Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the Old Testament
Good News Magazine
September 1975
Volume: Vol XXIV, No. 9
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Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the Old Testament
Lester L Grabbe  

   It all began in the spring of 1947. Muhammed Adh-Dhib, a fifteen-year-old Bedouin boy, stumbled onto the first scrolls on the northwest shores of the Dead Sea. According to one story, he threw a stone at a runaway goat. The stone landed in a cave, and the boy heard the tinkle of breaking pottery. This led him to the manuscripts.
   When scholars examined these first manuscripts, they were astonished. Among them was a copy of the book of Isaiah, almost complete and dating from before the time of Jesus.

Surprising Discovery

   What caused biblical archaeologists to leap for joy when news of the Dead Sea Scrolls spread? The reason was clear. Valuable new information was now available in the field of Jewish studies. More important, here was background material for the study of the Old Testament biblical text itself.
   Previous to the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery, the earliest dated manuscript of the Hebrew Bible came from the early 10th century of the present era. Now scholars possessed manuscript material about 1000 years older — even though some of the books of the Hebrew Bible were represented only by fragments.
   Considering the antiquity of the new manuscripts, scholars were not surprised to find a text differing at points from the preserved Hebrew text (known as the Masoretic text). More amazing was the fact that the scroll first discovered — an almost complete copy of the book of Isaiah — agreed for the most part with our present Masoretic text. Despite some differences, the Isaiah scroll was of the Masoretic text-type.
   This realization has caused a number of scholars to downgrade the use of variant readings from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Millar Burrows was in charge of the first unrolling of the Isaiah scroll and the editor-in-chief of its first publication. He was also on the revision committee of the Revised Standard Version, which considered the divergence of the new scroll from the Masoretic text: "Thirteen readings [in Isaiah] in which the manuscript departs from the traditional text were eventually adopted. In these places a marginal note cites 'One ancient Ms,' meaning the St. Mark's Isaiah scroll.... For myself I must confess that in some cases where I probably voted for the emendation I am now convinced that our decision was a mistake, and the Masoretic reading should have been retained" (The Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 305).
   Another scholar, F. F. Bruce of the University of Manchester, echoed the conclusions of many that "in general the new discoveries have increased our respect for the Massoretic Hebrew text" (Second Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 69).

Other Scrolls

   As other scrolls were found and deciphered, however, a new picture emerged. Many of the manuscripts contained a text very similar to that of our present Hebrew text. Others contained a text which differed to a considerable degree.
   In the quarter of a century since the first publications on the subject, a general scholarly consensus has emerged. Three basic text-types appear to have been extant at Qumran (the location of the sect preserving the Dead Sea Scrolls) and even in various other parts of the Near East. One of these was the Masoretic text-type which has been used as a basis for the Old Testament of most modem Old Testament translations. Another text is related to the Greek Septuagint translation made about the 3rd-Ist centuries B.C. A third textual recension includes the Pentateuch still used by the Samaritan sect in Israel, a text differing at a number of points from the Jewish Hebrew Scriptures.
   It is clear that the Qumran community had no "official" or "canonical" text but used a variety of texts. This may seem odd until one considers two factors: 1) the essential message of the various textual traditions was the same; and 2) as a sect which had severed relations with the recognized priestly hierarchy in Jerusalem, the Qumran group may have used and preserved textual recensions which were not accepted by the constituted religious authority.


   Much of the history of the text and canon of the Old Testament has to be surmised since we have no clear record of the processes involved. The history of the various traditions preserved in the Old Testament — beginning with Genesis and going down into the post-Exilic period — covers a span of many centuries. The documents in which these traditions were preserved are sometimes named in the Bible itself. They include poems, songs, court records, law books, genealogical lists, and the writings of individuals such as many of the prophetic books.
   The same information was often preserved in more than one form or document. Sometimes the wording varied from document to document, and different versions of the same event were preserved. For example, two slightly different versions of a poem (psalm) are found in II Samuel 22 and Psalm 18. The books of Kings and of Chronicles, though both covering the history of Israel under the monarchy, do not always give the same events or record the same details. (It is a situation similar to the life of Jesus which is given in different form in each of the four Gospels.)
   The exact time of final editing of the text and canon is uncertain. It was once thought this was done about A.D. 90 at the Synod of Yavneh. However, further research shows Yavneh did not really involve canonization, and the content of the Old Testament was already settled before New Testament times. (For further information, see Jack P. Lewis, "What Do We Mean by Jabneh?" Journal for the Bible and Religion, 1964, pp. 125-132 and B. J. Roberts, "The Old Testament Canon: A Suggestion," Bulletin of John Ryland's Library 46, 1963- 1964, pp. 164-178.)
   The preservation, editing and canonization was done by the Jewish community. Their authority to do this is recognized in the New Testament in the statement of the apostle Paul that the Jews "were entrusted with the words (ta logia) of God" (Rom. 3:2). Christians who take this statement seriously must look to the Old Testament as preserved in the Jewish community.

Documents Excluded

   With the finalizing of the material which was to make up the official religious book, the Jews found it necessary to reject those writings which some might think had religious sanction. This included apocryphal works like the books of Maccabees and pseudepigraphic writings such as the Book of Enoch. This also included those versions of the Bible books which differed from the edited version included in the canon.
   Many of these writings excluded contained useful historical and literary information. I Maccabees, for example, is a prime source of information about the history of Palestine during the 2nd century B.C. Often these writings made no claim of divine inspiration. The book of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) contains some very practical wisdom, often the result of meditating on the biblical Proverbs. But the author did not think his work had canonical authority, nor was his book ever accorded it by the Jews. It always held a place below the Old Testament books in religious authority even though widely used and respected by the Jewish people.
   Books which were not religiously offensive were not generally suppressed. Others, such as the Book of Enoch, were felt to be theologically questionable if not downright heretical. Efforts were made to destroy these writings. The success of the Jewish religious authority is evident from the fact that many have been preserved only in Greek translation among non-Jews or by sectarian movements such as the Qumran community. (Fragments of some of the original texts of these have been found in the same caves as the biblical scrolls.)
   Variant versions of some of the biblical books also continued to circulate for a time even among Jews. This was tolerated to a large extent because manuscripts were costly and hard to obtain. However, when these were adopted by groups considered heretical (such as the Samaritans), such nonstandard editions fell into disfavor and were finally suppressed in the regular community.
   Many of these texts and writings were eventually lost and no one would have even known they had ever existed if the Dead Sea Scrolls had not been found. But now that we have this information, we can use it as we would any secular document without religious authority.

Antiquity of the Masoretic Text

   It used to be assumed by some scholars that the Masoretic text was the product of medieval Jewish scholarship. A few had thought the best and most original text was preserved in the Septuagint, which was translated long before the time of the Masoretic scholars of the early Middle Ages. The Dead Sea discoveries ended that assumption.
   The Masoretic text-type is one (though not the only one) of the recensions found at Qumran. One of the earliest of the Qumran scrolls (dating back to about 200 B.C.) is "proto-Masoretic" (see F. M. Cross, "The Oldest Manuscripts from Qumran," Journal of Biblical Literature 74, 1955, p. 164). Of two scrolls preserving significant sections of Isaiah, both are of the general Masoretic recension. Yet even though both are from approximately the same time, one is much closer to the Masoretic text than the other.
   In addition to those in the Qumran caves, biblical manuscripts have also been found in other parts of the Judaean desert. Most of these date from a slightly later time than the Qumran scrolls — about A.D. 50- 130. Though often more fragmentary than the scrolls from Qumran, they represent a text which is almost exactly like the Masoretic text of a thousand years later.
   One of the more lengthy of these later scrolls is a manuscript of the Minor Prophets. It was published by J. T. Milik in the series Discoveries in the Judaean Desert (vol. II, Les Grottes de Murabba'at, pp. 181-205 and Plates LVI-LXXIII). The variants of that manuscript from the Masoretic text are as minor as the variants within the various Masoretic manuscripts themselves.
   Other manuscripts from the Judaean desert show not only the same text as the Masoretic but even the same verse and paragraph divisions (see Y. Yadin, Masada, pp. 171-172, 179). The vowel points were not written down at that time but preserved in the oral reading tradition. However, the antiquity of all features of the Masoretic text are borne out by these and other studies. The fact that some were preserved orally does not negate their authenticity.

Contribution of the Scrolls

   The contribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls to biblical scholarship is manifold. The article has only begun to give some idea of that value. Among other things, they have advanced notably our knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic philology, palaeography, papyrology, and scribal technique.
   For example, the Talmud gives certain directions about how biblical manuscripts were to be copied, but this information dates from a much later time. These directions are also not the same as having an actual manuscript. The Scrolls have now given us early manuscriptions, showing not only the type of script used but also the manner of spacing, correcting, and even preparation of the parchment and papyrus for writing.
   In some cases a variant reading is simply the use of a grammatical form from a later stage of Hebrew. If this form is better known than the form in the Masoretic text, it serves as an explanation of the problematic word. Words are also used in a different way from that previously known, and sometimes even new words or forms turn up. This has helped to clarify a variety of difficult passages in the Old Testament.
   A number of the books are provided with sectarian commentaries which represent the interpretation of the Qumran community.. Although many of these interpretations are hardly what we would want to use today, they sometimes illustrate the hermeneutical practices. common to a large part of Judaism at the time.
   In many other ways the Scrolls contribute to the total sum of our knowledge including geographical, historical and bibliographical details of the times.
   Yet probably the most important contribution to the Old Testament from the point of view of a believer is the substantiation of the antiquity and careful preservation of the traditional Hebrew text.

Discovery Sites of the DEAD SEA SCROLLS

   The Dead Sea Scroll finds in 1947 were the first such discoveries to be made in the area. Since that time, many important documents have been unearthed. For example, the "Temple Scroll," the largest scroll found to date, did not come into Israeli hands until 1967.
   The consensus of scholarly research puts the dates of the scrolls at the time preceding the destruction of the Qumran religious community (which preserved the scrolls) in about A.D. 68.
   All the finds have centered around five major areas:
   Khirbet Qumran. This is the area on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea where the original Dead Sea manuscripts were found. Its name comes from the Arabic designation of the ruins of the ancient Essene Qumran community which copied the material found in the area.
   This was a "monastic" group whose religious beliefs caused it to withdraw from the mainstream of Jewish civilization. Members of the ascetic Qumran community even refused to worship at the Temple. In addition to fragments of every book of the Bible but Esther, archaeologists have found remains of Essene literature and Jewish apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writings.
   Wadi Murabba at and the Caves of Nahal Hever and Nahal Se'elim. Both of these finds are in the desolate Judean Wilderness west of the Dead Sea. Besides fragments of the Bible, finds in these areas include evidence from the Jewish revolt of A.D. 132-135. This includes letters from "Bar Kokhba" (Simon ben Kosiba), the leader of the revolt himself.
   Wadi Daliyeh. In this area north of Jericho were found documents left by refugees from Alexander the Great. This material, written during the time 375-334 before this era, is the earliest extensive collection of papyri yet found in the Palestine area.
   Masada. The excavation of this ancient Jewish fortress by the archaeologist Yigael Yadin turned up, among other things, material from both the Hebrew Bible and the Apocrypha.

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Good News MagazineSeptember 1975Vol XXIV, No. 9