One of the most important historical discoveries of the 20th century, the Dead Sea Scrolls are fragments of the 825 - 870 scrolls. These scrolls were discovered in caves along the northeastern shore of the Dead Sea, near the Qumran excavation site. Made of papyrus, sheep or goatskin leather, and copper, these were once part of the documents that are associated with the Jewish sect called the Essenes. The Essenes were radical Jewish scriveners who were messianic and apocalyptic in their thoughts. The scrolls, believed to have been scripted by them, date back to 150 BC - 70 BC. They are the oldest group of Old Testaments manuscripts ever found.
Discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd, the fragments of the scrolls were found in eleven caves. They were subsequently named according to the cave in which they were discovered. While cave 1 and 2 had the most intact manuscripts, it was in cave 4, that nearly 15,000 fragments were discovered. The first seven scrolls that were discovered were fairly intact, notable among them being the biblical book of Isaiah.
The scrolls can be divided into biblical and non-biblical fragments. From the extensive excerpts of the 39 books of Hebrew bible or the Old Testament to the works of Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical, these fragments are evidences for the existence and the reliability of the Old Testament that have been handed down to us.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls provide a fascinating view of the transition of Judaism to Christianity. These Jewish and Christian scriptures, in turn, have influenced Islam. Containing the earliest accounts of the biblical patriarchs identified by the three religions, the scrolls allow the scholars to draw parallels between Judaism and the Jesus movement. They have also helped in establishing the veracity of the Messianic prophecies of Old Testament that existed prior to the birth of Jesus Christ.
These scrolls have revolutionized textual criticism. Before their discovery, the oldest evidence of the Hebrew Bible was the Masoretic texts from the 9th century and the Greek manuscripts. The scrolls seem to agree with either of these and also provide additional variants of the manuscript.
Besides the biblical writings, they also hold importance for the sectarian writing classified as rules and manuals like the 'Rule of the Community', describing the constitution and the regulations of the Union and the 'War Scroll'. It relays a description of how the 'Children of Light' (the term used to describe the community) defeated the 'Children of Dark' (the enemies). Also, there are interpretations of important biblical texts like Isaiah and Habakkuk, collection of laws, and several liturgical works. Thus, the scrolls not only provide a glimpse of the Qumran community, but are an important resource for understanding the volatile period of Jewish history known as the late second temple Judaism. As a matter of fact, it is considered that these manuscripts had been the library of the Jewish sect during the Jewish revolt, against the advancing Roman army.
Although the initial findings do suggest the link to the Qumran community, scholars have since then refuted this fact in face of the new evidence which indicates hundreds of different scribal hands in the scrolls, including fragments in Greek script. The scrolls also seem to be devoid of any sign that might signify the author's work in form of a historical autograph or seals.
Whatever may be the origin of these scrolls, its importance remains irrefutable. People see it from various perspectives and try to draw meanings out of it. For Hebrew literature, it is an important piece for textual research. Likewise for the experts in paleography, it is an opportunity for studying the variations in Hebrew writing styles. For students of Judaism, the scrolls shed light on the trends in existence during the Jewish revolt, and for the proponents of Christianity, these are evidences of the messianic prophecy.