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The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Judaean Desert has in many ways revolutionized the study of the Hebrew Scriptures as well as recent understanding of the Bible and canon. The scrolls offer insight into the period when the Bible was coming into being in its present form. As such, the Dead Sea Scrolls have been called the greatest finds ever in biblical archaeology.
The relatively large number of biblical manuscripts found in the caves around Qumran underscores the important role of the Hebrew Scriptures in ancient Judaism. Of the nearly 900 manuscripts found, around 210 scrolls, or approximately 25 percent of the library, were copies of biblical books (Ulrich, Biblical Qumran Scrolls). Copies of every book in the traditional Hebrew Bible were discovered, with the exception of the book of Esther and possibly Nehemiah (following today’s division of Nehemiah as a separate book from Ezra).
These individual copies of the Bible date to roughly 250 bc–ad 50, with most having been copied in the century around the turn of the millennium. They are thus the earliest substantial copies of the Hebrew Scriptures in existence today. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest complete copy of the Hebrew Bible (the Leningrad Codex) was from ad 1008. The biblical material from the Judaean Desert is over 1,000 years earlier than these medieval copies of the Hebrew Bible, offering a source of highly significant comparative evidence for the history of the biblical text. Additionally, the biblical scrolls from Qumran are several hundreds of years older than the surviving ancient Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible (fourth century ad and beyond). These early copies of the Hebrew Bible from Qumran address many questions scholars had asked about the quality of the biblical text that had been copied and recopied by many different hands over such a long period of time.
So how do the copies of the Hebrew Bible found at Qumran compare to the traditional Hebrew text (or Masoretic Text), which underlies nearly all modern English translations? First, it is clear that the Jewish copyists who transmitted the scriptural texts did so with considerable care, with few exceptions (below). Additionally, the whole of the biblical evidence from Qumran has underscored that the Hebrew Bible as it is known today evolved over many centuries. On the textual level, there was a degree of fluidity in the spelling and wording of scriptural texts, while on the scale of entire books, even somewhat variant versions existed side by side in the Qumran library. The books that were considered to be part of a set of scripture for a religious community (or canon) was also something that was much more fluid than is present in Jewish and Christian communities today. Finally, even though the Scrolls have broadened our understanding of the history of the Bible, relatively little evidence from the late Second Temple period has been preserved with which to compare it. This lack of comparative evidence, in addition to the frequently fragmentary state of the many biblical texts among the Scrolls, limits our ability to make decisive conclusions about many aspects of the biblical Dead Sea Scrolls.
The biblical scrolls from Qumran generally reveal that textual diversity was common among the books of the Bible as late as the turn of the era. Some of these differences can be seen on the closest textual level. Some have identified patterns to the spelling systems (orthography) at Qumran and have even identified some as representations of a specific “Qumran scribal practice” (Tov, Scribal Practices, 340). The scribes of many biblical and nonbiblical manuscripts found at Qumran made much more frequent use of vowel markers (matres lectionis), in what some scholars would call a longer, more “full” spelling system than that represented in the traditional Masoretic Text. Such variation in spelling systems becomes more significant at times when the marking of a certain vowel form can designate a particular verbal or nominal form, where elsewhere it may have been ambiguous in the early Hebrew texts (which were essentially written without vowels until they were added in the Middle Ages).
Isolated Textual Variants
In spelling, as well as actual wording, a small percentage of the biblical manuscripts from Qumran show remarkable affinity with the Masoretic Text. For instance, one copy of the Isaiah Scroll from Cave 1 (1QIsab) is very close to the form of the text preserved in the Masoretic Text, with only a few minor variants. Yet other copies from this same book exhibit different words and other minor variants from the Masoretic Text. For instance, 1QIsaa contains thousands of differences from the Masoretic Text, including different spellings, different word forms, variants in the texts, and occasionally longer or shorter phrases. Other smaller variants include a copy of 1 Sam 17 (4QSama) that agrees with the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Bible) and lists Goliath’s height at 6 foot 9 inches rather than the 9 foot 9 inches given by the Masoretic Text. The Great Isaiah Scroll from Cave 1 contradicts the famous Isaiah passage known today as, “but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; … they shall walk and not faint.” Instead, 1QIsaa ends col. 34 with “they shall walk, but not fly.”
Larger Variants and/or Different Literary Editions of Biblical Books
In general, the biblical scrolls from Qumran reveal a striking consistency with the general content and character of the Bible today, preserved over 2,000 years of copying and recopying. However, a few notable exceptions were found on the scale of larger variant readings. The best-known example is a paragraph discovered in a Cave 4 version of 1 Samuel that had been missing between 1 Sam 10 and the beginning of 1 Sam 11 in all known modern versions. This paragraph fleshes out a story that was previously considered to be an unclear narrative with a jarring transition. This paragraph likely fell out of a text close to the Masoretic version of the Hebrew because a scribe’s eye skipped from one paragraph to another; it does not appear to be the result of an intentional omission.
Another example of significant variation is the Cave 11 Psalms scroll 11QPsa, which contains nine psalms not present in the Masoretic Psalter. Three of these psalms were known already from other versions of the Bible (Psalms 151; 154; 155), and two were known from other biblical books and the Apocrypha (2 Sam 23:7; Sirach 51). Four of the psalms were previously unknown (Plea for Deliverance, Apostrophe to Zion, Hymn to the Creator, and David’s Composition). Furthermore, the ordering of the psalms in this scroll is significantly different from that represented in the traditional Bible.
Qumran yielded some biblical books in significantly different versions, such as that of Jeremiah. Tov and Ulrich argue for recognizing the two manuscripts of Jeremiah that are close to the Masoretic tradition (4QJera and 4QJerc) and the two that represent a version 13 percent shorter than in modern Bibles (4QJerb and 4QJerd) as two different literary traditions, rather than the results of scribal error or intentional modification of the text (Tov, Textual Criticism; Ulrich, Dead Sea Scrolls). Notably, the keepers of the Qumran library preserved representations of both of these literary editions of Jeremiah together, apparently without too much concern over the variations.
Several scholars have developed a series of models to explain textual pluralism, especially as highlighted at Qumran. Frank Cross developed a theory that assigns specific text types to different textual provenances (Egyptian, Babylonian, and Palestinian; Cross, The Ancient Library of Qumran). Shemaryahu Talmon has argued that textual variety developed due to the creative practices among the authors and copyists of various texts, and only those versions that were eventually chosen by a specific socioreligious community (or textus receptus) were passed along for future generations (Talmon, “Textual Study of the Bible,” 321–400; “Transmission History,” 40). Further, Emanuel Tov has identified five biblical “text types” present in the late Second Temple period. He claims that about 35 percent of the Qumran biblical manuscripts belong to the proto-MT type; 5 percent are pre-Samaritan versions; and 5 percent represent a type closest to the Hebrew text behind the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint). However, 35 percent of the Qumran biblical manuscripts are nonaligned—that is, they do not consistently agree with any other previously known text type. Further, Tov recognizes different literary strata within book traditions that cannot be attributed to the textual transmission process (Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible). Eugene Ulrich expands on Tov’s ideas to propose a theory of successive literary editions of different books (Ulrich, “Qumran Scrolls,” 51–59).
The Qumran evidence shows us that there are more biblical versions (or “text types”) than previously thought. And while the traditional Masoretic Text surely was an important text type, it was not the only or necessarily the dominant text type before the early Jewish rabbis elevated it as authoritative in the early centuries of the Common Era.
Terminology, Canon, and Authoritative Texts
Problems with Terminology
The current categories of “biblical” and “nonbiblical” are anachronistic for the scrolls period—they are scholarly constructs for what exists today. During the period in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were copied, the Jewish Bible was not completely formed, and some texts that Protestants now consider to be part of the Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha may have been considered authoritative for the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Authoritative Texts and the Question of Canon
The Dead Sea Scrolls further illuminate that the collections of Scripture considered to comprise the biblical canon took a long time to formulate and have not always been the same for different groups. We have strong evidence that the categories of Pentateuch (or Torah), as well as the Prophetic Books, were associated with Scripture, but the third division of the Hebrew Bible (the Writings) was still in flux. One Qumran text (4QMMT, section C, line 10) mentions “the book of Moses, the books of the prophets and in David.” Much debate has centered on whether this is evidence of what later became the tripartite division of the Bible—Torah, Prophets, and Writings (perhaps with “David” representing the Psalms; Alexander and Kaestli, The Canon of Scripture).
In the late Second Temple period, and by the time of the Jesus movement, additional books than those that later came to be canon for Jews and Protestant Christians were considered to be authoritative. The New Testament includes hints at this, for instance, when Jude cites the book of Enoch as an authoritative text (Jude 1:14–15; compare 2 Pet 2:4–5; 1 Pet 3:19–20). At Qumran, there is further evidence that books later excluded from the canon—such as 1 Enoch, Jubilees, and possibly the Temple Scroll, Reworked Pentateuch, and the Letter of Jeremiah—were considered to be Scripture for the Qumran community (Ulrich, Dead Sea Scrolls, 51–78; VanderKam and Flint, Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 154–81). It is difficult to know for certain what was considered Scripture at Qumran, but James VanderKam proposes a viable set of criteria for identification (VanderKam, Dead Sea Scrolls Today, 187–95):
- if a book is cited as authoritative and/or it uses certain citation formulae (e.g., “thus says the Lord”)
- if a book presents itself as authoritative or as a revelation from God
- if the book itself becomes the subject of a commentary elsewhere
The status of some texts being recognized as authoritative Scripture at Qumran is evident partly through quotations of and commentaries on scriptural texts found in the nonbiblical scrolls. The most notable form of these commentaries is the running commentary, or pesher. At least 17 commentaries (or pesharim) have been found at Qumran, and each cites a selection of the biblical book followed by an interpretation (pesher). Six commentaries were found on Isaiah (3QpIsa and 4QpIsaa–e), two each on Hosea, Micah, and Zephaniah (4QpHosa, 4QpHosb, 1QpMic, 4QpMic?, 1QpZeph, 4QpZeph), one each on Nahum and Habakkuk (4QpNah, 1QpHab), and three on the Psalms (1QpPs, 4QpPsa, 4QpPsb), which were probably considered to be prophetic in early Judaism. Each commentary is valuable not only for what evidence it gives for the sometimes-extensive sections of biblical texts being cited, but also for its examples of sectarian interpretation and application of the biblical text to their current circumstances and community identity.
The New Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls
No scroll found by the Dead Sea contains any conclusive evidence of a New Testament text, and neither is there any clear reference to Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, or any early Christian by name. This lack of a clear relationship to the New Testament is in large part because the Qumran community was destroyed by the Romans around ad 68, before most of the New Testament was written. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls offer much insight into the study of the New Testament world and share many similarities with the language, texts, and ideas that eventually became recorded in the early Christian texts. For example, the scrolls detail a dualistic worldview of light/dark (compare 1QS 3:13–4:26; compare John 1; 2 Cor 6:14–7:1), draw on Jer 31:31–34 to detail a belief in a “new covenant” (1QS; compare 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3), record the phrase “son of God” in an ambiguous and fragmentary text (4Q246; compare Luke 1:32, 35), and exhibit prominent messianic expectations (compare 1QS 9:11; etc.).
There are still differences in what these terms, concepts, and beliefs meant within early Christianity, as, for instance, the authors of the Scrolls were waiting for two messiahs rather than one. The authors of the Scrolls expected one priestly and another kingly messiah, qualities that are in large part combined into the description of Jesus in the New Testament writings. Nevertheless, the commonalities between the scrolls and early Christian ideas show that there were clear Jewish precursors to the thought and ideas of what later became the Jesus movement. Among the great finds of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the biblical and other sectarian texts highlight that what eventually became the version of Judaism recognized today and its version of Bible and canon was far from fixed by the time of the early Jesus movement.
by Alison Schofield
Selected Resources for Further Study
- Alexander, Philip S., and Jean-Daniel Kaestli. The Canon of Scripture in Jewish and Christian Tradition. Lausanne: Editions du Zèbre, 2007.
- Cross, Frank Moore. The Ancient Library of Qumran. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.
- Talmon, Shemaryahu. “The Textual Study of the Bible—A New Outlook.” Pages 321–400 in Qumran and the History of the Biblical Text. Edited by F. M. Cross and S. Talmon. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975.
- ———. “The Transmission History of the Text of the Hebrew Bible in the Light of Biblical Manuscripts from Qumran and Other Sites in the Judean Desert.” Page 40 in The Dead Sea Scrolls: Fifty Years after Their Discovery; Proceedings of the Jerusalem Congress, July 20–25, 1997. Edited by L. H. Schiffman, E. Tov, and J. C. VanderKam. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, in cooperation with The Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, 2000.
- Tov, Emanuel. Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert. Leiden: Brill, 2004.
- ———. Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012.
- Ulrich, Eugene. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.
- ———. “The Qumran Scrolls and the Biblical Text.” Pages 51–59 in The Dead Sea Scrolls: Fifty Years After Their Discovery; Proceedings of the Jerusalem Congress, July 20–25, 1997. Edited by L. H. Schiffman, E. Tov, and J. C. VanderKam. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, in cooperation with The Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, 2000.
- ———. The Biblical Qumran Scrolls: Transcriptions and Textual Variants. Leiden: Brill, 2010.
- VanderKam, James C. The Dead Sea Scrolls Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.
- VanderKam, James C., and Peter Flint. The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
 Alison Schofield, “Dead Sea Scrolls, Biblical,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
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