It all started with a stray goat.
On an otherwise nondescript day in the spring of 1947, a young Bedouin boy searched for a goat that had strayed from its flock just northwest of the Dead Sea. While he was looking, Muhammed the Wolf, as the boy was known, noticed a series of small caves in the limestone cliff above him. Thinking his goat may have gone into one of those caves, and not wanting to make the dangerous climb himself, Muhammed picked up a rock and threw it in.
What he heard was totally unexpected. He didn’t hear the bleat of a startled goat or the dull thud of a rock landing in the soft sand at the base of the cave. Rather, he heard the crisp, oddly tinny sound of shattering ceramics. His curiosity piqued, Muhammed made the difficult climb to the cave entrance. Once his eyes adjusted to the dim light inside, he was startled to see seven tall, cylindrical jars that contained documents no human had beheld for nearly 2,000 years: the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Seven decades later, we now know that the Dead Sea Scrolls corpus includes more than 10,000 fragments of more than 800 different secular and religious texts. Every book of the Hebrew Bible is represented in the collection except Esther. There are 27 copies of the Book of Isaiah, including one that is in such good condition it is nearly 66 feet long when unrolled. The Ten Commandments are represented. There are scrolls listing detailed community rules. Another, the War Scroll, describes a hypothetical 49-year-long war between the “Sons of Light” and the “Sons of Darkness,” which the good guys ultimately win. There is even a treasure map written on a scroll made of copper. (Its true meaning remains a mystery; no treasure has ever been found based on its many cryptic directions.) And on and on.
The vast majority of scholars now believe the texts were written, transcribed, and preserved by an isolationist group of Essenes living in Qumran, a small village located about a kilometer from the caves. (The Essenes were one of four major groups of Jews living in Israel at the time, along with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots.
Prior to their discovery, the oldest known complete copy of the Hebrew Bible was the Leningrad Codex, dating to A.D. 1008. (Originally made in Cairo, Egypt, the name of the Leningrad Codex alludes to its location in the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg, known as Leningrad from 1924 to 1991.) We now know the Dead Sea Scrolls date from between about 250 B.C. and A.D. 70. They are thus a full millennium older than the Leningrad Codex. Even more remarkably, the preserved biblical texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Leningrad Codex are virtually identical, demonstrating that written records can show remarkable stability when scribes are ordered to copy texts verbatim.