Dead Sea Scroll cave under the microscope
I read with eager anticipation the first news stories out of Israel that a new Dead Sea Scroll cave had been discovered west of Qumran. As one who wrote a dissertation on Qumran and who teaches a Dead Sea Scrolls course at the University of Iowa, I was keen to see how the new discovery would fit into our present knowledge of the scrolls. What was found that made it a “Dead Sea Scroll Cave”? Was it a new copy of a Biblical book? Was it a copy of a known pseudepigraphical work? Or, was it a new, previously unknown sectarian manuscript that sheds light on the late Second Temple Jewish world?
As I read the Hebrew University of Jerusalem press release and various press reports, I quickly discovered the answer: none of the above. Let me explain:
Recently, a Hebrew University press release and multiple news reports announced a discovery made by archaeologists Dr. Oren Gutfeld, Teaching Fellow at the Hebrew University, and Dr. Randall Price, Founder and President of World of the Bible Ministries, Inc. and Distinguished Research Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Judaic Studies at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.1
Among the hundreds of caves explored near the Dead Sea settlement of Qumran, only eleven caves have ever produced scrolls or scroll fragments. Gutfeld and Price claim that the cave they excavated should be considered the 12th Dead Sea Scroll cave, despite the fact that Gutfeld confirms, “[A]t the end of the day no scroll was found, and instead we ‘only’ found a piece of parchment rolled up in a jug that was being processed for writing…”
However, Gutfeld claims later in the press release, “[N]ow there is no doubt that this is the 12th cave.” Gutfeld makes this claim because of the discovery inside the cave of pickaxe heads that appear to have been made in the 1950s—which suggest that people had been inside the cave around that time. Gutfeld continues, “[T]he findings indicate beyond any doubt that the cave contained scrolls that were stolen. The findings include the jars in which the scrolls and their covering were hidden, a leather strap for binding the scroll, a cloth that wrapped the scrolls, tendons and pieces of skin connecting fragments, and more.”
But no Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, only a blank piece of parchment.
Thus, Gutfeld speculates that this must be the “12th Dead Sea Scroll Cave,” arguing that Dead Sea Scrolls must have been looted from the cave. Once again, Gutfeld speculates regarding these proposed looters: “I imagine they came into the tunnel. They found the scroll jars. They took the scrolls … They even opened the scrolls and left everything around, the textiles, the pottery” (italics mine).
I must, in all fairness, concede that Gutfeld’s speculation is entirely plausible. However, we must also acknowledge that it is still speculation—even if well-informed speculation on the part of Prof. Gutfeld—because no Dead Sea Scrolls were actually discovered in the cave! We could similarly speculate that scrolls were once present in several other caves excavated in the past, but that does not make them scroll caves. If there are no Dead Sea Scrolls in the cave, then it is not a scroll cave, even if we think there might have been in the past.
Let me also state that it is possible that Gutfeld’s team did find scrolls or scroll fragments in the cave, but are not announcing this discovery in an effort to keep looters from surreptitiously stealing any scrolls that still may be in the cave. Withholding public disclosure of a major find is not uncommon on digs in Israel, as is withholding the exact location of the cave. If Gutfeld has discovered actual scrolls in the cave that the team has simply not announced, then this should obviously be considered Cave 12. However, absent the disclosure of the discovery of actual scrolls, we must evaluate the claim of a new Dead Sea Scroll cave on the evidence that has been disclosed, and the disclosed evidence does not warrant a designation of a scroll-producing cave. Gutfeld’s team did not find a new Dead Sea Scroll cave.
Allow me, however, to provide an alternative conclusion that better fits the evidence we have. It is possible to argue that the cave in question was part of a larger parchment production enterprise, and that the jars, leather, textiles and blank parchment discovered in the cave are simply the latest evidence that someone or some group near Qumran engaged in some form of scribal activity and had the means of producing its own parchment. Indeed, the discovery of a blank piece of parchment—placed there either to dry or for storage—fits with previously discovered pieces of archaeological evidence that have been piling up for years, all of which support the theory that scrolls were produced at Qumran.
Visit the Dead Sea Scrolls study page in Bible History Daily for more on this priceless collection of ancient manuscripts.
In the excavations of the Qumran ruins in the 1950s, a stylus and multiple inkwells were discovered, suggesting that some sort of writing was taking place at Qumran. In addition, stables and the bony remains of numerous animals buried inside jars were also excavated within the ruins of Qumran. The presence of animals means that Qumran was capable of producing the animal skins needed to manufacture parchment. Large, shallow pools were also uncovered in the western building at Qumran that may have been used to soak the parchment. Lime, which is used in curing parchment, was also found in large quantities at Qumran.2 This initial evidence—along with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in caves surrounding Qumran—led early archaeologists like Roland de Vaux, Gerald Lankester Harding and Eleazar Sukenik to conclude that some Jewish sect (the Essenes, they believed) wrote the scrolls at Qumran.
More recent scientific tests support the theory that Qumran could have been a site of scroll production. In July 2010, a team of Italian scientists from the National Laboratories of the South in Catania, Italy—which is part of Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics—led by Professor Giuseppe Pappalardo, discovered that the ink used to write the Temple Scroll possesses the same unusually high bromine levels as the waters from the Dead Sea, suggesting that the ink used on the Temple Scroll came from water from the Dead Sea and not from some other water source. This evidence indicates that the ink was produced near Qumran and not Jerusalem.
Gutfeld and Price’s recent discovery of curing jars, leather, textiles and a blank piece of parchment is but the latest piece of evidence supporting the theory that Qumran was, in fact, a place of scribal activity, and perhaps even of scribal implement production.
But this cannot be called the discovery of a new Dead Sea Scroll cave. One can certainly understand why archaeologists would be tempted to issue a press release stating as much, especially before any peer-reviewed reports about the excavation are published. The press is far more likely to cover a story claiming “New Dead Sea Scrolls Discovered!”—which is inevitably what people think when they read of the discovery of a “new Dead Sea Scroll cave,” especially in the weeks leading up to Easter—than they are to write a story about the discovery of the most recent piece of evidence supporting the theory that scribal activity took place near Qumran.
But that does not mean this most recent discovery is unimportant. Despite the fact that Gutfeld and Price did not discover a new Dead Sea Scroll or a new Dead Sea Scroll cave, they have provided archaeologists studying Qumran and its relationship to the Dead Sea Scrolls with another piece of solid evidence that someone near Qumran was engaged in activities required for scribal endeavors. And this discovery offers one more piece of evidence that someone or some group living at Qumran was capable of producing the materials needed to produce the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the caves surrounding Qumran.
Robert R. Cargill is Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Iowa and Associate Editor at Biblical Archaeology Review. His research includes study in the Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, literary criticism of the Bible and the Pseudepigrapha, and the Ancient Near East. Cargill’s recent book is The Cities that Built the Bible (HarperOne, 2016).
1. The archaeological project is a joint expedition carried out by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria (“Judea and Samaria” is the Israel Defense Forces’ name for the West Bank), which is a part of the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). COGAT “is charged with administering the government’s civilian policy in the territories of Judea and Samaria and the corresponding the civilian policy to the Gaza Strip.”
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