Biblical Archaeology: Exploring The Dead Sea Scrolls (Paleo Genesis – Exodus)

This is now the second series created on biblical archaeology. This series will be specifically discussing the texts of the dead sea scrolls. Our previous series was primarily comparing the Bible to ancient Akkadian and Babylonians records. You can view those with the links below.

Where Archaeology Meets The Bible: Neo Babylonian Period [626 – 529 BCE]

Where Archaeology Meets The Bible: Middle Babylonian Period [1000 – 625 BCE]

Where Archaeology Meets The Bible: Middle Babylonian Period [1000 – 625 BCE]

Where Archaeology Meets The Bible: Middle Babylonian Period [1000 – 625 BCE]

Where Archaeology Meets The Bible: Kassite Period [1600-1160 BCE]

What is Paleo Genesis – Exodus?

Qumran Cave number 4
Qumran Cave number 4 [Image from]
More specifically called  4Q11 –  4Q, PaleoGenesis – Exodus is a collection of manuscripts and manuscript fragments found in Cave #4 at the Qumran archaeological site. According to;

This most famous of the Dead Sea Scroll caves is also the most significant in terms of finds.  More than 15,000 fragments from over 200 books were found in this cave, nearly all by Bedouin thieves.  122 biblical scrolls (or fragments) were found in this cave.  From all 11 Qumran caves, every Old Testament book is represented except Esther.  No New Testament books or fragments have been found.

The PaleoGenesis – Exodus manuscripts are the oldest manuscripts in the Dead Sea collection and they are mostly in fragments. The fragments are mostly written on leather and many of them look more like scraps than scrolls. They are called “Paleo” manuscripts because they are written in what is called Paleo-Hebrew. Paleo-Hebrew is a form of Hebrew script that predated the block style that we know today.  This style of text was use during the First Temple period (c. 1000 to 586 B.C.E., when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple). This alphabet was directly descended from the Canaanite Phonetician alphabet, which was derived from an older form of Egyptian hieroglyph.

Phoenician Alphabet
Phoenician Alphabet

After the Babylonian captivity, the Hebrew language started adopting a more square/block style of alphabet which was Aramaic. This is the alphabet we are used to seeing today when we see a Hebrew text. It should also be noted at the use of vowel pointers was not introduced until long after the Paleo-Hebrew script stopped being used. Thus, none of these documents have vowel pointers.

Of the fragments and manuscripts in Paleo-Hebrew most all of the ones that were found are from PaleoGenesis – Exodus. However, the larger and more impressive manuscripts are from scrolls that came after Exodus, such as the PaleoLeviticus scroll. We will feature the PaleoLeviticus scroll in the next post in this series. In the collection between Genesis and Exodus mostly fragments exist, which most likely means they had much more emphasis on the priestly texts. But it might also hint that possibly the oldest texts are the most difficult to obtain.

What’s in Paleo Genesis – Exodus collection?

Many of the fragments are too small to really tell what part of the Pentateuch it comes from but many are still readable. Below are some tpyical examples of the type of fragments found which belong to the Paleo-Hebrew (Gen-Ex) family.

The two pictures below are of the same fragment but one of them hsa been scanned using an infrared imager, in an effort the make the text have a bit more contrast by looking at different wavelengths of light. Many of the fragments have text that is so faded that it’s nearly impossible to read with the naked eye.


Unfortunately, many of the fragments are so small that they do not provide a lot of information and can be difficult to date, as well as identify which biblical passage it belonged to. One of the other issues facing the preservation of the writing is the degradation of the parchment. Even if the ink holds up, sometimes the cracks and tears in the leather are enough to wipe out important characters over large sections.

The fragment below is one piece that has a good amount of readable ink left but in many areas cracks in the leather have nearly wiped out entire sentences.

Plate 422 Frag 1 B-363096
Plate 422 Frag 1 B-363096 (Source:

Notice that even with the infrared scanning that cracks and damage to the leather can make it impossible to recover any discernible text.

Plate 422 Frag 1 B-363097 scan
Plate 422 Frag 1 B-363097 scan (Source:


Plate 422 Dead Sea Scrolls
Plate 422 Dead Sea Scrolls (Source:

Since many of the fragments are loose, those in charge of the keeping of many of the fragments will group them into similar sets. For example, if a certain group of fragments are clearly from Leviticus (which is usually easy to decipher since it’s so unique) those fragments would be arranged on a plate where pieces are laid out in a manner that would indicated it’s location in the scroll. The fragment in the previous two pictures was from Exodus 14. But that fragment belongs to a larger group usually noted as “Plate 422.”

Why does Paleo Genesis – Exodus matter?

Critics might consider to themselves that a bunch of fragments that came from 500 years before Christ doesn’t prove that the Bible isn’t fairy tales. While that is a fair assessment to make we must also consider the huge time span that these texts covered for scholarship. For centuries the oldest manuscripts we had from Genesis – Exodus were from hundreds of years after Jesus was already crucified. The oldest manuscript of Genesis, before discovering the Paleo-Hebrew scrolls in Qumran, was from the 9th century AD. That’s a difference of about 1500 years. That allows scholars to examine how the texts changed or more often didn’t change, over the span of 1500 years. Samples of such documents over that time spam show how reliable or unreliable a manuscript tradition was.

It also helps to determine which people groups were reading which scrolls. Believe it or not certain groups of people focused on certain biblical scrolls more than others. The Qumran community were very apocalyptic in nature and they places a lot more value on extra-biblical texts that most people have never heard of. They also had a very well preserved Isaiah scroll. But for some reason they lacked the book of Esther from their collection. The only book they had no fragments of was just that one book which tells us a little something about that community.

The fact that so many Genesis – Exodus fragments existed in Qumran, from hundreds of year predating their community, tells us that they were careful hold on to these texts and placed great value on them. They also had commentaries and extra-biblical texts from the Patriarchal period that were not found anywhere else yet.

For those wishing to see more of the PaleoGenesis – Exodus fragments you can see most of them at the link below.

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