Pondering the Spade: The Dead Sea Scrolls

by Dr. David Schreiner

The story of the Dead Sea Scrolls is legendary. How they came to light initially involved questionable business deals, scholarly conspiracies, and ingenious defiance. You really could make a movie out of it.

In 1948, the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem, Athanasius Samuel, contacted an official at the American Schools of Oriental Research to confirm the authenticity of some scrolls he procured from some Bedouin from the region of the Dead Sea about a year earlier. Concurrently, Prof. Sukenik of Hebrew University had also come into possession through back channels of some scrolls from the same Bedouin. After the necessary procedures, both sets were authenticated. Shortly thereafter, a press release was issued declaring that the oldest manuscripts ever had been found in the Holy Land.

Figure 2
Figure 2

There were seven original scrolls: The Manual of Discipline, Tales of the Patriarchs, Thanksgiving Hymns, A Commentary on Habakkuk, War Scroll, and two copies of the scroll of Isaiah. Yet Bedouin are often opportunistic, and this group saw an opportunity to make even more money. So, they sought more caves in the same region to find if their cash-cow could still produce. Boy did it ever. By the middle of the 1950s, less than a decade later, eleven caves had been found in the general vicinity of Wadi Qumran, close to the Dead Sea, and the result was the discovery of (portions of ) 900+ scrolls and tens of thousands of manuscript fragments. This corpus became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Now think about this for a second. Hundreds of scrolls and tens of thousands of fragments suddenly hit the public radar in less than a decade. Talk about a glut of information. Naturally then, a team was necessary to investigate the contents of the caves in order to process, read, and publish the newly found texts. Moreover, the Dead Sea Scrolls had Bible scholars chomping at the bit because within this newly found corpus there were texts that directly bore upon the Old Testament. In response, the Jordanian government (which controlled the Qumran region at the time) assembled a team of eight scholars, and they were given the task of publishing the scrolls.

“Now wait a second, Dave. Eight people to deal with all that content?! That seems that they misjudged some things…”

Yep…yep they did.

Publication soon slowed to a snail’s pace. Not because there was an ulterior motive at first, but because the processes involved were meticulous and comprehensive. Nevertheless, the group of eight could not keep up with the demand. By the 1960s, it was clear that the content of these scrolls was groundbreaking, and people wanted more. Naturally, impatience grew.

The next major phase of the story began in the aftermath of Israel’s Six-Day War in 1967. When the conflict was complete, Israel came to control the region around the Dead Sea, and in turn they assumed control of the project. Yet the scholars in the research group thought it best to enter into negotiations with the Israeli government to ensure that no political efforts would compromise the publication efforts. In time, the publication process slowed even more…and impatience within the scholarly community grew more intense. To make matters worse, access to the project was becoming more tightly controlled. In the 1970s and 1980s, the group functioned more like a secret society than a research group.

“Psst! Show me the secret-decoder ring and we will let you see the goods. But if you tell anyone, we will come after you.”

Obviously, in an academic context, one can see why all of this annoyed, if not angered, people. Furthermore, there was the perplexing phenomenon of the occasional publication that substantiated key points with evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The monopoly was broken in the early 90s. First, the Israeli government seems to have encouraged the head of the research group to “retire.” Next, the Hunt Library in southern California somehow gained access to pictures of the manuscripts and made them publicly available. However, the efforts of two colleagues at Hebrew Union College (Cincinnati, OH) proved to be the most bold, ingenious, and creative.

Figure 4
Figure 4

In the 1980s, the project had published concordances of words that were used throughout the Dead Sea corpus. A particular characteristic of these concordances was that they also gave the words in the immediate context of the term in focus. So, the theory was that if one could gain access to these concordances, one could possibly reconstruct not only lines but entire manuscripts and scrolls. One just needed time, a proper method, and adequate processing power. Martin Abegg and Ben Zion Wacholden of Hebrew Union College tackled the theory and ran these concordances through computer programs to reconstruct the texts. Sure enough, in 1991, the Hebrew Union College edition was published, and the hand of the research group was forced. A few months later, Emanuel Tov, the head of the research group at that time, announced that the Dead Sea Scrolls would be available to all scholars for use.

The importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls is two-fold. First, they illuminated the vast thought world of early Judaism. The texts showed a wide variety of perceptions toward the central power structures and social institutions of the time, as well as a variety of theologies. Apocalyptic texts and other sectarian texts were also present. Most importantly, though, the corpus of Qumran revealed texts that up to that point were not known to have existed.

All of this is noteworthy, but Qumran’s greatest significance for Old Testament studies is the window it gave into the canonization process and the discipline of textual criticism. Consider this. At Qumran, an edition of Jeremiah was found that was not only significantly shorter that the text of Jeremiah found in the Masoretic Text, but also is organized differently. Similarly, there are different editions of certain Psalms, the book of Daniel, and Samuel. So, given that this site was active during Jesus’ day, first century CE, one must concede that efforts to standardize Jewish texts had yet to take hold. Tov has succinctly, but accurately, described a “plurality” of texts, which naturally moves Qumran’s implications upon textual criticism to the forefront.

The Masoretic Text is the textual tradition assumed as the standard by scholars across the globe.

I could take the path of discussing the distinct methods and families of textual preservation. According to Tov, there are five observable categories. However, the details are incredibly layered and technical, and you can read all about it in Tov’s Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (2d Ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001). Yet instead of creating a fog of confusion, I want to paint a brief picture of the development of the Old Testament that will eventually show how the Qumran texts fit into the picture of the Old Testament’s development and purpose of textual criticism.

The books of the Old Testament are the result of a compilation process that brought together individual texts and traditions because of their authoritative qualities. Put simply, they were deemed by Israel to communicate important elements about God’s revelation. At some point, each of these texts reached a final form, which signified a stoppage of further alteration. However, deviations from that final form crept in due to a number of factors during the copying process, including human error, intentional alteration (for clarification, explanation, or methodological preference), and the implications of geographically separated communities. Inevitably, and frustratingly, those deviations were preserved and/or further developed by the copying process, to the point that one is inclined to speak about multiple forms of a book.

You can see where this is going. A proliferation of texts…and plurality of texts.

All of this brings us to Qumran. There, existing in the same geographic location—side by side—were individual manifestations of this textual plurality. In other words, Qumran offers a historically anchored, cross-section of the convoluted and fluid process of textual transmission.

In addition, the youngest texts at Qumran actually represent the twilight of the textual plurality across the scope of early Judaism, for late in the first century CE there was a movement afoot to standardize these texts. Consequently, any variation observed in Dead Sea Scroll texts can potentially be an important voice in the search for an original reading, a reading that reflects the moment when a book reached its final form.

If there is one sub-discipline within Old Testament studies that will pummel one’s brain into submission, it’s textual criticism and its relationship to the canonical process. In some ways, Qumran only adds to the confusion. Nevertheless, the discoveries at Qumran are indispensable for they testify how ancient communities preserved and perpetuated their authoritative texts through time.


Dead Sea Scrolls 6


Figure 1 (banner): The Dead Sea; courtesy of David B. Schreiner

Figure 2: Cave 4; courtesy of David B. Schreiner

Figure 3: Brisco, Thomas V. Holman Bible Atlas (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 214.

Figure 4: A Jar in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found; Elwell, Walter A., and Barry J. Beitzel, eds. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1811.

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