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UWF, Jewish Federation Events Explore Significance Of Dead Sea Scrolls

Michael Spooneybarger/ CREO

An internationally recognized scholar on the Dead Sea Scrolls recently told crowds here about the religious significance of the ancient texts and detailed the lives of the scribes who wrote them.  

“The importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the history of the Hebrew Bible and the history of Judaism in the centuries right before, and early Christianity can’t be overestimated,” said Dr. Sidnie Crawford, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Crawford is the associate director of the Harris Center for Judaic Studies and a member of the Advisory Committee for Women’s and Gender Studies at that university.

Michael Spooneybarger/ CREO
Sidnie Crawford, Ph.D. presents a lecture “What do the Dead Sea Scrolls Teach Us About the Bible?” in the Center for Fine and Performing Arts at the University of West Florida Thursday February 25, 2016 in Pensacola, Florida

Crawford, who also serves as chair of the Board of Trustees of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, the American headquarters for archaeological research in the Holy Land, last week gave two lectures about the scrolls in Pensacola. The first, titled “What do the Dead Sea Scrolls Teach Us about the Bible?” was presented at the University of West Florida’s Center for Fine and Performing Arts. The second lecture, “The Qumran Scrolls as a Scribal Library,” was presented at the Temple Beth El.

Crawford’s presentations were sponsored by UWF’s College of Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, the Department of History, the Department of English, the Division of Anthropology and Archaeology, as well as the Pensacola Jewish Federation.

Faculty from UWF’s College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities and the Pensacola Jewish Federation have partnered for nearly a decade to bring a speaker to campus each spring. The topics and speakers focus on an aspect of Jewish culture and history that also interest the general public.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient Hebrew Jewish manuscripts that were found in 11 caves near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, around the archaeological ruins of Qumran, between 1946 and 1956. The first scrolls were found by Bedouin shepherds who had been pastoring their flocks in the area, Crawford said.

“Like many great archaeological finds, this was totally accidental,” Crawford said. “The Bedouin shepherds were not looking for anything.”

One of the shepherds had thrown a rock into a cave when he heard the sound of breaking pottery.

“And what they found were jars with old leather manuscripts inside and they had writing on them,” Crawford said. “So they thought they might be valuable. They didn’t know what they had, and so they took them to an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem who began to let the word out that these were available.”

Subsequent discoveries were made in 10 other caves. The fourth cave, which yielded the largest find, contained about 10,000 fragments that when pieced together totaled some 500 manuscripts.  
Crawford has written numerous books and articles on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and has prepared a critical edition of 13 of the manuscripts found in the fourth cave, said Dr. Marie-Thérèse Champagne, an associate professor of history at UWF, who introduced Crawford before her lecture at the University.

The oldest manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls date back to about the year 250 B.C.E. and the latest date from somewhere between 50 and 75 C.E., Crawford said.

“So all of them are about 2,000 or more years old, certainly the oldest Hebrew manuscripts that we have,” Crawford told the crowd at UWF.

While the scrolls contained Jewish religious works that had been known previously before their discovery, the manuscripts also included Jewish religious texts that were not known of before the scrolls were found. Those included hymns, rulebooks, prayers and Bible commentaries, Crawford said.

The manuscripts discovered clearly show what religious texts were especially important to the community, Crawford said. For example, about 30 copies of the book of Deuteronomy and 39 copies of the book of Psalms were among the findings.

It’s also likely that many who lived in Qumran at the time the scrolls were written were scribes. Scribes were among the “highly educated elite” of that period, Crawford said.

“One of the things that I think is pretty certain is that at least some of the people who lived there were scribes and what they were doing was collecting and copying and saving their literary heritage,” Crawford said.

This article is part of a collaboration between WUWF and the UWF Center for Research and Economic Opportunity.


Richard Conn works as a staff writer for the Center for Research and Economic Opportunity at the University of West Florida.