Chapter 7 – Understanding The Dead Sea Scrolls

Chapter 7: Understanding The Dead Sea Scrolls

[Footnotes are in red and placed in brackets]

“It is concealed and hidden, but God does not forget it.

Delayed is not forgotten!”

-Hans Christian Andersen, Delaying Is Not Forgetting (1872)

West of the northern half of the Dead Sea lies the ruins of Qumran. A fantastic discovery was made in 1947 in the various caves throughout that region. Scrolls and fragments of scrolls were found. These ancient writings became the center of attention for the media, as well as for students of the Bible and archaeology. Like sheep desiring water, a Bedouin shepherd had led a thirsty world to the most acclaimed find of the twentieth century, the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Many claims have been made regarding the Scrolls. Some, while drinking at this newly found fountain of knowledge, have seen the Scrolls as a pool of Bethesda offering spiritual or academic healing of some sort. Others have seen them as the waters of Marah, bitter and full of corruption. Perhaps the best way to view them is to see them for what they are, scrolls written by scribes. Like the many writings of men, they offer things that are both sweet and bitter.

At least five hundred different scribes were responsible for writing the Dead Sea Scrolls. [Norman Golb, Who Wrote The Dead Sea Scrolls? (New York: Scribner, 1995), 154.] Most of the Scrolls are dated before the time of Christ, while some are dated during and after Christ. One wonders if any of the writers of the Scrolls heard the message of Jesus Christ and his condemnation for not practicing what they had copied (Matthew 23:13). What is certain, however, is that those scribes who heard the Savior’s message had access to what became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Historical Background

The story tells of a shepherd boy, Muhammad adh-Dhib (which means Muhammad the wolf), out seeking his lost goat (or sheep according to some accounts). Thinking that the animal had wandered into one of the many nearby caves, Muhammad threw a stone into one of them hoping to hear the sound of his lost goat scurrying off. Instead, he heard the sound of a jar breaking. Calling one of his friends, he entered the cave and found ancient manuscripts lying in the cave, hidden in primitive jars.

There are other versions concerning Muhammad adh-Dhib and his amazing discovery. One account says the fifteen-year-old shepherd was simply herding some goats when he found the cave. Still other accounts say that Muhammad adh-Dhib was seeking shelter from a storm in the cave when he came across the manuscripts. There is also the story of shepherds who were smuggling goods from Jordan to Bethlehem who inadvertentlyfound the Scrolls.

Regardless which account of the story is true, the seven scrolls discovered in this cave are very significant findings. The scrolls found in what was later designated as Cave 1 were the two Isaiah Scrolls (1QIsa.a and 1QIsa.b), The Habakkuk Commentary, The Manual of Discipline, The Thanksgiving Scroll, The War Scroll, and the Genesis Apocryphon. Later, additional manuscripts were discovered revealing the vast majority of the Old Testament books along with additional religious and secular writings. Scholars consider these scrolls and fragments to be the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times.

Cave 1 is located in the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, about a mile and a half from the shore line in what was then the Wilderness of Jordan. It also stands about a mile from the Khirbet Qumran, the old ruins believed to be the dwelling place of the Essene sect. However, at the time of the discovery, Qumran was thought of as an old fortress.

Dr. Eliezer Sukenik, who purchased some of the shepherd’s findings, took three of the scrolls to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The other scrolls were sold to St. Mark’s, a Syrian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, where the church’s head, Metropolitan Mar Samuel, retained them. Samuel took the scrolls to the American School of Oriental Research, also in Jerusalem, for their examination. It was then that an announcement was made to the world. In the Times of London an article dated April 12, 1948, read as follows:

“Yale University announced yesterday the discovery in Palestine of the earliest known manuscript of the Book of Isaiah. It was found in the Syrian monastery of St. Mark in Jerusalem, where it had been preserved in a scroll of parchment dating to about the first century BC. Recently it was identified by scholars of the American School of Oriental Research at Jerusalem.

There were also examined at the school three other ancient Hebrew scrolls. One was part of a commentary on the Book of Habakkuk; another seemed to be a manual of discipline of some comparatively little-known sect or monastic order, possibly the Essenes. The third scroll has not been identified.” [As cited by James C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 6.]

Dr. Sukenik’s son, Yigael Yadin (also noted as a Qumran expert), was in the United States in 1954. Mar Samuel was visiting the United States at that same time seeking to sell his scrolls. Yadin purchased the four scrolls from Mar Samuel for $250,000 dollars and gave them to the newly formed state of Israel. The seven scrolls were united and placed in a special museum, shaped like the lid of one of the jars in which the scrolls were kept. The museum is known as the Shrine of the Book.

It was difficult to excavate the caves in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, an unsettled period in Middle Eastern history. By the time the importance of the scrolls was known, the state of Israel was being formed. War raged in the Middle East. Despite this turbulent interval, the Bedouins continued to search the region and discovered additional scrolls. Eventually, eleven caves were excavated and thousands of fragments were discovered. Through the years these scrolls and scroll fragments have gradually been translated and published. Many of the manuscripts remained unpublished until the early 1990’s. [Robert Eisenman and Michael Wise, The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1992), 1-16.]

Dating the Scrolls has always been a problem as not all scholars agree in this area. For the most part, the Scrolls are dated from about the third century BC to around 68 AD. The method of dating rests on several factors. Findings among the Scrolls or at Qumran, such as pots and coins, have helped set certain dates. Paleography, the science of dating manuscripts by the shape of letters used in writing, also helps determine the dates of the Scrolls. Carbon-14 dating was used on the cloth that held one of the Isaiah scrolls, but until recently Carbon-14 dating could not be used on the Scrolls themselves because it required a large section of a scroll to be destroyed. Now Carbon-14 dating methods have improved and only a small fragment is needed for this process. George Bonani in the Biblical Archaeology Review reports thatthe dates fixed by paleography have been confirmed by Carbon-14 dating. [George Bonani, “Carbon-14 Tests Substantiate Scroll Dates,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 1991, 72.] It is interesting, however, that the Masada manuscript of Joshua, which is of the Masoretic Text, had been dated by scholars as written somewhere around 30 AD according to paleographic studies. Carbon-14 dating on the same manuscript gave it a range of 150 to 75 BC.

Textual Variance Among The Scrolls

Some have mistakenly assumed that the Dead Sea Scrolls contain only biblical writings. Actually the Scrolls reflect a library scattered throughout eleven caves, containing biblical and non-biblical books. Some are still in scroll form, but most are fragmentary after over two thousand years of aging. With the exceptions of Esther and Nehemiah, every book of the Old Testament is represented in the findings at Qumran. It should be noted, however, that representation and full representation are not the same thing. Some books are represented with only fragmentary evidence in very limited number, while other books are better and more fully represented among the findings.

In the most current published lists of manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls there are thirty-six manuscripts which represent the Book of Psalms, making it the most represented biblical book among the Scrolls. Deuteronomy follows with twenty-nine manuscripts and Isaiah with twenty-one. First and Second Chronicles are represented by only one manuscript, as is Ezra. Most of the others are represented by fewer than ten manuscripts. The exceptions are those previously listed, as well as Genesis (with fifteen manuscripts), Exodus (with seventeen), and Leviticus (with thirteen). There are about eight hundred manuscripts among the Scrolls. Of these, slightly over two hundred represent biblical books, which means only about one-fourth of the Qumran library contained copies of the Scriptures.

It should also be pointed out that not all of these biblical books represent the same textual history. The biblical books found at Qumran are divided into three textual categories:

  1. Manuscripts that represent the Masoretic Traditional Text.
  2. Manuscripts that represent the text of the Septuagint.
  3. Manuscripts that represent the Samaritan text.
  4. However, according to Dr. Emanuel Tov, who became co-editor-in-chief of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1991, there are two additional groups.
  5. Texts that demonstrate a unique style of writing, spelling, and grammar found only at Qumran.
  6. Nonaligned texts that do not show any allegiance to the four other groups. About twenty-five percent of the biblical manuscripts found at Qumran fall into the nonaligned category. [VanderKam, 133-134.]

The Proto-Masoretic Text

These manuscripts are called Proto-Masoretic because they agree with the Masoretic Text, yet date before the Masoretic Text became the official Hebrew Bible. It should be noted that the Dead Sea Scrolls have greatly enhanced the evidence supporting the authority of the Masoretic Text. Until the findings at Qumran (as well as findings at Wadi Murabbaat), the oldest Masoretic Texts dated to the Middle Ages. With Qumran, we now have manuscripts almost a thousand years older that are Masoretic. Most of the scrolls from Cave 4 are of this text-type and represent biblical books such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, the Minor Prophets, and some fragments of the Law and Historical books.

The most noted group is perhaps the Isaiah Scrolls. Two scrolls containing the book of Isaiah were found in Cave 1. The first is sometimes called the St. Mark’s Manuscript (1QIsa.a) because it was initially owned by St. Mark’s Monastery. The second is sometimes called the Hebrew University manuscript of Isaiah (1QIsa.b) because it is owned by that university. Both represent the Masoretic Hebrew Text and are major victories for the Masoretic Text and the Authorized Version.

Textual scholar Dr. James C. VanderKam has pointed out that 1QIsa.a is almost identical to the copies of Isaiah dating to the Middle Ages. Any differences are minor and hardly ever affect the meaning of the text. [Ibid., 126.] Dr. Menahem Mansoor, another textual scholar, has likewise stated that most of the differences are spelling or grammatical changes. Those that do not fall into this type are minor, such as an omission or addition of a word or two, or the mixing of Hebrew letters. [Menahem Mansoor, The Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 74-75.] One such minor variant is found in Isaiah 6:3. The Masoretic Text and the King James Bible read, “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts.” The St. Mark’s Isaiah text reads, “Holy, holy is the LORD of hosts.” Therefore, while 1QIsa.a may be in error in its omission of the third holy, the contents of this scroll overwhelmingly support the Masoretic Text.

As close as this scroll is to the Masoretic tradition, the Hebrew University’s Isaiah scroll is closer. [Ibid., 79.] Textual scholar Dr. Ernst Wurthwein concurred, calling the agreement between 1QIsa.b and the Masoretic Text “striking.” [Ernst Wurthwein, The Text of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 144.] Considering that a thousand years separate the Isaiah Scrolls from their Masoretic counterparts, the term striking may be an understatement. In either case, the evidence from Qumran demonstrates the Traditional Hebrew Text existed long before the Middle Ages, once again establishing the biblical principle of preservation.

About forty percent of the biblical texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are Masoretic. Further, the group of manuscripts listed by Dr. Tov as unique to Qumran also resembles the later Masoretic Text. [VanderKam, 143.] These texts account for twenty-five percent of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Therefore, among the biblical books of Dead Sea Scrolls, sixty-five percent reflect the Traditional Text of the Old Testament.

Providing additional support to the Masoretic readings among the Dead Sea Scrolls are findings at Wadi Murabbaat and Masada. In 1951, caves at Wadi Murabbaat, which is south of Qumran near the Dead Sea, were discovered which contained biblical manuscripts. The major difference here is that these biblical texts exclusively reflect the Masoretic Text. [Mansoor, 28.] These manuscripts, however, are slightly younger and are believed to have been written between 132 and 135 AD. Still, their relationship to the Masoretic Text of the Middle Ages is virtually identical to that of the Proto-Masoretic Qumran group. [Ibid., 31.] The findings at Murabbaat include the Pentateuch, Isaiah, the Minor Prophets, and the book of Psalms.

Between 1963 and 1965 manuscripts were discovered while excavating Masada, the famous rock fortress where Jewish nationalists withheld the advances of the Roman army in 73 or 74 AD. Masada is farther south of Qumran than Wadi Murabbaat, along the western coast of the Dead Sea. These manuscripts must date before the fall of the fortress, which place them before 74 AD. Fourteen scrolls containing biblical texts were found that agree extensively with the Masoretic Text. The only possible exception to this amazing agreement is the book of Ezekiel, and even there the textual variants are extremely minor. [Wurthwein, 31.]

The Proto-Septuagint Text

Only five percent of the Dead Sea Scrolls are Proto-Septuagint. These are texts written in Hebrew that reflect a reading closer to the Greek Septuagint than the Traditional Text. For example, the Greek Septuagint and the text of Jeremiah found at Qumran (4QJer.b) agree in omitting a healthy portion of the text. The Septuagint and Qumran text (4QExod.a) agree in stating the number of descendants from Jacob are seventy-five, instead of the seventy listed in the Masoretic Text. Some have assumed that Stephen was citing either the Septuagint or the Proto-Septuagint text of Qumran in giving the number as seventy-five (Acts 7:14 and Exodus 1:5). Yet, this can also be explained by the way the family was numbered and not the text Stephen was citing.

The Proto-Samaritan Text

As with the Proto-Septuagint textual type of the Dead Sea Scrolls, only five percent of the manuscripts found comprise the Proto-Samaritan textual type. The Samaritan Pentateuch, as indicated by the name, consisted solely of the five books of Moses. The Hebrew text is often the same as the Masoretic Text with differences in spelling rather than textual variants. However, there are nineteen hundred variants that agree with the text of the Septuagint over that of the Masoretic. This text also has some additions to it.

The information concerning the various textual types found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, along with other findings in that region, should reveal something to the reader. First, as in any library, the one at Qumran demonstrates a diversity of material. Is this not to be expected? If a student were to visit my personal library they would discover a wide variety of texts and general information. Second, considering the extensive use of the Masoretic Text in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and its exclusive use in other manuscript findings near the Dead Sea, the Traditional Hebrew Text must be unquestionably authoritative.

Who Wrote The Scrolls?

The vast majority of scholars answer this question by stating that the Essenes, a strict Jewish sect that lived in piety and isolation, wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. Like other Jewish groups such as the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Essenes were both a religious groupand a political one. Some have suggested the Essenes were a splinter group of the Pharisees.

The Jewish philosopher Philo wrote that a group of Essenes lived west of the Dead Sea in the wilderness. Some assume that the ruins found at Qumran must have been the dwelling place of the Essenes because it fits the general location. Likewise, since John the Baptist dwelt in this same wilderness, some have concluded John was part of the Essenes sect, or else was influenced by the strict teachings of the Essenes. However, such conclusions overstep biblical and historical facts. Josephus provides additional information about the Essenes. In his Antiquities of the Jews, he states that the Essenes lived in groups, having all things in common. They “neither marry wives, nor are desirous to keep servants; as thinking the latter tempts men to be unjust, and the former gives the handle to domestic quarrels; but as they live by themselves, they minister one to another” (XVIII. 1:5). They believed in the immortality of the soul and that an eternal reward awaited those who lived a righteous life.

Certainly many of the writings among the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect the views and teachings of the Essenes. The ruins found a mile away from Cave 1 at Qumran most certainly could have been from an Essenes community. Nevertheless, there are those who have come to different conclusions as to who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls and about the community at Qumran. One such scholar is Dr. Norman Golb, author of Who Wrote The Dead Sea Scrolls? Dr. Golb is a recognized authority on Qumran who believes that the Scrolls are the remains of the Jewish library located in Jerusalem. He contends that various scrolls were hidden in the wilderness to protect the Jerusalem Library from the Romans when they destroyed the Second Temple and the city in 70 AD. He also maintains that the city of Qumran was not the dwelling place of the Essenes, but was a fortress against the Romans. Dr. Golb makes a comparison between the structures at Qumran and the military rock fortress at Masada. He notes that according to Josephus, the Essenes were not limited to a single settlement, but were found in every city of Palestine. [Golb, 5.]

Dr. Golb also points to evidence within the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves. One of the scrolls found was not written on leather, like all the other scrolls, but on flattened copper plates that were riveted together to form a scroll (hence it has been dubbed by scholars The Copper Scroll). It tells of treasure from the Temple that was hidden so that the Romans would not pillage it. Part of the Temple treasure includes a library. In accordance with this, Dr. Golb points to the Apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees as evidence that the Jews historically hid their books when enemies approached.

“The same things also were reported in the writings and commentaries of Neemias; and how he founding a library gathered together the acts of the kings, and the prophets, and of David, and the epistles of the kings concerning the holy gifts. In like manner also Judas gathered together all those things that were lost by reason of the war we had, and they remain with us. Wherefore if ye have need thereof, send some to fetch them unto you.” (2 Maccabees 2:13-15).

Dr. Golb notes that handwriting experts have detected the Dead Sea Scrolls were written by over five hundred various scribes. He states:

“I began to see that the growing number of scripts was starting to pose still another problem for the sectarian hypothesis [i.e., that the Essenes had lived together and were responsible for writing the scrolls]: How many scribes, after all, could have lived together at Khirbet Qumran at any one time, or even over three or four generations? . . . Had the scrolls been written by fewer than two hundred scribes – a number that one might perhaps live with in defending the notion of a sectarian scriptorium at Qumran – or by a much greater number of copyists as I had begun to suspect? The matter was obviously of crucial importance . . . I did not know that two more decades would elapse before facsimiles of all the Cave 4 manuscripts would be published in the wake of an acute controversy, and that they would confirm that at least five hundred scribes had copied the scrolls.” [Ibid., 151, 153-154.]

Dr. Golb recognizes that his view is strongly rejected by the majority of modern scholars. Yet, he is not alone in his view. In the 1950’s, Professor K. H. Rengstorf of the University of Munster in Germany suggested that the Dead Sea Scrolls were the remains of the Jerusalem library. Although Professor Rengstorf had arrived at his conclusion years before Golb, and did so for different reasons, their view still has a common centrality: The Scrolls must have come from Jerusalem and not the sectarian writings of the Essenes. According to Rengstorf and Golb, the Essenes would not have had such a variety of views within their writings since they were sectarian. However, the library at Jerusalem would contain such diverse writings.

Regardless of who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, we can safely state that there is little in them that can be used against the Traditional Hebrew Text. In fact, because the evidence from Qumran overwhelming supports the Masoretic Hebrew Text, we must say the findings at Qumran strongly favor the Traditional Text and the Authorized Version. Additionally, as we have seen, findings at Murabbaat and Masada exclusively support the Masoretic Text, proving that the established text accepted as the oracles of God (Romans 3:1-2) was the Traditional Hebrew Text. The Scrolls may have been concealed and hidden for thousands of years, but God did not forget them. Today, they bear testimony to the Providential Hand in the keeping of Scripture.

There is even more information in the book, including extended footnotes and three appendixes.

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