Archive for August, 2011

The pictures below show the front and the back of the oldest manuscript of the New Testament which has been found.

p52 Front John 18.31-33 AD 100-150

p52 Back John 18.37-38 AD 100-150

This manuscript is referred to in two different ways. Its official designation is p52. The “p” indicates that it was written on papyrus instead of vellum. The manuscript is also referred to as the Rylands Fragment. It gets its name, because it is kept in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England. This tiny scrap of papyrus is only about 3 ½” X 2 ½”. The two sides contain respectively portions of John 18.31-33 and John 18.37-38. It has been determined that in order to obtain the text on the front and the back as we have it, the complete manuscript of the Gospel of John must have been 130 pages long and its dimensions were approximately 8 ½” X 8 ” for the codex itself. You may recall that scrolls would normally be written on only one side, so we know that the Rylands Fragment is from a codex, because it has writing on both sides.

Just as the silver amulet of Numbers we discussed last week has implications for the dating of the Pentateuch, this tiny manuscript when first discovered sent shock waves through the academic community, precisely because of what it told us about the date at which the gospel of John was written. Traditional dating for the Gospel of John tends to go from AD 70 – 100, with perhaps more people accepting a date late in the first century (close to AD 100).

Beginning in the Nineteenth century, however, a large school of scholarship was teaching that John could not have been written that early, that in fact it dates from the second half of the second century (AD 150 – 200). F.C. Baur, a scholar who represented the Tubingen School in Germany, said that John actually was written @ AD 170.

Manuscript p52 was acquired in Egypt in 1920. It remained in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England until 1934, when a student first began to analyze it. He had the fragment examined by three scholars who specialized in studying and dating ancient papyri. All three of them agreed that this small scrap of the Gospel of John was written between AD 100-150, probably closer to 100-130. A fourth scholar actually placed the Rylands Fragment as early as the 90s, which would make it almost contemporary with the autograph.

So now we have a fragment of the Gospel of John, presumably not the autograph (original), that dates no later than AD 150 and probably some years earlier. Also, the manuscript was found in Egypt. Although some scholars have suggested Alexandria in Egypt as the place where John was written, Asia appears to be more likely. If the Gospel of John was written in Asia, then Ephesus would be the most likely location. Let’s admit that much of this is speculation, but it bears on the date of the Gospel. Unless Alexandria is accepted as the place of writing for the original, then the Gospel of John had to have been written early enough for this little fragment to have been copied and then taken to Egypt where it was acquired in 1920. Even if it were written in Alexandria, we must still accept a date of @ AD 100-125 for the writing of the gospel of John. So, a whole school of Biblical scholarship based on speculation was destroyed by a scrap of papyrus, just as it was challenged for the Pentateuch by a silver amulet.

As I have said a number of times, I do not believe we must accept traditional dates for the books of the Bible. We should examine each one on its own merits and follow where the evidence leads. I have come to believe, however, that liberal scholars tend to be at least as biased as conservative ones, especially when dealing with matters that are based on speculation.

I am convinced that the whole body of Biblical studies would benefit greatly from a little more humility on the part of scholars espousing their particular theories. I still like the short prayer I read somewhere. “Lord, make my words sweet and tender, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.”

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I said last week that  we were leaving the Old Testament for a while. After today we will. However, I felt it might be interesting to take this week to talk about the oldest fragment we have of the Hebrew Bible. Next week I plan to talk about the oldest manuscript we have of the New Testament. I hope you will find both of these to be interesting.

If you remember previous posts, you know that our present Old Testament is based on the Masoretic Text which was standardized @ AD 500. Until recently, our oldest manuscript of the Old Testament was from the 10th century AD.

All that changed with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which included portions of the Hebrew Bible that date from the 2nd century BC. Most scholars thought we could not get anything older than that and for good reason. Papyrus and even parchment will not last much longer than that, so even if scrolls existed, it was thought they would have been lost or destroyed long ago.

Then in 1979 two small rolled pieces of silver were discovered in a burial cave in Jerusalem.

Silver Scroll, 600 BC

When the scrolls were unrolled, they were found to contain writing in a very ancient Hebrew script. The writing was from the priestly benediction in Numbers 6. Based on the form of the letters used, most scholars accept a date of approximately 600 BC for these amulets, although initially there were some who felt they came from the Intertestamental Period. This was partially due to the fact that the forms of the letters (which scholars use to date the writing) were in some places unclear. The amulets are so small and the letters difficult to read using the photography which was available at the time. In 1994 tests were conducted at NASA laboratories, using high-resolution digital images. These revised images cleared up a number of questions that had been raised. While a minority of scholars still hold with a later date for these amulets, from what I have read, the consensus still favors dating these fragments to approximately 600 BC. In other words, these scrolls go back to a time when the original Temple of Solomon was still standing!

These scrolls hold potential significance for the dating of the Pentateuch, or at least part of it. While tradition holds that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, a large number of modern scholars believe that the Pentateuch developed over a period of many years much later than the time of Moses. Some would even claim that it was compiled during or even shortly after the Babylonian Exile (586 – 515 BC). While this little scroll cannot by itself  settle the issue, it would seem to provide evidence that such a late dating for the Pentateuch (or at least for the book of Numbers) is unlikely. This does not necessarily translate into Mosaic authorship. It does, however, indicate that perhaps the Pentateuch (or portions of it) is older than has previously been argued.

So, we are left with these small silver amulets, apparently from a time when Solomon’s Temple still stood, and they can still speak to us today. What better way to close than by an English translation of the actual words they contain. It is my wish for everyone who reads this post.

May YHWH bless you and keep you;
May YHWH cause his face to
Shine upon you and grant you

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We have spent some time discussing issues relating to the Old Testament. While there is much more to say about it, I feel the need for a change, so next week we shall probably move away from that for a while.

Today I wish to address an issue that will probably come up a number of times. That has to do with who wrote the books of the Bible. The question of authorship can be a sensitive one, but it is profitable to consider. Obviously, if we know the author of a particular book of the Bible, it can help us better understand the message. For this post, I want us to look at the book of Joshua. I have chosen this book for a couple of reasons. I suspect the authorship of Joshua is somewhat less controversial than say 2 Peter which has its own issues. At the same time, this book is particularly instructive because of the clues within the book that help us to narrow down the time within which it was written. It provides a good example of how a critical reading of a book can aid in understanding its background.

First of all, I hope we can all agree that the book of Joshua is one of those books that is technically anonymous, because nowhere does the book claim that Joshua or anyone else wrote the book. Remember, the title would not have been original, so we cannot rely on the titles of any of the books of the Bible to tell us who wrote them.

Traditionally, Joshua is said to have written the book that bears his name. This claim comes from the Talmud which claims that Joshua was the author, although some would attribute the ending which records Joshua’s death to Eleazar, the high priest and that Eleazar’s death was recorded by his son, Phinehas. These are traditions that have been passed down to us. I believe if we go to the text itself, we shall find clues that help us to determine more precisely when the book was written, if not who actually wrote it.

There is a phrase that recurs in the book of Joshua. The first instance is in Joshua 4.9 which reads, “Joshua set up the twelve stones that had been in the middle of the Jordan at the spot where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant had stood. And they are there to this day.” This same phrase (“to this day”) occurs twelve times in the book of Joshua. This kind of phrase would seem to indicate that the writing was done sometime after the events described; otherwise, there would be no reason for it.

The second clue has to do with a source the writer used. Throughout the Old Testament, the writers refer to written sources they used, but which we no longer have. Claude Mariottini, Professor of Old Testament at Northern Baptist Seminary, lists thirty-three literary sources referred to in the Old Testament. In other words, writers of the Old Testament used these no longer existent books as sources for writing some of the books of the Old Testament.

One of these sources is a work entitled the Book of Jashar. Joshua 10.13 reads, “So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar.” This tells us that the writer of Joshua, at least in the form we have it now, made use of a work called the Book of Jashar.

Now here is where we do a little detective work. Is the Book of Jashar ever referred to again in the Bible? Yes, it is. 2 Samuel 1.17, 18 tell us of David’s sorrow over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan with the words, “David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, and ordered that the men of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar).” We know then that the Book of Jashar could not have been written before the time of David and more than likely was written after that. It seems to me that, putting all this together, the book of Joshua could not have been written before the time of David.

I am not attempting to negate the authenticity of the Bible. Rather, I am simply going to the text and looking at the evidence, and this is what the evidence tells me. Of course it is likely that the book of Joshua as we have it made use of other sources even more ancient than the Book of Jashar; however, we cannot know that. At some point we shall need to deal with what is referred to as the Documentary Hypothesis and Source Criticism, which attempt to reconstruct some of the literary sources behind some of the books of the Bible. For those of you who know something about this, let me say that I feel that some scholars are more confident of their reconstructions than the evidence warrants. That will be a more controversial topic. I hope you can see that I am attempting to go slowly, so that when we get to these more difficult subjects, if you keep up with the posts, you will have a knowledge base that will make understanding those discussions easier.

One final point for today, and I want to address this to those who are perhaps on the more conservative end of my readers. It seems to me that the more we believe in the inspiration of the Bible, the less we should be concerned about its human authors. If we believe in inspiration in any form, then we must believe that God, in whatever ways He chooses, uses the Bible to allow His message to be presented. I respect and recognize the Bible as authoritative; however, I worship God, not the Bible, and certainly not those who wrote it. We need to keep our priorities in order. I have not meant to impose a liberal construction on the book of Joshua. On the contrary, I have tried as honestly as possible to go to the text and determine from the text where the evidence leads. That has always been my goal and method for studying the Bible. I hope you will be able to discern this pattern in every one of my posts.

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I wish to present an update relating to the post I did earlier this week on the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Biblical Archaeology Review contains an article about corrections that have been found in the Isaiah A scroll, the most famous of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The article is written by Eugene Ulrich, John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and chief editor of the Biblical Dead Sea Scrolls in the Scrolls International Publication Project.

The Isaiah A Scroll (like almost all manuscripts) contains numerous corrections which were inserted by other scribes. This is not unusual, because manuscripts would routinely be checked for errors which, when found, would be corrected. According to Professor Ulrich, seven of the corrections represent something different, and perhaps more intriguing. Rather than being simply corrections, these seven additions to the text range from full sentences to full paragraphs.

In later posts, I will talk about how text can become added to a manuscript. The most interesting aspect of these seven additions, however, lies in the fact that they are included in the Masoretic Text, which forms the basis for the Hebrew Old Testament used today and on which our translations are primarily based.

The article is fairly academic, and therefore somewhat technical, but if you wish to read it, you may follow the link below.


Again, I would encourage you to view this in a positive light. It is because of discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls that we can continue to get closer to the original text of the Bible. By the way, there is nothing earthshaking in these seven additions. They have no effect on doctrine or theology.

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There is something hidden among the Dead Sea Scrolls so disturbing that scholars are keeping it secret. Have you heard that kind of claim before? I would almost be surprised if you had not. So many outrageous claims have been made about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here are just a few:
Jesus was a member of the community that produced the scrolls (perhaps even an alien from space).
There are scrolls that are being kept secret, because they disprove the essential claims of Christianity.
One of the scrolls points to the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaton as the true founder of Judaism.

At least the title got your attention, didn’t it? While the more extravagant claims concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls have little connection with reality, the fact remains that the Scrolls are extremely important in understanding the development of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament.

The first scrolls (according to the story) were found in a cave near the Dead Sea by a shepherd boy in 1947. From there they eventually ended up in the hands of scholars who recognized their tremendous value. The story has been ongoing since that time, but space is too limited to go into the history today. First a little background.

So far more than 900 scrolls have been discovered in eleven caves near the Dead Sea. Although there is still some debate, the consensus of scholars connects the scrolls to the ruins of a settlement near Qumran, which was believed to have been inhabited by a Jewish splinter group called the Essenes. So it was likely the Essenes who produced the scrolls and hid them in the caves during the first Jewish revolt, before their society was destroyed by the Roman army in AD 68.

The scrolls are copied on vellum, papyrus, and one scroll on pure copper. It is called (of all things) the Copper Scroll. They are written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The scrolls date from the second century BC to AD 68. For our purposes their significance comes from the fact that 231 (or 233) scrolls are copies of Biblical texts, making them earlier than our previous old testament manuscripts by a thousand years. In fact at least a portion of every Old Testament book is represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls with the exception of the book of Esther.

So what do these scrolls tell us about the accuracy of the text of the Old Testament? Do they confirm its accuracy or do they reveal that over the centuries the text of the Old Testament has been changed so as to be unrecognizable? Let me give you my conclusion first. The scrolls basically show that, for the most part, the text of the Old Testament is very close to what we have today. At the same time, there are some questions that arise from studying the scrolls. Obviously, there is little space here to do more than a summary study. Let me give a couple of examples that illustrate the points.

Perhaps the most famous of the Dead Sea Scrolls is the Isaiah Scroll, part of which is pictured below.

Isaiah A Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Chapter 53

This picture shows Isaiah 53, and it is virtually identical to the Masoretic Text.

Actually, there are two Isaiah scrolls, Isaiah A, which is virtually complete and dates from @ 100 BC, and Isaiah B which contains chapters 41-59 and is a little later in date. The Isaiah A scroll was available in time for the translators of the Revised Standard Version published in 1952 to make use of it. They only made thirteen changes from the Masoretic Text based on Isaiah A, none of them significant. At the same time, we need to understand that Isaiah A does represent a third text type. It matches neither the Septuagint (see previous post) nor the Masoretic Text. But let’s understand what we mean by that. There are indeed differences, but they are not major differences. We are not talking about two totally different accounts in the two Isaiah’s.

While that really sounds encouraging for the accuracy of our text, this does not hold true for every one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Perhaps the most problematic is a scroll of the prophet Jeremiah. Although written in Hebrew, this scroll is in many ways closer to the Septuagint than it is to the Hebrew Masoretic Text. The Septuagint version of Jeremiah differs from the Masoretic Text in two primary ways. First, it is seven chapters shorter than the Masoretic Text, and the remaining text is arranged in a different order. There is not time (and perhaps even less interest) in going into all the details; however, the differences are there. On the other hand, from the reading I have done, it appears that there are fragments of Jeremiah among the Dead Sea Scrolls which are closer to the Masoretic Text. This would mean that two different versions of Jeremiah circulated during Biblical times.

While we cannot be sure why there were two versions, we should recognize that the book of Jeremiah itself says that there were two versions. Chapter 36 of Jeremiah records that king Jehoiakim cut up Jeremiah’s original scroll and burned it. Jeremiah then had his secretary Baruch prepare a second scroll that was longer than the original one. If a copy of the original scroll survived, it might explain why two versions of Jeremiah circulated at the same time.

Ultimately, we cannot say why two versions of Jeremiah exist among the Dead Sea Scrolls. I also feel confident in saying that the Dead Sea Scrolls do not call for any drastic changes in the Old Testament text. They have even less to say about the New Testament text, because (despite some wild claims) the New Testament does not depend on them.

I would like to address one final issue. It has been suggested that Jesus spent some of His “silent years” among the Essenes and that many of His teachings arose from them. I believe this theory is highly unlikely. There are just too many differences. The Essenes were obsessed with ritual purity; Jesus and His disciples often got into trouble for breaking the Sabbath and not following ritual washings. The Essenes would have nothing to do with tax collectors and immoral people. One of Jesus’ apostles (Matthew) was a tax collector, and Jesus was notorious for hanging out with “sinners.” I believe a stronger case could be made that John the Baptist was influenced by the Essenes, or perhaps was an Essene himself; but even that is really conjecture.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are indeed important witnesses, not only to the Bible, but to the culture out of which Christianity arose. We have said virtually nothing about the other documents among the Scrolls, the War Scroll, the Copper Scroll (a treasure map?), or the Teacher of Righteousness and his adversary (the Wicked Priest). These scrolls are perhaps more important than the Biblical scrolls, because of what they tell us of the Essene community and Jewish beliefs around the time Jesus lived. What I find most intriguing is the possibility that more scrolls may be found in that ancient land. That would truly be exciting.

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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