In Part 1, the first article in this series, we introduced the Dead Sea and its environs, the cliff-caves at Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found), the ruins of the residential complex (Khirbet Qumran), and the keepers of the scrolls (i.e., presumably the Essene Jews). We also touched on salted microbes, receding shorelines, earth-sucking sinkholes, Sons of Extravagant Metaphors, and rooms that start with a “D.” All in all, it sounds a bit like a game of Jeopardy running riot in the Holy Land. In this article we tackle everything from broken letters and squashed crocodile eggs to Abraham Lincoln or, as he is better known to respected historians worldwide, Abey-Baby. Read on and you’ll see what I mean:
The Dead Sea Scrolls were excavated from eleven caves (five of them natural limestone; six of them manmade) between 1947 and 1956. The scroll fragments range from relatively complete manuscripts to pieces of parchment containing only a letter, or even just half a letter. This wealth of fragments represents over 900 manuscripts, but many scroll fragments are so insignificant as to be virtually if not totally useless. The initial find was in Cave 1, which contained ten scroll jars. Nine of these jars were empty or filled with dirt, but the tenth housed the original seven scrolls discovered at Qumran. These were complete scrolls, unlike most other scrolls, which are fragmented. Now, some scholars believe the find at Cave 1 indicates that the Essenes were massacred. They believe that the scrolls in Cave 1 prove the Essenes never returned to retrieve their precious scriptures. Hence, they must have been wiped out, to the last man. I have a different theory. I don’t look at the one full scroll jar, but at the nine empty ones. I believe some of the Essenes did survive the massacre. The survivors would have been forced to sneak around at night. They could not afford to light a candle or torch, out of fear of alerting the rampaging Roman soldiers to their presence. Under these conditions, the survivors would have recovered their scrolls at night. Unable to see in the dark, they simply missed one of the ten jars.
How many other scrolls were found? In rough scientific terms, oodles and oodles. Cave 4 yielded 15,000 fragments of more than 800 manuscripts. However, the scrolls in Cave 4 were in such poor repair that some believe Cave 4 was a genizah—a scroll dump where the Essenes deposited worn out scrolls to molder away, according to the dictates of their faith regarding the disposal of sacred scriptures. These scroll fragments were chewed into pieces and scattered by rodents and insects, not to mention used as nesting material. They were shredded by two thousand years of wind and weather shifts, and the fragments that survived were saturated with urine and coated with feces from the bats, rodents, and birds that occupied the cave. These fragments were in such decay and disarray that for many years researchers believed they represented far fewer manuscripts. Only recently has the scrolls team been able to make sense of many of these fragments.
The Copper Scroll, a list of the Essenes’ treasure troves, was discovered in Cave 3 in 1952, but nobody knows if any of the listed treasures have ever been found. And these treasures must have been considerable. Remember, we’re talking about a religious group that required their recruits to turn all of their worldly possessions over to the communal treasury. Two centuries of taking everybody’s everything adds up to a whole lotta loot! So much, in fact, that the Essenes stashed it away not in one cache, or even in a dozen caches. According to the Copper Scroll, the vast treasure of the Essenes was divided into more than 60 caches. Hm. Makes a person want to take a stroll in the Judean desert with a turbo-charged metal detector, doesn’t it? On the other hand, some scholars believe the Copper Scroll lists the treasures of the Jewish Temple. Whichever it is, the value of the treasure is estimated to be in the billions of dollars, not counting the historical value. Perhaps it was pilfered by the Romans at the tips of their swords, perhaps it was retrieved by surviving Essenes, perhaps it lies in hiding still, awaiting its discoverers. We may never know.
In 1956, Cave 11 yielded thirty manuscripts, among which was the nine meter-long Temple Scroll. Wow – that’s as long as two SUV’s laid end-to-end or (and here’s a sobering thought) as long as a Nile crocodile. Fortunately, ancient scripture wasn’t written on crocs. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out which would be easier to hold down. A few papyrus fragments were also discovered in Cave 7 (these fragments were the size of a croc egg squashed flat by a Nile hippo and picked clean by a hungry egret). The Cave 7 papyrus is unusual in that a) they were papyrus, rather than parchment; b) they were not stepped on by a hippo or pecked at by an egret; and c) they were written in Greek. This (the papyrus and Greek combination, not the hippo and egret factor) prompted one scholar (José O’Callaghan) to suggest that these fragments represent New Testament material. However, the Cave 7 papyrus pieces are too small to make sense of them, so O’Callaghan’s claim appears to be based more upon wishful thinking than upon scholarly analysis.
And now . . . a taste of their times. Beside the orthodox Sadducees and progressive Pharisees, the Essenes represented the third main school of Jewish thought at the period of Christian origins. They were devoted to ritual purity, monastic lifestyle, exhaustive worship, Mosaic law, meat and metal. We’re not talking about pacifist vegetarian monks here – the Essenes spent generations gearing up for an apocalyptic war in which the “Sons of Light” would obliterate their enemies at the points of their lances and the edges of their swords. The Jewish revolution against Roman rule raged from 66-73 CE. When Jerusalem fell in 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the second temple (Babylonians destroyed the first temple in 586 BCE, the Jews rebuilt it seventy years later). The Romans spent the next three years mopping up insurgence in the Holy Land, culminating in their horrific victory against Masada in 73 CE. Given the war, the Essenes had good reason to hide their greatest treasure – their sacred scrolls. Evidence suggests they hid the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves around Qumran in or before 68 AD (for Christians), 68 CE (for non-Christians), three score and eight (for Abe Lincoln), and the high side of six dimes for the rest of us. Then they were destroyed. For nearly two millennia the Dead Sea Scrolls lay undiscovered. So what, exactly, do these scrolls contain?
(Continued in Part 3)