Since 1947, hundreds of Hebrew and Aramaic scrolls have been discovered near the Dead Sea, at first in unorganized searches by Bedouins and later in orderly archaeological excavations. The main location where these scrolls were found is Qumran (Map 12:X5), roughly 16 km (10 mi) south of Jericho; other sites still farther to the south include Murabbaʿât, Seelim, and Masada (Map 12:X5). Some of these locations are more inland, so that the term “Judean Desert Scrolls” is more appropriate than “Dead Sea Scrolls.” In eleven caves at Qumran, hundreds of scrolls were discovered, some in jars and almost complete, such as the large Isaiah scroll from Cave 1, but others mere fragments, often very difficult to read. Their antiquity, disputed at first by a few scholars, is now beyond doubt, and dates between 250 BCE and 70 CE have been secured by carbon‐14 tests, archaeological evidence, and paleography. The scrolls are kept in the Rockefeller and Israel Museums in Jerusalem, and only the major ones are shown to the public.
The caves in which the scrolls were found are located near the ruins of a settlement near the Dead Sea. These ruins (Khirbet Qumran) have been excavated; they consist of a walled site comprising various community buildings, such as a bakery, a potter's workshop, a dining hall, and possibly a scriptorium.
No external evidence on the settlement is available, but probably there was a close link between its buildings and the scrolls found in nearby caves. Some of the artifacts found near the scrolls are identical with artifacts found in the community buildings. Furthermore, the sectarian writings found in the caves describe the lifestyle of a community that would suit the buildings.
The identity and nature of the community of the scrolls has often been discussed by scholars, and most now agree that they are the Essenes described in ancient sources. The Essenes were an ancient Jewish sect with a status similar to that of the Samaritans, Sadducees, and early Christians, all of whom departed from mainstream Judaism, embodied in the Pharisees (see Judaisms of the First century CE). While most of the Essenes lived elsewhere in Palestine, the Qumran group decided to depart physically from society when they chose to dwell in the desert of Judea. The characteristics of the Essenes (the origin of the name is unknown), described in detail by Philo and Josephus, agree in general with the evidence from the scrolls. These are of three types: sectarian compositions, apocryphal works, and biblical scrolls.
The sectarian compositions found in Qumran reflect a secretive community about whose life much is still unknown. The main information is found in the so‐called Manual of Discipline (in Hebrew, “The Rule of the Community”), detailing the daily life, behavior, and hierarchy of the sect. The principal source for the history of the community is a letter supposedly written by its leader, the “Teacher of Righteousness,” to the priests of Jerusalem, outlining points of difference between both groups (4QMMT).
Other details can be learned from the Damascus Covenant, which tells about the beginning of the sect's existence, and from pĕšārîm. The special laws of the community are outlined in the Damascus Covenant and in smaller legal collections. The sect's views are reflected especially in the pĕšārîm, exegetical writings focusing on the relevance of biblical books to the sect. The Temple Scroll, the largest preserved scroll, rewrites the laws of the Pentateuch in apparent agreement with some of the sect's views. The War Scroll depicts the future war of the “Sons of Light” (i.e., members of the sect) against the “Sons of Darkness.” The sect's expectations and grievances are expressed in the Thanksgiving Hymns.
Among the scrolls found in Qumran and at Masada are several Hebrew and Aramaic apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works, previously known only in ancient translations or from medieval sources. Of these, the books of Jubilees, Enoch, Sirach, and the Testament of Levi are now known in their original Hebrew or Aramaic form.
A large group of scrolls found in Qumran and at other places in the Judean desert consists of biblical manuscripts, dating from 250 BCE until 70 CE. Similar scrolls from the beginning of the second century CE have been found in other places in the Judean Desert. These finds inaugurated a new era in the study of the text of the Hebrew Bible, previously known almost exclusively from medieval sources (see Manuscripts, article on Hebrew Bible; Textual Criticism).
In eleven Qumran caves, roughly 190 biblical scrolls have been found, some almost complete and others very fragmentary. Different scrolls are distinguished by their script. With the exception of Esther, all books of the Hebrew Bible are represented at Qumran, some by many scrolls (Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Psalms), others by a single copy. The great majority of the scrolls are written in the Aramaic script, while sixteen are written in the paleo‐Hebrew (or Old Hebrew) script.
Most of the scrolls have the same spelling as the Masoretic Text (MT), but a significant number are written with a previously unknown form of spelling, which frequently uses letters to indicate vowels. Some scholars argue that the scrolls displaying this special spelling were written by the Qumran scribes, for all the sectarian scrolls are written in this spelling as well. The biblical scrolls from the Dead Sea area show what the biblical text looked like in the last three centuries BCE and the first century CE.
Of similar importance are the new data about the content of the biblical scrolls, since different texts are recognizable. Some texts reflect precisely the consonantal framework of the medieval MT. Others reflect the basic framework of the MT, although their spelling is different. Still others differ in many details from the MT, while agreeing with the Septuagint or Samaritans Pentateuch. Some texts do not agree with any previously known text at all, and should be considered independent textual traditions. Thus, the textual picture presented by the Qumran scrolls represents a textual variety that was probably typical for the period.
Although most of the scrolls have been analyzed, the nature of the collection of scrolls found in the Qumran caves is still not known. While some scholars continue to refer to the contents of these caves as the “library” of the sect, others consider it a haphazard collection of works deposited there for posterity in the difficult days of the destruction of Jerusalem in 67–70 CE.
Because the nature of the collection is not known, it is also not clear how one should evaluate the fact that biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian works were found in the same caves. Probably this does not show anything about the sect's views, but some scholars believe that the sect's concept of scripture was more encompassing than the collection that eventually became the Jewish canon.