The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Reliability of Oral Histories

By Stephen E. Nash | October 12, 2018 12:30 pm
dead sea scrolls caves

These are the caves where many of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947. (Credit: Lux Moundi/Flickr)

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 his 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 in 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 Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots.)

Several weeks ago, an exhibition called Dead Sea Scrolls closed after a nearly six-month run at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where I work as an archaeologist-curator. I served as the scientist assigned to the exhibition. My task in that capacity was to train a large and dedicated corps of volunteers, to arrange public presentations by specialist lecturers, and to provide interviews with local and regional media. I’ve been assigned to several such exhibits over the years, and it’s one of the things I love about my job. I get to study some of the coolest archaeological topics out there, even when they aren’t the focus of my own research.

I’m not religious, so I approached Dead Sea Scrolls with the same degree of intellectual detachment and scholarly curiosity with which I have approached other exhibitions, including A Day in Pompeii, Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed, and Traveling the Silk Road. When I first started working on the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit about a year ago, however, I had a nagging suspicion that this experience was somehow going to be different. I didn’t know why, but I now realize that it led me to a scholarly revelation.

When I entered graduate school as an archaeologist in the late 1980s, I was told in no uncertain terms to discount the narratives from Native American oral history. Why? Largely because of the children’s game of telephone! (If case you’ve forgotten: Get a bunch of kids in a circle. Tell one a secret. Tell her to tell the person next to her. Repeat until you come all the way around the circle. By the time the secret gets back to you, it’s totally changed, if not unrecognizable.) Though it is a compelling and seductive argument-by-analogy, it’s overly simplistic and belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how oral history actually works in human societies. History is not kept by children playing games. It’s kept by specialists.

If you are the keeper of history in a society that does not have a written language, your job is to preserve the story verbatim. You have to apprentice and train for many years, and you have to go through tests and approval processes before you are deemed qualified to serve as keeper.

What does this have to do with the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Embed from Getty Images

As parchment and papyrus artifacts, the Dead Sea Scrolls are about 2,000 years old, but the stories recorded in them are often much older (we know this through collaborative studies—by archaeologists, historians, linguists, theologians, and others—of artifacts and records other than the Dead Sea Scrolls that have corroborated the dates in question). In fact, some of the stories relayed in the Dead Sea Scrolls are about 3,000 years old, dating to the time of King David. During that period, Hebrew was not yet a written language. So far as we know, Hebrew was first written down in about 600 B.C. I remember being shocked when I realized that many of the stories recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls therefore existed for centuries as oral history!

As an archaeologist, if I have to dismiss the veracity of Native American oral traditions simply because they are not written down, then simple logic forces me to dismiss some of the accounts written in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which also began as oral tradition. To do anything else would be to maintain a racist double standard.

A few years ago, linguists and a geographer in Australia documented instances in which humans have maintained accurate oral histories over 400 generations and up to 10,000 years. And according to historian Roger Echo-Hawk, Pawnee oral traditions document events that occurred during the last glaciation (at least 11,000 years ago), including humans crossing the Bering Sea into North America.

All of this confirms something that I’ve long suspected: Most humans, until very recently, desired and maintained cultural stability, not change. Change was a threat and was embraced only when absolutely necessary. And that is why Native American oral histories—and all oral histories, for that matter—were a reliable way of recording and learning from the past for thousands of years before writing was invented.

This article originally appeared on SAPIENS. Read the original.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology
  • Erik Bosma

    Thanks for sticking up for the native American oral historians and for being objective about religions.

    • OWilson

      How we love our noble “Native Americans” these days.

      Even though they routinely raped, pillaged, enslaved and even ate their neighbors, and did the same to those poor undocumented immigrants who came to America, seeking only a better life for themselves and their families! :)

      • devorah

        Yes, because they pillaged, raped, and killed really justifies almost wiping them to extinction.

        • Mike Richardson

          The European colonizers did the same to them, yet you don’t see him mention that, do you? No, he’s just repeating verbatim the same hate speech he’s been cutting and pasting over in political blogs, where such rhetoric might be more acceptable with the extremist elements. He’s obviously quite racist, particularly when it comes to prejudice against Native Americans. I wonder why.

          • OWilson

            Obviously? :) Only in your hateful head, Mikey!

            After living and working in some 6 different countries around the world, I have chosen to live modestly the rest of my life among third world “people of color”, whom I love and respect.

            Pointing out inconvenient historical truths, that upset leftist worldviews, is not racist, Mikey!

            I’ll just add “racist” to your growing list of labels for me, that includes, “fascist”, “demented”. “senile” and “mental incompetent” if it gets you through your pathetic day!

            But, it’s stuff like this that keeps me motivated to continue to call out self admitted government employed, socialist Bernie supporters!

            Have a nice day, Mikey! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Do you show those “people of color” you ” love and respect ” (including your significant other) the things you post here and on those political blogs? Your references to “gang banging ghettos, ” “plantations,” and ” ghetto plantations “? Or your generalized statements regarding the appearance and sexual orientation of female Democrats, who’s “hot,” and your notions of what “real men” think ( particularly humorous that you’d consider yourself an expert on that).

            You certainly love cutting and pasting the phrase, “routinely raped, pillaged, enslaved and even ate their neighbors, and did the same to those poor undocumented immigrants who came to America, seeking only a better life for themselves and their families! :)” when referring referring to Native AmericansAmericans. But as a resident of the Dominican Republic, have you ever asked an indigenous Taino for their opinion on European colonizers? Oh, never mind, we know what happened to them, right? Funny you never cut and paste about that particular historical truth.

            I notice some of your worst comments have been deleted, so good for you on cleaning up after yourself. But anyone perusing your undeleted post history in your Disqus profile can see your character based on your comments, and likely many will agree with my assessment.

            But it’s stuff like this that keeps me motivated to continue to call out a self-admitted unabashed Trump supporter and hyperpartisan, particularly on science blogs that you use for promoting your rather extreme views. Be best! 😀

          • OWilson

            Never deleted a comment in years of posting, Mikey.

            Try again!

          • Mike Richardson

            (V) 😁

          • OWilson

            As always. Mikey, have a nice day!

        • OWilson

          Throughout history, people of all races have done, and continue to do, despicable things to each other.

          One should keep this in mind when choosing to elevate, venerate or denigrate humans, who were merely the product of their times!

  • Uncle Al

    Native American oral histories—and all oral histories, for that matter—were a reliable way of recording and learning from the past for thousands of years before writing was invented.

    *Ivory tower job validation idn not empirical fact. Rhyming helps. but is no guarantee re Shakespeare versus bowdlerized Shakespeare. Hectares of textual critical analysis of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling are utter crap. When centuries of brown crud plus politically motivated “restorations were lifted from fresco, it was bright as a comic book not “subtle and dramatic ocher shadings.” Removed diapers revealed the wrong genitalia. That was hardcopy.

  • rrocklin

    It is difficult to believe that an accurate oral history can be maintained over 10,000 years. People cannot even maintain an accurate written history over 2,000 years as one can see in the bible.

  • John Boof

    Although we have concepts of oral history being spoken stories or descriptions, some oral histories are quite different from spoken word. There are traditional poems and songs used as oral history and memorized as culturally popular and community-shared performances. These are not as easily mis-stated since the words themselves form the rhythm, metric, rhyme, and structure of the song and/or poem. Some entire collections of these follow the same structure, same counts per measure/line, same number of measures/lines, and even the same rhyme structure. Yes, they still can be modified, just like lyrics of songs are sometimes mis-interpreted, but when a whole community embraces and reproduces these words in traditional group singing/chanting, many accuracy-checking participants are helping to assure the repeated performance matches the learned source. It seems logical that oral history passed down via these methods has a built-in error checking method that increases accuracy when passed down as traditions through many generations. That is also why using the originating language is sometimes critical when learning these — the structure of rhythm/rhyme/etc. is broken when translated.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar