Sites and Insights: Dead Sea secrets at Qumran

A new column, Dr. Wayne Stiles explores the biblical sites of Israel, the significance behind them and how to make the most of a visit.

March 14, 2011 13:26
2 minute read.
Dead Sea Scroll Caves

Dead Sea Scroll Caves 311. (photo credit: Wayne Stiles)


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Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at

A trip to the ancient caves at Qumran near the Dead Sea allows visitors to experience a place where history was stored and secrets were revealed.

In 1947, the same year that the United Nations voted to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, a Bedouin shepherd tossed a rock in a cave, allegedly looking for a lost sheep. (Why—or how—a sheep would ever wander in that rocky area makes little sense.) Regardless, what he found in the cave made biblical history. Or rather, confirmed it.

Below the cave near the Dead Sea, a small, first-century community scribbled away copies of the Scriptures and other texts. They sealed their scrolls in clay jars and hid them in caves near the shores of the nearby Dead Sea—the place from which these now famous scrolls received their name.

Eleven caves at Qumran have produced literally thousands of fragments and hundreds of scrolls from various literary works. From these extra-biblical writings we can better understand the culture of the first century, including its customs, traditions, theology, and concepts of the Messiah.

Both the biblical and extra-biblical writings found in the Qumran caves since 1947 continue to provide historians with vivid colors to fill in a once-gray sketch of religious life in the first century.

Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars despaired of ever finding Hebrew manuscripts that predated our oldest copies from the tenth century AD. The manuscripts found at Qumran, however, dated from the third century BC to AD 70 and included copies of every Old Testament book except Esther. In other words, this discovery moved back our oldest text of the Hebrew Bible by about 1,000 years!

Comparing these biblical scrolls to the standard Hebrew Masoretic text has proven the remarkable precision in the copying of Scripture. In other words, the Hebrew Bible we read today is the same one those in the first century read.

How remarkable that the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden the same century that Israel’s Second Temple was destroyed . . . only to be discovered again within a year of the resurrection of Israel’s statehood.

Qumran Scriptorium Overlooking Dead SeaTo Get There: Take Highway 90 south from the Jericho area, along the western shore of the Dead Sea to Qumran.

What To Do There: A marvelous visitor center introduces guests to the finds at Qumran with a video presentation. The most famous of the Qumran caves, Cave 4, is a short walk from the parking lot, as are the other excavated areas from the Qumran community: the Scriptorium, the dining hall, and the aqueduct.

Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at

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