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What is the most important archaeological discovery to date?

Probably the Dead Sea Scrolls have had the greatest Biblical impact. They have provided Old Testament manuscripts approximately 1,000 years older than our previous oldest manuscript. The Dead Sea Scrolls have demonstrated that the Old Testament was accurately transmitted during this interval. In addition, they provide a wealth of information on the times leading up to, and during, the life of Christ.

—Dr. Bryant Wood

Discovery of the Scrolls

Juma was beginning to get nervous. Some of his goats were climbing too high up the cliffs. He decided to climb the face of the cliff himself to bring them back. Little did Juma realize as he began his climb on that January day in 1947 that those straying goats would eventually involve him in “the greatest archaeological discovery in the twentieth century.” Such thoughts were far from his mind when he saw two small openings to one of the thousands of caves that dot those barren cliffs overlooking the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea.

He threw a rock into one of the openings. The unexpected cracking sound surprised him; what else could be in those remote caves but treasure? He called to his cousins, Khalil and Muhammed, who climbed up and heard the exciting tale. But it was getting late, and the goats had to be gathered. Tomorrow they would return—perhaps their days of following goats would come to an end once the treasure was uncovered!

Qumran Cave 4, where approximately 15,000 fragments from some 574 manuscripts were found.

The youngest of the three, Muhammed, rose the next day before his two fellow “treasure-seekers” and made his way to the cave. The cave floor was covered with debris, including broken pottery. Along the wall stood a number of narrow jars, some with their bowl-shaped covers still in place. Frantically, Muhammed began to explore the inside of each jar, but no treasure of gold was to be found…only a few bundles wrapped in cloth and greenish with age. Returning to his cousins, he related the sad news—no treasure.

No treasure indeed! The scrolls those Bedouin boys removed from that dark cave that day and the days following would come to be recognized as the greatest manuscript treasure ever found—the first seven manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls!

Such was the discovery of a group of manuscripts that were a thousand years older than the then-oldest-known Hebrew texts of the Bible (many of them were written more than 100 years before the birth of Jesus). These manuscripts would excite the archaeological world and provide a team of translators with a gigantic task that even to this day has not been completed.

The story of how those scrolls traveled from the hands of young Bedouin goat herders to being under the scrutinous eyes of international scholars is stranger than fiction. Although all the details of the next few years after the initial discovery will probably never be known for sure, this much is clear: After hanging from a pole in a Bedouin tent for a period of time, the seven original scrolls were sold to two separate Arab antiquities dealers in Bethlehem. From there, four were sold (for a small amount) to Athanasius Samuel, Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan at St. Mark’s Monastery in the Old City of Jerusalem. Scholars at the American School of Oriental Research, who examined them, were the first to realize their antiquity. John Trever photographed them in detail, and the great archaeologist William F. Albright soon announced that the scrolls were from the period between 200 BC and AD 200. The initial announcements were then made that the oldest manuscripts ever discovered had been found in the Judean desert!

Two Dead Sea Scrolls Jars at the Jordan Museum Amman
Clay jars of the type the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in. From Qumran, now in the Jordan Museum in Amman. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), 2018, Wikimedia Commons.
The other three original scrolls found by the Bedouin boys were sold to E. L. Sukenik, archaeologist at Hebrew University and father of Yigael Yadin (a general in the Israeli army who later became a famous archaeologist and excavator of Masada and Hazor). It should be noted that the drama of these events was heightened because these were the last days of the British Mandate period in Palestine, and tensions between the Arab and Jewish populations were great. This made examination of the scrolls by scholars extremely dangerous.

All of the scrolls finally came together at Hebrew University under another strange set of circumstances. After touring the U.S. with his four scrolls and not being able to find an interested buyer, Metropolitan Samuel placed an ad in the Wall Street Journal. By coincidence (or divine providence?), Yigael Yadin happened to be lecturing in New York and saw the advertisement. Through intermediaries, he was able to purchase these priceless scrolls for around $250,000. In February of 1955, the prime minister of Israel announced that the State of Israel had purchased the scrolls, and that all seven (including the three purchased earlier by Professor Sukenik) were to be housed in a special repository at Hebrew University named the Shrine of the Book, where they can be seen today.

Needless to say, the initial announcement about the scrolls prompted feverish searches in the area of the original discoveries. An official archaeological expedition was begun in 1949 which eventually resulted in the discovery of ten additional caves in the surrounding area that also contained scrolls. The archaeologists then directed their attention to a small ruin nearby called “Khirbet [ruins of] Qumran,” which had been thought of as the remains of an old Roman fortress. After six seasons of intensive excavation, the scholars were sure beyond any reasonable doubt that the scrolls originated in this community, which flourished between 125 BC and AD 68. The scrolls had been stored in haste in the caves as the community fled the encroaching Roman army, which was in Judea to put down the Jewish Revolt of AD 66–70.

The ruins of Qumran, which can be visited today, revealed that a substantial group of Jewish ascetics inhabited this community. Storehouses, aqueducts, ritual baths, and an assembly hall were all uncovered. One of the most interesting rooms uncovered was a scriptorium, identified by two ink wells discovered there along with some benches for scribes. It was in this room that many, if not all, of the discovered manuscripts were copied.

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 1,” comprised the following:

  • a well-preserved copy of the entire prophecy of Isaiah—the oldest copy of an Old Testament book ever to be discovered;
  • another, but fragmentary, scroll of Isaiah;
  • a commentary on the first two chapters of Habakkuk—the commentator explained the book allegorically in terms of the Qumran brotherhood;
  • the “Manual of Discipline” or the “Community Rule,” which is the most important source of information about the religious sect at Qumran—it described the requirements for those aspiring to join the brotherhood;
  • the “Thanksgiving Hymns,” a collection of devotional “psalms” of thanksgiving and praise to God;
  • an Aramaic paraphrase of the book of Genesis; and
  • 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 six hundred scrolls and thousands of fragments have been discovered in the 11 caves of the Qumran area. Fragments of every Old Testament book except Esther have been found, as well as many other, non-biblical texts.

One of the most fascinating of the finds was a copper scroll that had to be cut in strips to be opened and that contained 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 a Bethlehem antiquities dealer, describes in detail the Qumran 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 members of 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 illegitimately assumed the high priesthood between 150 and 140 BC. Most scholars have identified the Qumran brotherhood with the Essenes, a Jewish sect of Jesus’s day described by Josephus and Philo.

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 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 possible, since the Gospels tell us that he spent considerable time in the wilderness near the area where the Qumran community is located (Mt 3:1–3; Mk 1:4; Lk 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.

The numerous biblical manuscripts that have been discovered at Qumran are one of the most important contributions of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Until those discoveries, the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures were copies from the ninth and tenth centuries AD by a group of Jewish scribes called the Massoretes. Now we have manuscripts around a thousand years older than those. The amazing truth is that these manuscripts from different times are almost identical! Here is a strong example of the tender care that the Jewish scribes down through the centuries took in their effort to accurately copy the sacred Scriptures. We can have confidence that our Old Testament Scriptures faithfully represent the words given to Moses, David, and the prophets.

Doctrine of the Scrolls

The men of Qumran fervently believed in a doctrine of “last things.” They had fled to the desert and were readying themselves for the imminent judgment, when their enemies would be vanquished and they, God’s elect, would be given final victory in accordance with the predictions of the prophets. It is in connection with these end-time ideas that one of the most fascinating teachings of the sect emerges. The messianic hope loomed large in the thought of the brotherhood. As a matter of fact, evidence shows that they actually believed in three messiahs—one a prophet, another a priest, and the third a king or prince.

In the document mentioned earlier called the “Manual of Discipline” or the “Community Rule,” it is laid down that the faithful should continue to live under the rule “until there shall come a prophet and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel.”1 These three figures would appear to usher in the age for which the community was making preparation.

In another document, found in Cave 4 and referred to as the “Testimonia,” a number of Old Testament passages are brought together that formed the basis for the communitys messianic expectations. The first is the citation from Deuteronomy 18:18–19, where God says to Moses, “I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee” (KJV). Next comes a quotation from Numbers 24:15–17, where Balaam foresees the rise of a princely conqueror: “a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab…” (KJV). The third passage is the blessing pronounced by Moses upon the tribe of Levi (the priestly tribe) in Deuteronomy 33:8–11. The way in which these three quotations are brought together suggests that the writer looked forward to the advent of a great prophet, a great prince, and a great priest.

There were three individuals in the Old Testament writings that were referred to as “my anointed ones”—the prophet, the priest, and the king (see Ex 29:29; 1 Sm 16:13, 24:6; 1 Kgs 19:16; Ps 105:15). Each of these was consecrated to his work by an anointing with oil. The Hebrew word for “anointed” is meshiach, from which we get the word “Messiah.”

The marvelous truth of the New Testament doctrine of the Messiah is that each of these three offices found fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth! The people were amazed at His feeding of the multitude and said, “This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world” (Jn 6:14 [KJV]; see also Jn 7:40; Acts 3:22, 7:37). Jesus also was a priest, not from the order of Levi but from the order of Melchizedek (Ps 110:4; Heb 7), who offered Himself as a sacrifice and who appears for us in the presence of His Father (Heb 9:24–26, 10:11–12). Also, Jesus was announced as the One who will receive “the throne of his father David. And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Lk 1:32b–33; KJV). He will be acclaimed “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rv 19:16; KJV).

Thus, we have found an interesting point of contact between Qumran and Christianity—a point of contact that is also a point of cleavage. The Qumran community and the early Christians agreed that in the days of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies there would arise a great prophet, a great priest, and a great king. But these three figures remained distinct in Qumran expectation, whereas the New Testament saw them unified in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

One more manuscript that has come to light in recent years provides a fascinating background to the New Testament messianic hope. It has been reconstructed from twelve small fragments furnishing less than two columns of writing; but this much can be ascertained from its brief contents: It is a prediction of the birth of a Wonderful Child, possibly drawing on Isaiah 9:6–7: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given:…and his name shall be called Wonderful…” (v. 6; KJV). This child will bear special marks on His body and will be distinguished by wisdom and intelligence. He will be able to probe the secrets of all living creatures, and He will inaugurate the new age for which the faithful fervently awaited.

Is it not striking that soon after this manuscript was composed, a Child was born who fulfilled the hopes of Israel and inaugurated a new age? Although the men of Qumran were mistaken in the details of their messiah, they did expect one whose general characteristics were strikingly illustrated by Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and the Messiah. It is not known whether some early Christian brought the message of Jesus to this wilderness community. We are left only to speculate on how they would have responded to the Wonderful Child born in Bethlehem who was the Prophet, Priest, and King of Israel.


1 Translation of Millar Burrows, The Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Viking Press, 1955), 383.


When this article was originally published, Dr. Will Varner was Professor of Old Testament at The Master’s College (now The Masters University) and Director of the colleges IBEX (Israel Bible Extension) program. He previously served with the Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, and he continues to contribute articles to their publication, Israel My Glory. The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, Inc. Used by permission.


Recommended Resources for Further Study

Dead Sea Scrolls BookletDead Sea Scrolls Booklet                                          Guide to the Dead Sea Scrolls copyGuide to the Dead Sea Scrolls                                          The Dead Sea Scrolls PamphletThe Dead Sea Scrolls Pamphlet

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