Manuscripts of the Bible Discovered in the Judean Desert

March 23, 2021
Manuscript of the Minor Prophets from the same cave as those recently discovered. The arrow points to the name of God.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has unveiled a series of artefacts discovered during a massive excavation campaign in the Judean Desert undertaken since 2017.

Research for Preventive Purposes

In the spring of 1947, the providential discovery by a young Bedouin of the first cave containing manuscripts, to which the name “Dead Sea Scrolls” were given, opened a most prosperous period for biblical manuscripts.

Up to 1956, ten other caves were discovered, but some had already been visited by looters who quickly understood the market value of this material. Unfortunately, their passage was not without serious damage.

In February 2017, a twelfth cave was discovered by archaeologists from Hebrew University, containing numerous jars, all broken and almost completely emptied of their contents. The looting has been dated from a metal pickaxe from the middle of the 20th century being found on the spot.

It is to avoid further disappointments of this kind that a theft prevention program was put in place in 2017. Since then, 80 kilometers and 500 caves have been systematically studied by three teams of archaeologists. The program manager estimates that about 25% of the Judean Desert remains to be explored.

Archaeologists use drones and climbing gear to gain access to many previously unreachable caves, some of which have not been visited for nearly two millennia.

A few promising caves with pictorial names have thus been excavated, notably the Cave of Horror, where more than 40 skeletons have been discovered so far, and the Cave of the Skulls.”

Biblical Manuscripts

Among the latest finds identified are two dozen 2,000-year-old biblical scroll fragments from the books of Zechariah and Nahum, two of the Minor Prophets, found in the Cave of Horror.

These are fragments of papyrus, a reed very abundant on the banks of the Nile, a material that served as a writing medium at that time. The parchment, made from sheepskin, is cut into sheets and not rolled. In addition, it was much more rarely used because of its price.

So far, the work has reconstructed 11 lines of a Greek text from Zechariah 8:16-17, as well as verses from Nahum 1:5-6. These fragments are added to nine more, much older, discovered in 1953, during the first searches in the Cave of Horror in 1953.

On the new fragments, as well as in the Greek translation scroll discovered by Aharoni in 1953, only the name of God appears in Hebrew. It is written in the Paleo-Hebrew script used during the First Temple period, as well as by some adherents of the Bar Kochba revolt (132–136), including on coinage, and in the Qumran community.

It should be noted that this Greek version is different from the traditional Masoretic texts (the Masoretic text is a Hebrew text fixed between the 6th and 8th centuries: it roughly corresponds to the current printed text). Which raises many questions: where does this translation come from? Who was using a Greek text at that time? Could they be Christians? because the Jews used only Hebrew texts.

The IAA also presented a woven basket that was 10,500 years old, 1,000 years before the first known pottery vessels. It has a volume of 90 to 100 liters. Remarkably, it is intact. A mummified child in a 6,000-year-old burial has also been discovered.

Finally, various materials dating from the Bar Kochba revolt, including many coins, were collected.