Posts Tagged ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’

First of all, a special thank you to Barry Jones for alerting me to this information. In February of this year (2012) Professor Daniel Wallace of the Dallas Theological Seminary announced the discovery of fragments of manuscripts containing some books of the New Testament that may be earlier than any existing manuscripts. While comparisons to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls are certainly premature, if the initial claims for these manuscripts turn out to be true, such an analogy could turn out to be not far from wrong.

Okay, after all the hyperbole, let me begin with a word of caution. Before we can say anything about this discovery with any degree of certainty, we must allow several scholars to authenticate the manuscripts and especially to establish their date. Dr. Wallace has indicated that it may be a year or more before the details of the manuscripts will be revealed. While certainly I am anxious to find out more, I applaud the caution in such an approach. What we are talking about now are first indications. It’s okay to get excited, but let’s also realize that it is simply too early to make any extravagant claims. With that warning, let me summarize what the early findings indicate.

Seven papyri containing portions of the New Testament have been discovered in Egypt, six of them probably date from the second century; however, one of the manuscripts may actually go back to the first century. The potentially first century manuscript is from the Gospel of Mark. This would make it the earliest New Testament manuscript in existence, supplanting p52 which is a fragment of the Gospel of John, dating from the first half of the second century. Now this fragment of Mark probably only contains a very few verses; however, a first century date would truly be significant. Almost all of the earliest manuscripts we have were discovered in Egypt, because the hot, dry climate makes it more conducive to preserving ancient papyrus. Having a first century manuscript from Egypt also implies that the original must have been written early enough for copies to be made and find their way to Egypt. This may have implications for the remaining six manuscripts as well.

One of the other second century manuscripts contains portions of the gospel of Luke. This would make it the earliest manuscript of that gospel.

We have four manuscripts that contain portions of the letters of Paul. While I wish Dr. Wallace had revealed which letters are included, he wisely chose not to do that at this time. If I read his interview correctly, one of these letters might be Hebrews which was often included in early collections of the writings of Paul.

The final manuscript is not actually from a New Testament book. Rather, it is an ancient homily, dating from the second century, based on the book of Hebrews, chapter 11. This is significant, because it would indicate that in the second century the writer of the homily considered the book of Hebrews to be authoritative, and it would also imply that Hebrews was originally written early enough for it to circulate and obtain a degree of acceptance by the second century.

So there it is. You know what I know. Let me repeat what I said at the beginning. It is too early to accept these claims as is, although Dr. Wallace emphasizes that the manuscripts have been examined by one of the leading paleographers with an outstanding reputation. If I discover any more data to either authenticate or refute this information, I will include it in later posts. For now, it’s exciting to think about, but we will have to allow scholars to do their work.

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Last night I was watching a television documentary discussing the so-called “Gnostic” gospels. I suspect many of you have heard of these writings and how they present a very different picture of Jesus than we find in our four canonical gospels. It is true that these gospels do describe Jesus differently from what we find in our accepted four gospels, and finding them opened up the opportunity to study a branch of early Christianity which we had previously known only from its opponents. While I have not read all these writings, I have read many of them, and the stories they tell are interesting.

At the same time, I was disturbed by how the “documentary” portrayed these gospels. I was especially concerned when statements were made that virtually any Biblical scholar would recognize as false. I am not speaking of how one interprets these writings or whether or not they might provide genuine information about Jesus that is not found in our four gospels. As I have repeated many times, we all have our beliefs, and these beliefs will influence how we interpret evidence. This was obviously true with those who produced this television program, just as it is true for me. No, what concerns me is not with their interpretation, but their presentation of what they purport to be facts. Interpretation is one thing; facts should be another. If I cannot trust that “facts” will be presented objectively, how can I trust anything that is said?

During the program, the narrator admitted that what are known as the “Nag Hammadi” texts date from the fourth century AD (the 300s), although they were originally written earlier. So far, so good. But then the narrator went on to say that the earliest manuscripts we have of the accepted four gospels date from the same period, so there is no way of knowing which were written first. This statement is simply not true, and shame on the program for saying it.

Here are the facts. We have manuscripts of all four of the canonical gospels that date to the second century. Below are the four gospels with the earliest manuscripts we possess. Obviously, the dates are approximate, but they are generally recognized as accurate.

Matthew — manuscript p45 (AD 225-250)

Mark — manuscript p45 (AD 225-250)

Luke — manuscript p75 (AD 200); manuscript p45 (AD 225-250)

John — manuscript p52 (AD 100-150); manuscript p66 (AD 200); manuscript p45 (AD 225-250).

This means that the earliest manuscripts of the four canonical gospels date from 50 to 100 years earlier than the Nag Hammadi gospels. It is simply not true that the earliest manuscripts of the canonical gospels date from the same period as the Nag Hammadi gospels. Nor is there any real question that the four gospels in our New Testament were all written earlier than the Nag Hammadi gospels, if only because Gnosticism did not really develop until the second and third centuries.

I wish to close by making two points. The first is an appeal to all of us to make every effort to separate our opinions from the facts and to be clear when we are expressing our opinions. This is true in religion, politics, or any other area of our lives. Let us be very clear about what we know to be true, as opposed to what we believe to be true. If I present as a fact what is only my interpretation, I lose all credibility, because facts will eventually come out.

Finally, please do not accept what you see presented in these documentaries uncritically. They are designed to be entertaining and to improve ratings. If they can present or manipulate evidence in a way that is sensational, that attracts more viewers and improves their ratings. It is truly unfortunate that we cannot trust even the “facts” presented in these programs, but regrettably this is the case. I have found two other areas presented by this same network in dealing with Biblical issues in which they presented “facts” that were simply incorrect. If something that is said does not appear to be correct, search it out. What is presented may be accurate, and you can learn something. At the same time, it is also possible that what is presented as “facts” are not correct. We live in an information age, and it is incumbent on each of us to maintain a healthy skepticism about the information with which we are presented.

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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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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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