Library & Research

En Route to Qumran
(Dead Sea Scrolls)

by B. Cobbey Crisler, from a talk of his Bible Outdoors© series

Dead Sea scroll caves

The city of the Essenes. And the Essenes are mentioned as one of the four sects in Judaea at the time of Josephus: Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and the Essenes. By the way, one of Jesus’ disciples belonged to the zealot party. If you recall, that in one of the disciple lists in the Gospels, you have named Simon Zealotes, Simon the Zealot.

So you can see that Jesus was attracting those from every party and persuasion. It was not to what you had formerly adhered that made the difference. It was where your receptivity was.

We’re going to Qumran which is right at the end of the Dead Sea. And it’s about a twenty minute drive. Qumran is probably the city of salt mentioned in the Bible. It is at this site that the remarkable discovery occurred by accident. So many of the major discoveries are by accident.

Probably the oldest fragment of a scroll discovered in the caves dates as early as about 250 BC. Why is that so important? The oldest complete manuscript we had in Hebrew of any book of the Bible prior to this discovery was dated in 900 AD. Now we have a complete and another almost complete version of Isaiah, all dating back perhaps to as early as 200 BC.

B. Cobbey Crisler and John Trevor

If you were a scholar and you heard that happen, how excited you would be, and what would be your first inclination? You would want to compare the text, the 1,000-year-old text, older text, with the one that had been the earliest up to that time. And the major finding was that there were no major differences over that 1,000 years of transmission of the text. There were minor differences but none that were major.

One sees the fidelity there of the translators as the scribes tried desperately, and were trained to convey symbols — the Hebrew characters and words — that had been passed down to them.

Our oldest book of the Bible that we have found came from Qumran, Cave #1. They have since discovered, perhaps you have heard, just recently in the Jerusalem area; tiny silver inscriptions and they come from the book of Numbers and they go back to maybe the 400’s or 500’s BC. which is now the oldest portion of Scripture that we have in our possession.

So, there are many things undoubtedly still concealed; perhaps in caves in the hills above us; honeycombed caves. Bedouin men were suspended to look for caves all through here. And a number of scrolls were found. None actually that outweigh in importance the first find, which of course has so much to do with Scripture.

Jum’a Muhammed and Muhammed edh-Dhib, two Ta’amireh Bedouins in 1962

You might be interested to know that out of the Dead Sea caves came a fragment of every book of Scripture in the Old Testament, except for one and that was the book of Esther. Esther happens to be one of the two books in the Bible that does not use the word God in it. That has been sometimes presented as a reason.

But that wouldn’t explain why Song of Solomon was found there which is the other book that doesn’t mention the word God. So you have an intriguing insight into the preservation of this library.

The Essenes almost outdo the Jews in ritual and adherence of their sectarian view of purity. The Essenes were always bathing. Their lustrations were regular and required by a code or manual. This has led to some people suggesting that John the Baptist and Jesus were perhaps in early training with the Essenes.

The Bible does say John the Baptist spent some time in the wilderness, and it is unquestionably true that he knew the Essenes and would have mixed with them, because the Essenes were part of that civilized era.

But it would be counter to the theology of Jesus for him to ever have had anything to do with the Essenes. The Essenes were probably the first monks in a sense that felt things were about… to come to an end. They had to meet their Messiah in the wilderness, and in the meantime until he came, they were cleansing themselves and keeping themselves ritually pure.

Remember that John the Baptist came preaching baptism only once and it was symbolic. It was a lustration. It was not a ritual of daily cleanliness. It was something entirely different with a more religious reason behind it.

American School of Oriental Research, Saladin Road, Jerusalem

So even John the Baptist’s theory of baptism is far removed from what the Essenes practiced.

And Jesus did not preach leaving the world. He was right in the midst of it. Remember in one of his prayers he said, “I pray not that the disciples be taken out of the world, but kept from the evil of it.” So there is no kinship in the theology of the two.

But the Essenes’ love for the Bible is what has preserved it for us, and why we have the examples that we do.

We knew very little about the sect until the discovery of this. You must realize that there are some scholars who are not prepared to admit that this is where the Essenes lived. But the majority of scholars would accept that, and would therefore credit the Essenes with the preservation of the scrolls and now our oldest books of the Bible. So, this a community where they were working. This building right over here is the scriptorium. See the oblong building there. That’s where the writing of the scrolls occurred. How do we know that? Well, when the rubble was removed, guess what was found? They found writing tables. They found ink wells and ink dried in the wells that had been used to copy the manuscripts.

Scholars tend to become possessive about anything and when you make the find as dramatic as it is here or at the Dead Sea, you find a great effort to more or less own the rights for publication. We have delays going for twenty, sometimes thirty years. The Dead Sea scrolls for example have not completely been translated. There are drawers of fragments of manuscripts the Israelies have yet to look at, compile, and translate.

Father Sowmy (with Habakkuk Commentary), Metropolitan Samuel,
and John Trevor (holding Isaiah Scroll), February 21, 1948

We are now going to the spot where the oldest manuscripts of our Bible were located. By accident, one might say, because a Bedouin shephard who threw a rock into a cave while looking for a lost goat, heard the shattering of a jar. We’re told that some of the Bedouins used some of the early manuscripts for fuel to heat their tea. And then when the idea struck there might be some value, the manuscripts were brought to the house of the father of Bishara and his father, who were not sure of the value and consulted Kondo. Thus began the history of the discovery of the scrolls. There are many caves in the area. When the scrolls were discovered many scholars prematurely leaped into print, saying “Aha, that accounts for some of Jesus’ customs. He must have lived with the Essenes or at least John the Baptist,” because it tells us that John the Baptist went into the wilderness communities to live. Not many lived in the wilderness except the Essenes. Also found in the caves here is what has been called the Manual of Discipline. Interesting to see a manual that governed the religious organization of the Essenes. It enables us to comprehend a little better what they believed and how they lived.

Both Josephus and Philo, a Jewish writer in Alexandria, Egypt, contemporary with Jesus, tell us about the Essenes. And since they lived at the initial period of the New Testament, their writings are very valuable for scholars. But then what they write has to be compared to what has been discovered here. They found writing tables with ink wells, still with ink in them. And some of you may have heard of Mrs. Elizabeth Hay Bechtel. She was very much involved in saving these scrolls. As a matter of fact, the only Dead Sea scroll named for anyone is the Elizabeth Hay Bechtel Psalms scroll. And it appears on exhibit in the Israel museum and we will see it [see forward].

Then you have the prophets, all writing individually. Amos is supposed, by a majority of scholars, to be the first literary prophet — the first one who actually wrote a book, wrote down using his own name. He wasn’t the first prophet.

You have Samuel, but you see that book is like an historical book, it’s biographical, whereas Amos is autobiographical. And Elijah and Elisha did not write.

They weren’t literary prophets. So Amos is considered to have been the first literary prophet, and that’s about 800 BC.

But the earliest examples of Scripture we have is the one from Numbers that has just been located in tiny silver scrolls and were found in Jerusalem, maybe a year ago or perhaps less, including the verses, “The Lord bless thee and keep thee, the Lord cause his face to shine upon thee.” Those are the earliest Bible verses that have been recovered. Those are dated I think, somewhere between 7th and 5th century BC.

John Trevor photographing Isaiah Scroll

Now, there are other examples of course of Hebrew writing. The Gezer calendar and of course the notation in Hezekiah’s tunnel, both of which are now in the Istanbul museum. And that Siloam inscription was written at the time the tunnel was being built, around 720 BC. So, we do have examples of writing occurring contemporaneously with Biblical events, and even alluding to Biblical events, but the earliest Scripture is from the book of Numbers. Of course the Dead Sea scrolls are varying dates, but the oldest is probably around 250 BC. And there is controversy about the book of Isaiah, for example. Scholars will say now that it was written by three Isaiahs. So they call the first thirty-nine chapters a first Isaiah, and then it goes from Isaiah 40 to Isaiah 60 as the Deutero Isaiah or second Isaiah, and finally Trito Isaiah is the last part of the book.