PressCNRS international magazine

Table of contents


The Double Life of the Dead Sea Scrolls


© West scientific Research/Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation/CORBIS

The origin and history of the scrolls found in this type of cave at Qumran remains a mystery.

Since the extraordinary discovery, made between 1947 and 1956, of the 900-odd Dead Sea Scrolls in 11 caves at Qumran in the West Bank, paleographers,1 religion historians, and other specialists have tried to determine their origins. The identity and motivations of the depositors remain a mystery, but we now know that the scrolls come from two distinct sources. This adds another piece to a puzzle that contains tens of thousands of text fragments originating between 300 BC and 70 AD. During their initial discovery, the texts were rapidly identified by researchers: fragments of the Bible, known apocryphal texts,2 and texts from the numerous sects which coexisted with Judaism during a period when there was no unified form of the religion. “Different types of texts were found in each cave,” explains Daniel Stoekl Ben Ezra, the religion historian at Centre Paul-Albert Fevrier3 who recently uncovered the scrolls’ different origins. “The distribution is about the same in each cave, and as a result, researchers have for a long time assumed that all the texts were part of the same collection.”
There remained the question of why the texts had been placed in caves in the desert. Had they been taken out of Jerusalem for protection before the Romans attacked the city between 68 and 70 BC? This is one theory, but in that case, the absence of Pharisian4 texts (a well represented sect in Jerusalem at the time) is peculiar. “The study of the pottery, tombs, and other archeological clues at the site has convinced most researchers that this is the work of an isolated group that lived at the site, but whose identity is still under debate. It could have been before an attack, the group was probably in a hurry when they hid the texts in the caves, some of which are very difficult to access,” says Stoekl Ben Ezra. “But something has always mystified me: No one has ever looked into the distribution of texts according to age...” And Stoekl Ben Ezra’s curiosity is well-founded: Two of the caves contain very large numbers of scrolls which are on average 50 years older than the ones in the other caves. “It seems strange to think that the inhabitants of Qumran would have taken the time to organize the texts as they were hiding them,” says the researcher. Intrigued by the situation, Stoekl Ben Ezra carried out a mathematical study of the distribution of texts with the help of a statistician. The Kruskal-Wallis Test and the random simulation they used to redistribute the texts a thousand times in the 11 caves both prove that the actual distribution of texts is statistically very unlikely. “There must have been two collections of books, one “younger” and one “older,” he concludes. The results of the study have been published in the journal Dead Sea Discoveries last October.5 “We now have to come up with other developments in our hypothesis to explain the existence of the two libraries...”
Charline Zeitoun 

The Enormous TASK of Editing the Scrolls
For 33 years, Emile Puech, a world expert in Qumranian paleography and CNRS senior researcher, has been sorting, identifying, and assembling thousands of fragments of scrolls. “Most often, these are completely unknown texts,” says this expert, who is the main co-editor of scrolls from Cave 4 and directs the journal Revue de Qumran. He is currently preparing one of the last of the 42 volumes, all carefully annotated, which present the texts in their original languages, namely Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek. “The scrolls have already redefined our perception of ancient Judaism and early Christianity,” he explains. And there is still debate about the exact identity of the group that copied and hid the texts. The year 2008 will see the publication of the first volume of “La bibliothèque de Qumrân” (Cerf publishing house), a bilingual edition for a French readership, coordinated by Katell Berthelot, researcher at CNRS, and Thierry Legrand, assistant professor at the University of Strasbourg. Their new classification of texts should shed light on the canonization process of the Bible.
Contacts: Émile Puech,,
Katell Berthelot,


Notes :

1. Paleography is the analysis of writing to determine its age.
2. Ancient texts which were seen as authoritative by Jewish and Christian communities, but were not included in the Biblical Canon (list of texts making up the Bible).
3. CNRS / Université Aix-Marseille-I.
4. Popular Jewish belief system which reinforced the importance of oral law.
5. D. Stoekl Ben Ezra, “Old caves and young caves a statistical reevaluation of a Qumran consensus,” Dead Sea Discoveries. 14: 313-33. 2007.

Contacts :

Daniel Stoekl Ben Ezra
Centre Paul-Albert Février, Aix-en-Provence.


Back to homepageContactcredits