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Between 1947 and 1956 a total of 972 ancient documents were discovered in 11 different caves near Khirbet Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea (~13 miles from Jerusalem).[1]  Approximately 25% of the texts contain Biblical texts.  The rest were apocryphal texts (Tobit, Enoch, Jubilees, etc), or texts peculiar to the community that copied them (Community Rule, War Scroll, etc.).  Every book of the Hebrew Bible, except Esther and Nehemiah[2], is among them. 

The manuscripts are written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and are dated between 250 BC and AD 70.

Significance:

  1. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), the oldest extant Hebrew manuscripts containing significant portions of the Hebrew Bible were from the 10th century AD, some 2300 years removed from the original composition of the Pentateuch.  We possessed Greek translations dating to the 4th century AD (the Septuagint, a.k.a LXX), but the quality of the translation varied, and it could not give us an accurate picture of the state of the Hebrew Bible at that time.  So the discovery of the DSS gave us a glimpse of the Hebrew text as it existed 300-400 years prior to our Greek translations, and 800-1100 years prior to our best Hebrew manuscripts.

What did the DSS demonstrate about the state of the preservation of the Hebrew text?  It demonstrated that the text had been preserved extremely well.  For example, a comparison of Isaiah 53 in the Masoretic text to Isaiah 53 in The Great Isaiah Scroll revealed just 17 letter changes.  All but three were spelling variations.  The remaining three were the addition of the word “light” in verse 11.  This is characteristic of the entire book, which means the Hebrew text of Isaiah was virtually unchanged over the course of 1100 years.

Not all books of the Hebrew Bible have been preserved as well as Isaiah, however.  For example, the DSS fragments of the book of Jeremiah conform to the LXX, which is 15% shorter than the Masoretic Text of Jeremiah (and organized differently).[3]

As would be expected, there are numerous examples where the DSS have helped us to correct scribal errors that crept into the Masoretic Text.  For example, Isaiah 11:6 in the Masoretic Text reads:

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
and a little child shall lead them.”

Given the parallelism typical of Hebrew poetry, one would expect a verb in the third line rather than “the fatling.”  The DSS scroll of Isaiah has “will feed” instead of “the fatling,” which fits the parallelism:

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
and the calf and the young lion will feed together;
and a little child shall lead them.”

The Masoretic Text of 1 Samuel 11:1 begins, “Nahash the Ammonite came and besieged Jabesh-gilead.”  The announcement is abrupt.  Nahash has not been previously mentioned, and we would expect him to be identified as Nahash, king of the Ammonites. We are not even given a reason for the attack.  But the DSS of Samuel (4QSama) contains two preceding sentences, which contain the expected text: “Nahash king of the Ammonites oppressed the Gadites and the Reubenites viciously.  He put out the right eye of all of them and brought fear and trembling on Israel.  Not one of the Israelites in the region beyond the Jordan remained whose right eye Nahash king of the Ammonites did not put out, except seven thousand men who escaped from the Ammonites and went  to Jabesh-gilead.”  Then follows “Nahash the Ammonite came and besieged Jabesh-gilead” from the Masoretic Text.  The DSS not only identifies who Nahash is, but also explains why he attacked Jabesh-gilead.

The DSS most likely contains the original text.  It was probably dropped from the textual tradition via a homoeoteleuton.  This is when the scribe’s eye who is copying the manuscript skips a line or two when copying the text, usually because a line a little further down the text either begins or ends with the same word as the line the scribe had just copied, and he mistakenly thought that was the line he had just copied.

1 Samuel 15:27 in the Masoretic Text reads, “When Samuel turned to leave, he grabbed the edge of his robe and it tore.”  Verse 28 goes on to record Samuel’s words to Saul, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to one of your colleagues who is better than you!”  It’s a bit ambiguous as to whether it was Samuel or Saul who ripped the garment.  It could be that Samuel did so as part of a prophetic illustration, although the context favors the idea that it was Saul.  The DSS eliminate any ambiguity because it reads, “When Samuel turned to leave, Saul grabbed the edge of his robe and it tore.”

One of the most interesting differences between the DSS and our Masoretic Text is the height of Goliath.  The Masoretic Text of 1 Samuel says Goliath was “six cubits and a span” (9’ 9”) tall while the DSS (4QSama) says he was “four cubits and a span” (6’ 9”) tall.  The LXX agrees with the DSS.  Daniel Hays has written a convincing paper arguing for the originality of the “four cubits and a span” reading.

Despite some of the differences between the DSS and the Masoretic Text, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls laid to rest speculation against the basic reliability of the Old Testament text.


[1]Eighty percent of all scrolls were found in cave 4 (500 texts in 15,000 fragments).
[2]Nehemiah was probably present since Ezra and Nehemiah were usually contained in the same scroll, and we found parts of the book of Ezra at Qumran.
[3]Chapter 26 in the Masoretic Text, for example, is chapter 33 in the LXX; chapter 28 in the Masoretic Text is chapter 35 in the LXX; chapter 29 in the Masoretic Text is chapter 36 in the LXX, etc.  As for missing texts, Jeremiah 27:19-22; 33:14-26; 39:3-14; and 48:45-47 in the Masoretic Text are not found in the LXX.

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