Discovery of the Dead Sea
Scrolls (hereafter DSS) at Qumran, beginning in 1949, had significant
apologetic implications. These ancient texts, hidden in pots in
cliff-top caves by a monastic religious community, confirm the
reliability of the Old Testament text. They provide significant
portions of Old Testament books—even entire books—that were copied and
studied by the Essenes. These manuscripts date from as early as the
third century b.c. and so give the earliest window so far found into
the texts of the Old Testament books and their predictive prophecies.
The Qumran texts have become an important witness for the divine
origin of the Bible. They provide further evidence against the
negative biblical criticism of such crucial books as Daniel and
The DSS manuscripts date
from the third century b.c. to the first century a.d. They include one
complete Old Testament book, Isaiah, and thousands of fragments, which
together represent every Old Testament book except Esther. William R.
Albright called this "the greatest manuscript discovery of modern
Dating the Dead Sea Scrolls
Important, though not
crucial, to the apologetic value of the DSS are their dates. Dating
used several lines of evidence.
Carbon 14 Dating
Carbon 14 dating is a
reliable form of scientific dating when applied to uncontaminated
material several thousand years old. Since it destroys a portion of
the material tested, this process is used sparingly. Half of a
two-ounce piece of linen wrapping from a scroll in cave 1 was tested
by Dr. W. E. Libby of the University of Chicago in 1950 to give a
general idea of the age of the collection. Results indicated an age of
1917 years with a 200-year (10 percent) variant, which left the date
somewhere between 168 b.c. and a.d. 233.
writing forms) and orthography (spelling) were more helpful,
indicating that some manuscripts were inscribed before 100 b.c.
Albright studied photographs of the complete Isaiah scroll and set its
date at around 100 b.c. "What an absolutely incredible find!" he
wrote. "And there can happily not be the slightest doubt in the world
about the genuineness of the manuscript."2
Collaborative evidence for
an early date came from archaeology. Pottery accompanying the
manuscripts was Late Hellenistic (ca. 150-63 b.c.) and Early Roman
(ca. 63 b.c. to a.d. 100). Coins found in the monastery ruins proved
by their inscriptions to have been minted between 135 B.C. and a.d.
135. The weave and pattern of the cloth supported an early date.
Evidence also came from the Murabba’at Discoveries south of Bethlehem,
where self-dated manuscripts were discovered in 1952. Bearing dates
from a.d. 132-35, these proved to be paleographically younger than the
DSS.3 In the end there was no reasonable doubt that the
Qumran manuscripts came from the century before Christ and the first
century a.d. Thus, they are 1000 years older than the Masoretic
manuscripts of the tenth century. Before 1947, the Hebrew text was
based on three partial and one complete manuscript dating from about
a.d. 1000. Now, thousands of fragments are available, as well as
complete books, containing large sections of the Old Testament from
one millennium before the time of the Masoretic manuscripts.
Support for the Masoretic
The nature and number of
these finds are of critical value for establishing the true text. With
innumerable fragments of the entire Old Testament, there are abundant
samples with which to compare the Masoretic Text. The evidence points
to the following general conclusions.
Confirmation of the Hebrew
The scrolls give an
overwhelming confirmation of the faithfulness with which the Hebrew
text was copied through the centuries. By the tenth-century Masoretic
copies, few errors had crept in. Millar Burrows, in The Dead Sea
Scrolls, writes, "It is a matter of wonder that through something
like a thousand years the text underwent so little alteration. As I
said in my first article on the scroll, ‘Herein lies its chief
importance, supporting the fidelity of the Masoretic tradition.’"4
R. Laird Harris points out that "evidently the difference between the
standard text of a.d. 900 and the text of 100 b.c. is not nearly so
great as that between the Neutral and Western text in the New
Testament study."5 Gleason Archer observes that the two
copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran Cave 1 "proved to be word for
word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent
of the text. The 5 percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious
slips of the pen and variations in spelling."6 To return to
the original and "all important question" framed by Old Testament
scholar Frederic Kenyon (1863-1952) a generation ago, it may now be
more confidently asserted than ever before that the modern Hebrew text
faithfully represents the Hebrew text as originally written by the
authors of the Old Testament. Dead Sea discoveries have enabled us to
answer this question with much greater assurance than was possible
Support for the Septuagint
Since the New Testament
most often cites the Greek Septuagint (hereafter LXX) translation of
the Old Testament, the reliability of this text is important,
particularly where it is quoted in the New Testament. The DSS provide
early support for the LXX and answers questions about variations
between the Hebrew and LXX Greek:
1. A fragment containing
Deuteronomy 32:8 reads, "according to the number of the sons of God,"
which is translated "angels of God" by the LXX, as in Genesis 6:4
(margin); Job 1:6; 2:1; and 38:7. The Masoretic Text reads, "according
to the number of the children of Israel."
2. The Masoretic Text of
Exodus 1:5 reads "seventy souls," whereas the LXX and its quotation in
Acts 7:14 read "seventy-five souls." A DSS fragment of Exodus 1:5
reads "seventy-five souls," in agreement with the LXX.
3. Hebrews 1:6b, "Let all
God’s angels worship him" is a quote from the LXX of Deuteronomy
32:43. This quotation does not agree with the Masoretic Text, but DSS
fragments containing this section tend to confirm the LXX.
4. Isaiah 9:6 reads, "she
shall call his name" in the Masoretic Text, but the LXX and now the
great Isaiah scroll read, "His name shall be called," a matter of one
less consonant of the Hebrew alphabet.
5. The Greek version of
Jeremiah is sixty verses (one-eighth) shorter than the Hebrew text of
Jeremiah. The fragment of Jeremiah supports these omissions.
6. In Cave 11 a copy of
Psalm 151 was found, which was previously unknown in the Hebrew text,
although it appeared in the Septuagint. Some apocryphal books were
also found among the Hebrew manuscripts in the Qumran caves that had
previously been known only in the LXX.8
This should by no means be
construed as a uniform picture, since there are not many deviants in
the DSS from the Masoretic Text to begin with. In some cases the
variants do not consistently agree with the LXX; in a few cases they
do not agree at all. However, even Orlinsky, who is one of the
foremost defenders of the Masoretic Text against proposed emendations
based on the DSS, admits, "The LXX translation, no less than the
Masoretic Text itself, will have gained considerable respect as a
result of the Qumran discoveries in those circles where it has
Light on the New Testament
Some DSS fragments have
been identified as the earliest known pieces of the New Testament.
Further, the messianic expectations reveal that the New Testament view
of a personal messiah-God who would rise from the dead is in line with
first-century Jewish thought.
The New Testament
Jose O’Callahan, a Spanish
Jesuit paleographer, made headlines around the world in 1972 when he
announced that he had translated a piece of the Gospel of Mark on a
DSS fragment. This was the earliest known piece of Mark. Fragments
from cave 7 had previously been dated between 50 b.c. and a.d. 50 and
listed under "not identified" and classified as "Biblical Texts."
O’Callahan eventually identified nine fragments. The center column in
the following chart uses the numbering system established for
manuscripts. For example, "7Q5" means fragment 5 from Qumran cave 7.
Both friend and critic
acknowledged from the beginning that, if valid, O’Callahan’s
conclusions would revolutionize current New Testament theories. The
New York Times reported: "If Father O’Callahan’s theory is
accepted, it would prove that at least one of the gospels—that of St.
Mark—was written only a few years after the death of Jesus." United
Press International (UPI) noted that his conclusions meant that "the
people closest to the events—Jesus’ original followers—found Mark’s
report accurate and trustworthy, not myth but true history."10
Time magazine quoted one scholar who claimed that, if correct,
"they can make a bonfire of 70 tons of indigestible German
Of course, O’Callahan’s
critics object to his identification and have tried to find other
possibilities. The fragmentary nature of the manuscripts makes it
difficult to be dogmatic about identifications. Nonetheless,
O’Callahan offers a plausible, albeit revolutionary, possibility. If
the identification of even one of these fragments as New Testament is
valid, then the implications for Christian apologetics are enormous.
It would be shown that the Gospel of Mark was written within the life
time of the apostles and contemporaries of the events.
A date before a.d. 50
leaves no time for mythological embellishment of the records. They
would have to be accepted as historical. It would also show Mark to be
one of the earlier Gospels. Further, since these manuscripts are not
originals but copies, it would reveal that the New Testament was
"published"—copied and disseminated—during the life time of the
writers. It would also reveal the existence of the New Testament canon
during this early period, with pieces representing every major section
of the New Testament: Gospels, Acts, and both Pauline and General
The fragment of 2 Peter
would argue for the authenticity of this often disputed epistle. The
absence of fragments of John’s writings might indicate that they were
written later (a.d. 80-90) in accordance with the traditional dates.
With all these revolutionary conclusions it is little wonder that
their authenticity is being challenged.
The DSS have also yielded
text that, while not referring to the Christ of the New Testament,
have some interesting parallels, as well as some significant
differences. The similarities that confirm the New Testament picture
accurately describes Jewish expectation of a personal, individual
Messiah who would die and rise from the dead. A fragment called "A
Genesis Florilegorium" (4Q252) reflects belief in an individual
Messiah who would be a descendant of David. "Column 5 (1) (the)
Government shall not pass from the tribe of Judah. During Israel’s
dominion, (2) a Davidic descendant on the throne shall [not c]ease …
until the Messiah of Righteousness, the Branch of (4) David comes."12
Even the deity of the
Messiah is affirmed in the fragment known as "The Son of God" (4Q246),
Plate 4, columns one and two: "Oppression will be upon the earth…
[until] the King of the people of God arises,… and he shall become [gre]at
upon the earth. [… All w]ill make [peace,] and all will serve [him.]
He will be called [son of the Gr]eat [God;] by His name he shall be
designated…. He will be called the son of God; they will call him son
of the Most High."13
"The Messiah of Heaven and
Earth" fragment (4Q521) even speaks of the Messiah raising the dead:
"(12) then He will heal the sick, resurrect the dead, and to the Meek
announce glad tidings."14
The Dead Sea Scrolls also
confirm that Qumran was not the source of early Christianity. There
are significant differences between their concept of the "Teacher of
Righteousness," apparently an Essene messianic hope, and the Jesus
revealed in Scripture and early Christianity. The differences are
enough to show that early Christianity was not just an offshoot of the
Essenes, as has been theorized.15
The Essenes emphasized hating one’s enemies; Jesus stressed love. The
Essenes were exclusivistic regarding women, sinners, and outsiders;
Jesus was inclusive. The Essenes were legalistic Sabbatarians; Jesus
was not. The Essenes stressed Jewish purification laws; Jesus attacked
them. The Essenes believed two messiahs would come; Christians held
that Jesus was the only one.16
The DSS provide an
important apologetic contribution toward establishing the general
reliability of the Old Testament Hebrew text, as well as the earliest
copies of parts of Old Testament books and even whole books. This is
important in showing that the predictive prophecies of the Old
Testament were indeed made centuries before they were literally
fulfilled. Furthermore, the DSS provide possible support for the New
Testament. They may contain the earliest known fragments of the New
Testament, and they definitely contain references to messianic beliefs
similar to those taught in the New Testament.
1 See J. C. Trever, "The
Discovery of the Scrolls," Biblical Archaeologist 11
(September 1948), p. 55.
2 Ibid., p. 55.
3 Solomon Zeitlin, The
Dead Sea Scrolls and Modern Scholarship (Philadelphia: Dropsie
4 Millar Burrows, More
Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Viking, 1958), p. 304.
5 R. Laird Harris,
Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
1957), p. 99.
6 Gleason L. Archer, A
Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody,
1974), p. 19.
7 F. F. Bruce, Second
Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956),
8 Geza Vermes, The
Dead Sea Scrolls in English (New York: Penguin, 1987), p. 296.
9 Cited in G. E. Wright,
ed., The Bible and the Ancient Near East (Garden City, NY:
Doubleday, 1961), p. 121.
10 Ibid, p. 137.
11 David Estrada and
William White, Jr., The First New Testament (Nashville, TN:
Thomas Nelson, 1978), p. 136.
12 See Robert H. Eisenman
and Michael Wise, The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered (New York:
Barnes & Nobel, 1992), p. 89.
13 Ibid., p. 70.
14 Ibid., p. 23; cf. pp.
15 See C. Billington,
"The Dead Sea Scrolls in Early Christianity," IBA, January-March
1996, pp. 8-10.
16 See James Charlesworth,
et. al., Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Doubleday,