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What Are The Dead Sea Scrolls?

Here’s a topic I haven’t discussed in a while!  Just about every thinking human being in our context has heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, even if they have no clue what the scrolls are, what they contain, and how they were found.  And it’s no surprise they’ve heard of them.  The Dead Sea Scrolls are by virtual consensus the most significant manuscript discovery of the twentieth century, of major importance for understanding Judaism at the time of Jesus and, in some respects, the teachings of Jesus himself.

Here is what I say about the scrolls in my New Testament textbook.  I begin by talking about the Jewish group widely thought to have been responsible for producing, using, and eventually hiding the scrolls — which remained hidden from 70 CE until 1947!  The group is called the Essenes.




The Essenes are the one Jewish sect not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament.  Ironically, they are also the group about which we are best informed.  This is because …

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  1. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  June 23, 2020

    Why were these script copiers more accurate than NT script writers? Or were they?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2020

      The writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls? We don’t know if they were, since we don’t have earlier copies of their works to compare them to.

  2. Lev
    Lev  June 23, 2020

    “It appears that when the Jewish war of 66-73 CE began, the Essenes at Qumran hid some of their sacred writings before joining in the struggle.”

    Did the Qumran Essenes join the revolt elsewhere (Jerusalem?), or did they fight at Qumran? I always assumed they were slaughtered by the Romans at Qumran.

    On another, but related, matter – last year (https://ehrmanblog.org/a-new-genre-in-jewish-antiquity-the-apocalypse/) I asked what you made of Boccaccini’s proposal over Enochic Judaism (and it’s origin from Qumran), and you responded “I don’t know what I think about Enochic Judaism.” Is that still the case?

    I ask, as I wonder how much of late 2nd Judaism owes a debt to Enochic Judaism, especially the realignment in Jewish thinking over the cause of suffering (instead of God being the cause of human suffering, the fallen angels who run amock are responsible). We see, especially in Mark’s gospel, many unclean spirits causing illness amongst the population. Perhaps this was the dominant view at the time? Demonology being the fashionable theory over why so many suffer? Interestingly GJohn doesn’t seem to agree.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2020

      It’s usually thought they were attacked at Qumran.

      Yup, pretty much. I’ve studied the books of Enoch, but have not done any work on the social history of the community.

  3. Avatar
    Shawnmrmsh  June 23, 2020

    I know some scholars and historians, claim the Qumran site was a pottery factory, and the scrolls were a cache rescued from the destruction of the temple and have nothing to with the Essenes. The basis for their claim is there are many different styles of writing on the scrolls, more than what would be expected from a small community. Not being an expert myself, I’d like to know your thoughts on that claim.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2020

      The standard view is that some of the scrolls were produced at Qumran but others were brought into the community by people coming to live there (e.g., from Jerusalem). So there would naturally be different writing styles.

      • Avatar
        Shawnmrmsh  June 24, 2020

        What are your thoughts on the claims from archeologists that Qumram was a pottery factory and had no relationship to the Essenes?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 26, 2020

          I”d say it’s a small minority view and not one that I’ve ever found convincing. If you want to read further on the community, you might read my colleague Jodi Magness’s book on The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

          • Avatar
            Shawnmrmsh  June 27, 2020

            I’ve read Dr Magness’s book on Masada and found it very informative. I’ve just ordered a copy of the book you suggested and look forward to reading it. As far as the claims regarding Qumram not having any connections to the Essenes, I’m on the fence myself. However Dr Yizhak Magen and Dr Yuval Peleg of the Israeli Antiquities Authority have some very compelling evidence to support that.

  4. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 23, 2020

    Could these “impurities in the Jewish Temple” be a belief they shared with Jesus and that’s why he prophesied that the Temple would be destroyed?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2020

      They are very similar, yes; but that wouldn’t mean that one of them got them from the other — it would mean that various folk or groups had similar views.

      • Lev
        Lev  June 24, 2020

        Is it true that the Essenes hoped that the Temple would be purified, rather than destroyed, as predicted by Jesus?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 29, 2020

          Hmmm… Off hand I don’t remember — and I don’t have my books with me! Do you know what passage you have in mind?

          • Lev
            Lev  June 29, 2020

            I’ve had a brief search and I’ve come across this Wikipedia entry on the Temple Scroll that discusses a greater form of purity at the temple: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_Scroll#Purity_in_the_Temple_Scroll

            It seems the Essenes believed that worship at the temple was imperfect and impure, and they demanded a greater degree of purity. They seem to be especially hung up on when men ejaculate!!

            I’m interested in this view (temple purity, not when men have a happy ending) as this seems to be one of the big dividing lines between Jesus and the Essenes. Whilst the Essenes looked forward to a day where they could worship at the temple in purity and perfection, Jesus thought the whole thing would come tumbling down soon. I wonder, was Jesus unique in this belief concerning the 2nd temple? Or were other Jews also predicting the 2nd temple would be destroyed?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 30, 2020

            Oh, yes, most ascetics throughout history have been hung up on ejaculation. As to the temple, part of what I do know is in today’s post.

        • Robert
          Robert  June 29, 2020

          Lev: “Is it true that the Essenes hoped that the Temple would be purified, rather than destroyed, as predicted by Jesus?”

          Perhaps some did, but I think at least some of those who lived at Qumran expected the current temple to be destroyed and a new one to be built. See, for example, the Letter of Enoch (4Q212 f1iv:15-18):

          15 And after it shall come an eighth week, one of righteousness, in which [a sword] shall be given 16 to all the righteous to execute true judgment on all the wicked, 17 and the wicked will be delivered into their hands. When it is over, they will acquire possessions righteously, 18 and a great temple of [ki]n[g]ship will be built [ויתבנא היכל [מ]ל֯[כ]וׄת רבא] in majestic splendor to endure for eternal generations.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 30, 2020

            Ah, perfect!! Thanks. I hope that, unlike me, you had that memorized. 🙂

          • Lev
            Lev  June 30, 2020

            Very interesting – many thanks Robert.

            I wonder – did the Essenes believe that the temple would be destroyed by their enemies before they rebuilt it, or did they envisage themselves (or maybe God?) rebuilding the temple without it being destroyed first in some violent and hostile action?

            It may seem like a subtle difference, but it could be the difference between a newspaper editor looking at an article thinking “This is no good at all, this needs re-writing” to “this is a good start, but it needs improving”.

        • Robert
          Robert  July 1, 2020

          Lev: “Very interesting – many thanks Robert.

          I wonder – did the Essenes believe that the temple would be destroyed by their enemies before they rebuilt it, or did they envisage themselves (or maybe God?) rebuilding the temple without it being destroyed first in some violent and hostile action?

          It may seem like a subtle difference, but it could be the difference between a newspaper editor looking at an article thinking ‘This is no good at all, this needs re-writing’ to ‘this is a good start, but it needs improving’.”

          Impossible to say. The quotation from the Letter of Enoch is the only pertinent reference I’m aware of and it just does not give enough detail or context to say much more. It wouldn’t have been destroyed by their enemies, the current temple leadership, but it could be destroyed by their enemies, the gentile forces opposed to God. Or it could simply be acquired through military victory by the Sons of Light and their angelic warriors, demolished, and rebuilt according to the new extra-biblical plan envisaged in the Temple Scroll, where there is no place for gentile participation in the worship of God. Not very ecumenical, these guys.

  5. Avatar
    fishician  June 23, 2020

    If they thought they were going into the final battle before the coming of the Messiahs, why the need to preserve their writings, hidden away? Surely the priestly messiah could lead them in proper worship without consulting their books. Any hint that they were like modern millennialists in that they thought there would be a period of tribulation before the kingdom was finally established? Perhaps preserving their writings for use during such a period?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2020

      Great question. Unfortunately we don’t know the answer!

  6. 1SonOfZeus
    1SonOfZeus  June 23, 2020

    Have you posted about the teacher of righteousness? I was wondering so I can read it. Did they have something to do with one cup sort of thing? I cannot remember if they did or not. I may be wrong.

  7. Avatar
    Stewiegriffin  June 23, 2020

    A while back you made a post in which you gave a brief description of every book in the NT, i was wondering where i could find that?

  8. Avatar
    Q11Temple  June 23, 2020

    “[Jesus] too believed that the end of time was near, and that people had to prepare for the coming onslaught.”

    Did Jesus get his views from Essenes or can we know? (interesting that “love your neighbor but hate your enemy” is not in the Torah but in 1QRuleOfCommunity except with sons of light/darkness) Also was curious if this could be used to rule out apologetic explanations of Matthew 10:23 such as this:

    (1) When Jehovah providentially sent the Babylonians to ravage the southern kingdom of Judah, Isaiah depicted the event as an invasion of the Lord himself (Isa. 13:2-5).

    (2) Christ warned the erring churches of Ephesus and Pergamum that if they did not mend their rebellious ways, he would “come” and bring punishment upon them (Rev. 2:5, 16).

    (3) God warned the Jews that he would send “his armies” to destroy those who murdered his Son, and cause their city to be burned (Mt. 22:7); this was to be accomplished by the Roman invasion.And it was represented as a “coming” of the Son of man in power and great glory (Mt. 24:30, 34; cf. Lk. 21:27, 32).For further consideration of this matter, see: “A Study of Matthew Twenty-Four”, elsewhere on this site.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2020

      I think not. I’ve posted on this before. Maybe I’ll do so again!

  9. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  June 23, 2020

    It is now believed that the book of Esther was also found among the scrolls:


  10. Avatar
    dowdle  June 23, 2020

    I remember reading somewhere that a pretty close version of the Sermon on the Mount was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (the “sectually explicit” ones?) and that, according to the consensus about their dating… that would mean that it pre-dates Jesus… and was borrowed by New Testament writers. My question is, is my memory on that even close to accurate and if so, what are the specifics?

  11. Avatar
    dowdle  June 23, 2020

    Over the weekend I subscribed to The Great Courses Plus just for a 12-hour Dead Sea Scrolls course by Rendsburg. His pie-chart in the intro was informative… number of scrolls (930), languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), and categories (Bible, Sectarian, non-Sectarian, Unidentified). One lecture covered alternative theories… including Barbara Thiering. I recall reading one of Barbara’s books in the early 90s. She disagreed with the DSS dating and believed that Jesus was born, lived and crucified in the Qumran / Essene community. I know she was mistaken but I really enjoyed her practical explanations of New Testament miracles using her Pesher method. So what are those plural and singular references to Jerusalem about in the NT Greek?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2020

      Yes, to say her views are generally discounted would be to put it rather mildly. But I’m not sure what references you’re referring to.

      • Avatar
        dowdle  June 24, 2020

        Sorry, I don’t have any real specifics for you at this time as it has been a while since I read Barbara’s book and I don’t have a copy handy to reference. I just recall Barbara referring to NT Greek saying there was a passage where someone (Paul?) left Jerusalem, traveled for a while, and arrived at Jerusalem… and that the Greek references for Jerusalem… one was singular and the other was plural… and her explanation was that one was the real Jerusalem and the other was Qumran… as her claim was that the Essene community had basically created Qumran as a replacement Israel… with the design / layout of Qumran (buildings, etc) matching what they had abandoned. I know, that’s not something you are interested in entertaining as it is too “out there”. Again, I don’t believe it, but I find it very interesting.

  12. Avatar
    clerrance2005  June 24, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,

    Thanks again for the time.

    From this statement – “We can therefore check to see whether Jewish scribes over the intervening centuries reliably copied their texts; the short answer is that, for the most part, they did”

    How well copied were these relative to the Gospels?

    And please which of the Jewish sects would Jesus have most likely belonged to?

  13. Avatar
    JeffreyFavot  June 24, 2020

    Great read! It’s interesting to see some sects of Christianity repeat the same beliefs throughout history. Isolating themselves from the rest of society and the faith due to what they perceive as religious purity. I think of the Amish, Anti-Baptist’s, etc. How accurate was the Dead Sea Isaiah scroll compared to the Septuagint translation? I really wish we would’ve found some NT manuscripts in that Qumran cave.

  14. Avatar
    gwayersdds  June 24, 2020

    Bart, I have a question. You said that the scrolls found predate by almost a 1000 years the later Hebrew Bible and have very little change or errors between the two versions. Why then do you think that there have been so many errors in copying books of the New Testament. Were later scribes simply less competent or more careless when they copied manuscripts?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2020

      In *some* cases there were not a lot of changes. Why were the NT scribes more careless? They simply didn’t have strict rules of copying upon them….

      • Avatar
        gwayersdds  June 26, 2020

        I see that I wasn’t the only one with a similar question. Is this an example of great minds thinking alike??LoL

  15. 1SonOfZeus
    1SonOfZeus  June 24, 2020

    Dr Ehrman, I won’t ask about Zeus. I was wondering if you could tell me what *1 Samuel 5:2* is talking about? Maybe some of your members does not know either…

    Also, Luke 9:29 (lightning) Rev 4:5 (lightning) Matthew 28:3 (lightning). The anicients all mentioned lightning… Why? Was it inspired by the Greek religion and Zeus. Everyone knows that lightning is associated with Zeus. Just curious. I am not Christian but very interested in Christanity as you already know.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2020

      You will need to quote 1 Sam 5:2 and then ask the question — and indicate what about the verse you would like to understand — so readers will know what you are asking about.

      Lightening was a common theme because it “came from heaven” and was frightening and sometimes devastating.

  16. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  June 24, 2020

    I am slightly attracted to the minority view that the scrolls were Sadducean in origin (eg. Lawrence Schiffman’s work) not least because it would give us our only texts from that group. The arguments can be convoluted but I think in essence Schiffman is saying that the Qumran sect were a breakaway group and that the QMMT scroll, which he claims is a sort of sectarian foundational document, is consistent with what we know of Sadducean beliefs.

  17. Avatar
    Stephen  June 24, 2020

    In his recent, excellent book on John the Baptist, Joel Marcus speculates about a possible direct relationship between John the B and the Essene community. I know from your comments that you don’t think Jesus had such a direct relationship but what about John? What is your take?


    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2020

      Yeah, I’m afraid I don’t agree with him. Too many differences between them in outlook and practice. My view is that hthre were lots of groups/individuals like this around, so when we happen to learn about one, that doesn’t mean they were connected with another that we happen to know about. But you’re right, it’s an excellent book, by a superb scholar.

  18. Avatar
    jhague  June 24, 2020

    Is it thought that John the Baptist was part of the Essenes group, that he left to form a ministry and preach regarding the coming apocalypse?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2020

      By some people. Joel Marcus argues that in his recent book on John the Baptist. But I’m afraid I don’t agree with him on the point. Too many differences between them in outlook and practice. My view is that hthre were lots of groups/individuals like this around, so when we happen to learn about one, that doesn’t mean they were connected with another that we happen to know about. But it’s an excellent book, by a superb scholar

  19. Avatar
    timcfix  June 24, 2020

    There has been preaching about the end of time since the beginning of time. Why is this subject made so popular? Follow the money.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2020

      I’d say 99% of the time it didn’t involve money. Until, basically, the 1970s.

  20. Paul94d
    Paul94d  June 24, 2020

    Is there anything in the Bible that says that a prayer helps the dead or yourself if you pray for help from God?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2020

      The Bible frequently says prayer can help *you*, but no, not those who were already dead.

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