The Dead Sea Scrolls have been an object of intense study and curiosity for more than 60 years since the first scroll was found in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd. The October 2010 announcement that photographic copies of the scrolls are being made available online re-ignited interest in what some sources call the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century.
The Dead Sea Scrolls remain important today because they give a window onto the world that influenced contemporary Judaism and the roots of Christianity. The scrolls contain much religious thought and practices that are still followed by both Jews and Christians. Thus, it's important to know something of the period in which these documents were produced. The following timeline, based on a chronology published in Biblical Archaeology Review, shows connections among the scrolls, biblical history, and their historical context.
332-323 B.C. Alexander the Great
During this period, Alexander the Great conquered many lands, including Judea, home of the Jews. Enforced by his soldiers, Alexander's conquest opened Judea to Greek influences in religion and culture. This enculturation is known as "Hellenization."
When Alexander died at age 33 in 323 B.C., his death left a power vacuum. Two of his generals, Ptolemy and Seleucus, began a seesaw battle for power over the remnants of the empire. [See The Diadochi -- Successors of Alexander for more details.] Ptolemy ruled Egypt and founded the ruling family that ended with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Seleucus ruled Babylonia and most of Alexander's eastern empire as far as India. The region of Judea sat right in the middle of their wars.
250-167 B.C. Forced Hellenization
By this time, the descendants of Ptolemy and Seleucus had been fighting one another for more than a century, with all the accompanying social and political turmoil that war causes. The oldest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a large portion of the Book of Isaiah from the Old Testament, has been dated to about 250 B.C. Scholars consider this fragment a possible sign that the Jews were beginning to fear the annihilation of their religion and sought to preserve its tenets through the scrolls. The portion of Isaiah contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls is the section that foretells the coming of a messiah who will right all earthly wrongs and rule in God's name.
In 197 B.C. the Seleucid Empire annexed Judea as a province. In 175 B.C., Jerusalem became a polis, or city-state, and forced Hellenization of the Jews began in earnest. Jews were forbidden to practice circumcision and to observe the Sabbath, as well as being forced to submit to pagan religious practices and to eat foods considered unclean by the Jewish laws of kashrut (kosher).
166-140 B.C. Rise of the Hasmonean Dynasty
During this time Jews under the leadership of Judas Maccabees, a member of a priestly family, revolted against their Hellenized rulers. They reclaimed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, which had been appropriated to worship the Seleucid emperor, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This marks the start of the Hasmonean Period in Jewish history, which lasted from 167 to 37 B.C. Some of its episodes are recounted in the apocryphal books Maccabees I and II.
140-67 B.C. Civil Unrest Between Hasmoneans and Pharisees
During this period the Hasmoneans were opposed by the Pharisees, primarily on grounds of authority. The Hasmoneans were from a priestly family of rural Judea, while the Pharisees were urban priests and religious scholars who disputed the Hasmoneans' right to rule as well as their interpretations of Jewish law. Some Jews who opposed the Hasmoneans reportedly fled into the Judean desert for safety. Archaeologists in the 20th century unearthed one of their possible settlements at Qumran on a plain north of the Dead Sea in what is now Jordan.
At Qumran, archaeologists found a complex of buildings apparently designed for communal living. This complex sits close to caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. It's from this settlement that the Dead Sea Scrolls acquired another name, the Qumran Library.
67-37 B.C. Roman Conquest and Herod's Rise
Rome conquered Judea in 67 B.C., eventually making it a province of the empire. Descendants of the Hasmonean dynasty continued to rule over Jerusalem as both priests and client-kings of Rome. Their reign ended in 37 B.C. when Herod I, also known as Herod the Great, came to power.
Herod first came to power at age 15 when his father Antipater the Idumean, named procurator of Judea by Julius Caesar, appointed his son governor of Galilee. After Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 B.C., some accounts said Antipater gave financial aid to Caesar's assassins, while Jewish historian Flavius Josephus claims it was Herod, not Antipater, who funded their escape. After his father was poisoned, Herod ingratiated himself with Mark Antony and Octavian, and was named tetrarch of Galilee in 42 B.C. Two years later, however, Herod fled to Rome for help when Hyrcanus' nephew Antigonus seized power from his uncle with the help of the Parthians. There the Roman Senate elected Herod "King of the Jews." Three years later in 37 B.C., Herod conquered Jerusalem with Rome's military aid and executed Antigonus, after which Herod took the title of basileus, equivalent to king, as sole power over the region.
Circa 4 B.C.-30 A.D. The Time of Jesus Christ
Adjusting for changes in calendars, scholars now calculate that Jesus of Nazareth was born sometime between 7 and 4 B.C. This period coincides with Herod the Great's death in 4 B.C. This dating gives some support to the New Testament account in Matthew Chapter 2 that Herod was the king who ordered his soldiers to slaughter all infant Jewish boys around Bethlehem in hopes of killing the newborn "King of the Jews." After his birth and an appearance at the Jerusalem Temple when he was 12, Jesus disappears from view until the start of his public ministry at about age 30, according to all four gospel accounts. Based on similarities between Jesus' teachings and those found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, some biblical scholars now surmise that Jesus may have visited or even lived with the Qumran settlement during these "hidden years." However, there is no documentary or archaeological evidence to support the theory.
After Herod's death, Caesar Augustus declined to approve Herod's will but granted his three sons Archelaus, Antipas and Philip rule over Judea. In A.D. 26 Pontius Pilate was named prefect of Judea. Approximately four years later, according to the gospels, Pilate presided over the trial of Jesus, who was subsequently crucified.
A.D. 30-100 Revolution and the Rise of Christianity
These turbulent 70 years saw the last of the Dead Sea Scrolls created at the same time the first Christian writings were composed. The Apostle Paul's Letter to the Romans is the earliest documented Christian writing, dated around A.D. 50-55. The youngest of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been dated to 68 A.D., concurrent with the A.D. 68-73 dates assigned to the Gospel of Mark, held to be the oldest account of Jesus' life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection.
The first Jewish revolt against Rome came in A.D. 66. Two years later in A.D. 70, Jerusalem fell to the Roman army led by its general, Titus, son of emperor Vespasian. Titus' burning of the Second Temple was a catastrophic blow to the Jews, since the Temple had been the center of Jewish life and faith. The Jews' demoralization was capped in A.D. 73 by the fall of Masada, a fortress overlooking the Dead Sea that had played a role in Herod the Great's rise to power. Josephus claims in his book, Antiquities of the Jews, that more than 900 Jewish rebels committed suicide at Masada rather than be taken by the Romans, but historians and archaeologists have been unable to verify this account independently.
Given the political turmoil that raged over Judea for nearly three centuries, it's reasonable to speculate that the Qumran settlers, whom Josephus called "Essenes," would have hidden their priceless texts from Roman invaders. They might have been comforted to know that they secreted their library so well that it remained untouched for another 1,900 years.
"The Dead Sea Scrolls and Why They Matter," Historical Context, Biblical Archaeology Review, http://www.bib-arch.org/online-exclusives/dead-sea-scrolls-06.asp
Antiquities of the Jews by Flavius Josephus
The Oxford Study Bible with the Apocrypha, New Revised Standard Version (Oxford Press 1994).