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Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Some have claimed the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls alter the text of the Old Testament.
Read this article, showing the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls and
what they really prove about the Old Testament text.


IT ALL BEGAN in the spring of 1947 . . .

Muhammed adh-Dhib, a fifteen-year-old Bedouin, stumbled onto the first scrolls on the northwest shores of the Dead Sea. According to one story, he threw a stone at a runaway goat. The stone landed in a cave, and the boy heard the tinkle of breaking pottery. This led him to the manuscripts.

When scholars examined the manuscripts they were astonished.


Wrong Assumption Made

But what caused Biblical archaeologists to leap for joy when news of the Dead Sea Scrolls spread? The reason was clear. Valuable new information was now available in the field of Jewish studies. More important, here was background material for the study of the Old Testament Biblical text itself.

Previous to the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery, the earliest dated Hebrew text of what is commonly called the Old Testament came from the early 10th century of the present era. Now scholars possessed manuscript material about 1000 years older — even though some of the books of the Hebrew Bible are represented only by fragments.

The Revised Standard Version, published in 1951, made use of some of the earlier finds in the Dead Sea Scrolls. A number of textual "emendations" were put into the RSV on the basis of the variant readings in some of the Scrolls.

Leading textual critics for years had proclaimed the late origin of the traditional Hebrew text — also referred to as the Masoretic — sometimes spelled Massoretic. (Most older English translations, including the King James "Old Testament," are based on the Masoretic) These critics had concluded that this "received text" needed to be corrected — that many inaccuracies had crept in over the centuries. Some had begun to rely for their emendations on the Greek Septuagint, the Samaritan, and other variant texts.

"Now, with the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls," they asserted, "we are one thousand years closer to the original rendition." They were sure the Dead Sea Scrolls would show up many "inaccuracies" in any version which relied on the Masoretic.

Now that more than two decades of study has cleared the air, what is the outcome? Should the traditional Masoretic text be thrown out the window and replaced by "more accurate" readings? On this crucial point the real significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls becomes evident.


Second Thoughts on Early Conclusions

A majority have now come to realize the Scrolls show, not weaknesses, but the superiority of the Masoretic text. One example of this recent shift in scholarly opinion can be found in the field of textual criticism. Notice what one scholar on the revision committee which produced the RSV has since written:

"Thirteen readings {in Isaiah} in which the manuscript departs from the traditional text were eventually adopted. In these places a marginal note cites 'One ancient Ms,' meaning the St. Mark's Isaiah scroll. . . For myself I must confess that in some cases where I probably voted for the emendation I am now convinced that our decision was a mistake, and the Masoretic reading should have been retained" (M. Burrows, The Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 305, emphasis ours throughout).

Another scholar, F. F. Bruce of the University of Manchester, echoed the conclusions of many that "in general the new discoveries have increased our respect for the Massoretic Hebrew text" (Second Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 69).

The Dead Sea Scrolls actually confirm the superiority of our present-day Masoretic text:

"The St. Mark's manuscript of Isaiah is the only one of the scrolls that contains a whole book of the Bible. . . The age of the manuscript, of course, does not establish its importance. An old manuscript is not necessarily a good manuscript. A copy made in the ninth or tenth century A.D. may more accurately reproduce the original text than one made in the first or second century B.C.

As a matter of plain fact the St. Mark's Isaiah manuscript is obviously inferior at a great many points to the best medieval manuscripts" (M. Burrows, The Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 303).

Scholars have had to realize age is not necessarily the best criterion for determining the accuracy of a text. The official Masoretic text, preserved by the Masoretes, official copyists, is superior even though the dated manuscript of any part of it we possess was copied about one thousand years later than the Qumran {Dead Sea} scrolls.


Shocking Similarities

But while realizing the differences between the Scrolls and the Masoretic text, more striking are the similarities. Notice what one scholar stated:

"Lest one exaggerate the differences between the great Isaiah Scroll and the traditional text, it must be pointed out that more often than not, except for the free use of vowel letters, even this document supports Masoretic readings. Its disagreements, moreover, are so often inferior that indirectly they attest the superior character of the familiar text" (W. H. Brownlee, The Meaning of the Qumran Scrolls for the Bible, p. 216).

But the superiority of the Hebrew Masoretic text should not surprise us in the least. One merely needs to understand the history of the preservation of this traditional text.


How Official Text Was Preserved

Jewish tradition tells us the Old Testament was put in its final form by Ezra and the "Great Synagogue." Jewish scholars were entrusted with preserving the text faithfully.

The "scribes," mentioned often in the Gospels, were the group with the responsibility of preserving the official canonized text. They viewed this responsibility with reverence, regarding it as a sacred duty.

In order to insure textual purity, various devices of counting were used to cross-check the accuracy of each newly written manuscript. Careful records were kept of the number of words and even letters in each book. The scribes kept copious notes on which was the middle word and middle letter of each book, how many times a letter was used in each book and in the whole Old Testament, and other statistics which minimized the possibility of mistakes creeping in.

The system was so elaborate and carefully adhered to that the original Hebrew name for the scribes was Sopherim which means "counters." Any mistakes in copying were carefully corrected.

As manuscripts became old and worn through use, they were culled from the library. That is why we have no official copies before the 10th century — those responsible discharged their office very well by removing all old, worn-out manuscripts! When a suit of clothes wears out, you throw it away and buy a new one. The same was true for old manuscripts. They were destroyed. The same words, however, were copied and preserved.

And this is why the New Testament says of the Biblical text: "Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law" (Matthew 5:18). The Twentieth Century New Testament renders the middle phrase more understandably as "not even the smallest letter, nor the stroke of a letter"!


Solid Evidence for Bible Faith

In certain instances differences between the Qumran {Dead Sea} scrolls and the Masoretic text are extensive. But the reasons for the differences now become obvious — the Qumran community was not the official preserver of the text of the Hebrew Bible. They did not exercise the same diligent care as the Sopherim and later Masoretes.

The unofficial scrolls abound in mistakes of carelessness and scribal ignorance. Spelling variations or errors are quite common. Once an error was made, it tended to be perpetuated — in contrast to the official text which was elaborately cross-checked for error. Because of the "separatist" policy of the Qumran group, it did not have regular reference to the official Old Testament text. The many deviations are exactly what one would have expected.

Professor Bruce puts into words the consensus of scholars dealing with the Qumran material:

"The new evidence confirms what we had already good reason to believe — that the Jewish scribes of the early Christian centuries copied and recopied the text of the Hebrew Bible with the utmost fidelity. . . Isaiah A {the scroll containing almost the complete book of Isaiah} bears all the marks of a popular, unofficial copy of the sacred text. It was probably the work of AMATEUR SCRIBES, or at least of scribes who did not belong to the higher grades of their profession" (pp. 61-63).