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What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

What's the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls? I want to know—but not enough to read them!

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Reading them would be tough—unless you know Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The story of the scrolls isn't complete even now, more than 70 years after the first collection was discovered by a Bedouin boy in search of a lost sheep in 1947. As recently as March 2021, archeologists announced new findings in yet another cave, including fragments from some books of prophecy. Who knows what else lies undiscovered in the Judean desert, with its excellent conditions for preserving ancient artifacts?

The Dead Sea Scrolls raise more questions than they supply definitive answers. To the disappointment of many, the scrolls aren't a smoking gun linking the Qumran community (which consigned these writings to their caves) with Jesus, John the Baptist, or Christianity. No New Testament texts appear among the thousands of fragments so far unearthed. Yet every Jewish biblical book except Esther is logged among the findings. The original 11 caves, uncovered between 1947 and 1956, contained some 900 distinct manuscripts, most of them extra-biblical. 

What we learned from Cave 1, which seems to have been a deliberate library for the community, is that a great deal of attention at Qumran focused on the present and the future, not just the past. The rules by which this community—presumed by most scholars to be the Essenes—would live was a paramount concern.  The Essenes were among three significant subgroups within Judaism between 150 BC and 68 AD, when Roman soldiers destroyed Qumran. Unlike the Sadducees, who ran the Temple and cooperated with the Roman occupiers, the Essenes withdrew from Jerusalem and rejected the legitimacy of the Temple leaders. Rather than participating in the customary ritual sacrifices, the Essenes anticipated the rabbinic movement to come which would replace Temple worship with study of the Law of Moses. 

Like the third movement of the period, that of the Pharisees, the Essenes were dedicated to religious purity. Young men found their zeal and idealism attractive, and would enter the community for a time. However, a longstanding practice of celibacy deterred some from remaining. A study of gravesites around Qumran revealed that the community relaxed the celibacy requirement at a later date. A more recent gravesite included women and children buried separately, at a discreet distance, from the men.   

The scrolls provide evidence to the complexity of religious ideas circulating in the generations around Jesus. Judaism was fractured. The interpretation of sacred texts was seriously debated. Jesus wasn't the only teacher of his time calling for a reexamination of what Pilate once wondered: What is truth?

Scriptures: Matthew 24:3-14; 1 Timothy 1:3-11; 4:1-16; 6:3-6; 2 Timothy 2:14-26; 3:10-17

Books: The Impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls, by Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J. (Paulist Press, 2020)

The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity, by James VanderKam, Peter Flint (HarperOne, 2004)


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