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Why the Dead Sea Scrolls matter

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is part of a package previewing Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's "Dead Sea Scrolls & the Bible" exhibit, which runs from July 2 to Jan. 13. For more information visit Read Baptist Press' overview story at

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) -- When a Bedouin shepherd discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls in Israel in the 1940s, few people immediately understood their importance. After taking the scrolls back to his camp, this shepherd left one of them on the ground to be torn apart by children, while one person reportedly used another scroll fragment to wipe a baby's bottom.

As the scrolls made their way to antiquities dealers and scholars, some refused to accept their antiquity. In 1948, however, biblical archaeologist W.F. Albright of Johns Hopkins University examined some photographs of the scrolls. Dating them quickly to the second century B.C., Albright dubbed these scrolls "the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times." Now, more than half a century after the discovery of these scrolls, few would debate Albright's claim. But what makes these scrolls the most important find of the 20th century?


According to Ryan Stokes, assistant professor of Old Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, the Dead Sea Scrolls affirm the reliability of the Old Testament text, taking scholars much closer to the original autographs of Scripture -- that is, to the inerrant texts of the Old Testament as they were first written by their authors.

"These are some of the very oldest copies of the Old Testament that we have, certainly some of the oldest in the original Hebrew and Aramaic," Stokes said. "The older the copies, the closer we get chronologically to the autographs, the fewer copies there are between the original Old Testament writings and these copies that we have."


In fact, the Dead Sea Scrolls are 1,000 years older than the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, called the Codex Leningradensis and dated to around A.D. 1008. As a result, Stokes explained, the scrolls "put us in a better position than we were before their discovery to ascertain how the Old Testament developed and how faithfully the Old Testament text had been preserved over the millennia."

In large part, the scrolls have shown that, through the millennia, scribes faithfully copied the Old Testament and that the Hebrew text translated for modern Christians accurately represents the Bible that Jesus read and the Bible as it was originally written.

"The Bible is reliable, and the texts we have accurately relay to us what was in the original autograph," said Eric Mitchell, associate professor of Old Testament and archaeology at Southwestern Seminary. The Dead Sea Scrolls, however, differ in some ways from later manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible -- most often due to spelling changes or to the difficulties of copying the scrolls by hand. But scholars are not surprised by these variants and are confident in discovering the correct wording of Scripture by comparing copies of the text. In any case, Mitchell said, most of the variants of the Hebrew Old Testament are minor, having little theological significance, and leave the meaning of the original text practically intact.


On a rare occasion, however, the Dead Sea Scrolls have preserved a textual variant rich with theological significance. Take Psalm 22:16, for instance, a passage that Christians understand as referring to Jesus' crucifixion. The Septuagint, a Greek version of the Old Testament translated before the time of Christ and often used by the early church, supports the translation of Psalm 22:16 in the King James Version and many other English Bibles, "They pierced my hands and my feet."

But, for centuries, the Hebrew text of Psalm 22:16 did not support this translation. According to the Masoretic text, the Hebrew Bible preserved by Jewish Scribes throughout the Middle Ages, the verse reads, "Like a lion are my hands and my feet." Since the Masoretic text was for many years the oldest and most reliable version of the Hebrew Old Testament, this created a problem for Christians who see a reference to Christ in this verse. But this problem was resolved when scholars discovered that the much older Dead Sea Scrolls confirmed the reading found in English translations.


The Dead Sea Scrolls, therefore, show the reliability of the Bible and help scholars to confirm the original wording of Scripture, but they can also teach modern Christians much about the world in which Christ lived and in which the New Testament was written.


"They tell us more about what Jews were thinking and believing and how they were living around the time that Jesus lived and the time of the New Testament authors," Stokes said. "And that gives us some very important information and context for interpreting the New Testament.

In particular, the Dead Sea Scrolls shed light on the religious community that preserved the scrolls. The members of this community called themselves the Yahad, "the group," who, according to some modern scholars, are related in some way to the Essenes. While this group preserved biblical scrolls, they also produced scrolls describing their own beliefs and practices. Examining these documents, some modern scholars have observed similarities between the teachings and practices of the Yahad and those of Jesus Christ and His early Jewish disciples.

"The Dead Sea Scroll group resembled the New Testament authors in that they were a Messianic community," Stokes noted as an example of one similarity. "Now, the Dead Sea Scroll group did not think the Messiah had already come, but they believed that He was coming in the very near future. So they were expecting the Messiah, and some of the things they said about the Messiah ... were the same things that the New Testament authors said about Jesus. And some of the same Old Testament passages that they used to talk about their coming Messiah were some of the same passages that the New Testament authors used to talk about Jesus."


"They differed, though, in some other regards," Stokes added. For example, the Yahad looked forward to the coming of two Messiahs, one from the royal line of David and another one who would fulfill a priestly role. Also, they anticipated the coming of another eschatological prophet. Moreover, the Yahad did not expect the death and resurrection of their messianic figures. In contrast, early Christians taught that Jesus was the prophet, priest and king, whose death, burial, resurrection and return were central to His mission.

"So, in a sense, Jesus fulfilled many of these expectations," Stokes said, "though differently from the way some people were expecting."

So, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide new information about the common questions and expectations of first-century Jews, including the crowds who flocked to hear Christ's teachings and see His miracles. They also show how first-century Jews interpreted Scripture and which portions of the Old Testament they most often read.

The biblical scrolls discovered at Qumran, for example, show that this sect most often copied and used the books of Deuteronomy, Isaiah and the Psalms -- the Old Testament books also quoted most often within the New Testament. Moreover, the New Testament authors used some of the same ways of reading and applying the Old Testament -- though filtered through the lens of Christ's death and resurrection -- that the Dead Sea Scroll community and other first-century Jews used.


For these reasons, Stokes said, "the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has forever changed New Testament scholarship." And for these reasons, among many others, the Dead Sea Scrolls continue to be regarded as "the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times."

Benjamin Hawkins writes for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This story first appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Southwestern News magazine on the Dead Sea Scrolls, online at

Copyright (c) 2012 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press

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