The Dead Sea Scrolls have rightly been called the most important manuscript discovery of the 20th century. In 1946 Bedouin shepherds were grazing their flocks near a place called Wadi Qumran. (Wadi is the Arabic word for "dry river bed"). One of these shepherds, named Jum‘a Muhammad Khalil, threw a stone into a cave that was later named Cave 1. Having heard the sound of shattering pottery, he fled in fear.

Another shepherd returned to the cave at a later time and discovered that the cave contained several jars, one of which was filled with ancient scrolls. It was not clear to the Bedouin shepherds at that time that these scrolls were ancient Jewish scrolls, written in Hebrew, dating at least one millennium earlier than the oldest copy of the jewish bible.

One of these scrolls was a copy of the biblical book of Isaiah. The other two scrolls were not previously known texts: a copy of the Rule of the Community of the Scrolls (the Community Rule, also known as the Manual of Discipline) and a commentary on the biblical prophetic book of Habakkuk.

Once it became clear to scholars what the scrolls were, a team of archaeologists set out to explore other caves in the area to see if they could locate more hidden scrolls. A total of 11 caves near Wadi Qumran were identified, yielding more than 900 manuscripts of varying condition, many extremely fragmentary.

Scholars have dated these texts to approximately 250 b.c.e. to 100 c.e. by comparing the handwriting in these scrolls with other known styles of ancient handwriting. The study of handwriting styles and their relative dating is called paleography. These dates have been consistent with dates achieved by other means such as carbon-14 dating.

The largest quantity of scrolls (and the most fragmentary ones of all) comes from Cave 4. This cave is clearly visible from the ancient ruins of a settlement that had been known to archaeologists as early as 1850. It is referred to today by its modern Arabic name, Khirbet Qumran. Scholars believe that it was destroyed during the Roman occupation of Israel sometime during the first century c.e.

Various scholarly theories were proposed concerning the original purpose of the site: a Roman villa (a type of summer home), a military fortress, or a sectarian settlement. Many find the sectarian settlement theory to be the most compelling identification for the ruins. Adjacent to the ruins are the remains of a cemetery.

A major question for scholars is the relationship between the caves and the Qumran ruins. In the beginning the nearby caves could not be identified with certainty with the settlement because very little material evidence existed to link the two together.

While both the scrolls and the settlement are dated to approximately the same time period, no scrolls were found in the settlement. The strongest material evidence linking the scrolls to the settlement is the pottery. The pottery that contained these manuscripts in the caves matches the pottery that was found in the settlement.

Another link between the scrolls and the settlement is their strong interest in purity concerns. References to purity and the ritual use of water in the Dead Sea Scrolls correspond with the large number of plastered reservoirs found throughout the settlement.

Some scholars, however, would like to keep open the possibility that the close proximity between the caves and the settlement ruins was entirely accidental. Such scholars hold the view that the library found in the caves at Qumran was brought by people fleeing Jerusalem and concealed there for safekeeping.

The Dead Sea Scrolls contained a great variety of writings and provide a rare glimpse of the Jewish scriptures before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 c.e. A significant number of the texts were identified as biblical books from the Jewish Hebrew scriptures.

The most popular book is Psalms, with 36 copies, Deuteronomy is second with 29 copies, and Isaiah is third with 21 copies. Almost every book of the Bible has been identified among the scrolls and fragments at least once with the exception of the book of Esther. It is possible that the Community of the Scrolls would not have preserved the book of Esther.

Another category of writings that is well represented among the scrolls is the Pseudepigrapha and the Apocrypha. While these writings would not have been considered scriptural texts, they would have been known and read by many different Jewish groups during that time.

The scrolls also yielded various sectarian writings (manuscripts of texts that seemed to be unique to the sect of Judaism responsible for the Qumran library). These texts include legal texts, such as the Temple Scroll (11QT) and Some Works of the Law (4QMMT); specialized texts such as the previously mentioned Community Rule (1QS), the War Scroll (1QM), and the Pesharim (commentaries on various biblical prophetic texts); and the Thanksgiving Hymns Scroll (1QH). Scholars knew one text from this group of sectarian writings previously as the Damascus Document.

This interesting text was first discovered in 1896 by Solomon Schechter of Cambridge University who came across copies of this text from a repository for old nonusable sacred texts in Cairo, Egypt. With the help of ultraviolet and infrared photography, scholars are able to read scroll fragments that are extremely damaged and inscrutable to the naked eye.

Although there are other theories, many scholars are convinced that the Dead Sea Scrolls and the community at Qumran should be identified with a Jewish sect that has long since died out known as the Essenes. The Dead Sea Scrolls have opened a window into a time and place that would later see the rise of two great world religions, rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.

While the Community of the Scrolls is probably not the precursor to either of these groups, the scrolls themselves make an important contribution to our overall understanding of the context from which these other religious movements emerged.