The scrolls were discovered in 11 caves on the northwestern shore of Israel’s Dead Sea. Cave four alone (above) contained 520 texts in 15,000 fragments.
heir discovery is the stuff of folklore. In 1947 a young Bedouin shepherd on the desolate shores of Israel’s Dead Sea wandered into a cave looking for a lost goat. What he discovered there, clay jars filled with parchment scrolls wrapped in linen, is arguably the greatest archeological find in history. Between 1947 and 1956, archeologists discovered in 11 caves the fragments of more than 900 documents dating from 250 B.C. to 68 A.D. The scrolls include 230 biblical manuscripts written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek representing nearly every book in the Hebrew Bible, some up to a thousand years older than any versions previously known. From June 29 through Dec. 31, the San Diego Natural History Museum will host the largest, most comprehensive exhibition of Dead Sea Scrolls ever assembled, including 27 authentic scrolls from Israel and Jordan — 10 exhibited for the first time ever — and ancient biblical manuscripts from St. Petersburg. Among the scrolls on display will be the oldest-known Deuteronomy manuscript containing the text of the Ten Commandments.
“The scrolls are of immeasurable worth,” says Russell Fuller, professor of theology and religious studies at USD. Fuller is a member of the international team of editors of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a consultant for the exhibition. “They allow us to understand the history of the text, how it was copied and transmitted, and how we actually got our Bible today,” he explains.
Possibly even more intriguing, says Fuller, are the non-biblical scrolls, which open a window onto the beliefs and practices of Judaism and early Christianity. “For instance, we discovered that this early Jewish group believed in the resurrection of the dead,” describes Fuller. “That’s the heart of Christianity, and we previously had no idea that some early Jews held this belief.”
As for who wrote these texts, Fuller says it was likely Essenes, members of a Jewish sect that withdrew from mainstream Judaism to live a communal life at Qumran. The majority of scrolls were written on leather parchment, but some are also on papyrus, and one scroll (included in the exhibition) was inscribed on copper. Because the scrolls may only be displayed for a three-month period, the museum has been granted the opportunity to display two different sets of scrolls throughout the six-month exhibition.
“People should be excited about this because it’s our roots,” says Fuller. “If you’re interested in the Bible, you’re going to see these, the earliest texts of what becomes our Bible. You can see the Bible unfolding before your eyes.”