Old TestamentAppreciating the Diverse Evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls Taking the evidence of the Dead Sea Scroll seriously means putting the differences—and the similarities—in proper context. Anthony FergusonNovember 7, 2021 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level The Dead Sea Scrolls have fascinated a broad audience of Bible scholars, lay Christians, and the general public for nearly a century. This discovery’s timing adds a level of intrigue since they were discovered in the tremulous days immediately after World War II in a place undergoing great transition. The recent announcement of Greek fragments of the Minor Prophets from Naḥal Ḥever and the thought that technology such as drones may yet yield more manuscripts further stokes our imagination and excitement about these caves in the Judean Desert. Few discoveries from the ancient world have captivated our imagination like the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is hard to overestimate the importance of these manuscripts, especially for those interested in the history of Old Testament text, not simply because of the timing and place of the discovery or because the future may still unlock more manuscripts for us, but because of four important characteristics of these manuscripts: 1) These manuscripts are the oldest biblical manuscripts we possess; 2) many of the biblical manuscripts were written in the Old Testament’s original languages; 3) many of these manuscripts align closely with the canonical Jewish text known as the Masoretic Text or MT, and 4) many others do not. Focusing on these four characteristics helps us better appreciate how important they are for the history of the Old Testament text. The Age of the Dead Sea Scrolls The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest biblical manuscripts that we possess, dating from 250 BC to 115 AD.1See TCHB3, 99. Before this discovery, we possessed some Hebrew texts from this era and some from even earlier, but these were not biblical scrolls. We did possess numerous biblical manuscripts, but these dated to a much later time. The biblical manuscripts from Qumran have changed this reality. We now possess over two hundred biblical manuscripts from the Second Temple period (c. 500 BC–70 AD). The age of these manuscripts makes them especially important. The Language of the Scrolls Although some of the biblical Dead Sea Scrolls are translations, the vast majority are written in Hebrew and Aramaic, the Old Testament’s original languages. When scholars approach the ancient translations like the Greek translation, popularly referred to as the Septuagint, the Targumim, the Old Latin and Vulgate, and Peshitta, scholars have to judge carefully about whether a difference between these texts is a genuine variant. That is, scholars first have to decide if this difference arose from the translator (i.e., translation technique or scribal error) or the difference was in the text he was translating. What makes the Dead Sea Scrolls so important is that translation technique is not an issue for most of them because they are not translations. The value of this fact, however, can be overstated. These manuscripts have not passed into a new language, but many were still copied according to updated standards of spelling and grammar. Thus, some of the tendencies involved in translation technique must be accounted for when analyzing these manuscripts. Of course, the fact that these were mainly written in the original languages means fewer such factors need to be considered. What the Scrolls tell us about the history of the Old Testament text Many scholars and apologists have highlighted those Scrolls that preserve a high level of unity with the Masoretic Text which is largely behind our English bibles. The codex known as Codex Leningrad is the best-preserved manuscript preserving this textual tradition. This fact comes into focus, especially when one analyzes the manuscripts discovered in sites other than Qumran. Qumran is only one site in the Judean Desert where Bedouin and scholars discovered manuscripts. Other locations include Masada, Wadi Murabba’at, Wadi Sdeir, Naḥal Ḥever, Naḥal Arugot, and Naḥal Ṣe’elim (wadi and naḥal both refer to streams). The manuscripts from these sites date from 50 BC to 115 AD and preserve the same tradition as preserved in codex Leningrad which was copied in 1008 AD. Unity among these manuscripts is, at times, remarkable, as illustrated by a Leviticus manuscript discovered at Masada dating from 30 BC to 30 AD. This Leviticus manuscript agrees with codex Leningrad even regarding peculiar spelling. This unity illustrates that this tradition was copied with precision since at least the turn of the era.2See TCHB3, 29–31. Nearly half of the manuscripts discovered at Qumran also demonstrate this unity, although not to the degree as the manuscripts from the other sites. For example, 1QIsaa has traditionally been cited as clear evidence of proof of the antiquity and high-quality of the Masoretic tradition, and this notion is correct. Yet, this manuscript preserves thousands of differences when compared to Leningrad, and these differences led Emanuel Tov, the world’s preeminent Scrolls scholar, to label it as “non-aligned,” meaning it does not agree closely with the text of the MT. A portion of the Great Isaiah scroll (1QIsaa). Image credit. We should note that the majority of these differences are minor; they often concern a different spelling practice.3Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Qumran, Septuagint: Collected Essays (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 303). Of course, that is not to say there are not important variants preserved in this manuscript; instead, my point is that, overall, it preserves a text close to the one preserved in Leningrad. Another Isaiah scroll discovered at Qumran, known as 1QIsab, preserves an even higher degree of unity with Leningrad than 1QIsaa. This manuscript, however, is less popular because it preserves less content. To give us a bird’s eye view of the evidence from Qumran, we can observe how Emanuel Tov classifies these texts: he classifies 56 as MT-like, 57 as non-aligned, five as close to the Samaritan Pentateuch, and seven as close to the Septuagint.4N. David and A. Lange, eds., Qumran and the Bible: Studying the Jewish and Christian Scriptures in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Leuven: Peeters, 2010), 49–50). Overall, the Dead Sea Scrolls show that the Masoretic Text has been copied with precision for over a millennium and that a sizable amount of manuscripts reflect this text. Overall, the Dead Sea Scrolls show that the Masoretic Text has been copied with precision for over a millennium. The Scrolls that don’t agree with the Masoretic Text Tov, and many other scholars, have pointed out that half of the Hebrew manuscripts discovered at Qumran preserve textual diversity never before seen in Hebrew biblical manuscripts. This is true, strictly speaking. However, when one analyzes the nature of the variants preserved in these manuscripts, one can see that most of these differences result from common scribal tendencies such as interpretation, harmonization, updating, and normalizing a text’s grammar. Moreover, many of these manuscripts can be adequately described as scribal innovations. For example, 4QGenk, in my opinion, tends to normalize the grammar found in the Masoretic Text, and thus, can be understood as a normalized manuscript; 4QPsx is likely a writing exercise; 4QDeutn is an excerpted text; and 4QQoha is an updated text. Therefore, although half of the manuscripts preserve a level of textual diversity, this diversity is often minor. Some manuscripts that Tov and others label as non-aligned are more challenging to explain. Tov identifies seven of these manuscripts with an exclamation mark in appendix 8 of his book Scribal Practices. Remember that Tov classifies 56 Scrolls as MT-like, 57 as non-aligned, five as close to the Samaritan Pentateuch, and seven as close to the Septuagint.5N. David and A. Lange, eds., Qumran and the Bible: Studying the Jewish and Christian Scriptures in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Leuven: Peeters, 2010), 49–50). However, only seven of these 57 manuscripts are identified with an exclamation mark. This confirms, in my mind, that the other 50 non-aligned texts are non-aligned only in minor details.6For more on this topic, you can see my doctoral dissertation. Space prohibits a description of these manuscripts, but suffice it to say that the biblical Dead Sea Scrolls do contain a level of textual diversity. Most of this diversity, though, is relatively minor, and, although some of it is more extensive, none of it calls into question the trustworthiness of the Old Testament as God’s word. Related Illustration by Peter Gurry. Image from 123rf.com Two Reasons There Are Variants in Our Copies of the BibleFor historical and theological reasons, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Bible’s manuscripts have differences. Peter J. Gurry Making sense of all the evidence Scholars have long understood scribes as approaching their task of copying the Old Testament from two general perspectives: some scribes came to their text with a desire to reproduce it precisely, while others approached their task with the desire to resignify it. Moreover, some scribes took their biblical text and used it to make a new document that was not understood as biblical. An example of this would be a liturgical text. This new document was not understood as “biblical” but contained only an excerpt of the Bible. We make these types of changes today. For example, some translations are incredibly literal, while others tend to be more dynamic. Both approaches seek to communicate the word of God to a people far removed from the original audience. Similarly, when the Bible is used in liturgical contexts, we make all types of changes to it. I am the pastor of a local church. When I stand before God’s people with God’s word, it is not uncommon for me to change it. For example, I might stop mid-verse and explain something briefly to the church; I might repeat a word for emphasis; I might even substitute a word for clarity. An example of this last category may be me replacing a pronoun, like “he,” with the proper noun, “Moses.” In my mind, the textual diversity preserved among the Dead Sea Scrolls parallels the practices of many pastors. We should certainly take the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls seriously while being confident that the word of the Lord is trustworthy and true.Notes1See TCHB3, 99.2See TCHB3, 29–31.3Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Qumran, Septuagint: Collected Essays (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 303).4N. David and A. Lange, eds., Qumran and the Bible: Studying the Jewish and Christian Scriptures in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Leuven: Peeters, 2010), 49–50).5N. David and A. Lange, eds., Qumran and the Bible: Studying the Jewish and Christian Scriptures in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Leuven: Peeters, 2010), 49–50).6For more on this topic, you can see my doctoral dissertation. Anthony Ferguson Anthony Ferguson (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) wrote his dissertation under Russell Fuller comparing the non-aligned texts of Qumran to the Masoretic Text. He currently serves as lead pastor at 11th Street Baptist Church in Upland, CA and as an adjunct faculty at California Baptist University and Gateway Seminary. He has published in the Journal of Biblical Literature and the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.