TWU’s Dead Sea Scrolls Institute on the historic discovery of 12th scroll cave

Some dates are forever etched in our memory. For Dr. Andrew Perrin, co-director of TWU’s Dead Sea Scrolls Institute, February 8, 2017 will stand out as the day archeologists announced the finding of the 12th scroll cave – 70 years after the original Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947.

“Many of us at the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute have had experiences working directly with the scrolls at the Israel Antiquities Authority and in museums in Jerusalem. In my experience, working directly with artifacts changes the way we think about scripture and its worlds: it allows us to see the rich heritage and history behind the words on the printed page,” says Perrin

He and the other faculty at the Institute bring these experiences to the classroom at TWU with the understanding that the best learning experiences for students are facilitated by scholars who are actively engaged in research and have an ear to the ground for the most recent developments in their field.

“News of Cave 12 was announced to the world that morning and by the afternoon my class was already discussing the impact of this new discovery and high-level issues, like the ethics of using texts and artifacts with unknown provenances,” says Perrin.

Founded in 1995, the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute is TWU’s flagship institute and a leader in scholarly research and collaboration on Qumran studies. The internationally renowned centre provides study opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students, hosts regular symposia, conducts advanced research, and publishes on topics and texts in Dead Sea Scrolls studies. 

Typically, students studying religions in antiquity are unable to get first-hand experience with artifacts until advanced level studies or early in their career. However, TWU offers a unique opportunity to give students "hands-on" experience as early as first year, thanks to the artifacts and high quality facsimiles in the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute and TWU Library and Archives. “So even before students have the chance to travel and research in Israel, we're able to introduce them to the world of scribal and manuscript culture on campus,” says Perrin.

Caves one to eleven, identified between 1947 and 1956, uncovered 930 fragmentary scrolls of texts from the Hebrew Scriptures and ancient Judaism.  Over the last 60 years there have been other attempts to finds new caves in the area, but none have been successful until this week when a team of archeologists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Liberty University, and the Israel Antiquities Authority made the discovery through their research project "Operation Scroll."A piece of parchment rolled up in a jug

Although no scrolls were found, excavations in the cave, which is on the cliffs near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, prove that Dead Sea scrolls from the Second Temple period were once hidden in the cave. Findings in the cave included broken pottery, linen that likely wrapped a scroll in storage, as well as a leather strap perhaps used to once bind a scroll. Evidence of a pair of iron pickaxe heads from the 1950s suggest the contents of the cave were already discovered by Bedouins in the middle of the last century. With the findings in this cave, the archaeological remains suggest that it should be named Cave 12. 

“To me, any find, great or small, that sheds more light on how we understand our shared foundation in Western Culture as well as the historical and cultural background of scripture is worth talking about and a reminder that the task of unpacking the significance of these materials has only just begun,” says Perrin.

Until this week there was relative certainty that all the Dead Sea Scrolls could be linked to the 11 known caves. The entire cataloging system for the Dead Sea Scrolls artifacts is based on this assumption. However, the discovery of the 12th cave challenges some long held assumptions and opens up questions about the texts. How many texts were in each cave? Are there more caves? Knowing the precise contents of the caves is hugely important for understanding their context in the wider discovery as well as their potential function in antiquity. 

According to Perrin, the Dead Sea Scrolls are important for many reasons to many people. “They are objects of common cultural heritage and of great religious significance. Information is always changing, and that is exciting for Dead Sea Scroll students and scholars. Seventy years on, scholars still don't have all the pieces to this epic puzzle. Whether it is new texts or new contexts, like the new cave, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is an ongoing story – one that is still being written, and one that has not yet made its full impact on the world.” 

For news, events, and research opportunities at the Trinity Western University Dead Sea Scrolls Institute follow the Institute on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

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