What Have we Learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls?

What Have We Learned From The Dead Sea Scrolls?

Between 1946 and 1952, what became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves near the ancient settlement of Qumran. Since then scholars have differed as to their importance. Many years ago, I asked a bible scholar what we had learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls. His answer? “We learned that we didn’t need them.” By this he meant that the Dead Sea Scrolls had confirmed everything conservative bible scholars had been saying about the reliability and inerrancy of scripture. He was wrong.

With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars now had a group of texts that were a thousand years older than the existing Masoretic texts, which date from the 9th and 10th centuries. On the one hand, these texts were passed on relatively unchanged around the time of Christ. However, some theological conservatives — such as Will Varner, writing for ChristianAnswers.net — draw unwarranted conclusions. Varner writes:

Here is a strong example of the tender care which the Jewish scribes down through the centuries took in an effort to accurately copy the sacred Scriptures. We can have confidence that our Old Testament Scriptures faithfully represent the words given to Moses, David and the prophets.[1]

The problem with this is that Moses lived approximately 1100 years before the Dead Sea Scrolls were written. The claim that the scriptures changed little between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic texts provides us no insight into the potential for the development or alteration of the texts in the centuries prior to the coming of Christ. Moreover, the claim that there was little change between the extant Masoretic texts and the texts of the Dead Sea scrolls is just wrong.

Most importantly, the Dead Sea Scrolls were unpointed texts. The ancient Hebrew texts did not contain the vowel points, and had no spacing between the letters. When the Masorites did their work, they added vowel pointing and word spacing, fixing a particular interpretation of the text. The 18th Century Anglican Scholar Adam Clarke, in the Preface to Volume 1 of his Commentary on the Whole Bible, writes the following:

The Mazoretes were the most extensive Jewish Commentators which that nation could ever boast. The system of punctuation, probably invented by them, is a continual gloss on the Law and the Prophets; their vowel points, and prosaic and metrical accents, give every word to which they are affixed a peculiar kind of meaning, which in their simple state, multitudes of them can by no means bear. The vowel points alone, add whole conjugations to the language. This system is one of the most artificial, particular, and extensive comments ever written on the Word of God; for there is not one word in the Bible that is not the subject of a particular gloss, through its influence.[2]

It should be noted that the Hebrew word from which is derived the term Masoretes, mesorah (מסורה, alt. מסורת), is a reference to tradition; specifically, the transmission of a tradition. Therefore, the Masoretic text should be understood as fixing a particular understanding of scripture, a particular strain of Jewish thought.

Moreover, it is not just the addition of vowel points and word spacing that differentiates the Masoretic text from the Dead Sea Scrolls, but that entire texts have been changed. The Book of Psalms, as found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, is quite different, including a number of psalms missing from both the Masoretic text and the LXX.[3] The book of Jeremiah is quite different, and agrees with the Septuagint instead of the Masoretic text. Karel Van Der Toorn, in his book Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible, writes:

Biblical scholars have long been aware of the fact that the Greek translation of Jeremiah as extant in the Septuagint is shorter by one-seventh than the text in the Hebrew Bible. Its arrangement of the material, moreover, differs at some points from that in the Hebrew text. The most striking instance is the position of the Oracles against the Nations. Whereas the Septuagint places them right after 25:13 (“ And I will bring upon that land all that I have decreed against it, all that is recorded in this book — that which Jeremiah prophesied against all the nations”), the Hebrew Bible has them at the end of the book (Chapters 46-51). The discoveries in the Judean Desert have yielded a fragment of a Hebrew version of Jeremiah (4QJerb) that agrees with the Septuagint (henceforth JerLXX) against the Hebrew text known from the Masoretic tradition (Henceforth JerMT). Based on this fragment, scholars have concluded that the Greek translation goes back to a Hebrew text of Jeremiah that differs in important respects from the Hebrew Bible. The differences between JerMT and JerLXX are such that they cannot be attributed to scribal errors in the process of transmission. Nor can the Hebrew vorlage[4] of the Septuagint be interpreted as an abbreviated version of the book. In view of their different placement of the Oracles against the Nations, JerMT and JerLXX represent two different editions of the same book. Chronologically, the edition reflected in JerLXX  precedes the one extant in JerMT.[5]

Lawrence Boadt, in his book Reading the Old Testament, confirms this. He writes:

There were quite a variety of copies of the Hebrew Old Testament available by the time of Jesus. Since copying had gone on for a long time already, many different editions circulated, some longer with sections added in, some shorter with sections omitted. All had some change or error in them. Since a scribe in one area often copied from a local text, the same error or change often appeared regularly in one place, say, Babylon, but not in text copied in Egypt. Thus, at the time of Christ, three major “families” or groupings of text types could be found: The Babylonian, the Palestinian, and the Egyptian. …Only at the end of the first century A.D. did the rabbis decide to end the confusion and select one text, the best they could find, for each part of the Bible. In the Pentateuch they chose the Babylonian tradition, but in other books, such as the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, they followed the Palestinian-type text.

These first century rabbis also inaugurated a method of guaranteeing the text from any more glosses and additions, though not completely from copying errors. They counted words, syllables, and sections, and wrote the totals at the end of each book of the Old Testament. …The standard Hebrew text that resulted from the decisions of these early rabbis has become known as the “Masoretic text,” named after a later group of Jewish scholars of the eighth to eleventh centuries A.D., the masoretes, or “interpreters,” who put vowels into the text, and thus “Fixed the words in a definitive form. No longer could a reader be confused by whether the word qtl in the text meant qotel, “the killer,” or qatal, “he killed.”[6]

The problem is this. The 1st century rabbis fixed the text in a form significantly different than that used by the Jewish diaspora for several hundred years. This was a radical emendation of the text which, when coupled by the Masoretic vowel pointing, fixed the interpretation of the text. Thus it is clear that as Judaism underwent substantial changes subsequent to the destruction of the temple, so too did the text used as the basis for their faith.

Additionally, we learn from the Dead Sea Scrolls is that the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was quite fluid in the years leading up to the fall of Jerusalem.[7] Judaism is now understood to have been much more diverse in the time of Christ than it was to become. The Samaritans held that only the five books of Moses were scripture, although their version of the first five books of Moses were slightly different.[8] It has been widely (although not universally) understood that the Sadducees considered only the first five books of Moses to be scripture.[9] This view was prevalent among some of the church fathers, but modern scholars think the fathers were conflating the Samaritans and the Sadducees.[10] If the latest scholarship is correct, the canon for both the Sadducees and Pharisees covered what we know today as the Hebrew Scriptures, aka. the Old Testament. The Diaspora, sometimes called the Hellenists, used the Septuagint (LXX) in their synagogues. The canon of the LXX was quite fluid, containing numerous books written after the time of Ezra. The Essenes appear to have used the Septuagint canon, with the possible exception of the book of Esther.[11]

So what does this all mean? Well for one thing, the Dead Sea Scrolls have exposed the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures changed over time, thus calling into question the 20th century theological innovation known as inerrancy. Moreover, the Dead Sea Scrolls have called into question the validity and veracity of the Masoretic text, being examples of the Septuagint textual tradition. This, the Dead Sea Scrolls call into question all translations based upon the Masoretic text.[12] Perhaps this is why conservative evangelical scholars will still tell you that the Dead Sea Scrolls were not needed; to admit otherwise would call into question their entire theological paradigm.


[1] Arnett, Will. What is the Importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls? 1997. http://christiananswers.net/q-abr/abr-a023.html

[2] Clarke, Adam. Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Volume 1. 1853. p. iii

[3] Sanders, J. A. Psalms Scroll: Tehillim. http://www.ibiblio.org/expo/deadsea.scrolls.exhibit/Library/psalms.html

[4] Vorlage: a prior version of a text under consideration.

[5] Van der Toorn, Karel. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible.  2007. pp. 199-200

[6] Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. 1984. pp. 73-74

[7] Tigchelaar, Eibert. How did the Qumran Scrolls Transform our Views of the Canonical Process? 2009. https:// lirias.kuleuven.be/bitstream/123456789/253557/3/tigchelaar-canon.doc

[8] Wikipedia. Samaritan Pentateuch. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samaritan_Pentateuch

[9] Ross, Allen. The Sadducees. 2006. https://bible.org/seriespage/sadducees

[10] The primary difference between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was not the canon itself, but the use to which they put the canon. The Sadducees were strict literalists; it if couldn’t be found in scripture, it wasn’t part of Judaism. By contrast, the Pharisees had a body of tradition which served to enhance or interpret scripture; some of these regulations were extra-scriptural, in that they could not be traced back to scriptural texts. For this reason, the Sadducees rejected the traditions and regulations of the Pharisees. (Skarsaune, Oskar. In the Shadow of the Temple. IVP Academic. 2002. pp. 109-111)

[11] This is the popular view, based on archeological digs by a Dominican monk named Roland de Vaux, as interpreted through the translation (by a Polish scholar named Jozef Milik) of a scroll called “The Rule of the Community”. Roland de Vaux’s views were widely accepted in the academic community in the 1970s, and fired the popular imagination. More recent archeology has cast doubt upon the identification of the Qumran community with the Essenes, and suggests that the texts hidden away in the caves of Qumran were deposited by Jews in anticipation of the Roman’s capture of Jerusalem. This view is bolstered by the inclusion of a copper scroll comprising a list of possible second temple treasures hidden away in anticipation of the Roman advance. (Lawler, Andrew. Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? 2010. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Who-Wrote-the-Dead-Sea-Scrolls.html)

[12] I do not say that the Masoretic text is not Scripture; merely that it is not the best available text of scripture. A text need not be perfect to be inspired. Inspiration, as testified to by Sacred Scripture, is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for instruction in righteousness. Clearly the Masoretic text meets that benchmark.