are hundreds of parallels between the many of the non-biblical scrolls and what we find in the Gnostic Gospels and other early Christian literature including the New Testament, including some of the controversies mentioned above. Unsurprisingly, this led early scholars to label the authors of the texts and the sect as a whole as proto-Christian, some even going as far as to suggest that the site should be understood as a monastery of some kind where Jesus (as) and his followers would have stayed at various points. These misleading notions captured the public’s imagination so much so that it’s not uncommon even nowadays to hear the Qumran sect and writings be referred to as more or less “Christian.” There are still evangelical groups that visit the area as part of a pilgrimage tour of Christian sites in the Holy Land!  

The sect at Wadi Qumran was, however, eventually identified with the Essenes, a Jewish puritanical and esoteric group known to scholars from later writings and historical accounts of Philo, Josephus, and Pliny, among others. [9] From a document in the collection called 4QMMT, we can see that one of the reasons for the sect’s separation from the central Jerusalem temple was rooted in a disagreement about how to interpret the Hebrew Bible and how to translate earlier teachings into practice. [10] What is especially interesting is the messianic expectation that is expressed in the scrolls. The sect, whose members did not only live at Wadi Qumran but also in multiple surrounding areas in the region, were awaiting a human messiah who would fulfill earlier prophecies. Decades later, followers of Jesus (as) would quote similar passages and make similar interpretive moves and messianic claims, many of which are found in non-canonical gospels and writings like those discovered in the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt. [11]

In addition to the many textual clues and treasures of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the archaeology of Wadi Qumran and neighboring sites is equally intriguing. A neighboring burial site may provide clues to the composition of the group itself and a tannery on the site indicates that at least some of the parchment and leather utensils for writing were manufactured in situ. There is also great debate about a particular area of the site where many bones of young sheep, goat and cattle were found, mixed with ash. We can learn about more than just the diet of the group from these remains and some have suggested that the sect performed its own animal sacrifices on festival days separate from the central Jerusalem Temple. [12] The site also has a total of eight ritual immersion pools, known as miqveh, that would have been filled with rain water and used to purify before prayers and as part of the initiation ritual for admission into the sect.

We know from the fragments and texts themselves that the communities of Qumran thought of themselves as starting a new covenant from which the expected Messiah would emerge. It is also widely known that John the Baptist belonged to a Jewish sect, perhaps the Essenes, located near Jericho and the Dead Sea. Whether or not John the Baptist was in fact the elusive “Teacher of Righteousness” mentioned as a leader of the sect in the Dead Sea Scrolls, or whether he was even part of the community at Qumran is debatable since the site itself was occupied from the second century BCE, almost a century before the time of Jesus (as) and there is no explicit mention of any figure that can definitively be identified as Joh the Baptist. Yet the similarities and parallels are noteworthy nonetheless and lend credence to the fact that during the years prior to mission of Jesus (as), there were multiple Jewish sects awaiting the arrival of a messiah and many of the practices and interpretive methods employed by the Dead Sea communities would find their way into the work of early followers of Jesus (as) and even later Jewish-Christian sects in Egypt, Jordan, Ethiopia and Northern Arabia.

There are many more reasons why the Dead Sea Scrolls are significant. I have only just begun to touch the “tip of the iceberg”. Suffice it to say for now that the discovery and study of the scrolls has not only transformed how scholars view the relationship between later Judaism and the early followers of Jesus (as), but also the development of early Judaism itself with hundreds of previously unknown texts that were left out of the Bibles we read today.   

Challenges, Technology and New Directions in Research: 

Let us return, in closing, once again to the deciphering of the scrolls and new advances in technology that are helping scholars more thoroughly understand the scrolls, who wrote them and where they came from. Over the past several years, multispectral imagery and 3D printing have allowed scholars to see writing where none had been visible to the naked human eye. [13] Scholars can now also “virtually unwrap” scrolls from the collection, including the Ein Gedi scroll, that were either damaged by fire or too brittle to unfold physically without destroying the fragment. [14]

Most recently, a team of scroll scholars and geneticists used mitochondrial DNA analysis to trace the origins of the materials on which the scrolls were written. Their findings were published in June 2020 in the journal Cell. [15] Most of the Dead Sea scrolls fragments are written on parchment, which is a material prepared from untanned skins of sheep, goats or cows. Extracting mitochondrial DNA from 26 parchment samples enabled the team to trace the geographic origins of those parchments. The first step in the process was to separate human DNA from animal DNA and though some are skeptical of its accuracy, the authors of the study claim that they were able to successfully differentiate and accurately trace the origins of the parchment pieces. What they found primarily corroborated what scholars had earlier come to believe: namely that many of the scrolls, both biblical and non-biblical alike, originated from locations outside of Qumran and that the texts themselves were distributed. It’s also important to keep in mind that the new DNA analysis only reveals the geographic and historical origin of the physical material on which the texts were written, not the location, origin, or authors of the actual writing itself. Still, the DNA analysis can aid scholars in more accurately putting the various fragments together in clusters based on genetic resemblance rather than simply relying on paleographic analysis and carbon dating. The paleogenomic technique allowed scholars to distinguish the provenances of two fragments from the Book of Jeremiah that were previously thought to belong to a single manuscript. One of the fragments was written on cowhide while the other was not, meaning that the cowhide fragment originated outside the Qumran community. The technology is especially promising for the nearly thirty literary texts that had too many fragments to be pieced together with the available technology. [16] The results also now authoritatively prove that even scroll fragments that had previously categorized as “sectarian” were in fact representative of much broader theological trends and anticipations in the area and were not isolated or unique to the Essene sect, nor were the Essenes the sole authors of the scrolls.    

Though our knowledge of the site of Qumran and the history of the period has dramatically increased in recent years due to technological advancements, much detail is still missing from our picture. This new DNA testing will undoubtedly benefit scholars, not only of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but of other archaeological and ancient manuscript finds as well! 

About the Author: Naila Razzaq is a PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University focusing on early Judaism. She is interested in the history of biblical interpretation with a special focus on Second Temple Judaism, Dead Sea Scrolls and ‘pseudepigraphic’ literature in Ancient Judaism and Late Antiquity. She is also interested in Jewish communities in pre-Islamic Arabia and early Islam. She works on comparative Semitic philology, and hopes to bring Biblical Scholarship in conversation with Arabic and Islamic Studies in her work.


[1] John J. Collins, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography, (Princeton UP: 2013), pp. 1-20

[2] Ibid., 9

[3] Among those scholars were two Harvard professors John Strugnell and Frank Moore Cross. British scholars including Geza Vemes at Oxford and Philip Davies wrote publicly requesting access to scrolls but were denied. See, “The Fight for the Scrolls,” in J. Collins, The Dead Sea Scrolls, pp. 217-20. 

[4] Collins, Dead Sea Scrolls, 110-12

[5] Florentino Garcia-Martinez and Eibert Tigchelaar,The Dead Sea Scrolls: Study Edition, vol. 1, pp 494-5

[6] For a history of the creation of the Museum of the Bible, see Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby Joel S. Baden and Candida Moss(Princeton UP: 2017)

[7] Michael Greshko, “’Dead Sea Scrolls’ at the Museum of the Bible are all forgeries,” National Geographic, March 13, 2020. Bright Katz, “All of the Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scrolls Are Fake, Report Finds,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 16 2020. 

[8] The date of the canonization of the Hebrew Bible is still debated amongst scholars, and some have proposed a date as early as the 5thcentury BCE and others have pushed the date well into the first few centuries CE. The German scholar Heinrich Graetz proposed in the 1870’s that the canonization of the Hebrew Bible occurred at the “Council of Jamnia” in Yavneh in the first century, but his argument has largely been discredited. There does not appear to be one specific date as is the case for the New Testament. 

[9] Joan Taylor, “Classical Sources on the Essenes and the Scrolls Communities,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. John J. Collins and Timothy H. Lim, (Oxford UP 2013)

[10] Florentino Garcia-Martinez and Eibert Tigchelaar,The Dead Sea Scrolls: Study Edition

[11] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, (Vintage Books: 1979)

[12] Jodi Magness, “Were Sacrifices offered at Qumran? The Animal Bone Deposits Reconsidered,” Journal of Ancient Judaism 7.1(2016) pp. 5-34

[13] “Multispectral Imaging Uncovers Hidden Text in Fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls,” Sci-News,  May 20, 2020. 

[14] “Scientists use ‘virtual unwrapping’ to read ancient biblical scroll reduced to lump of charcoal,” The Guardian, 2016

[15] Anava et al., “Illuminating Genetic Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Cell 181, 1218–1231 June 11, 2020(accessed online through Yale University library)

[16] Josie Glausiusz, “Ancient DNA Yields New Clues to Dead Sea Scrolls,” Scientific American, June 2, 2020