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6.4 Dating of the Scrolls

The first important question concerns the date of the scrolls. If they are medieval, as some experts have said, then they have no relation to Christian origins; if they are from the second or third century AD, they would also be unimportant. However if they were written in the centuries preceding directly the Christian era, then they cannot be ignored, and their effect on the prevailing view of the early Christianity could be important. The scroll that describes a community that looks similar to the first Christian churches, and the mention of a Teacher of Righteousness who could have been the martyred founder of that community, made the dating of the documents urgent and important.

There was no doubt in the mind of the Christian and Jewish scholars that the implications contained in the scrolls could lead to important revisions of their accepted doctrines. Such possibilities were very disturbing and controversy was inevitable; as very little archaeological evidence was available the controversy was then left mainly to the palaeographers. Trever and Brownlee, as said before, analysed the scrolls in 1947 at the American School of Oriental Research at Jerusalem. They arrived very soon to the conclusion that the scrolls had been written at an early date, probably in the first century BC. This was confirmed by Professor Albright from the John Hopkins University, a world recognised expert in this field. Other experts thought that they were written at a much later date, probably by members of the Karaite or a related Jewish sect, between the eight and the tenth century AD or, even, that they were forgeries. But this last assumption did not last long. The Karaite assumption was very plausible but the general opinion of the researchers went towards an earlier date as new archaeological and palaeographical evidence piled up. Even the Semitic scholars, although profoundly disturbed by the implications contained in the scrolls, came to accept that these scriptures had been written in Judea before the time of Jesus.

Palaeography, the study of ancient writing, is not an exact science. However it is very useful in fixing dates within narrow margins with a high degree of accuracy, and, in this way, palaeographers have helped the archaeologists. It is well known that the forms of alphabetical used in writing change continuously. It could be a complete change from an alphabet to another, even if the old one is still used by some specific writers, or it could only be a gradual change of the way letters are written or engraved. The ligatures, or strokes that joint two or more letters together, are not always the same and are very helpful to date a document, the place where it was written, or the group of persons who used them. Written Hebrew presents a special problem due to the fact that it has no vowels, except that some consonants are sometimes used as vowels, but not always in the same way. In fact it is sometimes impossible to read an unknown sacred old Hebrew text, as the written messages were only used as aide-memoir for people who already knew the text transmitted orally from generation to generation. The written scroll was only a reminder to the reader of what was familiar to him. Difficulties arise when the text is not familiar to the reader, and it is here that the knowledge of the palaeographer is most useful. However this leads to error in translation that are at the root of important controversy. In their attempts to date the scrolls the palaeographers are concerned with comparing the script of these documents with the various stages of the modification of the Aramaic script. Unfortunately there are not many Hebrew manuscripts from the second and third century AD and this does not help the palaeographer work. Mosaics and other inscriptions helped to arrive to the conclusion that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written before the second century AD. For the period of time between 100 BC and 100 AD practically no known manuscript reached us but, fortunately, there are several other forms of inscriptions. Most of them are “graffiti” made on bone containers known as “ossuaries”. The inscriptions that could be dated have been made around 70 AD and show that the Scrolls were written before. The closest known writing similar in shape to the Habakkuk Scrolls (believed to have been written later that the others) is a painted inscription, or “dipinto”, dated by Albright to be from the beginning of the first century AD. Significant similarities with the Scrolls are to be found in the Nash papyrus that is thought by Albright to be from the second century BC (or at the most from the first century AD). Comparison with older writings, such as the Edfu papyri and Ostraca found in the Upper Nile, and dated in the third century BC, indicates that these last ones are definitely older. Comparing the Scrolls with even older writings did not change the conclusions. All the evidences show that the Scrolls belong to the first century BC or a little earlier. In the Scrolls themselves the palaeographers can point out to the evolution of writing.

The excavation of the Qumrân ruins confirmed a link between the monastery and the caves. Before that, many attempts were made to relate the new found Scrolls to known events and discoveries. One of these was the reference to a cave containing documents mentioned in a letter from the patriarch Timotheus I to the Metropolitan Sergius of Elam. This cave had been discovered in the ninth century AD in the Dead Sea area, again by some Bedouins. In this case too, copies of the Old Testament Books were found as well as some other documents. These scrolls could have come from the Qumrân cave although it is not clear why some other documents were left there to be discovered eleven centuries later. However, as many other caves used to store documents have been found recently, the need to believe that this old scroll was found at the Qumrân cave is not needed anymore. There are also some tenth century references to the Karaite, Kirkisani, and to the Jewish sect called “al-Maghariya” (the Cave Sect whose books have been found in caves).

With the discovery that a library had been hidden in many caves, and the connection between the community that lived in the monastery and the documents hidden, the dating became more important. The ruins had to be searched and analysed by trained Archaeologists. Archaeology is not an exact science either, but it is more accurate that Palaeography. First, broken pieces of earthenware were found and they were dated to the first two centuries BC. It was then possible to assume that the documents found in the jars were from the same period, that is from the beginning of the first century BC. However it was not yet proved that the jars and the documents were made at the same time, or that they had been made to store the documents for which they were well suited. We do not know either if the documents were stored immediately inside the jars in the caves, or if they were first kept in the monastery in the same manner. Dupont-Sommer was of the opinion that the jars and the documents were of the first century AD. Later on, in 1951, De Vaux changed his first opinion and he too dated the jars and the manuscripts to the first century AD. Even Albright arrived to the conclusion that the jars were Romans and most scientists agreed that the jars and the manuscripts were of the first century AD and that they were deposited in the cave in that same century. The coins unearthed showed that the monastery had been occupied from about 100 BC to around 67-70 AD, that is when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed. Later Roman coins found also on the spot come from a Roman garrison that built a small fort on the ruins of the monastery. It seems that the members of the community foresaw that they would be attacked by the Romans and hid the manuscripts before they arrived. They did not see them again. The Archaeologists and the Palaeographers arrived at the same conclusion.

Radio-carbon 14 tests have been made on fragments of the linen cloth that covered the scrolls. The results are not very accurate but all of them dated the material to 33 AD with an accuracy of plus or minus 200 years. This result is compatible with the conclusions of the Archaeologists and the Palaeographers.

As a conclusion, it can be said that, in all probability, the Dead Sea Scrolls are from the first two centuries BC, that they are a small portion of the library of an ascetic sect that lived in a monastery near by, and that the monks hid them in the caves in 67-70 AD. We also know with a nearly certainty that a Jewish sect existed in Qumrân in the centuries before the Christian emergence and that it was organised in a way that suggest a relationship with the early Christian churches; that this community had scriptures that inspired Christian writers; that they had practices, including sacraments, that look much like Christian practices; that they were expecting a Messiah and a Teacher, just as the Christians did.