The Dead Sea Scrolls​—Why Should They Interest You?

Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures were from about the ninth and tenth centuries C.E. Could these manuscripts truly be relied upon as faithful transmissions of God’s Word, since the writing of the Hebrew Scriptures was completed well over one thousand years earlier? Professor Julio Trebolle Barrera, a member of the international team of editors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, states: “The Isaiah Scroll [from Qumran] provides irrefutable proof that the transmission of the biblical text through a period of more than one thousand years by the hands of Jewish copyists has been extremely faithful and careful.”

THE scroll that Barrera refers to contains the complete book of Isaiah. To date, among over 200 Biblical manuscripts found at Qumran, portions have been identified of every book of the Hebrew Scriptures except the book of Esther. Unlike the Isaiah Scroll, most are represented only by fragments, containing less than one tenth of any given book. The Bible books that were most popular at Qumran were Psalms (36 copies), Deuteronomy (29 copies), and Isaiah (21 copies). These are also the books most frequently quoted in the Christian Greek Scriptures.

Although the scrolls demonstrate that the Bible has not undergone fundamental changes, they also reveal that to some extent there were different versions of Hebrew Bible texts used by Jews in the Second Temple period, each with its own variations. Not all the scrolls are identical to the Masoretic text in spelling or wording. Some are closer to the Greek Septuagint. Previously, scholars thought that the Septuagint’s differences might be the result of mistakes or even deliberate inventions by the translator. Now the scrolls reveal that many of these differences were actually due to variations in the Hebrew text. This may explain some cases in which early Christians quoted Hebrew Scripture texts using wording different from the Masoretic text.​—Exodus 1:5; Acts 7:14.

Thus, this treasure trove of Biblical scrolls and fragments provides an excellent basis for studying the transmission of the Hebrew Bible text. The Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed the value of both the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch for textual comparison. They provide an additional source for Bible translators to consider for possible emendations to the Masoretic text. In a number of cases, they confirm decisions by the New World Bible Translation Committee to restore Jehovah’s name to places where it had been removed from the Masoretic text.

The scrolls describing the rules and beliefs of the Qumran sect make very clear that there  was not just one form of Judaism in the time of Jesus. The Qumran sect had traditions different from those of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These differences likely led to the sect’s retreating to the wilderness. They incorrectly saw in themselves a fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3 about a voice in the wilderness making the way of Jehovah straight. A number of the scroll fragments refer to the Messiah, whose coming the authors saw as imminent. This is of particular interest because of Luke’s comment that “the people were in expectation” of the Messiah’s coming.​—Luke 3:15.

The Dead Sea Scrolls help us to a degree to understand the context of Jewish life during the time that Jesus preached. They provide comparative information for the study of ancient Hebrew and the Bible text. But the text of many of the Dead Sea Scrolls still needs closer analysis. Therefore, new insights may yet be gained. Yes, the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century continues to excite both scholars and Bible students as we move along in the 21st century.

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Qumran excavations: Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.; manuscript: Courtesy of Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, Jerusalem