The Dead Sea Scrolls

The ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ were discovered in an inaccesible cave at Qumran, overlooking the Dead Sea in the Judaean Desert south of Jericho in 1947. The scrolls were the hastily-hidden library of an extremely orthodox Jewish sect called the ‘Essenes’, who originated during the exile of the Jews in Babylonia in the 6th century BC. They believed that the downfall of Jerusalem in 586BC and the subsequent destruction of the Jewish Temple, built by Solomon in c.968BC, were the result of divine wrath, inflicted on the Jews because they had not kept the Jewish Law strictly enough.

 

Cave of the Scrolls at Qumran

The cave where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found at Qumran

 

As the Essenes could not persuade the mainstream Jews of Jerusalem to adopt their ultra-conservative interpretation of the Law, they settled away from other Jews, forming a self-reliant community in the desert at Qumran, where they studied the Jewish Law all day, every day. The austere life of the Essenes attracted few followers until the persecution of the Pharisees during the reign of John Hyrcanus (134-103BC) forced some of them to seek security at Qumran. The community continued to function until they were scattered by the Romans in 68AD, during the Romano-Jewish war of 66-70AD.

The library of the Essene community contained scrolls of all the books of the ‘Tanakh’ (the Hebrew Bible) and parts of every book (except the Book of Esther) have been found amongst the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’. The library also contained commentaries on the scriptures, and some books that are not now considered to be part of the authorised Jewish scriptures. These include the Book of Jubilees and the Book of Henoch.

 

Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (Grand Parc)

 Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem  (Grand Parc)

 

Today, the original Dead Sea Scrolls are preserved securely at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and copies of the texts are on public display at the museum’s Shrine of the Book. Modern-day visitors to Qumran can see excavated remains of the aqueduct that brought water from the Wadi Qumran, Jewish ritual baths, the ‘Scriptorium’ where the Essenes copied religious manuscripts, and the 'Refectory' where they shared communal meals. Visitors can also look across a steep-sided ravine to the inaccessible caves, high up on the cliff face, where the scrolls were found by Bedouin shepherds.

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