Dr. Travis Williams provided an overview of the more than 900 texts that are part of the Dead Sea Scrolls and detailed the story of the extraordinary discovery of the ancient writings and their lengthy journey to publication during the first session of the annual Theologian-in-Residence lecture series Tuesday at Tusculum College.
Dr. Williams, assistant professor of religion at Tusculum, is presenting a series of lectures, “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible: Identifying, Altering and Preserving Scripture in Antiquity” as part of the annual series during February sponsored by Tusculum College and partially funded by Ron Smith.
“The Dead Sea Scrolls have profoundly shaped our understanding of ancient Judaism and early Christianity and changed the way we view both,” Dr. Williams said.
The scrolls are the oldest copies of Jewish scripture that have been found and have revealed that the Hebrew scriptures were fluid at the time of Jesus, he continued, explaining that the Jewish scriptures and what make up the books of the Old Testament in Christian Bibles were standardized at around 1000 C.E.
The Dead Sea Scrolls also provide new insights on various sects within Judaism at the time, particularly the Essenes, and provide insights into theological ideas at the time of Jesus and early Christianity, Dr. Williams said.
What are referred to as the Dead Sea Scroll is a group of more than 900 texts from what is believed to be a community of the Jewish sect of the Essenes. The scrolls date from the Third Century B.C.E.to the First Century C.E., which were discovered at Qumran, an ancient site on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea.
There are four types of documents that have been found among the scrolls – about 25 percent of copies of Jewish scriptures (books that are included in the Old Testament in the Bible), about 27 percent are compositions that were common to Judaism in First Century in Palestine, about 38 percent are sectarian texts describing the beliefs and practices of the Essenes and 11 percent are too fragmentary to be identified.
The sectarian texts also include a book of hymns similar to the book of Psalms in the Bible, apocalyptic writings and commentaries on the Jewish scriptures. “Some of these sectarian documents were just important to them as what we consider the Bible,” Dr. Williams said. “Their Bible was much bigger if you will.”
For example, he said, many more copies of the books of I Enoch and Jubilees were found than some of Biblical books, suggesting that these sectarian books were more important and held more authority for the Essenes, he continued. The scrolls have also revealed that the Essenes were conservative in their beliefs, were stringent in their observance of purity law and were in conflict with the temple authorities in Jerusalem.
About 80 percent of the scrolls were written in Hebrew, 17 percent are in Aramaic and three percent are in Greek. The texts themselves were written on parchment, papyrus, pieces of broken pottery and copper. The copper scroll is one of the most interesting of the texts, as what appears to be a treasure map was engraved in Hebrew on the copper, telling the location of various hiding places of what calculates to between 58-174 tons of silver and gold. Dr. Williams said that many scholars think that the map may be a fake and other scholars have argued that it may detail places the treasury from the temple at Jerusalem was hidden from the Romans.
The first scrolls were found either in late 1946 or early 1947 as the accounts of the Bedouin shepherds who are credited with making the initial discovery differ, Dr. Williams noted. The initial find was seven scrolls in either one or two caves, he said, and the scrolls were sold to a Syrian archbishop, Mar Samuel, and an Israeli scholar, Eliezer Sukenik. On the day that the United Nations passed the resolution creating the nation of Israel, Sukenik was reading the scroll texts when he heard the announcement on the radio. “In his diary, Sukenik noted that he was reading a scroll written 2,000 years ago, the last time that Israel was a free state and now it was a free state again,” Williams said.
Mar Samuel moved to New Jersey and took the scrolls he had purchased with him and advertised them for sale in the Wall Street Journal, an advertisement brought to the attention of Sukenik’s son who was lecturing in the United States at the time, bringing the original scrolls back together for display in the “Shrine of the Book,” a section of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem that was specifically built to house the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In the meantime, the growing knowledge of the valuable nature of the scrolls led to a race between the Bedouin and archeologists to discover if more scrolls were in the area. Both groups made discoveries of a total of 11 caves in the Qumran area containing scrolls. The biggest find was in what is known as Cave Four, which contained about 500 texts.
With the size of the finds by the Bedouin and archeologists, an international team of scholars was assembled to reconstruct the texts from the thousands of fragments found and translate them.
A long delay in publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls led to controversy and conspiracy theories that things were being hidden from the public by the authorities. However, Dr. Williams said, the reason for the delay is mundane when compared to some of the conspiracy theories.
A combination of factors led to the delay, he noted. The number of scholars assembled to accomplish the task of reconstructing and translating the scrolls was too small for the size of the project, and many of the texts being translated were new to the scholars.
In addition, the scholars’ only compensation for their work on the scrolls was either from books they wrote about the scrolls or academic positions they might acquire because of the work, Dr. Williams continued, thus the scholars were hesitant to share their work through a desire to become an expert on their part of the project.
No one was given access to the scrolls until after a college professor and one of his students in the 1980s was able to construct the text of the scrolls from one of the concordances of scroll texts that had been provided to a few universities over the years and published it. After this publication, microfilm photographs of many of the scrolls were found in the Huntington (Calif.) Library, and the director provided access to these to qualified scholars. The photographs had been given to the library from an individual who had provided funding for the Dead Sea Scrolls project and had received them in return. After this, the authorities gave access to the scrolls and they can now be accessed digitally through the Internet.
Lecture sessions are on each Tuesday in February. The lecture session will begin at 10 a.m. in the Chalmers Conference Center in the Niswonger Commons. The session will conclude around 1:30 p.m., and lunch in the college’s cafeteria is included. Although there is no admission fee to attend the lectures, reservations are required. For more information or to make a reservation for the series, please call 423-636-7304 or email email@example.com.
Any make-up sessions scheduled due to cancellation of the lecture series due to inclement weather will be announced at a later date.
Click here for additional resources about the Dead Sea Scrolls and slides from Dr. Williams’ presentation