Teaching About Religion, History & Culture

Teaching the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls are one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, written between 408 BCE and 318 CE and discovered between 1946 and 1956. The collection of 972 documents contain fragments of the earliest known Biblical texts, as well as windows into the social and political world surrounding Jerusalem at the turn of the first millennium.

This collection of resources, developed primarily out of a 2013 Outreach workshop, provides educators with an opportunity to learn about the significance of these artifacts, as well as intersections with contemporary technology and politics.

Educators and students are invited to consider:

  • What do the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal about both the diversity of religious communities at this time and place in history? 
  • How does technologies impact the way we read and write, and how does contemporary technology change our access to sources of information about the past? 
  • How and why do modern communities seek ownership of ancient artifacts like the Scrolls?  How do modern political realities and geographic boundaries inform these claims? 

Lesson Plan

Introductory lesson plan for the Dead Sea Scrolls written by Ottoson Middle School social studies teacher Julianna Keyes.

What is recorded in the scrolls and what do they tell us about religious world of Jerusalem at the turn of the first millennium? What did we learn from the scrolls that we didn’t know before? In this introductory lecture, Harvard University Professor Shaye J. D. Cohen explores the content and context of the scrolls, from the earliest known versions of several books of the Hebrew Bible to previously unknown writings detailing the beliefs and worldview of the scrolls’ authors.

Dead Sea Scrolls Historical Investigation Lesson (PDF). This lesson plan uses Common Core Language Arts Standards and takes one class period (45-60 minutes) plus homework. 

Video & Webinar Resources

  • The Dead Sea Scrolls: An Introduction — October 17, 2013. Shaye J. D. Cohen, Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University, delivers an introductory lecture for the Fall 2013 outreach workshop for educators, "Unearthing the Dead Sea Scrolls: Religion, Politics and Science of its Excavation."

Related Resources

Reflections on the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls by L. Michael White and Shaye J.D. Cohen.  This essay look more closely at this Jewish sect, their isolation and apocalyptic cosmology, and the reasons they are thought by many scholars to have been the authors of the Scrolls.

Pharisees, Sadducees, Revolutionaries, and Plain Jews by Shaye J.D. Cohen.  This essay describes the wider context of diversity within the Jewish community during this time period. 

American Academy of Religions Guidelines for Teaching About Religions in K-12 Public School Classrooms in the United States.  The AAR Guidelines outline support and strategies for teaching about religion in ways that are intellectually rigorous and constitutionally sound.  Pages 9-14 review the AAR recommended cultural studies approach, which emphasizes internal diversity and historical dynamism of religious traditions. 

Further Reading

From the Maccabees to the Mishnah. Cohen, Shaye J.D. Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

screenshot webinar Rabineau

  • Whose Scrolls are they?  Dr. Shay Rabineau, Israel Institute Post-Doctoral fellow at Brandeis University, describes how claims to the Scrolls played a role in early Israeli nation building.  Watch the full conversation between Dr. Rabineau and local educators in this webinar recording to learn about how discovery of the scrolls and geopolitical politics mutually influenced one another. 

    Questions for Classroom Discussion

    How can history be used to construct contemporary national and individual identity?  How were objects and artifacts connected to this process during he early formation of the Israeli state? 

Related Resources

Lost and Found: Harvard's museums negotiate what artifacts they rightfully hold and should put on display. Invite students to further consider the complexity of modern claims to ancient artifacts through exploration of this visual web feature. Artifacts from China, Benin, and the native Tlingit peoples of Alaska are considered.

A Reporter At Large: The Scrolls from the Dead Sea.  The New Yorker, 1955.  Written in the first decade following initial discover of the Scrolls, this article can used by teachers and students as both a primary and secondary source.  In addition to reporting on the discovery itself, Wilson offers a glimpse into the process by which questions of ownership, access and scholarship surrounding the Scrolls played out in the 1940’s and 50’s.  

Further Reading

Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition.   Zerubavel, Yael.  University of Chicago Press, 1997. 

Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel.  Ben-Yehuda, Nachman.  University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.  

 screenshot of webinar

  • Dr. Gregory Bearman is a pioneer in the application of modern digital imaging and spectroscopy to ancient texts, archeology and biomedicine.  Watch the full conversation between Dr. Bearman and local educators in this webinar recording.  How do you unroll a 2,000 year old scroll?  How do you read illegible writing?  Dr. Bearman describes the ancient and modern technology that led to the original writing and modern-day reading of these texts.  

    Questions for Classroom Discussion 
    What questions and ideas can we ask students to consider by asking them to define "technology"?  
    What other technologies throughout history have shaped and changed how we understand the past?  
    How have changing technologies of writing and reading shaped how we document our lives?  How might these technologies shape how people understand us in the future?
Related Resources
The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls: A collaboration between The Israel Museum and Google, the goal of this online digital collection is to allow users to easily view the original Scrolls in high resolution, navigate through the scrolls by chapter and section, and read English translation by mousing-over the text. Currently online translation is available for the Isaiah Scroll.  Short videos provide introduction and commentary for the Great Isaiah Scroll, the Temple Scroll, the War Scroll, and the Commentary on the Habakkuk Scroll.
Imaging the Dead Sea Scrolls for conservation purposes: This short article for the International Society for Optics and Photonics describes the goals and challenges of preservation and the ways in which new preservation technologies are advancing accessibility and analysis.


The Clash of (Mis)understandings: K-12 Educator Resources Exploring the Roots of Anti-American and Anti-Muslim Sentiments in our World


Political upheaval in the Middle East and larger Muslim world, from the Arab Spring to protests against a film denigrating Muhammad, leave us with the impression that the peoples of the Middle East—and of the wider Muslim world—are increasingly becoming anti-American and anti-Western in their sentiments. At the same time, analysis of news and commentary from the United States and Europe shows a marked rise in anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

  • The Clash of (Mis)understandings: A K-12 Educator Webinar Exploring the Roots of Anti-American and Anti-Muslim Sentiments in our World (audio recording) — On November 15, 2012, the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies Outreach Center at Harvard University co-sponsored a webinar for K-12 teachers taking a closer look at protests in the Muslim world, entitled "The Clash of (Mis)understandings: A K-12 Educator Webinar Exploring the Roots of Anti-American and Anti-Muslim Sentiments in our World." Professor Ali Asani, Director of Harvard’s Islamic Studies Program, and Professor Malika Zeghal, the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor of Contemporary Islamic Thought and Life, discussed the background and the political and cultural dimensions that underlay this crisis of “(mis)understanding,” and the ways in which it affects perceptions of the “Other.”

  • Exploring Muslim Understanding of Islam (PDF) — The introduction from Ali Asani's book Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam.

  • Overcoming Challenges to Reporting on Islam and Muslim Communities in Context: Tips and Resources (PDF) — At the Social Science Research Council–sponsored workshop “Presenting Islam and Muslim Communities in Context” held at Harvard University in November 2008, academics, Muslim community members, and journalists affirmed the importance of combating religious illiteracy in the U.S., particularly around Islam and Muslim communities. Journalists are increasingly asked to report on Islam and Muslim communities in diverse contexts. This article by Diane Moore is designed to assist them, and the general public, by focusing on a series of proven best practices that aide the process of reporting and understanding Muslim communities in context.

Are You Listening? Voices from the Middle East

This very popular anthology, produced by the Outreach Center, consists of short stories and excerpts from memoirs and novels written by indigenous authors and translated and adapted for the U.S. classroom. 

The anthology includes stories from Turkey, Israel, Iran, and the Arab world, tested and selected for their cultural richness and their appeal to young adults. It includes curriculum units for each, extensive background notes, a glossary of Middle Eastern words and phrases, and a comprehensive bibliography related to the themes and issues in the stories as further reference for teachers and students. 

To provide educators with faster and more efficient access to the anthology, we are no longer printing copies for sale. Rather, educators can download the entire anthology and reprint it for classroom use themselves, provided that they credit the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University appropriately. 

Download the anthology here.  (PDF)

Using Objects to Teach About Religion in the Context of the Middle East Region

The opportunities and challenges for teaching with objects in the context of studies on the Middle East region are myriad. Art and non-art objects related to religion are complex creations reflecting specific times, places, and cultural contexts. This paper advocates two approaches to overcoming common pitfalls to effectively teaching on topics related to the Middle East region. The first is the Cultural Studies approach to teaching about religion, and the second is an inquiry-based model for object-centered learning.

Teaching Nowrooz

Created by Saviz Safizadeh of the Pierce Middle School in Milton, MA, this intra-curricular resource introduces Nowrooz, the Persian cultural celebration of the New Year. Science, language arts, and social studies are covered in the curriculum, which includes a Powerpoint presentation about the earth's rotation and the spring equinox, a unit on the Persian folktale Naneh Sarma, and a unit on the Iranian film The White Balloon.