ManuscriptsHow Much Can the Most Famous Dead Sea Scroll Prove? The Great Isaiah Scroll is a crucial piece of the Old Testament puzzle, but it doesn’t give us the whole picture. Anthony FergusonThe Great Isaiah Scroll was among the first discovered. Today, it is housed at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. Photo by Dennis JarvisJanuary 11, 2022 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level The Dead Sea Scrolls are famous. Very famous. Unlike other archeological discoveries like Hezekiah’s Siloam Tunnel inscription in Jerusalem or the discovery of the Elephantine Papyri in Egypt, the term “Dead Sea Scrolls” is a household phrase that can draw crowds to museums unlike any cuneiform tablet. Almost everyone has some knowledge of this discovery and significance, and rightly so. The most famous—and substantial—of these biblical manuscripts is, without a doubt, the Great Isaiah Scroll (a manuscript scholars designate as 1QIsaa). The factors that justify this manuscript’s notoriety and fame include the timing of its discovery, its size, its contents, and its closeness to the Hebrew text behind our English Bibles known as the Masoretic Text (MT). Given these facts, 1QIsaa furnishes a solid starting point for one’s study of these intriguing texts from the Dead Sea. But these facts sometimes lead one to unhelpful conclusions about the biblical texts from the Dead Sea, if 1QIsaa is all we know or we assume that every biblical manuscript from the Dead Sea is like it. In this article, we’ll survey the importance of this manuscript while also nuancing its impact on our understanding of the biblical text as preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Its Claim to Fame The timing of the manuscript’s discovery rightly contributed to its fame since it belonged to the first batch of manuscripts discovered in early 1947. When Bedouin first journeyed into Cave 1 to explore the sound of breaking jars, they retrieved three or four manuscripts wrapped in cloth from a jar. One of these manuscripts was the now famous 1QIsaa. This discovery encouraged the Bedouin and scholars to further explore this region so that over the next fifteen years roughly 1000 manuscripts would be discovered. The cascade effect of this initial discovery was truly immense. Unlike most manuscripts from the Judean Desert, 1QIsaa is preserved almost in its entirety. This is due to its being stored in a jar covered with pitch. By God’s grace, it sat for millennia in a sort of sealed time capsule. Because this manuscript is well preserved, the various problems associated with fragmentary manuscripts like calculating column heights and hypothesizing about what words have been lost to the harshness of the desert are almost nonexistent when studying 1QIsaa. One of the remarkable features of the Great Isaiah Scroll is how well it’s preserved, including the very beginning (right) and end (left) of the scroll. Photo from Wikipedia The very first words and the last words of the manuscript are all preserved, and the text consists of only a few holes (i.e., lacunae). Stitching holes exist in the right-hand margin of column 1 which indicates that leather once existed to the right of the first words of Isaiah. There was probably once a handle sheet to the right of the first column to protect the text of this manuscript. The handle sheet has done its job since, although it has since been lost to time, the beginning of the document remains. The contents of this manuscript have also brought it a level of notoriety since it preserves the text of Isaiah, one of the more famous books of the Old Testament. This book appears to have been quite popular among the works found in the library of the Dead Sea since many copies of Isaiah were found there. The New Testament quotations of Isaiah suggest the same as does the amount of attention paid to this important book by contemporary scholars. Christians sometimes refer to Isaiah as the fifth Gospel because of how much it tells about the coming hope of the Messiah. Although Bedouin discovered other texts alongside 1QIsaa such as a commentary to Habakkuk, 1QIsaa became more popular. This may be, since it was a biblical text, not a commentary, but it is also likely due to the fact that it concerned Isaiah. Related Appreciating the Diverse Evidence from the Dead Sea ScrollsAnthony FergusonRecovering the Resurrection in Isaiah 53: Textual Criticism and EasterJohn D. MeadeThe Extraordinary Hebrew Text behind Your English BibleKim Phillips The popularity of this manuscript is also due to its relationship to the Masoretic Text. The consensus among the first generation of scholars who analyzed this text was that 1QIsaa preserved a popular version of the Masoretic Text. Since the analysis of these scholars, the trend has shifted. Whereas the original scholars who studied 1QIsaa noted its similarities to the Masoretic Text, current scholars tend to highlight its differences. These differences are real, but often minor. Emmanuel Tov, for example, indicates that 1QIsaa is non-aligned but regarding minor details such as a different approach to spelling.1Emanuel Tov, “A Didactic and Gradual Approach toward the Biblical DSS,” in Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Qumran, Septuagint: Collected Essays, Volume 3 Vetus Testamentum, Supplements (Brill: Leiden, 2015), 303. (The term non-aligned refers to texts that are inconsistent in their agreement with the Septuagint, MT, and Samaritan Pentateuch while preserving unique readings).2Emanuel Tov, “Groups of Biblical Texts Found at Qumran,” in Time to Prepare the Way in the Wilderness: Papers on the Qumran Scrolls, ed. Devorah Dimant and Lawrence H. Schiffman, Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 16 (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 98. We could synthesize the conclusions of scholars this way: early scholars tended to emphasize the similarities between 1QIsaa and the Masoretic Text. The trend, now, is to emphasize the differences. Regardless of one’s emphasis, when one removes the minor differences such as spellings, the text of 1QIsaa is quite close to the Masoretic Text, and this feature is a major reason for its notoriety. The Limits of 1QIsaa to our Understanding of the Biblical Text 1QIsaa contributes immensely to our understanding of the Old Testament text. On the one hand, it is strong indirect evidence to the antiquity of the Masoretic Text. That is, in the cases where 1QIsaa and the Masoretic Text disagree, scholars most often view the reading of the Masoretic Text as more original, and this is for good reason, since most of the differences preserved in 1QIsaa appear to derive from common scribal tendency or from scribal error. Thus, although the Masoretic Text as we know it is best represented by medieval codices dating to around 1000 AD, the parent text of 1QIsaa appears to be a text close to these medieval codices. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: This is where Christian scholars and apologists can make a mistake. 1QIsaa is the most popular biblical Dead Sea Scroll and for good reason. It was one of the first manuscripts discovered and it preserves almost all of Isaiah in a form close to the Masoretic Text. All of this is true. Based on this information, it is tempting to assume that just because 1QIsaa aligns closely to the Masoretic Text, we can therefore be confident that our Old Testament text is a reliable copy of the original. I agree that we should be confident, very confident in this fact, but the problem is that 1QIsaa is not sufficient proof, and this is for a few reasons. First, 1QIsaa is a copy only of Isaiah, not the entire Old Testament. Thus, we can’t conclude that 1QIsaa proves that the entire Old Testament has been copied carefully. It is only a copy of Isaiah. Extrapolating from this one manuscript of this one book to the full copying of the entire Old Testament is dangerous.Second, scholars date 1QIsaa to the second century BC, which makes it our oldest copy of this book. Yet, it is still hundreds of years removed from the original copy of Isaiah. As important as 1QIsaa is, it doesn’t completely close the gap for us.Third, although 1QIsaa remains close to the Masoretic Text, other ancient texts are further removed. There is a spectrum of how close the Dead Sea Scrolls align with the Masoretic Text: some are almost identical while other diverge more significantly. My point is simple: since the Dead Sea Scrolls represent a spectrum of more or less agreement with the Masoretic Text, the Great Isaiah Scroll does not represent the entire picture. One (Important) Piece of the Puzzle 1QIsaa does not single-handedly prove that the Old Testament has been carefully copied from antiquity. Its contribution is still important, but less extensive. In short, I would say that 1QIsaa is a popular version of a text very close to the Masoretic Text, and thus, it attests to the antiquity of the Masoretic Text of Isaiah long before our earliest copies from the Middle Ages. The copies we have of the Old Testament are a reliable guide to the original, but this conclusion depends on more than one very famous manuscript. The copies we have of the Old Testament are a reliable guide to the original, but this conclusion depends on more than one very famous manuscript. It depends on a variety of data such as the practice of textual criticism, the study of manuscripts, scribal habits, various early translations, the nature of a covenant, and the evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls. This conclusion also depends on our view of God and what the Bible attests about itself. As we do textual criticism, let’s not forget that the Old Testament testifies to the God who sovereignly controls all things. We make best sense of the biblical data when we carefully consider the evidence while remembering that the evidence we have is not by accident, but according to God’s plan. 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. View all posts Notes1Emanuel Tov, “A Didactic and Gradual Approach toward the Biblical DSS,” in Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Qumran, Septuagint: Collected Essays, Volume 3 Vetus Testamentum, Supplements (Brill: Leiden, 2015), 303.2Emanuel Tov, “Groups of Biblical Texts Found at Qumran,” in Time to Prepare the Way in the Wilderness: Papers on the Qumran Scrolls, ed. Devorah Dimant and Lawrence H. Schiffman, Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 16 (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 98.