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The Dead Sea Scrolls: 11 Fascinating Facts

In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd boy stumbled upon one of the most startling archaeological discoveries of the 21st century while herding his goats off the northwest shore of the Dead Sea in Israel, an area known as Qumran: the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are one of the most startling discoveries of the 21st century. In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd boy stumbled upon something remarkable while herding his goats off the northwest shore of the Dead Sea in Israel, an area known as Qumran. Click through below to discover some incredible facts about one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time, one that continues to shape our understanding of the Bible today.

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The Qumran region of Israel

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The Bedouin shepherd, who belonged to the Ta’amireh tribe, had been looking for a lost goat when he came across the cave in Qumran. He assumed his goat had gotten stuck inside. So he tossed a rock in the cave’s narrow opening to see if the goat would respond. To his surprise, the sound of pottery shattering echoed out instead. He returned days later with others in his tribe and found tall, clay jars inside the cave.


Some of the clay jars found in the caves of Qumran

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Many of the jars were empty. However, some contained scrolls that were carefully wrapped in linen that had blackened over time. The shepherds removed seven scrolls and eventually handed four of them over to an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem named Kando.

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Kando assumed the scrolls were written in Aramaic and brought them to the attention of Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, an Aramaic-speaking archbishop at St. Mark’s Monastery in Old Jerusalem. Unfortunately, Archbishop Samuel couldn’t read the text since the scrolls were written in Hebrew. But he couldn’t deny there was something about them. He purchased four scrolls from Kando for about $100.


Photographic reproduction of the Great Isaiah Scroll, the best preserved of the biblical scrolls found at Qumran

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Eventually, the scrolls in Archbishop Samuel’s possession were authenticated as books of the Bible dating as far back as 150 B.C. One of the scrolls was in fact the Book of Isaiah, which was 1,000 years older than any previously known copy of the manuscript. It was also the most complete scroll found—with only a few minor damages—and was 24 feet long. 


A pair of scrolls found in the caves of Qumran, near the Dead Sea in Israel

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Since 1947, thousands more scroll fragments have been discovered in the 11 caves of Qumran, with more than 900 manuscripts found in total. The scrolls include an almost complete collection of the Hebrew Bible, as well as religious texts that shed light on life in the years before Jesus’ birth. The only book of the Old Testament never found was the Book of Esther. Some believe it dissolved over time or is still waiting to be discovered in Qumran.


The one copper scroll found in the saves of Qumran

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Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in Hebrew, with several in Aramaic and Greek. One of the most fascinating scrolls uncovered was made out of copper—the only scroll not made from animal skin or parchment. It was found in the third cave of Qumran and contained a treasure map leading to buried gold, silver and copper.  


A fragment of a scroll found in the caves of Qumran

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Many scholars believe the scrolls are mostly likely the work of the ancient Essenes, a Jewish sect that occupied Qumran in the first centuries B.C. and A.D. According to historians, they referred to themselves as the “Sons of Light” and devoted their lives to penning and preserving sacred texts. 

A view of the Dead Sea from a cave at Qumran in which some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

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So why did the Essenes hide the scrolls in the caves of Qumran? One theory suggests they did so to protect their work from the “Sons of Darkness,” aka the Roman army. Sensing an impending attack, they hid their scrolls in the one place the Romans would never think to look. In 68 A.D., the Roman army wiped out the Essene community and the scrolls remained hidden for nearly 2,000 years.


Scholar Eleazar Sukenik examining one of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1951

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The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has proved to be of great importance to the scholarly community, helping researchers better understand the link between Judaism and Christianity. The scrolls also contained previously unknown stories about Biblical figures like Enoch, Abraham and Noah. 


A researcher looks over a scroll fragment

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Today, the scrolls are housed in two locations in the Holy Land: the Rockefeller Museum and the Israel Museum. Over time, experts have figured out how to copy the cave conditions in Qumran, where the scrolls survived for so many years, in order to better preserve the ancient manuscripts. 


A lone figure stands upon the jagged rocks of Qumran and gazes out over the Dead Sea

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The story of the Dead Sea Scrolls isn’t over yet. Recently, archaeologists found a 12th cave in Qumran that contained broken scroll jars. And, according to CNN, there are still hundreds more caves in the Dead Sea region left to explore.

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