Archaeological and historical discoveries of the past century have recently generated tremendous interest in ancient religious texts and their teachings. Popular fiction has also fueled much speculation about them. Among the best-known and oft-quoted in this regard are the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have been cited in support of ideas ranging from the need to reinterpret Christianity—because of mysterious rituals and secret beliefs kept hidden by an ancient conspiracy—to another false notion that there was an unknown group of pre-Christian “Latter-day Saints” living down by the Dead Sea in the Holy Land.
Because the life of Joseph Smith was inextricably tied to ancient sacred texts, particularly ones buried in the earth, it is not surprising that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are fascinated by new discoveries of ancient religious writings, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. It seems both natural and prudent to ask what the scrolls are and what they really say in comparison to divinely revealed truths of the latter days.
The much-celebrated Dead Sea Scrolls are a treasure trove of ancient Jewish religious texts discovered between 1947 and 1956 in 11 different desert caves near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Many scholars regard the scrolls as the greatest archaeological find of the twentieth century, having been composed or copied between approximately 250 B.C. and A.D. 68. Most of the scrolls were written in Hebrew or Aramaic on parchment, although a few Greek texts have been found as well. They apparently constituted the expansive canon of scripture belonging to the people who resided at the discovery site in antiquity, and who are almost certainly to be identified as members of the ancient sect called the Essenes.1 The actual name of the site is Qumran (after the name of the nearby wadi or dry streambed).
For several reasons Latter-day Saints have had a keen interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls. First, the scriptures themselves have primed us to anticipate the coming forth of additional ancient records. Second, Joseph Smith’s experience with records buried in the earth has given us a pattern of how ancient sacred texts were often hidden up only to come forth in a future day. Third, the expanded canon of latter-day scripture has caused us to suspect the existence of at least pockets of Israelites not closed to the possibility of continuing revelation and contemporary prophets. Fourth, the doctrine of restoration has led us to expect that others throughout the ages have witnessed apostate conditions and seen the need for a restoration of original truth.
It is crystal clear that the scriptures themselves point to other sacred records that will come forth in the latter days (see, for instance, 1 Ne. 13:38–39; 2 Ne. 29:13; Ezek. 37:15–17; D&C 93:18; and the ninth article of faith). Given all of this scriptural anticipation of additional ancient records, there was great excitement when, in 1947, Bedouin shepherds discovered the first Dead Sea Scrolls preserved in large clay jars in Cave 1 at Qumran. Ten jars were ultimately found, but only two yielded documents. One contained three scrolls, two wrapped in linen and one unwrapped. These three were later identified as a copy of the biblical book of Isaiah; a copy of the Rule of the Community, sometimes called the Manual of Discipline (a text outlining the rules by which the Dead Sea community was to be governed); and a commentary on the biblical book of Habakkuk. Four additional scrolls were later found in the cave: a collection of psalms or hymns known as the Thanksgiving Hymns or the Hymn Scroll; a partially preserved copy of Isaiah; the War Scroll—a text describing a final war in the last days between the “sons of light” (the righteous) and the “sons of darkness” (the wicked); and a collection of Genesis-type narratives called the Genesis Apocryphon.2
All seven scrolls were brought to Bethlehem and placed in the custody of an antiquities dealer named Kando, who in turn sold four of them to Athanasius Yeshua Samuel, the metropolitan, or head, of the Syrian Orthodox Church at St. Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem. For the equivalent of about 100 dollars, Metropolitan Samuel received the more complete Isaiah Scroll, the Rule of the Community, the Habakkuk commentary, and the Genesis Apocryphon.3
Since no one really understood much about the nature or origins of the scrolls, several scholars were consulted. One of them was Professor Eleazar Sukenik of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After a secret visit to the antiquities dealer on November 29, 1947 (the very date on which the United Nations passed the resolution to establish the State of Israel), Sukenik purchased the remaining three scrolls from Kando. Thus, four scrolls were in the possession of St. Mark’s Monastery, and three were in Sukenik’s possession. Professor Sukenik seems to have been the first to recognize the antiquity and value of the scrolls. Unfortunately, detailed study of the scrolls’ archaeological and historical context, as well as any search for more caves and scrolls, was temporarily hampered by the Arab-Israeli conflict, which was at its height.
Eventually, through a process of secret negotiations, all seven original scrolls were purchased by the State of Israel and placed in a special museum, the Shrine of the Book, in West Jerusalem. It is where the original seven scrolls from Cave 1 remain to this day. Much to the credit of the team of scholars first commissioned to work on them, the contents of all seven manuscripts were translated and published by 1956.4 They continue to provide insights into the nature of the extinct community at Qumran, as well as valuable information about Second Temple Judaism (the period from 500 B.C. to A.D. 70) and the religious environment that gave rise to Christianity. However, with the exception of the copies of biblical books, there is no evidence to suggest the scrolls ought to be regarded in the same category as the standard works.
Joseph Smith’s experience with ancient buried records is exemplified by the coming forth of the Book of Mormon as well as the Book of Abraham.
In ancient times the scriptures were usually made up of scrolls, sheets of parchment (thin leather) stitched together in linear fashion, rather than books made up of individual pages compiled and bound together. (Metal plates are an important exception.) It was the practice in ancient Judaism to dispose of worn out sacred scrolls by reverently burying them so they would return to the dust of the earth. The Dead Sea Scrolls were not buried in this manner. They were either placed in clay jars and sealed, or simply wrapped in linen and then hidden in caves, not as a burial, but as a protection against the Roman destruction of the Jewish people and their property during the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66 to 73). The Romans leveled the site of Qumran in A.D. 68, and had it not been for the concealment of the scrolls, they would have perished or been easily destroyed, especially since almost all were written on very perishable material.
One notable difference among the scrolls points us to Joseph Smith. The Prophet Joseph Smith’s claim to have translated the Book of Mormon from metal plates was given significant credibility by the discovery of a unique document at Qumran. Among the many texts unearthed was the singular find of Cave 3 in 1952—a scroll composed of a long, thin metal sheet called the Copper Scroll. This was one of the first texts to be uncovered by professional archaeologists and contains a description of buried treasure.5 Although people have looked carefully, no one has found any of the treasure. But the use of metal as an important scribal material in the Holy Land is now beyond question.
The Qumran covenantors, as they are sometimes called, believed in an expansive canon of scripture. Their canon included more than just the books of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). The entire collection from Qumran may have been part of their canon. The Qumran library consists of more than 800 distinctive texts or documents6 and can be divided into three categories: biblical texts, apocryphal and pseudepigraphical texts, and texts apparently unique to the Qumran community.
In the first category, every book of the Hebrew Bible has been found at Qumran except the book of Esther. The second category, apocryphal texts, are quasi-biblical writings regarded as being of dubious authority or questionable origin; they have titles such as Jubilees, Tobit, Sirach, and interestingly enough, Enoch. The third and perhaps most interesting category of documents found among the Dead Sea Scrolls are those that appear to be unique to Qumran. Sometimes called sectarian documents, these are scripture-like texts used by the Qumran inhabitants to define the nature, outlook, and rules of the community. They also inform us about the community’s history.
Cave 11 yielded the longest scroll—the Temple Scroll. Written on very thin parchment, the text turned out to be about 27 feet long, although not intact (by comparison the great Isaiah scroll from Cave 1 is 22 feet long and is intact). Dating to about the second century before Christ but presented as the words of God to Moses, the Temple Scroll text supplies laws dealing with issues important to the Qumran group. Of interest to Latter-day Saints is the scroll’s description of an ideal temple to be established by God Himself at the end of days and that temple’s association with Jacob at Bethel. The Temple Scroll states, “And I will consecrate my Temple by my glory, … and establish it for myself for all times, according to the covenant which I have made with Jacob at Bethel.”7 While Latter-day Saints might remember that President Marion G. Romney (1897–1988) drew a parallel between Jacob’s experience at Bethel (described in Gen. 28:10–22) and our temple experience,8 we have no indication that the Qumran community regarded this ideal future temple as anything more than an Aaronic Priesthood structure, associated with the rites and rituals of the Mosaic law in a pure and uncorrupted form. The Qumran community believed that the Jerusalem temple was full of corruption.
Another reason for Latter-day Saint interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls community is the theme of apostasy and restoration found among both groups. The scrolls indicate that the Qumran sectarians regarded themselves as the true Israel surrounded by spiritual traitors and false brethren in a corrupt world. They possessed the true covenant that God had restored or renewed with them. They went off by themselves to establish the “Community of the Renewed Covenant”9 and to await the advent of two messiahs (a priestly Anointed One and a Davidic or political Anointed One) in desert country right next to a vast salt lake fed by a freshwater stream called the Jordan River. No wonder Latter-day Saints are interested in the documents of a people whose circumstances and geographical habitation parallel their own history.
The basic ideal for the covenant makers at Qumran was to live as though they were in the midst of the temple itself every minute of every day.10 They sought to make their isolated community a virtual open-air temple and often wore white linen robes to symbolize the level of purity they sought to attain.11
Some beliefs and practices described in the scrolls could suggest either a pre-Christian era “gospel” community at Qumran or a long-lost group of ancient Latter-day Saints with their emphasis on consecration, temple-worthy behavior, a strict probationary period before full membership, a hierarchical priesthood organization, an expanded body of scripture, the apostate condition of the world, the term Saints applied to all covenant members, new ordinances and religious festivals, and light-darkness dualism. But such was not the case.
The Qumran sectarians were a unified community that recognized the apostate condition of Judaism and inaugurated reforms focusing their own lives on the tenets of true religion under the Mosaic dispensation, but they also embraced notions contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. For instance, the Qumran community did not believe that anyone had the right to worship in the name of the Lord unless a quorum of 10 individuals gathered in the company of a priest. Contrast this with Jesus’s statement that whenever two or more were gathered together in His name, there His spirit would be also (see Matt. 18:19–20).
Jesus flatly contradicts another Qumran belief in His Sermon on the Mount: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt. 5:43–44). Hating one’s spiritual enemies, however, is precisely what the Rule of the Community advocates when it declares, “Love all that He [God] has chosen and hate all that He has rejected.”12 Thus it seems clear that some points of Jesus’s doctrine were an intentional rebuttal of teachings like those of the Essenes.
The Dead Sea Scrolls provide valuable information about a complex time period to which Latter-day Saints (and all Christians, for that matter) trace their spiritual roots. As we compare and contrast some of our own ideas and practices with those at Qumran, we can better appreciate the hopes, fears, convictions, expectations, and aims of the ancient people of that covenant community. They witnessed firsthand the apostate conditions among the leadership and priesthood of Judaism in their day. They tried to do something about it. They accomplished much, but without the Melchizedek Priesthood and authorized prophets they erred in many things.
The Dead Sea Scrolls help us better understand the significant rifts in Christian-era Judaism. We are given an extraordinary window of insight into the religious climate that spawned Pharisaic Judaism and fostered early Christianity, which, like the Qumran community, was another group of restorationists.
By examining the Dead Sea Scrolls we also come to appreciate the interconnection of ideas and texts across dispensations. The scrolls have given to the world the oldest biblical manuscripts yet discovered, and they help us understand the history of our modern version of the Bible. While we must use caution in making more of the parallels between our faith and the Qumran sect than is appropriate, we can certainly see how some of the theological ideas found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could have been perfectly at home in an authentic ancient setting.
It is important to remember, though, that LDS doctrines and practices paralleling some of the ideas found in the Dead Sea Scrolls were in fact brought forth by Joseph Smith long before the discovery of those ancient documents. The witness of the Holy Ghost and the study of latter-day revelation teach us that Joseph Smith was not simply a lucky forecaster. He was the Lord’s prophet of the Restoration in this final dispensation before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, the true Messiah.