Why the Dead Sea Scrolls Are Significant

Why the Dead Sea Scrolls Are Significant
Ed Stetzer

The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient manuscripts that were found at several sites near the western shore of the Dead Sea. The most important site was near Qumran, where eleven caves containing scrolls or artifacts were discovered from 1946 to 1956. Also notable are discoveries at Murabba’at (1951), Nahal Hever (1951 or 1952), Wadi Seiyal (1951 or 1952), and Masada (1963-65). Professor W. F. Albright, America’s foremost archaeologist, described the scrolls as “the greatest archaeological find of modern times.”

At least 941 scrolls were discovered in the Qumran caves (715 in Cave 4 alone). They are dated on paleographic and radiocarbon grounds to between ca 250 B.C. and A.D. 68, when the site was destroyed by the Romans. The Qumran library is divided into two basic categories: 240 biblical scrolls and 701 nonbiblical scrolls. The nonbiblical scrolls are further divided into: Apocryphal scrolls (such as Tobit), Sectarian scrolls (such as the Rule of the Community), and Pseudepigraphic scrolls (such as the Prayer of Nabonidus).

Most scholars agree that the Sectarian scrolls were produced by a group of Essenes who had a settlement at Qumran. Proposals to the contrary may be discounted due to lack of firm evidence.

Five Reasons Why the Dead Sea Scrolls Are Significant

The scrolls were discovered and copied in Palestine (Israel). In fact, they are virtually the only manuscripts that survive from the Second Temple period (which ended in A.D. 70). It is even possible– though not likely–that Jesus or some of His followers handled some of these manuscripts before they were brought to Qumran.

The scrolls were written in the three languages of Scripture. Of the 240 biblical scrolls from Qumran, 235 are written in Hebrew and 5 in Greek, and of the 701 nonbiblical scrolls, 548 are written in Hebrew, 137 in Aramaic, and 5 in Greek. This means that at least some Jews could speak Greek in late Second Temple Palestine, and reinforces the idea that Jesus and His followers knew Greek.

The biblical scrolls both affirm and enhance the Hebrew Bible used by scholars. Prior to their discovery, the oldest complete Hebrew Bible was the Leningrad Codex (A.D. 1008), on which most scholarly editions are based. Even older medieval manuscripts are the Aleppo Codex (early tenth century), part of which is missing, and some fragments from the Cairo Genizeh (ninth century onwards). In contrast, the oldest Bible scroll found at Qumran (4QExod-Levf) is dated from about 250 B.C., and the latest ones to A.D. 68. This puts scholars much closer to the time of the texts’ origins. Two of the most prominent and best-preserved Bible scrolls are the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa, about 125 B.C.) and the Great Psalms Scroll (11QPsa, A.D. 30-50).

Scrolls with sufficient writing for an assessment to be made fall into four textual groups: Proto-Masoretic (i.e., the consonantal text behind the Masoretic Text, represented by about 40% of the scrolls), Proto-Samaritan (about 15%), Pre-Septuagint (about 5%), and mixed or nonaligned (about 40%). The Proto-Masoretic scrolls in particular affirm the accuracy and great age of the Hebrew text found in modern Bible editions.

On the other hand, many scrolls (in all four groups) preserve original or preferable readings that are convincing enough to have been adopted by modern English OT translations. One example is at Isaiah 19:18, where the Masoretic Text reads “City of Destruction,” but two scrolls (1QIsaa, 4QIsab) and even a few Masoretic manuscripts read “City of the Sun,” which makes better sense. The reading found in the scrolls has also been adopted by many modern Bibles, including the HCSB, RSV, and NRSV. A second example is the missing verse in the acrostic Psalm 145. This verse is present in 11QPsa and the LXX, and hence it is now included as verse 13b in the HCSB, RSV, NRSV, NIV, and so forth. At least 100 such examples have gotten modern Bible translators closer to the original text, and the majority of these discoveries have been adopted by the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

Most of the nonbiblical scrolls throw light on Judaism in the late Second Temple period. Certain scrolls illuminate our understanding of Jewish sects, namely the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. Sectarian documents such as the Community Rule and the Damascus Document reveal the doctrines and teachings of the Essenes: for example, their expectation of two separate Messiahs (of Aaron and of David) and their ascetic lifestyle. One fascinating text named Some of the Works of the Law (4QMMT) is a manifesto which details how the Essene interpretation of some 25 laws from the Pentateuch differed from those of the Pharisees.

Some scrolls illuminate our understanding of Jesus and the early Christians. None of the Qumran scrolls was written by or for Christians, but several are relevant for understanding the historical context of Christian origins. The three books most commonly found at Qumran are Psalms (36 scrolls), Deuteronomy (30), and Isaiah (21). These are 66x, and Deuteronomy 54x). This is hardly a coincidence, but speaks to similar messianic expectations and covenantal themes among the Qumranites and the early Christians.

Key nonbiblical scrolls are just as pertinent. For example, the Messianic Apocaplyse (4Q521) describes the works and wonders that will accompany the Messiah’s coming in language that is very close to Jesus’ words in Luke 4:18-19 (will bring good news to the poor, set the captives free, open the eyes of the blind, and lift up the oppressed) and in Matthew 11:4-5 and Luke 7:21-22 (will open the eyes of the blind, make the dead live, and bring good news to the poor). This scroll helps Bible readers see that Jesus is claiming to be a prophetic Messiah in the Gospel passages just mentioned. Another striking example is Some of the Works of the Law (4QMMT), since the term “works of the Law” occurs nowhere else except in Romans (e.g., 3:20, 28) and Galatians (e.g., 3:2,5,10). In this light we now know that Paul is using a term identified with the Essenes, and so is criticizing Essene Jews or Christians who have been influenced by Essene doctrines concerning works of the Law. A final example is the sectarian New Jerusalem Text, which is found in several scrolls (1Q32, 2Q24, 4Q544-55, 5Q15, 11Q18), and describes the coming New Jerusalem with language that would be developed further in the Book of Revelation (21:9-27).

In conclusion, the Dead Sea Scrolls help scholars get closer to the original O.T. texts where variants have entered the tradition, plus they help set the historical and cultural context for the Intertestamental and New Testament eras.

This article “Why the Dead Sea Scrolls Are Significant” by Ed Stetzer was excerpted from: www.outreachmagazine.com website, March 2012. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”