Qumran Pt 2: Why do the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter?

Examples of the find in Cave 4
Examples of the find in Cave 4

In the introduction, I provided a somewhat tongue-in-cheek retelling of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls through a Major League Baseball card analogy. In that fake scenario, a collection of old baseball cards was found buried inside tree trunks in the woods, and a media frenzy broke out over the findings. In my analogy, three basic types of baseball cards were present in this collection: (a) rare, mint condition rookie cards of famous baseball players of the past (e.g., the Great Isaiah Scroll); (b) some worn out baseball cards of recognizable players, but not on the same level as a Honus Wagner or Mickey Mantle card (e.g., fragments of various religious writings like 1 Enoch or Tobit, which were already well-known before the DSS discovery); and, most shockingly, (c) baseball cards representing players, teams, statistics, and playing positions that no one had ever seen before or heard of in all the history of baseball.

In an era of Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, Bradley (Chelsea?) Manning, and Twitter, we can imagine just how quickly such a finding would spawn all sorts of conspiracy theories. Is Major League Baseball hiding some secret past? Why have they never shared this information before? Is there an underground league of aliens or mysterious people groups playing baseball that Bud Selig does not want you to find out about? We must get it out in the light and expose the lies and secrets!

Well, that’s basically what happened in the aftermath of the Scrolls. Only before Twitter.

Treading Cautiously in Qumran

Having established a bit of the background of the Qumran literature in part one, I want to provide a summary of the implications of the Scrolls for today’s church. Though scholarship is still unfolding even today regarding the Scrolls’ origins, interpretation, history, etc., we at least have the benefit of over sixty years of perspective to evaluate the findings. That said, the Scrolls can be a bit of a hot-button issue (both in the scholarly world and the church), so I will try to be as balanced and critically sensitive as possible. I will cover three main topics and my standard concluding set of implications:

  1. Why do the DSS matter for our understanding of the Old Testament?
  2. Why do the DSS matter for our understanding of the canon?
  3. How have the DSS challenged the NT and early church’s view of Jesus?
  4. So what? Connecting the pew

1. Why do the DSS matter for our understanding of the Old Testament?

Given that nearly 25% of all the scrolls discovered at Qumran were copies of books in the Hebrew Bible (only Esther is not represented), the DSS have greatly impacted OT studies in numerous ways. I will outline two major contributions and address some of the “problem” areas that have been put forth as undermining the historic Christian and Jewish understanding of the Hebrew Bible.

(a) Manuscript dating and the integrity of the Hebrew Bible
Prior to the Qumran excavations, fewer old copies of the Hebrew Scriptures were available than most people probably realize. Here is a rough summary of what was available before 1948 (when the DSS were found), in ascending order by date:

  • 100-300s AD: The earliest fragments and full copies of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
  • 200-300s AD: Coptic translations of the OT and NT
  • 400s AD: Syriac translations of the Bible, the primary one of which is called the Peshitta
  • 400s AD: Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible called the Targums, which were written down from oral tradition in the synagogues
  • 500-800s AD: The Vulgate, the chief Latin translation of the OT and NT (we also have some evidence of the Old Latin which pre-dated Jerome)
  • 900s-1000s AD: The Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) written in Samaritan, which was in use in the early centuries AD, but no copies are extant before the Middle Ages
  • 920 AD: The Aleppo Codex, the earliest nearly complete Hebrew copy (partly destroyed by a fire)
  • 1008 AD: The Leningrad Codex, the most famous Hebrew Bible that forms the basis of the standard “Masoretic text,” or MT (found in edited form in the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia) used for nearly all modern English translations of the Old Testament
Aleppo Codex
Aleppo Codex

One of the key observations about the list is fairly obvious: no substantive copies of the Old Testament in Hebrew until roughly 1000 AD! We have lots of copies in other languages, but none in Hebrew had survived. Now, to those for whom this is new news, such a statement might be unsettling. However, most (but not all, of course) scholars have maintained all along two key premises that have given us confidence that the MT in use today (based on the Leningrad Codex of the 1000s AD) is very very close to the Hebrew Scriptures handed down from ancient Israel (from the 1400s to the 400s BC):

  1. The scribal integrity of scribes and Jewish scholars who were painstaking in copying and transmitting the text over the centuries;[1] and
  2. The verification that we find from the earlier manuscripts in other languages which closely match the MT.[2]

However, it is still true that we lacked any substantive Hebrew manuscripts that were closer than a millennium and a half to the originals – until the Dead Sea Scrolls, that is. As described earlier, the Qumran caves brought to light hundreds of biblical manuscripts and fragments dating to roughly the 150s BC to 70 AD, nearly a millennium or more earlier than the Aleppo Codex and Leningrad Codex. The all-important question could now be answered, at least in part: does today’s Masoretic Text (upon which the NIV, ESV, NASB, etc. are based) closely resemble what was circulating over a millennium before, in a period of closer proximity to the time at which the original writings were produced by the OT authors? Does the MT have integrity, in other words?

The results from Qumran have pointed in one direction: a resounding yes. As scholars have compared the biblical scrolls from Qumran to the Masoretic Text of over 1,000 years later, they have drawn the conclusion that the DSS “demonstrate in a forceful way how carefully Jewish scribes transmitted that text across the years.[3] There were, of course, numerous differences; we should remember that there was no word processing software back then, and while God superintended the copying and transmitting process, it was not “inspired” in the same sense as the originals. Scribal slips of the pen happen. However, when comparing the older Qumran biblical manuscripts with the Leningrad Codex, “the two were usually in very close agreement except for small details that rarely affect the meaning of the text.”[4] This is a massive finding, for it confirms the key premise #1 mentioned above, namely, that the Jewish community of rabbis and scribes have done a phenomenal job of transmitting the sacred scriptures in an essentially intact form over time.

(b) Manuscript transmission and text families

Before we strike up the band too quickly, we have to deal with an immediate objection that is often raised: “sure, there is a lot of agreement between the Qumran scrolls and the later Masoretic, but what about all the disagreements? Aren’t there thousands of variant readings?” Yes, there are in fact numerous places where variants happen, whereby the Qumran Hebrew scrolls might say one thing and the Masoretic another. This disagreement  becomes particularly prominent if the Septuagint/LXX or Samaritan Pentateuch agree with the Qumran version rather than the Masoretic, for that raises the question “which is the original reading?” As a minor example, Qumran + LXX + Samaritan Pentateuch read that 75 descendants of Jacob went to Egypt (at the end of Genesis), while the Masoretic reads 70. A more significant example is that the LXX version of Jeremiah is about 7/8th the length of the Masoretic version, and, amazingly, there are witnesses to both at Qumran (the shorter form and the longer form).

Comparing the Samaritan Pentateuch, Masoretic Text, and Septuagint
Comparing the Samaritan Pentateuch, Masoretic Text, and Septuagint

While 99% of these variants are minor (e.g., spelling changes, a word inserted or dropped, word order switched around, etc.; see quote and footnote 4 above), the sheer number of them often spawns more extremist / skeptical breed of conclusion:

“See, the Qumran / LXX / Samaritan scribes were using a DIFFERENT Hebrew version to do their work which is TOTALLY different than the Masoretic, and hence we cannot trust the Masoretic at all! Our English Bibles based on the Masoretic are totally corrupted! It’s all up in the air! We have no idea and cannot trust anything anymore!”

It’s the Bart Ehrman equivalent for OT studies. I would argue that such a conclusion does not follow from the data but flows from a set of presuppositions about the Hebrew Bible that are already inclined in that direction (i.e., Presupposition: the Hebrew Bible is a corrupt, uninspired human document. Data: Oh my, look at all these variants! Conclusion: See, I told you the Hebrew Bible is a corrupt, uninspired human document.)

Fortunately, textual scholars have looked at this data and developed a persuasive theory that explains the transmission of the text in a way that squares with the historical observations as well as, in my opinion, biblical revelation itself. The basic idea is that, following the exile and restoration of Judah (586 BC exile; rebuilding from 539 BC through the 400s; see 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, for example), a few “text families” or “local texts” developed. The notion is that a community had a copy of the Hebrew Bible that they used for teaching / worship, copied, preserved, passed on, and so forth, and within the confines of that local community certain variants were introduced over time that stayed local. When you compare these local versions to one another, they are really really similar but have areas of disagreement here and there. The theory posits three “local texts”:

Did you know there is a huge lion right in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula?
Did you know there is a huge lion right in the middle of Mesopotamia?
  1. Babylonian: The original “autographs” were authored in Israel and Judah (by the biblical authors). At the time of the ~586BC exile, the Judahites took their scriptures with them to Babylon, where the texts were copied and transmitted, and from this “local text” developed today’s Masoretic: a fundamentally direct lineage back to the originals in Israel/Judah.
  2. Samaritan: Some copies of the Hebrew Bible stayed behind in Palestine during the exile, and the Samaritans, who are believed to have inhabited the territory post-exile, used them to develop their “local text” (Pentateuch only, for that is all they recognize).
  3. Alexandrian: Finally, some of the Judahites actually did not go to Babylon at all, but rather to Egypt (as recorded in Jeremiah 43), including most notably Jeremiah himself. Over time, the third “local text” developed in Alexandria, from which was derived the Septuagint a few centuries later.

All three families derive from the Hebrew originals, but due to the dislocations caused by the exile, separate traditions developed over time. When we get to the time period of the Qumran community, apparently these “local texts” began circulating more broadly again, for we have witnesses to each form at Qumran. It is certainly plausible that the later Masoretes (ca. 500-800 AD) would have had access to all three traditions in doing their scribal work to edit the standard Hebrew form (the Masoretic) which aimed at reproducing that original form from the ancient era in Israel/Judah.

This theory has not been without its critics, but it has been widely embraced and to makes good sense of the data. Is this theory problematic to one’s view of inspiration or the trustworthiness of the Bible? I do not think so. The fact that manuscripts were copied, that sources were used, that the transmission process was not perfect is not shocking. To illustrate, the OT itself speaks often about other books that the writers were using but which have been lost,[5] scrolls were lost and later found again (e.g., the decree of Cyrus, Ezra 5:17), and apparently the entire book of Deuteronomy was lost during the “bad kings” era and later found by Hilkiah the priest (2 Kgs 22:8). The process was messy, just like Israel! More specifically, the notion of local texts provides a coherent solution to, for instance, the long vs. short Jeremiah question mentioned above. We know that he and Baruch had to rewrite all his prophecies after Jehoiakim had them burned, “and many similar words were added to them” the second time around (Jer 36:32 ESV). So it is entirely plausible that one surviving version of Jeremiah’s writings made it out of Jerusalem to Babylon (forming the basis of the MT), and another went with Jeremiah to Egypt (forming the basis of the Septuagint).

2. Why do the DSS matter for our understanding of the canon?

The question of OT canon is massive, and I plan to address it more fully later. For now I will stick to two main discussions instigated by the Qumran data

(a) Did the Qumran community have a “canonical consciousness”?

Sample Torah ark, where the sacred scrolls were kept a synagogues
Sample Torah ark, where the sacred scrolls were kept at synagogues

Within the confines of the Hebrew Bible itself, there is obviously no list of “authoritative books.” Scholarly opinion varies as to when exactly the 39 books of the Hebrew “canon” was received and recognized. However, it is pretty clear that the Israelites and intertestamental Jews had a very strong “canonical consciousness,” meaning that they drew a clear line between books considered authoritative and binding and those that were merely edifying and helpful. We see this, for instance, in (a) quotations of one biblical book within another, (b) growing awareness of the authority of prior revelation, beginning with the Torah and expanding from there (e.g., Daniel seeing Jeremiah as authoritative; multiple prophets viewing the Psalms as authoritative), and  (c) the handling and treatment of sacred biblical scrolls in the synagogue setting.

One major question with regard to Qumran, thus, is whether they had a “canon,” even if they did not call it that (the term emerged centuries later). The large number and regular use of the biblical scrolls (see prior post) indicate that there was a list of scrolls that were apparently seen as more authoritative at Qumran than others. For instance, if we read the non-biblical writings, we find a plethora of quotations of Bible books, the most frequent of which are the Pentateuch, Isaiah, Psalms, Daniel, Malachi, Amos, Ezekiel, and 1-2 Samuel. Though this is by not always a surefire indication of canonicity, this evidence of authoritative citation demonstrates that they treated some burgeoning collecting of OT books as special. Of course, on the negative side, some biblical works are not quoted, but the opposite conclusion does not follow (i.e., that those books were not seen as authoritative since they were not quoted; that argument would be the fallacy of denying the antecedent).

Moreover, the Qumran literature repeatedly speaks about three groups of authoritative biblical books: the Law, the Prophets, and the “Writings” / Psalms. This threefold division exactly matches the standard Hebrew convention (T-orah, N-eviim, and K-etuvim, or Law-Prophets-Writings), and Jesus himself refers to the Old Testament along these same divisions in Luke 24. Apparently, the Qumranites employed the same understanding of a three-fold canon, at least in some early formulation, as was ultimately solidified within Judaism.

In short: Yes, they had canonical consciousness (just like any good Jew would at that time).

(b) Did the Qumran community include other books in its canon?

In other words, did the Qumran community treat other books that are not part of the canonical 39 as equally authoritative? Did they have more books in their proto-canon? If so, does that not mean that there should be other books in today’s Old Testament and that some massive political powerplay has been foisted upon us to keep those books out?

Of all the non-biblical scrolls in the DSS library, only three are possible candidates for books that “may” have been seen as authoritative beyond the accepted biblical books.

  • Jubilees makes the strongest case, as another scroll cites it as an authority on an issue (the Damascus Document). Jubilees actually became part of the canon recognized by the Ethiopic church much later, so it was clearly popular. However, other writings in the DSS explicitly disagree with Jubiliees on some technical matters relating to calendars. Thus, the best we can conclude is that some folks may have seen it as authoritative, and others did not. Very little else can be drawn from this data, and certainly not some scandalous conclusion about the repression of Jubilees.
  • 1 Enoch is also a possible candidate; we know from other sources that it was very popular in the intertestamental period, and to be sure, there is much orthodox content in the book (as with Jubilees). Though multiple copies of 1 Enoch are found in the DSS, it is never quoted or cited as authoritative, so the most we can determine is the rather bland conclusion: “it was popular.” But just because your shelf has a lot of C.S. Lewis does not imply you think of his writing as equally inspired as Scripture!
  • Finally, some have argued that the Temple Scroll may have been seen as authoritative, given that the book actually presents itself as inspired; in fact, as a reproduction of much of the Torah, the scroll changes third person references to Yahweh to the first person (e.g., instead of “God said to Moses,” it reads, “I said to Moses”). This could simply be a literary stylistic convention and nothing more; either way, the scroll is never quoted elsewhere, and we have little to go on to determine if it was seen by the community (not the author) as authoritative.

In short: There will always be theories out there about what non-canonical books coulda/shoulda/woulda been a part of the canon if not for a powerplay or deception by the orthodox sect. Most of those theories do not stand up to critical inquiry. Moreover, even if the Qumran sect did recognize, say, Jubilees as authoritative, that does not mean it was inspired and that we somehow “missed it.” [Note: As this is already quite long, I am intentionally leaving out any detailed treatment of the doctrine of the self-attesting canon, inspiration, etc. For more, see Dr. Michael Kruger’s blog and book).

3. How have the DSS challenged the NT and early church view of Jesus?

As discussed in the prior post, there were numerous delays in the release of the Scrolls after they were first discovered, caused by anything from the Israel-Palestine conflicts beginning in the same year to scholarly competition over publishing rights. The delay itself, however, fueled a good bit of speculation once some – but not all – of the contents of the Scrolls hit the press: is the Church hiding something that the  Scrolls reveal, which might undermine Christianity? Maybe there was some overzealous caution by those involved from the church side of things, maybe there wasn’t. Regardless, I will address a few of the major hypotheses that scholars have put forth as somehow challenging the historic, orthodox (little-o, not big-O) understanding of the person and work of Jesus, as revealed in the New Testament.

Ceremonial pool (mikvah) at Qumran
Ceremonial pool (mikveh) at Qumran

Theory 1: “The Qumran community was made up of Christians, or at least proto-Christians.”

    • This claim is made based on the observation that the practices and behaviors of the community appear quite similar to those reflected in the book of Acts. For instance, the Community Rule and other scrolls discuss such practices as (a) ritual cleansing with water (baptism?), (b) religious meals involving bread and wine (communion?), (c) communal sharing of property (Acts 4:32ff?), (d) repeated mention of a “new covenant,” and so forth.
    • However, the dating of the manuscripts, artifacts, coins, graveyards, and so on have presented a pretty solid case that the community that occupied Qumran pre-dated the early church. There may have been some inhabitants as late as AD 70, when the early church was starting to gain momentum, but that does not mean the Qumran community was itself Christian.
    • Interestingly, many scholars look at the same observations but draw a different conclusion: the Qumranites were not Christians at all, but rather the Christians were in some sense borrowing their practices from Qumran. In other words, “what the Christians were doing was not at all innovative.” This thesis is often intended to produce a corollary conclusion: “thus, the Christian church is no different or ‘more right’ than any other religious group at the time, but rather was simply just another religious party that, thanks to Constantine years later, ultimately won out.” While the thesis itself is mild, the corollary would be much more troubling.
    • We can respond to these hypotheses a couple ways. First, the early church never claimed it was doing things that were completely unheralded. In fact, much of the NT deals with the very truth that the church was growing out of an existing root: first century Judaism. The “newness” of Christian sacraments was not the use of water for ceremonial washings or the sharing of a meal (both of which had OT precedents), but rather the person in whom they received their perfect consummation. Likewise, the church never claimed that their sharing of property or other notable behaviors were totally unique (plenty of Greco-Roman “schools” of philosophy did similar things). Finally, the “new covenant” was not new in the sense of a “new” invention (as in the introduction the first iPhone years ago), but rather in the sense of a “new” model year (iPhone 5 … 5C … 5S): it was building on and bringing to greater clarity and fulfillment an antecedent covenant established by God and administered from the days of Adam through Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David.
    • So let us avoid getting too concerned if there are parallels between Qumran and the early church. In fact, this is precisely what we should expect. The Jews at Qumran were steeped in the same Hebrew scriptures, reflecting on the same covenant promises, and anticipating the same Day of the Lord as the early Christians – only, they were too early to see God made flesh and BE the fulfillment of the old covenant that they so longed for.

Theory 2: The NT borrows from the Qumran literature.

    • This theory holds that the NT authors were aware of the non-biblical Qumran scrolls, used them as sources, and were influenced by their teachings. This notion, when pressed, can lead to an attempt at undermining more traditional understandings of inspiration and the authority of the NT.
    • Many of the DSS do, in fact, use similar terminology that shows up in the New Testament (e.g., “new covenant”). But so does other Greco-Roman and Jewish literature. The NT was not written in a vacuum using a newly invented language or unique vocabulary. If we consider that the non-biblical Qumran scrolls were influenced by the same Hebrew Bible that influenced the NT writers, we should expect significant overlap. So even if the NT authors were familiar with the scrolls – evidence for which is completely absent, but still possible nonetheless – it would not really mean much. The authors were not secluded in some tower with no access to the literature of their surrounding world, but quite the opposite.
    • More specifically, we do have good evidence that Jude was alluding to or quoting from 1 Enoch (mentioned above; see Jude 14), which shows up several times in Qumran but is also known from other manuscripts. This issue typically raises the question, “Did Jude view 1 Enoch as inspired?” The short answer is that no, it is not necessary to conclude that Jude saw it as inspired and authoritative. Certainly non-inspired works can have true statements in them, which can then be appropriated by inspired writers. Moreover, we have examples of this elsewhere in the Bible, such as Paul’s quotation of Aratus (Acts 17:28), Luke’s use of eye-witness accounts and other records (Luke 1:1–4), and OT writers use of non-canonical historical records.[5]
    • Thus, even if the NT writers did borrow ideas from Qumran, that is not a scandalous issue, since Qumran got its ideas largely from the Hebrew Bible (even its wrong interpretations).
  • Theory 3: The DSS anticipated the messiah, and Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of the “Teacher,” not the divine Son of God and Savior.
    1. This is the theory with the most shock-value. Ever since scholars began noting the recurring appearance of the “Teacher of Righteousness” in the scrolls as the key leader of the Qumran sect, they have drawn comparisons with the depiction of Jesus in the NT. According to the scrolls, the Teacher receives divine revelation, presides over the community (and even makes all the major decisions about who is in and who is out), administers the sacred meal, and plays a key role in the great apocalyptic battle that the community thought was close at hand.
    2. Sounds a lot like Jesus, right? Some have even gone so far as to argue that Jesus saw himself AS the Teacher (which requires Theory 1 to be true), such that he did not see himself as the divine Son of God, or an atoning savior, or the founder of a new religious sect. Rather, he was the fulfillment of the Qumran “Teacher” figure.
    3. The fatal issue with this theory is that the basic archetype of the “Teacher” found in the Scrolls was not invented by the Qumran authors. The broad outlines of his role finds its basis in the Old Testament (with much creative embellishment by Qumran). (a) Deuteronomy 18:15ff foretells a future prophet who will be similar to but better than Moses, whom all God’s people are to obey. (b) The OT presents multiple perspectives on the leadership of God’s people and the role of Levitical priests, Davidic kings, and prophets in presiding over the community of faith. (c) The Levitical cultus included communal meals that would take place after a sacrifice, and the Passover itself (the archetype of the Lord’s Supper) was just such a sacred meal. (d) Finally, several prophets, most notably Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah, speak about a person who would come with divine authority, execute judgment, and deliver God’s people in the great Day of the Lord (e.g., the “son of man” in Daniel 7).
    4. In other words, the Teacher is not some new fabrication that Jesus was copying. Rather, the DSS Teacher is simply one small sect’s interpretation of thousands of years of biblical revelation.
    5. In fact, what is most notable about the Jesus theory is this. Scholars have generally agreed that Qumran eschatology[6] focuses on three figures who will play a role in the great apocalyptic battle. The first is the Teacher, who plays the role of inspired Prophet. The second is the “Messiah of Aaron,” a priestly messianic figure who will provide atonement for the people. The third is the “Messiah of David,” a kingly messianic figure who rules the people. Yes, they have two messiahs! Note the division of labor here, for it is quite remarkable: eschatological salvation is achieved through a Prophet, a Priest, and a King.
    6. Those are the same threefold offices with a governing role in the OT – and the same three offices that Christians have attributed to Jesus Christ. Only with Jesus, all three are perfectly fulfilled in a single person.[7]
    7. So there should be no surprise that Jesus resembles the Teacher. In fact, the order is the other way around. The Teacher and the 2 Messiahs of Qumran are patterned (however imperfectly) off the real Prophet, Priest, and King: Jesus Christ.

In short, the Qumran literature sheds some light on the state of Judaism among a single unidentified sect in Palestine preceding and contemporaneous with the ministry of Jesus and the start of the Christian movement. Though it is by no means representative of ALL of Judaism, it does provide a lot of helpful data by which we can evaluate the NT. In the end, there appears to be little to be afraid of here.

4. So what? Connecting to the pew

I outlined a few principles in part one, but I will add two more here.

  • Remember that the church has a context. A lot of the more radical Qumran theories that are apparently intended to upset the status quo of the Western church presuppose something that is simply not accurate: that Christianity only holds water if it is totally unique in the true sense of the word. If some other movement or ideas are found that seem similar to Acts or Paul’s letters or the gospels, then the NT must be some sort of plagiarization of what came before. I’m not sure where that idea comes from, but it is certainly not there in the NT itself. The Bible is quite clear that Christianity emerges out of a context that includes not only Second Temple Judaism, but the entire history of God’s covenantal dealings with his people all the way back to Genesis 3:15. The OT is a half-built bridge waiting on its completion in the NT people of God. The NT church has a rich context of beliefs, worship, soteriology, and much more. The Good News is “news,” certainly, but it even that news was announced long before, to a people who were longing for its fullest and final expression in Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:10–12).
  • There is a difference between inspiration and transmission. Studies on the large numbers of textual variants identified in the Qumran scrolls relative to our standard Hebrew text can cause some heartburn: what does that do to the trustworthiness and authority of the Bible? In this realm we have to remember that there is a key distinction to be drawn between (a) the inspiration of the original Scriptures (God’s influencing the verbal output of the biblical authors), and (b) the organic process of transmitting the Scriptures across eras of oral tradition, handwritten parchments and papyrus, exiles and wars and all the rest. In other words, we must keep in mind that there are two different questions at play when it comes to the authoritativeness and integrity of the Bible. “Were the original words inspired by God?” And, “Do we have an accurate record of those words?” The first question is where we have the most evangelical skin in the game, so to speak. The second question is a matter of doing the hard work to compare manuscripts and work our way back to our best analysis of what the original writings said. Yes, God providentially superintended the transmission process (given the chaotic history of Israel and the early church, it truly would take an act of God to preserve what we have received!). However, scribes still made mistakes, but those mistakes have no bearing on question 1. The DSS certainly introduced complexity into the manuscript tradition and study of textual variants, but in my view, the net effect has been positive. The Masoretic text has proven to be remarkably accurate, and the discovery of other manuscript witnesses has added a lot of new data that can help us continue to refine our view of what the original Hebrew words actually said. For more, I refer you to Brotzman, Old Testament Textual Criticism.


[1] The work of Emmanuel Tov (Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert; Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible) has been particularly illuminating here.

[2] This is too much to cover here, but even disagreements among manuscripts about words, letters, spellings, etc. can actually be helpful, for you can use the various principles of textual criticism to draw sound conclusions about what the original text must have said in order to lead to the later variants. This is harder to do with the OT (which has fewer manuscripts available) than the NT (which has thousands), but many of the principles still apply.

[3] VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls for Today, 163.

[4] VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls for Today, 162.

[5] Book of the Wars of the Lord (Num 21:14), Book of Jashar (Josh 10:13), Book of the Acts of Solomon (1 Kgs 11:41), Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel (1 Kgs 14:19), Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia (Esth 10:2).

[6] See the Community Rule (1QS), Thanksgiving Scroll (1QHa), the Charter for Israel in the Last Days (1QSa), the War Scroll (1QM), and the Florilegium (4Q174).

[7] Scholarship abounds on the topic of the threefold offices of Christ. Here is a helpful starting point.

4 thoughts on “Qumran Pt 2: Why do the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter?”

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