The Desk Main Page

The Dead Sea Scrolls
and other ancient libraries

©06 The Media Desk

[NOTE: The Desk isn't sure if this article belongs in the Mystery Series
or is a regular Non-Fiction essay. It may be BOTH. Enjoy ]

      Almost everybody knows the almost cliché-ish story.
      In 1947 a young goat herder in search of a missing charge squeezed into crack in a cliff above the Dead Sea and found an assortment of clay pots that turned Biblical Archeology and Anthropology on it's head.
      The first scrolls were sold by the Bedouins to collectors. In 1949 the cave was identified by the authorities and a search of the area located other caves turning up hundreds of ancient relics.
      Since then the majority of the scrolls have been translated and several have even been posted on the Internet.

      The Scrolls were found in caves in the bluffs above the Dead Sea. Over 800 manuscripts are represented including at least fragments of every Old Testament Book except Esther. Found were several complete copies of the Books of Isaiah and Deuteronomy and Psalms. Also identified were non-canonical books such as the Books of the Jubilees and Enoch, various secular works, and some passages from Biblical works not in the Bible.
      In total, eleven caves around the initial site have been discovered containing the clay jars that held the scrolls, with several other grottos elsewhere in the region also holding items. The consensus is that the scrolls were written before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, most probably in the century immediately before the time of Christ.
      The Scrolls themselves were written by hand. Most are in ink on leather or papyrus, however one was inscribed on a sheet of copper. While some have survived mostly intact, such as the famous 'Temple' Scroll and at least one of the Isaiah Scrolls, many had deteriorated to the point where the fragments disintegrated when touched. Several have been pieced together to where the text could be identified.
      Nearby, the settlement of Qumran was identified and excavated. The group that secreted the scrolls were a highly devout sect of Jews called the Essenes. Their religious community strictly observed various laws governing everything from personal hygiene to social interaction.
      Collectively the Scrolls, their Caves, and the ruins of the town are often called the Qumran Library or related terms.

      "The Dead Sea Scrolls"

      Just the phrase raises images of ancient rolls of sheepskin filled with faded cryptic writing.
      And a great mystique has arisen around them as well.
      It would be going too far to say the Scrolls are worshiped, but in some academic and even religious circles, it almost comes to that.
      They have also been conferred with almost magical powers. So it behooves us to look at them in some depth. See the picture page for an image of the Leviticus and Hosea scrolls.

What they ARE and are NOT

      The scrolls are indeed ancient. Some of them predate any other known copy of various Old Testament books by a thousand years. But, they are most definitely of human origin, no matter what some of the more extreme websites say about them. The skins and parchment are similar to others of known production and the inks are fairly common carbon based inks as well.
      Also there was nothing fancy about the way they were stored. The caves that line the Dead Sea are some of the driest, most environmentally stable naturally occurring shelters in the world. As long as the clay jars the scrolls were placed in were dry to begin with and remained intact through the area's normal schedule of earthquakes, the writings would survive a millennium. And in fact, they survived two.
      While the term 'intact' and related words are relative when dealing with the scrolls, they do apply. The Leviticus Scroll is nearly twenty-eight feet long and contains the vast majority of the book as it appears in the Torah. The same is true for the Isaiah scrolls, at least a couple of them have survived mostly as complete works. However, others are missing sections that have deteriorated beyond salvage over the ages or destroyed since they were discovered. Some passages have been pieced together from dozens of fragments. In other cases, only a few small scraps of a larger scroll have been recovered.

      The primary languages of the Scrolls is Hebrew and Aramaic. Both were common in the area at the time. Also the usage of the languages is in context with the time of the Essene community during the period of the Second Temple.
      There are also a few scrolls in Ancient Greek showing that even the isolated sect had experienced some influence from the outsiders.

      They do NOT contain references to Christ, Aliens, Buddha, or the Mayan Calendar. Nevermind the urban legends and associated tall tales.
      Others claim that special prophecies in the texts predict things both mundane and spectacular. Well, yes and no. There are prophecies in the documents from King David and Daniel and others that are not in the books of the Old Testament, but what they reveal isn't that out of line with the Biblical sources.
      And no, the date and time of the end of the world is not revealed.
      In the majority of cases, the books and passages in the Scrolls appear elsewhere. As is the case with the non-canonical Book of Enoch. However, the copy of Enoch from the Qumran site is slightly different from others available through ancient sources, such as the Ethiopic version. In other cases, as with Isaiah, the differences are minute, and as some argue, insignificant being primarily stylistic matters.
      However there are several works of which the only known existent copy is from the Dead Sea cache. One of those contains previously unknown Psalms of David and Joshua as well as several books dealing with the Essene community itself.

      UFOs and other conspiracies.
      In spite of rumors of a cover-up, there is no 'recently uncovered' Dead Sea Scroll. And at least one scroll that was 'found' in caves south of the Qumran area was demonstrated to most likely be a modern fraud.
      Another often-heard spiel is that the Catholic Church or Israeli Government is 'holding' or concealing various scrolls that reveal secrets they don't want known. While that is possible, it isn't likely. Conspiracies involving large organizations are notoriously difficult to maintain.
      And while there are passages and references in some of the non-Biblical manuscripts that are somewhat obscure or not totally understood, they appear to be dealing with the normal operation of the community and are most likely proper names or references to the sale of sheep than the indication that Martians warned the Essenes that the Romans were coming.

      From what is available through credible sources all of the 'complete' scrolls and most of the larger fragments have been translated. The majority of those are even available on the Web.
      While there has been academic turf wars and infighting over access to the authentic scrolls and control over their translation and display through the years, eventually everything was worked through and new images of fragments that were previously locked in vaults have been released with more to come.
      Also, certain theories about various portions of some of the scrolls have been advanced, both of the reasonable academic hypothesis type and half-baked fruitcake type, and individuals and small groups from both camps have put out articles and books and TV specials touting their positions. They come and they go. The best example is the Angel Scroll as mentioned before. They made a big splash with it and got on TV and sold books, but then when the scroll was subjected to analysis and review by recognized authorities, it seemed to all go away.
      Also there is no credible substantiation of anybody associated with the Scrolls having any 'special revelation' or gift of divine understanding of the Scrolls.

What they ARE to us.

      The Scrolls are unmistakable verification that, as least as far as the Old Testament goes, the document we have has at least the authority of an Ancient Document.
      At a mimimum the are an incredible treasure and unique insight into the lives and times of a religious community during the Roman Empire.

Link below.

The Nag Hammadi Collection

      In 1945 an Egyptian peasant farmer turned up a large clay jar that contained a group of leather bound books. Not realizing their importance he put them in his family's store of fuel for their cooking fire. Later most of the books were turned over to a local priest and there began an international drama involving various churches, the black market, and several governments.
      It is now believed that all the manuscripts that escaped the cooking fire have been recovered and preserved. See picture page for a look at them.
      All were written in Coptic, an ancient language spoken by the Egyptian Church in the first few centuries AD, but they appear to have been translated from Greek through analysis of the phrasing in the documents.
      The thirteen volumes contain fifty apocryphal and Gnostic books such as the Gospel of Thomas and various other books not in the Western Christian Canon. Most are of at least somewhat a religious nature and were considered heretical at one time or another. Some of these, like the book of Zostrianos are interesting, but tough for the modern reader to appreciate. Others, like Thomas and the letter from Peter to Philip are more of a straightforward religious nature. Also included in the trove is a partial copy of the Republic by Plato and some other housekeeping-type documents.

      They have been dated at being between 1500 and 1600 years old which places them at about the time of the Theodosian persecutions of all brands of Christianity which did not adhere to the Nicene Creed, which the Coptic Church did not.
      We will not here debate which tradition was the correct one. Suffice it to say that by that time Christianity had become the official religion of the Empire, and the Council of Nicea had dictated how it was to be practiced. As a result, the Gnostics and others who didn't toe the line were subject of official and sometimes brutal persecution.

      There are also problems with several of the manuscripts as preserved in the Nag Hammadi group.
      For example, the Nag Hammadi version of the Gospel of James is incomplete, and what has been re-assembled as the book conflicts with other known ancient copies of is such as the Syriac. Most authorities agree that some outside material has been introduced into the James book, but how much and the significance of it is still debated.
      Some of the works are mentioned by various Church Fathers such as Iranaeus and Origen. Clement is reputed to have quoted from the Gnostic Gospel of Mark, but this is disputed.
      Other works, such as the treatise on Melchizedek, appear to have been written shortly before the collection was hidden.
      And proof that those that translated the works from their original language into Coptic altered the texts for reasons of their own exists in the preserved version of Plato's Republic. The text, while mostly representative of the original, has been modified in several places to come into line and support the Gnostic tradition.

      The overall value of the collection may be questioned by the Christian Community, however its historic importance cannot be so easily dismissed. If for no other reason than it sheds light on the environment at the beginning of the Western Church with regard to those that dissented to the mainstream teachings. And that fact alone makes their preservation and study important to those that wish to know what they believe and why.

Link below.

Other Ancient Libraries

      India has begun a survey of manuscripts, many written on palm leaves, to assess and record these historical documents. Well over 70,000 items have been recorded and more may be uncovered.

      In the almost mythical city of Timbuktu in Africa a scholarly effort has taken on an urgent nature as hundreds and maybe thousands of ancient books and manuscripts are in danger of crumbling to dust. Some compare the potential loss to the disaster of the burning of the Great Library at Alexandria.

      In China the Dunhuang caves along the ancient Silk Road sheltered works recorded in over a dozen languages. The dates of the writings vary, but they may be every bit as old as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

      Everything from Mayan hieroglyphs to 'schoolboy notes' in Novgorod have been found and continue to be found in locations ranging from Madrid to northern Russia to southeast Asia to the New World. Some range in age from Sanskrit manuscripts from 1500 BC (the oldest known non-stone document anywhere) to others from the 1800's. Paper and leather, papyrus, wax and clay tablets, even books of tree bark are represented.
      While there may be more articles of the import of say the Dead Sea Scrolls out there, they are at risk of being destroyed upon discovery by treasure hunters looking for gold or ignorance by their finders who throw them into their cooking fire after having survived for generations.

      Half of the battle is finding things like these to begin with. They might be inside a stuffed crocodile sealed in a tomb, or buried in a clay jar, or sealed up inside a wall. They might be found by a farmer searching for fertilizer, or a bored shepherd poking into crevasses, or even occasionally by a trained archeological team with preservation supplies ready at hand.
      But once they're found and conserved the really hard part begins. Sometimes they are written in an obscure language or the text is in such bad shape really sophisticated photography equipment must be used to be able to see the letters through the dirt and soot deposited over the years. Others are guarded with nationalistic jealousy and cameras are not usually allowed, such as with the famous Book of Kells.

Sidenote: The Book of Kells is an illuminated volume containing the Gospels and some other material. It was most probably written in the monastery on Iona some time before 1000 AD. In 1541 it was presented to Trinity College in Dublin where it remains today. Over the years several of the calfskin pages have been lost, but the overall book is intact, and still absolutely resplendent in its illustrations.
      The artwork in the book is considered some of the finest of its kind ever produced. See picture page for two examples.
      For many years photography of the book was prohibited as almost sacrilege, but times change. It is worth noting that today the Book of Kells is available on CD-ROM

      Overall, while the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Nag Hammadi books and other ancient works may not influence our day to day lives. They are an unchanging glimpse into where we've been, and just possibly, they may be an aging yellowing map of where we might be going.

Links in order of mention in the article.
For more information, enter any of the following subjects into a good search engine.

All links will open a new browser window.

Dead Sea Scrolls
Overview from the Library of Congress exhibition at

The Nag Hammadi Collection

The Palm Leaf Project
News Articles on India's effort

An overview of the Dunhuang caves.

The Timbuktu Manuscript project and the African Literary Heritage

About the Maya and their books

The Novgorod excavations article at

Book of Kells at Trinity College

The Desk's Ancient Manuscripts picture page

The Index of the Desk's Non Fiction and Mystery Series Articles.

[NOTE: The Desk is not affiliated with any of the above sites. Mention of a particular document, archeological site, or entity is not to be taken as an endorsement by or of the Desk. No infringement or disrespect is intended or is to be assumed. thank you ]
To the main page