Muhammed scanned the cliffs anxiously. It was time to take his small herd of goats home to the Bedouin camp, but one had disappeared among the rocky hills that swelled up against the cloudless blue sky. Where could that naughty goat be? Muhammed wondered.
Nimbly he scrambled over the rocks, calling out to the little animal. Suddenly he caught sight of a small, partially-hidden opening high on the hillside. Muhammed had explored caves like this one before. Perhaps his goat was inside.
He picked up some pebbles and threw them into the opening. To his surprise, instead of a goat’s bleating, the sound of something breaking met his ears.
“Musa!” he called excitedly to another Bedouin shepherd boy who was herding his own goats nearby.
Musa’s face looked puzzled under his white keffiyah (head covering), but he quickly joined his friend. The lost goat was temporarily forgotten as the two boys scurried over the rocks toward the hole and crawled inside. They stood blinking for a moment, growing accustomed to the dim light in the cave; then their eyes grew round at what they saw. The cave floor was covered with broken pottery and other rubble, and tall, dusty jars stood against the cave wall!
Muhammed reached inside one of the jars and pulled out something wrapped in cloth. Removing the covering, he held a tightly rolled bundle of decaying leather with writing upon it. He didn’t know that what he gazed at in wonderment was later to be known as one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of this century’s important discoveries from the ancient world.
There are other versions of this story, but it is known that in late 1946 or early 1947, a Bedouin shepherd boy found some of the scrolls in a cave near the Dead Sea. Pieces of scrolls—about eight hundred scrolls altogether—were also found in other caves. They were written centuries ago, between about 250 B.C. and A.D. 68.
At first, many experts believed that the scrolls were written by a group of Jewish people called Essenes, who lived in the Judean desert near the caves. Many scholars now refer to these people as simply the Qumran community. It appears that nearly all were unmarried men, and they ate meals, prayed, and had meetings together. They spent hours studying the scriptures, and their library has given us fragments of copies of every Old Testament book except Esther. One of the scrolls is a complete copy of the Book of Isaiah, the oldest ever discovered!
If you walked through the Qumran community two thousand years ago, you might have heard men singing hymns inside a long assembly hall. You might have smelled meat cooking in one of the five fireplaces of a nearby kitchen, or stopped to watch a potter making dishes in a corner workshop. Evidence of all these buildings has been found at Qumran. A Roman army destroyed the community in A.D. 68, but because of the ruins found there, as well as the scrolls, it continues to live in the pages of history.
People there didn’t have paper in the days when the Dead Sea Scrolls were written. In the part of the world now generally known as the Middle East, they sometimes used parchment, or strips of leather, to write on. The parchment was then rolled up so that it could be stored or carried easily. “Books” of this type are called scrolls. Papyrus, a thin material made from a marsh plant of the same name, was also used this way. Most of the scrolls found at Qumran were written on parchment or papyrus, although one was written on thin sheets of copper.
The Dead Sea Scrolls help us learn about a group of people we would otherwise know little about. They help us better understand what these people knew and believed. They also give us much older copies of the Old Testament than we have had before. And it all came about because of a curious shepherd boy!