Casting a Long Shadow: The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jews of Palestine

The Dead Sea Scrolls offered to unlock the secret of ancient Judaism and the origin of Christianity.

Jeff Cunningham
4 min readMar 21, 2024
The Cliffs of Qumran

In the early winter of 1947, a Bedouin shepherd named Muhammed edh-Dhib (or Muhammad the Wolf) and his cousin were grazing their goats. They stopped briefly near the ancient site of Qumran, in what is now the West Bank, and were preparing to leave when Muhammed saw the herd wandering towards the cliffs by the Dead Sea.

One goat disappeared into a limestone cave. Muhammad grabbed a stone and tossed it into the dark opening, hoping to drive the animal out. He stood listening, waiting for the sound of hooves.

Instead, he heard broken pottery.

Dead Sea Scroll storage jars

Taking off the lids of the jars, a horrible smell arose—the scent of two millennia. Wrapped in lengths of linen, they unrolled long manuscripts inscribed in parallel columns on stacks of leather and papyrus scrolls covered in ancient writing. It was an alphabet soup they could not decipher, written in the ancient languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

Muhammad and his cousin took some of the scrolls back to their camp, unaware of their significance. The scrolls were later shown to a tribe member and eventually made their way to a Bethlehem antiquities dealer named Khalil Shahin, known as Kando.

The chance discovery would soon capture the attention of scholars and treasure seekers. Among them were archaeologist E. L. Sukenik from Hebrew University and Mar Athanasius Samuel, Metropolitan of the Syrian Orthodox Church in East Jerusalem. Together, they recognized the significance—the scrolls were a time capsule bridging the present day to the Second Temple period (516 BCE—70 CE).

Hebrew Names

Hidden in the ancient texts—and notably absent from the Koran—was the term “Palestine,” yet it appears eight times in the Hebrew Old Testament. In the original Hebrew, it means Peleshet, or land of the Philistines, the people of the Aegean, confirming Jewish habitation before the birth of Christ.

In fact, no other place embodies this original significance more than the region of Gaza. The very name is derived from the Hebrew “Azzah,” meaning “strong city,” which stood as a testament to the resilience of the Jews, having seen numerous conquests, notably by the Philistines.

Why Palestine?

Roman emperor Hadrian transliterated Philistine as Palestine, referring to a geographic entity, and not the term for a distinct ethnic identity which would not come into modern usage for two thousand more years.

While many scholars believe the Hadrian changed the provincial administrative name of Judea to “Palestina” to erase the Jewish presence, it is also likely that he chose a name that echoed his romance with ancient Greece.

The Shift to Christianity

But beyond territorial identity lay a parallel narrative — the Jewish diaspora — a word originating from Greek meaning “scattering.” Even Strabo, an ancient Greek geographer, noted this ubiquitous presence of Jews across the known world during his time. From Egypt to Syria, Asia Minor to Greece, and even as far west as southern France and possibly Spain — Jewish communities had fled marauding enemies to lay the foundation for the spread of Judaism and early Christianity.

Given its Judaic origin, it is logical that Christianity found fertile ground in established Jewish communities. Early Christian missionaries like Paul initially reached out to their Jewish brethren, utilizing these connections to launch their broader mission.

As early Christian missionaries entered Jewish communities, they utilized existing synagogues as platforms for preaching and expanding their message to non-Jews. Interestingly, these synagogues not only attracted Jews but also Gentiles who were drawn to the communal spirit and philosophical discussions held within. This openness and lack of a pagan equivalent made synagogues an alluring option for Gentiles seeking knowledge about Jewish teachings and community life.

Adopting Greek as the lingua franca for Diaspora Jews opened doors for translating the Hebrew Bible, which Paul the Apostle would later quote extensively, showcasing a significant Hellenistic influence on Judaism outside of Judah.

Scroll Work

The scrolls’ discovery prompted further explorations, leading to additional scrolls in nearby caves, totaling around 900 manuscripts. These texts included the oldest known copies of the Hebrew Bible, along with other religious and sectarian writings that shed light on the diversity of Jewish thought and practice during the Second Temple period (ca. 516 BCE — 70 CE).

The Dead Sea Scrolls are considered one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. They offer unprecedented insights into the history of Judaism, the background of Christianity, and the ancient Middle East.