Not all history is as dry as desert dust. Some is sprinkled with murder, mystery and intrigue. Now, I’m not saying the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls reads like a James Bond novel, but if written correctly, it’s not far off the mark. And if you’re looking for a romp through history with a scriptural bent, you’ve simply got to tune in to the story of the Scrolls.
Sooo . . . can they be interesting?
Absolutely. But don’t trust me; read the following fun facts and decide for yourself:
The Dead Sea is dying—now go and figure that one out. To begin with, at roughly 1400 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on the surface of Planet Earth. And it’s getting lower. Surface evaporation and reduced inflow from the Jordan River have caused the level to drop and the shoreline to recede. Over the past fifty years, the sea has lost one-third of its volume. The only thing that seems to be increasing is its salinity, which at 35% is eight times that of the world’s oceans. Few microbes can survive the concentrated mineral salts, and anything larger hasn’t a chance.
The desert around the Dead Sea receives an average of two inches of rain per year, and mean summer temperatures approximate 1000F. It is barren, dry, and sun-bleached. The only thing that grows on the shores is scant, stunted brush and hotels. Oh, and sinkholes. Well, sinkholes might not exactly grow as much as they (now, stay with me here) sink, but they are a new hazard in the area. Three thousand of them pockmark the area, and an equal number (or more) of subterranean cavities are believed to exist, even now, as we wait for them to collapse. What happens is this: As the sea level sinks, fresh water flowing down into the sea attacks underground salt deposits previously maintained by the brine of the Dead Sea. When the fresh water dissolves these salt deposits away, the resultant cavity collapses, frequently at the blink of an eye, sucking down everything above it. As a result, certain areas around the Dead Sea are becoming geological mine-fields.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered at Qumran, on the Western shore of the Dead Sea. The scrolls were found in cliff-caves (some of these caves were manmade, others are natural limestone caves to the West). Many of the manmade caves are believed to have collapsed into the Dead Sea as the result of erosion. Whereas the water’s edge used to lap at the foot of the cliffs (sometimes lapping so much that the wall of sandstone—caves, contents and all—crumbled and slid into the sea), the sea has now receded, so the cliffs can now be approached from below as well as from above. Two thousand years ago, when the scrolls were hidden away, that wasn’t the case at all.
The area of Qumran is comprised of the cliff caves and the ruins of the complex, known as Khirbet (i.e., ruins of) Qumran. Some believe Khirbet Qumran was a residential complex, others think it was a fortress constructed along the nearby trade route, still others claim it was an aristocrat’s luxury estate. The most accepted opinion is that it was a wilderness retreat for a monastic Jewish group known as the Essenes. Even that concept has its detractors: Some say the Essenes weren’t really all that monastic (unlike Christian monks and Catholic clergy, who profess lifelong vows of chastity—as did their fathers, and their fathers before them), and others claim the occupants weren’t even Essenes. Whatever the reality, the complex contained everything from stables to scriptorium, from baths to bedrooms, from kitchens to kilns, and from dining hall to . . . to other rooms that start with a “D.” The archeological excavation of Khirbet Qumran exposed everything from an advanced system of aqueducts and cisterns to a communal library and reading room, which were no doubt the centerpiece of the religious community. Situated one day’s walk from Jerusalem and only two hours from Jericho, Khirbet Qumran was by no means isolated from other Jewish communities and centers of learning.
If not the Essenes, then who were the keepers of the scrolls? Actually, it doesn’t really matter. The Dead Sea Scrolls describe the keepers of the scrolls as the “Sons of Light.” Such metaphorical language is typical of Semitic languages, both then and now. By comparison, we find the Bible describing believers as “sons of the king” (Matt. 17:25–26) or “God’s sons” (Matt. 7:9 and Heb 12:5), God’s elect as “sons of Abraham” (Luke 19:9), and students as “sons of the Pharisees” (Matt. 12:27, Acts 23:60). Elsewhere in the Bible, we find “sons of the kingdom” (Matt. 8:12), “sons of peace” (Luke. 10:6), “sons of this world” (Luke 16:8), and “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). In modern Semitic language, many of us would be “Sons of the rhythm method,” or “Daughters of ‘Trust me.’” Now, I haven’t verified this with my parents, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if I turned out to be a son of “nothing-good-to-watch-on-TV-tonight. Gee, hon, what-shall-we-do-to-pass-the-time?” But I digress. The point is that the keepers of the scrolls were known as the Sons of Light, and most scholars presume these “Sons of Light” were Essene Jews.
(Continued in Part 2)