How a rogue sheep led to one of history’s greatest archaeological finds
In 1946, a wandering sheep led shepherds into a cave where they discovered old clay jars that contained old scrolls with classic, ancient Hebrew writings. The scrolls’ authenticity was questioned, and after review from various scientists and experts, were determines to be the real deal. But other questions remained: Who wrote the scrolls? Why did they hide them in these caves? Their discovery shaped the future of the religious groups that consider them holy. Read on to discover the mystery and wonder behind one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time.
1. Shattering history
It’s 1946 and two Bedouin shepherds lead their flock of goats and sheep through the mountains surrounding the Dead Sea. As the young men make their rounds, a sheep wanders away from the flock and escapes into one of the numerous caves in the mountains.
The shepherds follow it and toss a rock into the cave in hopes to scare the wandering animal out. Instead, they hear something shatter. Curious, they enter and stumble into something incredible — something that hasn’t been seen in over two-thousand years.
2. The Bedouin
The Bedouin shepherds uncovered one of the most significant biblical finds in over 2,000 years. Near the ancient settlement known as Qumran (located northwest of the Dead Sea), the young shepherds find seven clay jars tucked away in the caves.
Inside and almost perfectly preserved by the desert climate, they discovered leather and papyrus scrolls containing the passages of the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians refer to as the Old Testament. Some contained passages to the book of Isaiah.
3. The find of the century
The Bedouin shepherds, along with several other companions, brought the scrolls to an antiquities dealer for an appraisal. At first glance, the antiquities dealer was not interested in the jars nor their contents.
However, when they unfurled the linen-wrapped scroll, blackened with age, the dealer was deeply intrigued. He requested the humble shepherds to return to the caves and find more potential papyrus treasures. To his delight, the shepherds brought back what would be the “find of the century.”
4. The Dead Sea Scrolls
The shepherds returned with more scrolls — seven total — and sold four out of the seven to the dealer. They sold the remaining three to another, unaware of their true worth. With his newly bought scrolls, the antiquities dealer resold his treasures to the head Archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Monastery of St. Mark in Jerusalem, Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, for less than $100 dollars.
A treasure of all treasures, the Archbishop realized that he had something very special — something that could change the course of history. However, it would not be long before trouble began brewing on the horizon.
5. Trouble in Palestine
War broke out when the five Arab nations invaded the territory belonging to the former Palestinian mandate after the Israeli state declared its independence. Tensions rose, and the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 began.
Amidst the chaos of the war, Hebrew University Professor Eliezer Lipa Sukenik, heard about the unearthed scrolls. Through an Armenian antiquities dealer, Sikenik set out to investigate the Archbishop’s findings. Crossing over to meet the dealer in the British military zone at the Jerusalem border, the professor discovers something extraordinary.
6. First look
In their meeting, the dealer brought professor Sukenik a fragment of leather belonging to one of the scrolls. Unfurling the scroll, he immediately recognized the ancient Hebrew writing. Wanting to see more, professor Sukenik traveled to recover the remaining scrolls. Aside from the four scrolls the Archbishop purchased, professor Sukenik was able to locate and recover the remaining three scrolls.
Amazed to see the manuscripts, Sukenik recalled: “My hands shook as I started to unwrap one of them… It was written in beautiful biblical Hebrew. The language was like that of the Psalms, but the text was unknown to me…I suddenly had the feeling that I was privileged by destiny to gaze upon a Hebrew Scroll which had not been read for more than 2,000 years.” This was just the beginning.
7. Finding pieces of the Bible
According to the Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library, three of the discovered manuscripts under the care of the St. Mark’s Monastery, held the complete manuscripts of “the book of Isaiah, a sectarian work called the Community Rule, and a commentary on the book of Habakkuk.”
The book of Isiah holds the story of the prophet Isaiah (obviously) and contains the first clear statement of monotheism: “I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me, there is no God.” Other scrolls contained community rituals, scripture, and other works with a narrative style written like a psalm. However, the scrolls were destined for mobility.
8. Wallstreet Journal ad
Soon, the good professor would sell his three scrolls. For almost six years, the scrolls wound up in various hands until the Archbishop would — by divine fate — come into its possession. War forced the scrolls out of the Middle East and into the United States. In 1954, hoping to sell the scrolls to prestigious universities and scholars, Archbishop Samuels placed an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal.
Listing the scrolls under “Miscellaneous Items for Sale” Samuels listed the scrolls as: “Biblical Manuscripts dating back to at least 200 BC are for sale. This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group.” You’ll never believe who answered the ad.
9. Shady dealings
Out of the seven scrolls, three were still missing. However, it all changed when Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin answered the Archbishop’s ad. Yadin had the three missing scrolls in his possession, which he acquired through a secret negotiation under the newly established State of Israel.
Sha-dy. When word got out about the Dead Sea Scrolls, “Bedouin treasure hunters and archaeologists unearthed tens of thousands of additional scroll fragments from 10 nearby caves; together they make up between 800 and 900 manuscripts” (History.com). However, there was still one question that pressed the lips of scholars.
10. Quadrilingual text
There was reasonable uncertainty about the legitimacy of the Dead Sea Scrolls. At first, scholars who were unfamiliar with ancient texts thought the parchments were no more than three centuries old, and worthless in comparison to other ancient scripts. However, given to the proper archaeologists, the scrolls were confirmed to be priceless.
In conjunction to Hebrew, the scrolls were written in three other languages: Aramaic, Nabatean (a form of Aramaic), and Greek. Though the diversity of language lent credence to the scrolls’ legitimacy, there was one method that solidified that the scrolls were the real deal.
11. Carbon dating the scrolls
Thanks to carbon dating, archaeologists were able to determine the origin of the Dead Sea Scrolls — between 150 BC and 70 AD. However, the exact date of its creation still stumps scholarly minds today.
The biggest mystery about the Dead Sea Scrolls, aside from their creation date, lies is who wrote them. Who is responsible for establishing the very rituals of religion? These very questions remain unanswered to this day. However, there are numerous speculations as to who might have been responsible. The road will most definitely be a difficult one.
12. Leaders of the expedition
There is speculation as to who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. Today’s scholars believe a Jewish population that once inhabited the Qumran called the Essenes were responsible for the scroll’s creation and stashed them in the nearby caves. The question is, why?
At its discovery, the Jordanian Department of Antiquities sent two of their most prominent biblical archaeologists, Père Roland De Vaux and G. Lankester Harding, to solve the mysteries lingering around the scrolls. When excavating the multitude of caves where the scrolls were housed, De Vaux and Harding found fragments of a Roman lamp and a cooking pot, suggesting the scrolls were hidden during the late Hellenistic period (aka the Roman Empire). Perhaps whoever hid them feared they would be destroyed if they were discovered.
13. Archaeological treasures
Along with fragments of Roman lamps and cooking pots, De Vaux and G. Lankester unearthed artifacts from various periods throughout history — the earliest was during the fourth millennium before the Christian Era (The New Yorker).
This included objects from the Bronze Age and many items from the Roman period such as buttons and coins dating between Nero to Hadrian. De Vaux and Harding concluded that the original cave holding the first seven scrolls was a stronghold of the Jewish resistance during the Roman raids.
14. Roman terror
Within the caves, archaeologists found fragments of a Torah scroll, leading to the educated assumption that the Romans had raided through the small village where the Essenes took refuge, including the caves.
It looked as if the Romans destroyed what they found, whether it be the Essenes or the scrolls they carefully tried to conceal. Now the new question was who were the Essenes? Were they the true writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Uncovering the answers aren’t as easy as archaeologists first thought.
15. The Essenes
For the past 70 years, researchers have assumed the Essenes were the most likely authors the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s a plausible rationalization — who else would be in the desert with a bunch of scrolls if not the Essenes?
A secluded group of people, there is archaeological evidence from Qumran with ruins of Jewish ritual baths, and other ruins that could have housed the likely scribes. One of the scrolls, known as the Community Rule, detailed the laws of an unnamed Jewish sect that closely resembled Essene rituals. However, some scholars have a different theory about who wrote the scrolls.
16. Safe haven no more
Others speculate (if not credit) other religious groups for producing the scrolls. Some believe it was the work of early rising Christians or Jews from Jerusalem who navigated through the Qumran while escaping Roman prosecution.
In fact, there is evidence suggesting that not all the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in one place, which was presumably in Qumran. For seven decades, scholars had believed that the Essenes were the sole producers of the Dead Sea Scrolls and that all the scrolls were written within the walls of Qumran. That is until other evidence proved otherwise.
17. Could it be?
Within the walls of Qumran, there are several built-in pools called mikvehs where religious members would bathe to purify themselves. According to Israel Antiquities Authority Archaeologist, Yuval Peleg, there was only one suitable mikveh within Qumran where the Essenes could have performed their purification.
The other baths within Qumran were too small, and therefore impure. Peleg suggests that because Qumran was an insufficient place to perform the religious rites, there was no way the Dead Sea Scrolls could have been written near the Dead Sea. Other Archaeologists have similar opinions on the matter.
18. The tables turn
When De Vaux was excavating the caves where the scrolls were discovered in 1947, he firmly believed that the Essenes were the sole producers of the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, a member of the Dominican religious order, Jean-Baptiste Humbert, contradicts De Vaux’s claims.
Humbert inherited the task of publishing De Vaux’s work, and after 20 years of combing through his notes and evidence, Humbert believes De Vaux was mixing his own desires with his findings at Qumran. A priest within the Dominican religious order himself, De Vaux might have projected his Catholic believes into the Dead Sea Scroll excavations.
19. New speculations
Humbert’s radical conclusion? He believes De Vaux’s notes on the Essene’s were a story of marvel rather than fact. Humbert believes De Vaux projected his own beliefs in the sites he was excavating and was looking for answers through the lens in which he viewed the world.
He confused the archaeological evidence of Qumran with what he knew about monastic life in the Middle Ages (National Geographic). He wanted to find a religious community like his own in Qumran. However, were all De Vaux’s findings of the Essenes inaccurate? Science says otherwise.
20. Where’s the proof?
Archaeologists might see one a story hidden in the ruins of the Dead Sea city. Science to the rescue. Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Geneticist, Dr. Gila Kahila Bar-Gal believes the scrolls are made from parchment and animal skin from goats or Ibex.
She and other researchers take bones excavated from the Qumran site and analyze the DNA from the sample. By testing the sample, scientists could determine whether the specific breed of goat was used to make the scrolls. The results were undeniable.
21. Where, when, and how?
The results? The DNA sample found in the bones matched the material from one of the scrolls that were recovered from the caves. One scroll called the Thanksgiving Scroll was proven to have been created near the Dead Sea.
Not only did they test the parchment, but they also tested the ink. Scientists hypothesized that if the scrolls were truly written near Qumran, let alone the Dead Sea, then it was likely that the Essenes used the water made to create the ink. How could they tell? Water is water, right? Wrong. Each water source has a unique chemical composition, and if anybody of water had a unique chemical composition, it would be the Dead Sea. The test results solidified the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
22. Special compounds
The Dead Sea is made up of a unique blend of water, chlorine, and bromine. If any of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in Qumran, or near the Dead Sea, it would be written in the ink (get it?).
When researchers analyzed the scroll’s ink, it was confirmed that the scroll was written near the Dead Sea. Therefore Qumran was most likely the place of the scrolls’ origin, and by extension, they were most likely produced by the Essene inhabiting the region. It was later discovered that a third of the scrolls were written either in or near Qumran.
23. All in the clay
If bone and ink weren’t proof enough that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, then the answer might lay in the clay. Like our fingerprints, the sedimentary components of clay are just as unique, and you’re unlikely to find the same blend of earth-rich clay in a second location.
When analyzing samples from the clay jars holding the Dead Sea Scrolls, the test concluded that the clay used to make the jars that contained Dead Sea Scrolls matched the unique clay blend in Qumran. If that wasn’t convincing enough, one-tenth of the scrolls shared something shockingly similar to an artifact found in Jerusalem — a little over thirty miles from the Qumran caves.
24. Unearthing Mount Zion
Archaeologist, Shimon Gibson discovered a site linked to the Essenes. “What is certain is that the Essenes were here in Jerusalem because we have a gate…called the gate of the Essenes.” Gibson believes that the same Essenes that lived in Qumran were the same priests that lived in Jerusalem.
His hypothesis is further supported by a significant clue he unearthed at Mount Zion: A cup with cryptic letters that match the text found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Archaeologists were amazed at what they discovered next.
25. A cryptic message
The cup held a cryptic text that could only be read by the secluded sect of the Essenes — one that is shared during their rituals of purification and passion for God. The same cryptic text on the cup found near Mount Zion was also found within one-tenth of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
What does this mean? It means that the very priests in Jerusalem could be the same priests contributed in writing the Dead Sea Scrolls. They may have left the city with the intent to hide them, and did a pretty good job with that if you ask us.
26. Jerusalem or Qumran?
It is plausible the Essenes from Jerusalem migrated to the Qumran to escape Roman persecution to worship their monotheistic beliefs, and in doing so also stowed the Dead Sea scrolls in the confined space of the Qumran caves, believing that they would one day return to retrieve what they left behind.
In other words, it’s very likely that there is a connection between the priests in Jerusalem and to the Dead Sea Scrolls. The priests in Jerusalem and the Essenes connected to Qumran, could be one and the same.
27. Disagreeing with foreign powers
Want to know the icing on the proverbial cupcake? It’s even possible that some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were once held in the Temple of Jerusalem over two-thousand years ago. According to National Geographic, it’s possible that the priests were dissatisfied with foreign influences working within the Temple of Jerusalem, and wanted to find a sacred place to worship their beliefs without impurity.
Priests and followers alike wanted to worship near the holy temple, but disagreed with the corruption working within. Where they went to worship creates a full circle, and may just solve the mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
28. Who done it?
The priests fled and possibly took their scrolls with them to Qumran. They believed they were going to worship God in the proper, orthodox way. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls may just be brought by the same dissident priests who fled from Jerusalem.
Were they responsible for all 700+ scrolls stashed in the eleven caves surrounding the Dead Sea? Can we correctly assume that the Essene priests of Jerusalem were the sole producers of the Dead Sea Scrolls? The answer may surprise you.
29. The sacred library
Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? It’s not just one group of people. That would be unlikely given where the scrolls were discovered. According to Professor Stephen Pfann, an Archaeologist from the University of the Holy Land, they were written by various groups that practiced Judaism during the first century.
The Dead Sea Scrolls was a hidden library, not written by a specific group, but by the Jewish people in and around the area. The reason they were consolidated in the cave was likely because of one specific event in history.
30. The Great Jewish Revolt
After 130 years of Roman occupation in Jerusalem, the Jews rose up against the foreign powers in 66 AD. The Jewish people sparked what would be The Great Jewish Revolt. They began to fight back. The Romans retaliate by wiping out not just the people, but the temple of Jerusalem.
With the revolt, the Jewish people used a network of underground tunnels to escape the city. They fled to Qumran, bringing with them the Dead Sea Scrolls. There they remained hidden from civilzation, until a rouge sheep and a two shepherds would unearth them two thousand years later.