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Dead Sea Scrolls

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WHAT ARE THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS AND HOW MUCH CAN THEY HELP US UNDERSTAND THE NEW TESTAMENT?

WHAT ARE THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS?

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a group of 800-900 manuscripts found in caves at Qumran east of Jerusalem and north-west of the Dead Sea. The first scrolls were discovered in 1947 by a shepherd-boy who wandered into a cave after a stray goat. The texts are believed to have been hidden in eleven caves for safe-keeping prior to the destruction of Rome in A.D.70.

The scrolls are a collection of biblical and non-biblical documents comprising of the Hebrew Bible, (every book except Esther); the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha; rules for community life; biblical commentaries; a Testimonia, (a collection of verses from the Bible about the Messiah); a War Scroll; Temple Scroll; poetic and liturgical pieces; Thanksgiving Hymns; wisdom instructions; legal rulings; horoscopes and even a treasure map.1

Hailed as the archaeological find of modern times they were made out of papyrus or animal skins called gevil and written right to left with no punctuation. In fact there were no spaces between words they simply ran together. Written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek using ink made from carbon black and white pigments and using birds feathers as writing implements.

Various forms of dating methods were used including carbon-14 tests done on linen wrappings, palaeographic, coins and pottery found and scribal. The scrolls were dated from approximately 250 BC to 68 AD. Coming from the late second Temple period, the time when Jesus lived, they are older than any other surviving biblical manuscripts. Preceding this a document called the Nash Papyrus was the oldest biblical document which was dated to the 1st or 2nd century and contained the Ten Commandments. The scrolls contained copies of Isaiah which were almost 1000years older than the oldest known copies of the Old Testament. The texts of the scrolls are remarkably comparable to documents we already have. This discovery shows the extraordinary accuracy between the two sets of manuscripts.

The texts are believed to have been written by a strict Jewish sect called the Essenes. This religious community led by one they called the “Teacher of Righteousness” lived a demanding routine of self-discipline. Their interpretation of the law was severe, they held fellowship meals to which admission was closely guarded. “They interpreted prophetic scripture as referring to events of their own day and believed that they had an important part to play in the hope of Israel.”2

HOW MUCH CAN THEY HELP US UNDERSTAND THE NEW TESTAMENT?

The dead sea scrolls offer unique information from a time during the second temple period when Jewish religious and political life in Palestine was full of corruption and conflict. There were three main Jewish groups during this time; the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. It has also been confirmed that there were many other groups and movements in Secondary Temple Judaism.

“It is now evident that Judaism in the land of Israel was open to Greek influences from the 3rd century onwards in the areas of language, economics, military strategy, politics, culture and religion”.3

The scrolls shed light on the time when Jesus and John the Baptist lived and the beliefs of the early Christians. We are given information on the way things were at that time; the laws of the day, things that Jesus and the apostles had trouble with when facing the opposition of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

The discovery of the biblical manuscripts provide a valuable resource into textual traditions of this time. The texts make it clear that there was no standardized text of the Hebrew scriptures in Jesus’ day. It is unclear if or how the Qumran community distinguished between the canonical and the non-biblical books but it is apparent that these documents were read and how important they were to these people.

Parallels can be drawn between practices outlined in the Qumran documents and some of the rituals that were carried out in the Christian church including rituals of baptism, a sacred meal of bread and wine, communal meals, and property. The closest parallels however, can be seen in theological language and community organization. Both groups used the Hebrew Bible and were theologically creative, using old terms in new ways (covenant, thanksgiving, confession, etc). Both groups had an interest in seeing the fulfilment of scripture and viewed themselves as living in the last days.

These two groups put enormous significance on community structures. The community rule of the Essenes had a teacher or (maskil) and an executive committee of twelve men, (standing for the twelve tribes of Israel). The Christian church of course has Jesus and the twelve apostles.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have given us new information and new ways of looking at the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Judaism, Jesus and the early Christians and the Jewish world in which they lived.

I would like to refer to the following exert from 4Q246

Affliction will come on Earth . . . He will be called great . . . �Son of God’ he will be called and �Son of the Most High’ they will call him . . . His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom . . . He will judge the Earth in truth and all will make peace.4

This was written 100years before Jesus’ birth. Luke 1:34-35 tells us of the Annunciation in which Mary is told she will bear a son and He will be Great and be called the Son of the Most High God. These similarities are only part of the wisdom that the Dead Sea Scrolls have to offer. The two pieces of writing are just one of example of the parallels between the old and new testaments and between the Dead Sea Scrolls and

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