The Men of Qumran: Description and Controversy of the Scrolls

Description of the Scrolls

As soon as the announcement of the scrolls’ discovery was made, the scholarly debates about their origin and significance began. The debates increased when the amazing contents of the scrolls were successively revealed.

The seven original scrolls, from what came to be called “Cave One,” comprised the following: (1) a well preserved copy of the entire prophecy of Isaiah—the oldest copy of an Old Testament book ever to be discovered; (2) another fragmentary scroll of Isaiah; (3) a commentary on the first two chapters of Habakkuk—the commentator explained the book allegorically in terms of the Qumran brotherhood; (4) the “Manual of Discipline” or “Community Rule”—the most important source of information about the religious sect at Qumran. It described in detail the requirements for those aspiring to join the brotherhood and how they were to behave and worship; (5) the “Thanksgiving Hymns,” a collection of devotional “psalms” of thanksgiving and praise to God; (6) an Aramaic paraphrase of the Book of Genesis; and (7) the “Rule of War” which dealt with the battle between the “Sons of Light” (the men of Qumran ) and the “Sons of Darkness” (the Romans?) yet to take place in the “last days,” which days the men of Qumran believed were about to arrive.

Those seven original scrolls were just the beginning. Over eight hundred scrolls, in whole or in part, have been discovered in the 11 caves in the Qumran area. Fragments of every biblical book except Esther have been found, as well as many other non-biblical texts. One of the most fascinating of the find was a copper scroll which had to be cut in strips to be opened. When opened and translated it was found to contain a list of 60 treasures located in various parts of Judea (none of which have been found)! Another scroll, which Israeli archaeologists recovered in 1967 underneath the floor of that same Bethlehem antiquities dealer named Kando, describes in detail the community’s view of an elaborate Temple ritual. This has been appropriately called the “Temple Scroll.”

The contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that their authors were a group of priests and laymen pursuing a communal life of strict dedication to God. Their leader was called “the Righteous Teacher.” They viewed themselves as the only true elect of Israel—they alone were faithful to the Law. They opposed the “Wicked Priest,” the Jewish High Priest in Jerusalem who represented the establishment and who had persecuted them in some way. This wicked priest was probably one of the Maccabean rulers who had assumed the high priesthood between 160-140 BC. As soon as the announcement of the scrolls’ discovery was made, the scholarly community began to speculate about the identity of the authors. Most scholars have identified the Qumran brotherhood with the Essenes, a Jewish sect of the Intertestamental Period described in detail by Josephus and Philo—first century AD writers.

Whoever the men of Qumran were, their writings provide us with a marvelous background picture of one aspect of the religious world into which Jesus came. Some have sought to draw parallels between figures in the scrolls and John the Baptist or Jesus, but an objective examination of such parallels reveals that the differences with these biblical figures are greater than the similarities. Any contact of Jesus with Qumran is entirely speculative and most improbable. The suggestion that John the Baptist may have spent some time with the Qumran community is perhaps more possible since the Gospels tell us that he spent considerable time in the wilderness, the area where the Qumran community is located (Matt. 3:1-3; Mark 1:4; Luke 1:80, 3:2-3). John’s message, however, differed markedly from that of the Qumran brotherhood. The only real common point was that they both taught that the “kingdom of God” was coming.

One of the most important contributions of the Dead Sea Scrolls is in the numerous biblical manuscripts which have been discovered. Up until those discoveries at Qumran, the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures were copies in the 9th and 10th centuries AD by a group of Jewish scribes called the Masoretes. Now we have manuscript copies of biblical books around a thousand years older than those. The amazing truth is that these manuscripts differ in only a few details! Here is a strong illustration of the tender care which the Jewish scribes down through the centuries took in an effort to accurately copy the sacred Scriptures. On the basis of the evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, we can have renewed confidence that our OT Scriptures faithfully represent the words given to Moses, David and the prophets.

Controversy of the Scrolls

In the late 1980’s a public controversy arose that had quietly raged for years in the scholarly community over the delayed publication of many of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This controversy was fanned by the Biblical Archaeology Review and its publisher, Hershel Shanks, who kept the issue constantly before its readers. These unpublished scrolls were mainly the hundreds of scrolls found in Cave Four, which apparently was the main library of the group. Because of the thousands of fragments in which these scrolls were found, it took a long time to piece them all together. Then the committee which had the responsibility of publishing translations of these scrolls was extremely slow in doing just that. While rumors and charges abounded of a conspiracy to keep suppressed some things discovered in the scrolls, all such charges appear now to have been greatly exaggerated. It was just scholarly power and laziness that was the real problem.

Finally, in 1991 the logjam was broken when the Huntingdon Library in San Marino, CA, announced that any qualified scholars could examine the photographs of all the Cave Four Scrolls which they had in their possession. Since that day, the Scrolls have been available to all scholars and their discussion and interpretation doubtless will continue in the years to come. At least three English translations of all the scrolls have now appeared and all can read them in modern languages today. Surprisingly, nothing damaging to the Christian or Jewish faiths were found when all the scrolls were published, despite a lot of such “hype” that sold many books and magazines. Contrary to what I saw in a grocery tabloid headline, no cure for cancer has been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and (unfortunately?) the whereabouts of Elvis has not been found in the Scrolls either!

The great value of the scrolls is in their providing a deeper insight into a Jewish group that, although small, was active during the two hundred years that overlapped the beginning of the Christian era. The scrolls are invaluable for the helping to establish the text of the ancient Hebrew Bible. Occasionally they preserve a reading that antedates the reading found in the Masoretic Text, but is supported by the LXX (Isaiah 53:11; “he shall see light”). Generally, they also provide rich background information about the world into which Jesus came.

But what is the value of the DSS to the journalist who is looking for a great scoop that will provide sensational reading for his readers? (“Now you know the rest of the story…”). Well, they really will disappoint you if that is why you read them.

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There are 2 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

I agree with the author, namely, that Christian belief did not originate with the Dead Sea Scrolls or Qumran.  We need to understand that, according to the Talmud, there were 24 major sects of Judaism.  There was a broad base of belief shared by all of them, then other beliefs perhaps shared by some of them.  Except for the unique sectarianism of the Essenes, many of their thoughts could have been common in various forms of Judaism.


Interestingly, for example, BOTH the Qumran community and John the Baptist located themselves in the WILDERNESS.  Did John get the idea from the Essenes?  No.  BOTH drew the idea from Isaiah 40:3-5


A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord: make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

David Flusser documents that this is precisely WHY the Essenes communed where they did.  Since John used this passage to describe his ministry, their common beliefs were derived from a common Old Testament text.  The same is probably true in many areas.

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Aaron Blumer's picture


It was interesting when we were touring Israel.... the tour guide had several pet theories about the Essenes, Qumran, John and Jesus. But he didn't breathe even the tiniest hint that these were nothing more than (pretty far fetched) theories.

For example, he said that the upper room was really in an Essene community because Jesus said there would be a man carrying water and usually women carried the water.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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