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Dead Sea Scrolls History: Why The Latest Discovery Is The Most Important In 60 Years

10 February 2017, 8:34 am EST By Kalyan Kumar Tech Times
The religious and historic importance of the ancient Dead Sea scrolls has been revived after the discovery of a cave by Israeli researchers. In the cave was a jar that preserved the ancient scroll before it was stolen in the 20th century.  ( Wikimedia Commons )

There is excitement over the discovery of a cave site where the Dead Sea scrolls — the repertoire of ancient knowledge — were housed. The scrolls could not be recovered from the site as they were already stolen in the 1950s.

However, the discovery of the cave site assumes huge importance as the excavation marked another success after a gap of 60 years. It also revived the great value of the scrolls as a medium for recreating the ancient life of societies.

At the hilltop cave near Qumran, no written scroll was left as a takeaway. Archaeologists who probed the cave only saw blank scroll jars, a cloth and a leather strap used for wrapping and holding the scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls were supposedly stolen.

Discovery In The 1950s

In the years spanning 1947 to 1956, there was the sporadic discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls from a series of 11 caves near Qumran, which is now in the West Bank.

Deemed priceless, the scrolls contain copies of the Hebrew Bible along with calendars, community rules and astronomical texts.

Credit goes to the Bedouin people who first traced some of the scrolls. The first discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls was made in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd boy in Qumran.

Ancient Wisdom

Mostly written on animal skin and papyrus, the Dead Seas Scrolls date back to about 250 B.C. to A.D. 68.

Numbering close to 800, the documents were written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, with some containing the oldest biblical texts with information on the life and society of the early centuries.

"This is one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries, and the most important in the last 60 years, in the caves of Qumran," noted Hebrew University archaeologist Oren Gutfeld.

The discovery made by Gutfeld and Ahiad Ovadia of the Hebrew University in Israel had Randall Price and students from Liberty University in Virginia, USA, as collaborators.

Significance Of Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls span a time when different Judean groups were struggling to obtain political and religious supremacy.

The scrolls throw vast light on such historical events and also the ways in which various Jews of the Second Temple era engaged the world.

This "ancient library" adds rare insights into the crucial periods when rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity were evolving.

They not only enrich knowledge about the origins of these religions but also inform the practices that prevailed in ancient Judaism.

Unlike other texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls are objective and paint a picture of the diversity of Jewish religious life and the driving philosophy in the Second Temple era.

They are helpful in understanding the conditions from which rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity bloomed, this despite no rabbinic or Christian texts being discovered from the bunch of manuscripts. The thoughts discovered in the Scrolls were seen reflecting Jewish and Christian writings of a later date.

One important outcome of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been the breaking of the myth that Second Temple Judea was a monolithic society.

The scrolls celebrated diversity while other writings were harping on the uniformity of the society, obviously influenced by preconceived notions and use of selective inputs from the works of historian Josephus Flavius, the New Testament Gospels, Rabbinic texts, and works of Roman and Greek authors. These sources were rich in information on diversity.

In specific terms, the scrolls mention the diverse Jewish sects such as Essenes, Pharisees and Sadducees, and the variations in world views and practices.

However, all Jewish groups agree to the centrality of the Bible, even if interpretations of the religious texts differed.

Adding new knowledge to interpretations of biblical thoughts, the Dead Sea Scrolls also ably look at the impact of historic events on ideas and religion of that time.

This is in contrast to other non-biblical texts, where discrepancies on the interpretation of the Scripture persisted among different groups.

Many disputes of that period, including those on religious calendar and issues relating to Temple and priesthood, can be extracted from the scroll texts.

Most of the Scrolls were composed during the century-long Judean independence under the rule of Jewish kings of the Hasmonean dynasty.

The ancient texts also provide the historical context when societal debates took place. It was a period when the colonial aspirations of the Greek and Roman Empires were peaking as evident in the resistance to invasion and foreign intervention.

The conquest of Alexander the Great and Bar Kokhba Revolt against Rome are immediate examples.

The new excavation was made under the "Operation Scroll" led by Director-General Israel Hasson of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

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