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Dead Sea Scrolls

These celebrated texts are of unique historical and religious significance. The 800-plus manuscripts - written on papyrus or animal skin, and discovered in caves by the Dead Sea in the late 1940s and 1950s - include virtually the only known surviving Biblical documents written before the second century. This piece, part of the Psalms, dates from the year 50.

You can see this item on display in the British Library's Sacred Exhibition until 23 September 2007. Find out more

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Dead Sea Scrolls

Dead Sea Scrolls, Qumran, Israel, c.50AD. Psalms
Musée Bible et Terre Sainte, Paris

What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of 800-900 documents, many containing ancient Biblical texts. Some are in tantalising fragments (there are over 50,000 individual pieces in all). Others are substantial and complete, the longest scroll being eight metres long.

They were written over a period of around 200 years, and were evidently placed in the caves to hide them from the advancing Roman army at the time of the First Jewish Revolt, and hence no later than 68AD. Carbon dating puts the earliest of them at about 150BC. They may have been written out by the scribes of an ancient community living at Qumran, near the caves where they were found. However, their origins are the subject of much scholarly debate, and there are many different theories. What is clear is that the authors were Jewish, and disapproved of the Jerusalem priesthood of the time.

The dry climate on the shores of the Dead Sea, parts of which today are 400m below sea level - the lowest place on earth a human can walk - helped preserve the ancient documents.

In contrast to the Christian Bible, which survives in many manuscripts dating back to the fourth century, the oldest known source for the Hebrew Bible before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was only a thousand years old. They are therefore the earliest surviving sources we have for the Hebrew Bible by almost a thousand years.

What do they contain?

Of the scrolls found, about a quarter (220 in all) are books of the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament: all the books, in fact, except Esther and Nehemiah. The most common books found are Psalms and Deuteronomy.

A further quarter are religious texts not part of a standard Bible, such as the book of Enoch or the book of Jubilees. The rest are other religious texts and a range of secular writings including lists of laws, advice on warfare, and a catalogue of places where treasure was buried. About one in six of the scrolls have not yet been identified.

Over three-quarters of the scrolls are written in Hebrew. The remainder are in Koine Greek and Aramaic.

Who found the scrolls?

One story is that a young Bedu called Mohammed, nicknamed edh-Dhib, found the first scrolls in a cave in 1947 while searching for a goat. Dr John Trever, an early researcher, found several Mohammed edh-Dhibs all claiming to be that very man.

The extent of the find quickly became apparent. Over the next ten years the site was thoroughly investigated. In all, 11 caves were found to contain scrolls, wrapped in linen and stored in jars. Caves 1 and 11 produced the most intact documents.

The scrolls are referred to by the cave they were found in, the letter Q, and a further identifying number. An example is the controversial shred of papyrus found in cave 7 called 7Q5: some believe it is part of the New Testament, specifically the Gospel of Mark. If this were true, it would be the earliest known Gospel text by a century. However, the only complete legible word is 'kai' - Greek for 'and'.

Caves on the shore of the Dead Sea

What is on this scroll?

This scroll contains part of the Psalms, the most commonly found book of the Bible among the scrolls. Of the 150 'standard' Psalms in the Bible, 126 are found in the Dead Sea collection, plus 15 'apocryphal' ones (that is, not found in the standard Bible). Some scholars believe that the psalm collection was copied out at Qumran, but was not compiled there.

Of the 40 scrolls that contain Psalms, over half (23) came from Cave 4; six came from Cave 11. This fragment is likely to derive from Cave 4, and shows verses from Psalm 33 (centre) and Psalm 35 (left). It is on loan from the Musée Bible et Terre Sainte, Paris (call number CB 7162), which has had it in its collection since 1960.

The fragment was acquired in 1952 by Professor Jean Starcky, a French scholar who in the early 1950s worked as an editor of the Cave 4 Scroll fragments at the École Biblique et Archéologique Française in East Jerusalem. It has never been exhibited or displayed in the UK until now.