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Texts often provide the foundation and history of a religious tradition and are often a primary way in which devotees learn about and/or are trained in a religious tradition. The Dead Sea Scrolls represent one of many different religious texts that serve such a purpose. The term Dead Sea Scrolls refers to the collection of papyri and leather scrolls dated from the mid-third century B.C.E. to 68 C.E. that were found in 11 caves to the west of the Dead Sea, close to the ruins of Qumran, which date to the same period. Among the scrolls are the oldest existing manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible; all books of the Bible are represented, except Esther, and there are several copies of some books, such as the Psalms and Torah. Different versions of the Hebrew text and the inclusion of additional books, such as Jubilees and Enoch, suggest that the Bible had not yet reached its final form. In addition to the biblical books, there are a number of sectarian documents that provide insight into the community that safeguarded them. Some tell their history, some give rules for membership in the community, some use the biblical prophets or psalms to explain current historical events, and some are psalmlike thanksgivings. One scroll describes a cosmic battle between the sons of light, led by a figure called the Teacher of Righteousness, and the sons of darkness. Their concerns focus on the correct priestly line, calendar, and purity laws, suggesting that the group defined itself against the Jewish hierarchy situated in Jerusalem. The manuscripts are written in Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic.
These texts provide valuable information about Judaism in the Second Temple Period (from the third century B.C.E. to the first century C.E.). Most scholars believe that the texts were produced by a group identified by Jewish and Roman historians as the Essenes, a community-based group that was apparently wiped out by the Romans during the Jewish revolt in 66-70 C.E. They performed ritual cleansing (rock pools were found in the ruins, and the manuscripts refer to ritual washing) and shared a ritual common meal, not unlike the Christian Baptism and the Lord's Supper. They anticipated the presence of the messiah (or messiahs) and the final judgment. There is no evidence yet found that suggests the Essenes were related to early Christians, but some suggest that John the Baptist may have been associated with them. The scrolls testify to the diversity of Jewish traditions during that time. The first scrolls were discovered in clay jars by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947; since then many caves in the area have been excavated, and fragments have been found in 11 of them. Of these, Cave 4 produced the most fragments. Amid a great deal of controversy over publication rights, an international team of scholars have worked hard to preserve, piece together, translate, identify, and publish their findings. Most have been initially published with commentary by Oxford University Press in Discoveries of the Judean Desert. Many of the scrolls are displayed in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.