The Dead Sea Scrolls, also known as the Qumran Scrolls among scholars, were one of the most significant archaeological finds of the last century.
More than 900 text fragments were discovered in caves located close to the Dead Sea in Israel, dating back to approximately from 200 BCE to 70 CE.
Writings originating in a religious community, which scholars call the Qumran movement, include some of the earliest known versions of Old Testament scripture and the community’s internal rules.
For a long time, investigating the texts was a slow process. The work was appointed to a small group of researchers that was slow to publish anything.
When the material was made available to other scholars in the 1990s, everything changed. Among those first to gain access to the texts was Raija Sollamo, professor of biblical languages at the University of Helsinki. One of the students accompanying her was Jutta Jokiranta.
Now, a quarter of a century later, Jokiranta is the new professor of Hebrew Bible and cognate studies, as well as one of the leading experts of the Qumran texts.
“I am particularly interested in the nature of the movement that originally produced the texts”, says Jokiranta.
“It was a community that adhered to rigid rules, requiring a certain amount of effort to gain membership. The community shared its resources and teachings, convening to study scripture and pray.”
Some of the rules were very detailed. For example, falling asleep in a meeting could result in a punishment most likely involving the reduction of meal size. Similar fines were also employed by Greco-Roman communities.
According to Jokiranta’s interpretation, the Qumran movement was not the smallest of sects. However, arriving at such a determination requires immersing oneself in the texts, interpreting the identity of the authors.
“I am also interested in the cognitive study of religion, which posits important questions on, for example, the role of rituals in learning and transmitting religious traditions.
“People will not learn or become motivated to educate posterity by reading or listening, but by acting. Emotions are an important part of religion.”
But, why are scholars still interested in texts from more than two thousand years ago?
The Qumran Scrolls provide the best available window onto Judaism at the beginning of the Common Era. In other words, it was a community where the New Testament was written and within which early Christianity was also born. These scrolls are also important for interpreting the Bible.
In addition, Jokiranta believes there may yet be more texts to discover.
“The conditions for the preservation of scrolls are ideal in the dry climate. I believe more discoveries will be made.”