The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) are one of the greatest biblically related finds in the history of archaeology and the study of antiquities. 981 fragments were discovered in 11 caves and constituted the oldest copies of Scripture we have to date. Literally thousands of scroll fragments have been found in the Dead Sea area. The DSS are famous for some being largely intact, as opposed to fragmented pieces of Scripture and other articles.
The stories of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls are somewhat different. All of them tell of a 15-year-old boy named Muhammad adh-Dhib of the Bedouin tribe Taamirah, who found them around February or March of 1947. All differ on what the boy was actually doing when he stumbled across them. One story says he was looking for a lost sheep in the caves. Another story states that he was moving smuggled supplies from Jordan to Bethlehem. Yet another says he was seeking shelter from an approaching storm. Possibly the most popular one tells of the boy and his friend throwing rocks into the nearby caves. They noticed a peculiar sound when one of the stones hit something that sounded like pottery being shattered, similar to how one might know what breaking glass sounds like.
When the first cave was entered, the boys discovered several jars (most of which where broken) with scrolls of leather wrapped in linen cloth. The scrolls were extremely brittle and decomposed, but had writing that the boys did not recognize. Adh-Dhib and his friends took the scrolls to a Muslim sheik in the Bethlehem market area. Seeing they were not in Arabic, he passed them over to another merchant. Somewhere along the line, the largest and oldest of the scrolls from the writings of the prophet Isaiah, was offered for £20 in Bethlehem, which was rejected because it was not believed to be very old. Ultimately, through a chain of events, many of the scrolls ended up in the hands of the Archbishop Athanasius Yeshue-Samuel (Syrian). Professor Sukenik of the Hebrew University at Jerusalem acquired others from the Muslim sheik at Bethlehem. More scrolls were purchased from the Bedouins. Finally, George Isaiah (a merchant in Jerusalem) convinced one of the Bedouins to take him to the cave were the scrolls were found. Among other artifacts, one large jar remained that had been considered too large for removal.
The first expert that was consulted for the scrolls was Stephan Hannah Stephan, a member of the Syrian Orthodox Church. He was a well-known Orientalist who worked with the Department of Antiquities of Palestine. Upon his inspection, he confidently pronounced the scrolls to be worthless. However, his field of expertise was in Arabic history as opposed to Hebrew paleography. Thus, his skepticism betrayed his observation.
The discovery happened at what most would view as an importune time in Israel’s history. It would be on November 25, 1947 that the United Nations passed a resolution to partition the Palestinian area. The relationship between Israel and the Arabic people became more hostile than before and cooperation with the scrolls diminished. Through a series of events, the scrolls were largely acquired by the Israeli Antiquities Authority, as well as others that were subsequently discovered in additional caves. It would not be until 1991 that the scrolls would be released and published on digital medium for global observation. However, it was not without a great deal of stress and trial to open them to the public.
While there are some disputes over the authorship of the scrolls, the majority opinion is that they were written and stored by the Qumran sect of the Essenes. The Essenes were composed of an ascetic group of Jews that felt the necessity to separate themselves from the “unholy” in Jerusalem. Pliny the Elder (post 70 AD) recorded and described a group of Essenes that were living in a desert community on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, near Ein-gedi. The reason for the scrolls being in the caves is believed to have been to hide them from the Romans during the First Jewish War (66-68 AD). The community at Qumran was ultimately sacked and thus, the hidden scrolls remained.
Qumran is an archaeological site consisting of 270 caves located in the West Bank. The area is composed of a plateau with sheer cliffs and extremely difficult navigation. Structures dating back to the 7th and 8thc BC have been excavated, extending into the Second Jewish War (132-35 AD). There is a major cemetery 50 miles east of the community with over 1,100 tombs. Interestingly, one major section of the graveyard contains only male bodies. In another section, both male and female are present, as well as infant bodies. It is observed that very few of those buried there had exceeded the age of 40.