Documents first discovered accidentally in 1947 on the west side of the Dead Sea, in what was the country of Jordan and which has been the Israeli‐occupied West Bank, where a Jewish monastic community was established near Qumran in the 1st cents. BCE and CE. The members were probably Essenes or an Essene sect separate from the main body (though it has also been suggested that they were Zealots), and there was a strict discipline of celibacy and asceticism, with frequent rites of purification by water. The leader of the community was known as the Teacher of Righteousness who wrote to the priests at Jerusalem outlining points of disagreement. During the Jewish War of 66–70 CE the sect perished, but not before its library was concealed in neighbouring caves. (A minority of scholars doubt this connection between the community and the scrolls and believe they were stored in the caves by a group from Jerusalem.) The Damascus Document, which is related to the Qumran scrolls, was discovered in Cairo in 1896, but only since 1949 have the caves been systematically searched. Large quantities of the scrolls have been taken to safety and assembled by a team of experts. Many have been published and photostat copies of much material still to be officially published has found its way abroad, for example to the Huntington library in California, USA.
The monastic site has been excavated and features in it correspond to what had already been noticed of the teaching of the sect in the scrolls. The Hebrew scrolls (about twelve of leather, some of papyrus, parchment, or wood, one embossed on copper) are 1,000 years older than the oldest of any previously extant MSS and are of great value not only for comparison with the Hebrew Masoretic text, but also because they illuminate some of the history of the Jews and Jewish thought of the first centuries. There are numerous linguistic and doctrinal parallels with the NT (e.g. the notion of the temple as a community of people), especially with the gospel of John (e.g. the contrast between light and darkness). It has also been suggested by a few scholars that John the Baptist spent his early years with the Qumran community (on the basis partly of Luke 1: 80), but the differences between Qumran beliefs and those of the primitive Church (e.g. Qumran has a belief in two Messiahs) are equally significant.
Controversy is likely to continue in the world of scholarship as to the precise connection between Qumran and Christianity; but it is certain that NT ideas once regarded as Hellenistic can now be shown to have a Jewish origin.
A system of identifying scrolls in bibliographies has been established by numbering them in the first place according to the order of caves plundered. Thus, 1Q indicates manuscripts found in the first cave, and then this code is followed by the first Hebrew letter of each particular text: 1QS is the Rule of the Community. Pesher means commentary, so 1QpHab refers to the community's commentary on the OT book Habakkuk and 4QpPs37 to a commentary on Psalm 37. The copper scroll (which some believe to be unrelated to Qumran) is given the siglum 3Q15. The leader's letter to Jerusalem which will for a long time be a prominent subject of discussion, is denoted 4QMMT. One surprising discovery, made in the sixth cave to be opened up, was of a MS which contained the same text as that of a medieval MS found in Cairo in 1896, and published in 1910, written in Damascus and called a Zadokite work; it is accorded the symbol CD and describes the laws of the community (Damascus Document). For the most part the scrolls consist of texts of the Hebrew Scriptures and of interpretations of OT books, but non‐canonical writings (the book of Jubilees and much of Enoch among them) are also included, together with books of the Apocrypha, Psalm 151 and miscellaneous Messianic texts, prophetic pseudepigrapha, calendars, testaments, legal documents, hymns, and magical texts. The largest scroll, the Temple Scroll, rewrites in a revised form the laws of the Pentateuch.
Parts of damaged scrolls, for long too fragile to be opened, are able to be examined with a powerful X‐ray machine by a team from Cardiff University.