Nearly 70 years ago, young Bedouin shepherds tending their flocks near the ancient settlement of Qumran, on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, stumbled on what has been called one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century. Inside a cliff-side cave, they found a number of large clay jars, some containing leather and papyrus scrolls later determined to be more than 2,000 years old. Over the next decade, archaeologists and treasure hunters would turn up thousands of fragments of more than 900 documents in the Qumran caves, including the world’s oldest known biblical manuscripts. Now, two new books have revealed the contents of more than 25 previously unpublished Dead Sea Scroll fragments. Though some scholars fear the scrolls could be forgeries, others believe there may be many more undiscovered gems still to be found.
Though the term “Dead Sea Scrolls” has been applied scrolls found in other caves around the Judean Desert, it is more specifically used to refer to the scrolls first discovered in the caves near the ancient settlement of Qumran between 1947 and 1956. After the teenage shepherds made their fateful discovery, they sold the initial set of scrolls to an antiquities collector. But after scholars determined the documents were more than 2,000 years old, archaeologists and treasure hunters descended on Qumran, combing the area for additional scrolls. Eventually, they found thousands of fragments, from more than 900 manuscripts, in 11 different caves at Qumran.
Many historians, archaeologists and theologians consider the Dead Sea Scrolls—conventionally known by the numbers of the cave in which they were found—to be the most significant find of the 20th century. They include the world’s oldest known biblical manuscripts, and shed light on the region’s history, the emergence of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism and the interaction of early Christian and Jewish customs. Covering a broad time span (from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D., just before the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70), the scrolls have helped scholars reconstruct the history of Palestine going back to the fourth century B.C., and enabled them to push back the date of the Hebrew Bible to no later than A.D. 70.
No one knows exactly who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, but many scholars believe they are the work of the Essenes, a devout, communal Jewish sect who lived in Judea during the time it was part of the Roman Empire. The scrolls may have been hidden in the caves around A.D. 70, during a Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire.
For more than half a century, controversy has hovered around the Dead Sea Scrolls. Though the longer, more complete scrolls were published in their entirety soon after their discovery, the majority of the rest consisted of fragments, which were published more slowly and to which access was strictly limited. To make things more complicated, Qumran is located in the West Bank, a territory Israel won from Jordan during the Six-Day War in 1967. Jordan has asserted on different occasions that it is the rightful owner of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In recent years, two separate collectors have amassed a total of more than 25 previously unpublished scroll fragments. The first collector, Steve Green, bought 13 fragments between 2009 and 2014. The owner of the arts and crafts retail chain Hobby Lobby, Green donated the documents and thousands of other artifacts to the Museum of the Bible, scheduled to open next year in Washington, D.C. (Green is helping to fund the museum’s construction.)
The contents of Green’s donated scrolls were recently detailed in the book “Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments in the Museum Collection.” Their provenance is uncertain: Some may have come from Qumran, while others were apparently found elsewhere in the Judean Desert. One highlight of the group is a fragment from the Book of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:13-16) in the Hebrew Bible, which tells the story of a man who returns to Jerusalem in the wake of its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. After the Persian Empire took over Babylon’s territory, Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem. In the text on the scroll fragment, Nehemiah visits the ruined city and begins the process of rebuilding it.
So far, none of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered have contained text from the Book of Nehemiah. If authenticated, this newly published fragment would be the first to do so. Though it is assumed to be from cave 4 at Qumran, which housed the main deposit of the scrolls thought to be written by the Essenes, the fragment’s actual provenance is unknown. As Emanuel Tov, professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote in the book: “Unfortunately, little is known about the provenance of these fragments because most sellers did not provide such information at the time of the sale.” Scientists are reportedly conducting tests on the fragments donated to the Bible Museum to determine the likelihood that they are forgeries.
The Norwegian collector Martin Schøyen, who owns the other group of newly revealed Dead Sea Scroll fragments, began collecting biblical manuscripts in 1986 to add to his immense antiquities collection. Determined to obtain a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls with biblical text, he finally tracked down several in a family collection in Zurich, and purchased several others from the descendants of tourists or collectors who bought scrolls from a dealer in Bethlehem in the 1950s. Schøyen also bought fragments once owned by students who worked at the Qumran caves in 1948. In the end, the collector ended up with about 115 fragments from 27 different scrolls, the contents of which are detailed in another recently published book, “Gleanings from the Caves: Dead Sea Scrolls and Artefacts from The Schøyen Collection.”
According to Schøyen, some of the fragments he obtained came from caves 1, 4 and 11 at Qumran, while others were found in other Judean caves. A highlight from the collection is a fragment containing text from the Book of Leviticus, in which God promises that the people of Israel will be rewarded if they observe the Sabbath and obey the Ten Commandments.
Alongside the scholars who fear the newly published scroll fragments may not be genuine, there are also those who believe there may be many more where they came from. As reported by LiveScience, around 70 newly discovered fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls have appeared on the antiquities market since 2002. In addition, the cabinet minister in charge of Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) joins a number of scholars in the belief that looters in the Judean caves are finding even more undiscovered scroll fragments. With that in mind, the IAA is sponsoring scientific surveys and excavations in the hopes of getting to these historic artifacts before the looters do.