The Dates of the Dead Sea Scrolls

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by Neil Godfrey

As set out in a previous post, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered they were dated on palaeographical (handwriting) analysis before the time of King Herod (37 to 4 BCE) or at least not later than the earlier years of Herod — before 20 BCE. We saw in the same post how the various scripts were subsequently recalibrated so that they brought the Dead Sea Scrolls into line with the Jewish Revolt of the late 60c CE. The handwriting styles of the Dead Sea Scrolls were aligned so that many of them were fresh and hidden in caves around 68 CE.

But how valid are the dates assigned on those palaeographic script charts? Not all scholars accept that recalibration as the final word.

 A first observation is that the small number of decades separating mid-first century CE from the time of Herod is barely greater than acknowledged  margin of error, but that is not the important point.

The important point is the circularity in which scribal hands of texts from Qumran’s caves were defined after 1951 as dated as late as the first century CE because those defining the palaeographic sequences believed Qumran scroll deposits at the time of the First Revolt had been firmly established archaeologically. No information in the years since has materially altered this epistemological circularity. Radiocarbon dates on Qumran texts that have been done until now have not altered this picture.

— Doudna, Gregory L. 2017. “Dating the Scroll Deposits of the Qumran Caves: A Question of Evidence” in The Caves of Qumran: Proceedings of the International Conference, Lugano 2014, edited by Marcello Fidanzio. Brill, Leiden, Boston. 

It was believed that a script belonged to the time of the Jewish revolt (66-70 CE).

Therefore the script was formally dated in the chart to the time of the Jewish revolt.

And the chart thereby became the standard for dating the scripts.

Here is how Frank Moore Cross chronologically aligned the different scripts of the Hebrew letter he, ה, referencing very early Aramaic texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls and later scripts. 


In a future post I will set out in more detail than previously the evidence that would seem to me to knock out of the water this neat alignment of scripts with those dates.

For those interested in the allusion above to problems with radiocarbon dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls. . . .

Space limitation prevents discussion here of radiocarbon datings (see Doudna, “The Sect,” 108–112) [– also posted on Bible and Interpretation]. Suffice it to say that the existence of first-century CE Qumran texts can be established through radiocarbon dating in really only one of two ways.

First, by obtaining individual Qumran text radiocarbon dates whose calendar date possibilities after calibration entirely postdate first century BCE at 95% confidence and exclude (by rechecking) that those results are from statistical variation or a contaminated sample.

Or second (requiring a greater number of datings and a higher order of statistical analysis), by obtaining enough repeated radiocarbon dates of Qumran texts whose calendar date possibilities after calibration entirely postdate first century BCE at the weaker but narrower 68% confidence interval, even if first century BCE is not excluded at 95% confidence in any of the individual datings.

Neither of these criteria have been met in the existing radiocarbon data. A reasonable assessment of the existing radiocarbon data is that of J. van der Plicht and K. Rasmussen: “The dates suggest a possible range from the third century BC to the first century AD for texts from caves near Qumran, with a strong concentration of probable dates in the second or first century BC” (Johannes van der Plicht and Kaare L. Rasmussen, “Radiocarbon Dating and Qumran,” in Holistic Qumran: Trans-Disciplinary Research of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls; Proceedings of the NIAS-Lorentz Centre Qumran Workshop 21–25 April 2008 [STDJ 87; ed. J. Gunneweg, A. Adriaens, and J. Dik; Leiden: Brill, 2010], 111).


Cross Jr, Frank M. 1955. “The Oldest Manuscripts from Qumran”, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 74, No. 3. pp. 147-172,

Doudna, Gregory L. 2017. “Dating the Scroll Deposits of the Qumran Caves: A Question of Evidence” in The Caves of Qumran: Proceedings of the International Conference, Lugano 2014, edited by Marcello Fidanzio. Brill, Leiden, Boston.



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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “The Dates of the Dead Sea Scrolls”

  1. Suffice it to say that the existence of first-century CE Qumran texts can be established through radiocarbon dating in really only one of two ways….

    Radiocarbon dating is too imprecise to definitively establish the existence of any document within any time frame narrow enough to be relevant to the questions at hand. While it may well negatively rule out, it can, at best, only positively allow the possibility of existence — with greater or lesser probability.

    The retesting conducted in the early 1990’s significantly shifted forward the age ranges of the Qumran documents. The technical aspects are beyond my ken, but Eisenman, et al. argue that those tests relied on a so-called “dating curve” that has since (1998) been superseded (within the radiocarbon dating field?? – they do not clarify) by a more accurate one. Applying this new dating curve to the c14 results, they assert that the date ranges, for the Qumran documents relevant to Eisenman’s hypothesis, extend into the 1st Century AD.

    cf. http://roberteisenman.com/articles/Redating_the_Radio_Carbon_Dating_of_the_DSS.pdf

    In any case, the paleography is fatally beset with circular reasoning, and did not fare well under any of the c14 ‘calibrations.’

  2. I find paleography is one of the more maddening “disciplines” out there.

    Cross’ most complete thinking on the subject seems to be in the article “The Development of the Jewish Scripts.” in The Bible and the Ancient Near East: Essays in Honor of William Foxwell Albright, edited by G. Ernest Wright. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1979.

    Another resource I find helpful with respect to the scripts (and paleography) of the Ancient Near East is Naveh, Joseph. Early History of the Alphabet: An Introduction to West Semitic Epigraphy and Palaeography. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1997. A handy figure from that book may be found here: https://www.scribd.com/document/340291384/Family-Tree-of-Scripts

    1. Certainly off topic but very much appreciated. I have been itching to do more “off topic” posts for some time, actually. One of the topics I have wanted to address is the attention given to the loss of confidence in expertise — as expressed in main stream media articles and also by at least one well known theologian on his blog. The article you alert me to points to the missing element I had been looking for in that topic.

      “susceptibility to fake news has its particular historical origin in Christian fundamentalism’s rejection of expert elites”

      1. Re “the loss of confidence in expertise” If you look at mainstream media, the standard fair is quite depressing. Major themes include the ravages of AIs gone wild, diseases that turn humans into vampires or zombies, and how people cope with post apocalyptic world. In the “news” we are looking at ecological disasters, climate change, ghastly diseases (Ebola, et. al.), apparently “Doom is Nigh.” In business, corporations have cornered the market on bad behavior, suppressing wages while reaping huge benefits from tax decreases passed by purchased politicians. In US politics we exaggerate everything and we have one major political party who denigrates democratic government, including refusing to participate in the process (confirming Supreme Court nominees, allowing legislation passed by one house to languish, compromise is not allowed, etc.)

        In modern entertainment venues and the “news media” and every major enterprise science and political and legal expertise doesn’t solve problems, it creates them. There is no wonder in my mind that this represents a source of the “loss in confidence in expertise.”

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