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By Tony Gates

Some may have heard of what seem to be these strange documents referred to as The Dead Sea Scrolls, and might wonder what they are about, might wonder if they have relevance to Christians who want to understand the bible as well as they can, might assume they are of no relevance to the Church, or might consider them to be relevant only to scholars.

The purpose of this article is to describe what they are, how they were discovered and how they relate to the Hebrew Bible, or, as Christians call it, the Old Testament. It will be over to the reader then to decide whether they are important to him or to her, or even if they are interesting or not.

I have to come clean and say that I find them immensely valuable for Old Testament studies. I am convinced that the more we understand the Old Testament, the more we understand Jesus of Nazareth. He was, we should not forget, a Jew steeped in Judaism and the books of the Hebrew Bible. However, this article is not about Jesus. It is about the Dead Sea Scrolls and their relationship to Biblical studies.

It is the first article on the subject, simply because there is too much to take in in one go. I hope it whets your appetite. It deals with the languages of the Old Testament and the discovery and importance of the scrolls.

  1. The Languages of the Old Testament and Our English Translation.

The Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, was written in Hebrew, except for portions of the book of Daniel which was written partly in Hebrew and partly in Aramaic, a language the Jews brought back to Judah with them in the 6th century BC from their captivity in Babylon.

We speak of the diaspora of the Jews. It means Jews spread in many parts of the world outside Judah. Many, especially after the Babylonian captivity, lived in non-Jewish lands, and many in Judah spoke Aramaic as their first language. Jesus, centuries later, spoke Aramaic.

Alexander the Great’s conquests facilitated the spread of Greek in the ancient Mediterranean world and in some areas beyond it. Alexander lived from 356 to 323BC, a short life. Greek more and more became the spoken language of that world. It was known that a translation of books which we call the old Testament into Greek would be a real asset for Greek-speaking Jews, and in the 3rd century BC that happened. In Alexandria a translation was made into Greek. It is known as the LXX (70). Why LXX? There is a tradition that 72 scholars translated it from Hebrew, but I suppose LXXII is a bit more clumsy to say than LXX!

The importance for us is that until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest documents of the Old Testament we had were those of the LXX in Greek. We had no Hebrew copies of the Old Testament dating earlier than the 10th century AD. That means that our oldest Hebrew copies of the Old Testament were made about 1100 years after the writing of the latest Old Testament book (Daniel), and very many more years after the writing of the bulk of them. How reliable, therefore, were our translations of the Old Testament into English? Much depended on the accuracy of the LXX translators into Greek, but we did not have the Hebrew from which they translated!

  1. The Discovery of the Scrolls

In 1946/47 a remarkable discovery was made in the area known as Qumran, on the western shore of the Dead Sea. Bedouin goatherds Muhammed edh-Dhib and Jum’a Muhammed made the discovery quite by accident of a number of jars in a cave at Qumran. More caves containing jars were discovered after the finding of the first one. The jars proved to contain old scrolls. Did they have value? They were taken to a part-time antiques dealer called Ibrahim ‘Ijha in Bethlehem, who declared them to be worthless and returned them to the goatherds. Eventually they were seen to be extraordinarily valuable documents for Biblical scholarship, scrolls of Old Testament books and other items, mostly in Hebrew.  Intensive work was done to preserve them and begin study of the Hebrew.

Discoveries continued to be made in the general area until 1956, when the last cave, cave 11, was discovered and the last Hebrew fragments were found. There are many, many documents and fragments of documents in the Dead Sea Scrolls collection (now dispersed to many places).

What is exciting about the discoveries? The very exciting thing is that the Dead Sea Scrolls date from the 3rd century BC to the first century AD. That means our store of Hebrew documents of the Old Testament is now up to 1200 years earlier than those 10th century AD documents. Hence the discovery is of massive importance for Old Testament scholarship. We are no longer reliant on the LXX Greek translation for our BC documents of the Old Testament. We now have Hebrew documents, many of which are from the same period as the LXX.

Why were they at Qumran?

The most prevalent theory, which was largely unchallenged until the 1990s, is that they are the product of an ascetic community of the Dead Sea area known as the Essenes. That theory has been questioned by scholars of the last 20 years, but it is still the most commonly held one. The scrolls contain many documents besides Old Testament books. One is a manual of discipline, a kind of conduct rule for the community. There is a strong theory among Biblical scholars that John the Baptist belonged to the Essenes community of Qumran. If he were baptising at the ford where the road to Jericho crosses the Jordan, as it seems possible he was, it gives support to the view that he was part of the Qumran community. The ford was reasonably close to Qumran, 13 or 14 miles distant. The nearest point of the river to Qumran is 5 to 6 miles. Whether the inhabitants of the caves were Essenes or not, there was certainly a community there, and they were the producers of the scrolls.

  1. The Languages of the Scrolls

The scrolls are overwhelmingly Hebrew documents, though some are Aramaic, some Greek. The approximate proportions are:

  • Hebrew                             80%
  • Aramaic                            17%
  • Greek                                3%

A tiny portion, 0.2% are in Nabatean, a dialect related to Aramaic. It is too small a percentage to include in the percentages above. It is mentioned here simply for the sake of completeness.

If you want to follow up on the Dead Sea Scrolls there will be another article in due course with more information. Here are some references if you want to read more.

  • Rowley, HH         The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament, SPCK, London, 1957
  • Coloe, Mary L & Thatcher, Tom (eds) John, Qumran, And the Dead Sea Scrolls, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, 2011
  • Wilson, Edmund The Scrolls from the Dead Sea, Fontana, London, 1955
  • Allegro, John The Dead Sea Scrolls (2nd Edition), Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1964
  • Flint, PW. The Dead Sea Scrolls, Abingdon, Nashville, 2013.
  • Vermes, Geza The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Penguin, Harmondsworth