The Dead Sea Scrolls: Fragments from the Qumran Caves - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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The Dead Sea Scrolls: Fragments from the Qumran Caves October 14, 2008
by Malin Grunberg Banyasz


Aramaic Apocryphon of Daniel, Qumran Cave 4, end of the 1st century B.C. (Israel Antiquities Authority, 4Q246-209)

In 1947, a Bedouin boy stumbled upon 2,000-year-old scrolls in the caves of Qumran in the Judean Desert. This accidental find, one of the 20th century's greatest archaeological discoveries, is known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. A selection of these texts--the oldest known copies of the Hebrew Bible, commentaries, and other religious writings--is now on display at New York City's Jewish Museum in an exhibit titled, " The Dead Sea Scrolls: Mysteries of the Ancient World."


Scroll Jar, Qumran settlement and Qumran Cave 7, 1st century B.C.-1st century A.D. (Israel Antiquities Authority, 483728)

In all, 900 scrolls were found. Of these, six fragments are on exhibit at the museum, including three that have never been shown anywhere before. The scrolls provide revelations about the religious practices of the times and are central to a profound debate over who wrote and owned them. Scholars are divided as to whether the scrolls are the work of the Essenes (a very pious sect who some believed were celibate), or belonged to a variety of Jewish groups of the time.


Boxwood comb, Wadi Murabba'at, 1st century B.C.-1st century A.D. (Israel Antiquities Authority, 346384)

Thirty artifacts found in and around the caves at Qumran are on display including a scroll-jar and lid; a cloth used to wrap and protect the scrolls made of linen and decorated with blue threading (very unusual and a testament to the importance of the scrolls); sandals; cups and plates; and a two-sided comb with one side for combing hair, the other for removing lice. In addition to other everyday objects, there is a 2,000-year-old hairnet (similar to the one that my mother still wears to bed every night), which raises the question as to whether there were women in the settlement of Qumran, and the earliest known tefillin cases (small leather boxes that contain prayers on parchment used in morning services). These objects, which set the historical context for the scrolls are displayed in the first of the exhibit's three galleries. Lining the room's curved walls in very large print are six quotes from different scholars arguing one or the other side of the debate about the scrolls. The Jewish Museum leaves the controversy open to the public and, in the end, doesn't takes sides.


View of the Dead Sea from a cave in the Judean Desert (Israel Antiquities Authority)

In the adjoining second gallery, visitors can watch a short, informative film about the history of the scrolls. This seven-minute film takes us to the five-mile stretch of cliffs in the barren Judean Desert, close to the Dead Sea, where we can see the caves of Qumran and imagine the scrolls being placed in the caves, not to be rediscovered again for 2,000 years. Why were they hidden away in the caves? Possibly to protect them from the climate, or perhaps to keep them from the advancing Romans. We still don't have an answer but scholars continue to ponder these questions.

The third gallery holds the scroll fragments themselves. The room is kept rather dark to protect the scrolls from direct light. The fragments on exhibit include the Book of Jeremiah; one of the earliest copies of the Hebrew Bible in existence, dating to 225-175 B.C.; the Book of Tobit, which is an apocryphal Jewish work not included in the Hebrew Bible but accepted into some versions of the Christian Old Testament; early examples of prayers from the Words of the Luminaries; and Aramaic Apocryphon of Daniel which mentions the son of God. Jeremiah, Luminaries, and Tobit are on exhibit for the first time in New York, the others have never been seen before. Community Rule, a sectarian composition, describes the regulations for joining and being a member of the sect, and the War Scroll, which describes a great war that will take place at the end of days. The importance of the scrolls is monumental. They represent a time when two great religions were developing--early Judaism and Christianity and shed light on the political and religious movements of the time.

The exhibit was organized for the Jewish Museum by Susan L Braunstein, Curator of Archaeology and Judaica and in collaboration with Pnina Shor of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). According to Shor, the scrolls will only be on display for 90 days. This limited viewing period is strictly enforced by the IAA because of the fragility of the scrolls. So, you have till January 4, 2009, to see the show.

Malin Grunberg Banyasz is ARCHAEOLOGY Magazine's editorial assistant.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America