Dead Sea Scrolls: The latest cave discovery
(Photo Credit: Casey L. Olsen and Oren Gutfeld – Remnants of Parchment when removed from jug found in Q12 Cave)
by Agnes Chung
Few artifacts have captured the curiosity and excitement of Christians and Jews more than the Dead Sea Scrolls, which contain passages of the Old Testament. Every book of the Hebrew Bible is represented, except Esther.
The Dead Sea Scrolls’ finding goes back to 1946 or 1947. A Bedouin shepherd boy searching for his missing goat tossed a stone into a cave perched on a marl plateau in Qumran. The sound of shattering pottery piqued his curiosity. Together with his peers, they ventured into the cave and found seven rolled parchments inscribed in ancient Hebrew script, concealed in large clay jars.
It launched one of the biggest 20th century Biblical finds. The sacred texts were mostly written on parchment, papyrus and one on copper, and estimated around 2,000 to 2,200 years old. Though there is no mention of Jesus, the Hebrew and Aramaic scrolls enhance our understanding of the Bible, the history of Judaism and Christianity, and Jewish life during the Second Holy Temple period. Many scholars think the Essenes (Jewish sectarian group) wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The shepherds’ discovery triggered an extensive archeaological dig that saw the recovery of more than 900 priceless manuscripts and 50,000 fragments from 11 caves between the 1940s and 1950s. Qumran sits on the Judaean Desert in Israeli-occupied West Bank, near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea.
No new scroll cave was found until 2017 when archaeologists, Dr. Oren Gutfeld from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Dr. Randall Price of Liberty University in Virginia, USA, and their teams achieved a breakthrough in their excavation. “Until now, it was accepted that Dead Sea Scrolls were found only in 11 caves at Qumran, but now there is no doubt that this is the 12th cave,” said Gutfeld in a February 2017 Hebrew University of Jerusalem article.
No manuscript was found in Qumran Cave 12. Only possible scroll fragments, scroll jars and wrappings, textiles, ropes, string – and other items, like a Bronze Age seal, numerous flint blades and Neolithic arrowheads, cups and cooking pots according to a 2018 American Schools for Oriental Research abstract paper by Price and Gutfeld.
Dr. Andrew Perrin is the Trinity Western University Director of Dead Sea Scrolls Institute (DSSI). He is one of North America’s leading Dead Sea Scrolls’ scholars. Here’s what Perrin shared in an email regarding Qumran Cave 12.
What is the significance of a mostly empty cave?
“The story of the Dead Sea Scrolls is an ongoing one. Even 70 years after the initial discovery, we’re just now learning that we might not know as much about the facts and figures of the discovery narrative of the scrolls as we thought. Many of us know the commonly accepted tale – a boy threw a stone into a cave, heard a clink, and discovered a cache of ancient scrolls – yet finds such as this remind us that we need to think critically about not just the texts discovered, but also the nature of their discovery.”
What new questions does this open up?
“Most of the news in Dead Sea Scrolls studies recently has been about forged or non-provenanced fragments, which are a big problem. This discovery should remind us that the world behind the authentic scrolls, discovered decades ago, is still mostly uncharted. One of the main tasks for scholars should be continuing to explore how these remarkable ancient documents change, challenge, or confirm, the words and worlds of the Bible.”
How does this discovery impact Dead Sea Scrolls research at Trinity Western University?
“The main direction of research for scrolls studies at TWU is charting the ancient Jewish worlds behind the scrolls. For this reason, the discovery of material evidence – archaeological items that relate to daily life – is as important as finding new texts. These types of finds are essential for reminding us that research on the scrolls is not only about texts but about their social, historical, and cultural context. The news and items of this cave will no doubt factor into our in-class undergraduate experiences with the scrolls next semester.”
Established in 1995, DSSI supports scholar research on the importance of the Qumran discoveries for the words of scripture and the worlds beyond it. The institute has evolved as an international leader in developing research tools for Qumran studies, and hosting public and academic events on topics about the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Ongoing research and digital technology advancement will unveil new revelations on the scrolls in the future. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection is owned by the state of Israel, and is on display in the Shrine of the Book at The Israel Museum in Jerusalem.