The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) are one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century. Among the fragments, we find parts of every book from Israel’s Scriptures except for Esther. But why don’t we see any of the New Testament texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls?
To answer that question, we must consider the dating of the Scrolls. The majority of the 900 manuscripts date from around 300 BCE and 70 CE – that is, from a few hundred years before Jesus to around forty years after his death. Since Jesus lived near the end of the Scrolls’ period, and most of the Gospels were written after 70 CE, it should not surprise us that we do not find New Testament texts at Qumran.
More, the Dead Sea Scrolls had a much different fate than that of the New Testament. The Gospels and Paul’s letters were disseminated throughout the Roman world in order to spread the good news of Jesus or to help struggling assemblies among the nations. However, the Scrolls were hidden away in cliffside caves to ensure they would not be easily found. The community associated with the DSS was small and could have lived in some isolation; they wrote and kept their texts among themselves, and their insular group may not have even been exposed to the gospel message early in the first century. The people who kept the Scrolls at Qumran abandoned, or were forced to abandon, their community and texts when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE. The life of the Scrolls was one of isolation and abandonment, but the New Testament had a very different historical trajectory.
Considering all these points, the absence of New Testament texts at Qumran is almost expected. The group of Jews who lived in the desert and housed the Dead Sea Scrolls were not followers of Jesus, they were isolated from the rest of society, and most of their manuscripts do not align with the New Testament timeline. The discoveries in the caves of Qumran are some of the most amazing finds in archaeological history, but the texts of the early Jesus movement have enjoyed a much wider audience for the past 2,000 years. Indeed, the story of Jesus and his followers has been broadcast around the globe, but scholars are still making sense of all the fragmentary and mysterious manuscripts near the Dead Sea!