The Dead Sea Scrolls

My recent study of the history of the scriptures naturally led me to  the topic of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I found that I had been confusing the discoveries at Nag Hammadi with those near the Dead Sea in the same general time frame.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1946 at the site known as Khirbet Qumran.  They were apparently produced by a group called the Essenes.  The Essenes were one of three leading Jewish sects mentioned by Josephus as flourishing in the second century BC., the others being the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  They were a hybrid sect with both Jewish and pagan traditions, and they had pretty much disappeared by the end of the first century AD.  Among the cache of scrolls are three distinct types of material. There are copies of the actual books of the Hebrew Scriptures, commentaries on the biblical texts, and writings about their own sect’s beliefs and practices.

The documents discovered near the village of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in late 1945 were very different.  The authors were Gnostic Christians, and the writings were in codex form (books) rather than in scrolls.  There were written in Coptic, the language of the Egyptian Christians.  They date back to the second century AD.  The most famous of the discoveries is the only complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas.  It was bound into the same codex as the Gospel of Phillip, which is the Gnostic gospel that I purchased last week.

Most of the Nag Hammadi writings use Christian or Jewish terminology, but they usually offer a somewhat different view of Jesus than what the Church has established.  The writers are called Gnostics, which is a term derived from the Greek word “gnosis” (meaning experiential knowledge).   Something I read recently about the Gnostics referred to them as one of the three main branches of Christianity in the first centuries.  I have not yet discovered the names or descriptions of the other two branches.  Do any of you know what they were?

I expect that I will be writing more about the Gnostics in future posts.  There is much information about them and their writings and beliefs on the internet.   Author Elaine Pagels has written extensively on the Gnostics and the Church, but be prepared for controversy if you read her books.

All of the surviving 52 texts (1200 pages) found at Nag Hammadi have been public since 1975, and are available online.  The originals are currently conserved at the Coptic Museum in Cairo.