The Dead Sea Scrolls (1947-1956)

Qumran Cave # 4 (of 11)

End view of one of the larger Qumran scroll fragment

Text from the Great Isaiah Scroll of Qumran



Sample pottery jar and Qumran scroll           Dead Sea Scroll fragments on display                                                              at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem

The Dead Sea Scrolls (1947-1956)

Around February 1947 a Bedouin shepherd boy named Muhammad was searching for a lost goat along the west side of the Dead Sea, about eight (8) miles south of Jericho. When he tossed a stone into a hole in the surrounding cliffs he was surprised to hear the shattering of pottery. Inside the cave were large jars containing leather scrolls wrapped in linen cloth and carefully sealed. It turns out that those containers had been inside that cave for nearly 1900 years—ever since A.D.68 when the invading Roman army destroyed a nearby monastery belonging to an ancient Jewish messianic sect called the Essenes.

Five (5) scrolls from the cave that Muhammad discovered (Cave 1) were bought by the archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Monastery at Jerusalem. Three (3) other scrolls from the same initial cave were purchased by Professor Sukenik of the Hebrew University also in Jerusalem. In 1949 the archbishop called the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem and told the acting director, John Trever, about the findings. Trever meticulously photographed each column of “the great Isaiah scroll” which is some 24 feet long and 10 inches high. He sent prints of some of his photographs to the renowned American biblical archaeologist, Dr. W.F. Albright of Johns Hopkins University, who wrote back that these scrolls were “the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times” dating back to 100 B.C.1

Later the archbishop brought his five scrolls to the United States where the newly formed nation of Israel bought them for $250,000.00 The Israel Museum in Jerusalem now houses these Dead Sea Scrolls (since 1965) in a cave-like building constructed for the display called “The Shrine of the Book.” In all, more than 800 manuscript-scrolls containing the Old Testament (fragments of the Apocrypha and every OT book except Esther and the entire books of Isaiah, Deuteronomy, and Psalms), Jewish Literature (post-OT, pre-Talmud), and The Manual of Discipline (for members of the Essene community) were discovered in 11 caves in the Qumran area.2

The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) are of interest for many reasons. First, they are nearly 1,000 years older than the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible–the Masoretic Text as contained in the Aleppo Codex, which dates from the early 10thcentury. When the Dead Sea Scrolls are compared with the Masoretic Text there is remarkable agreement between the two. For instance,

Of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, there are only seventeen letters in question. Ten of these letters are simply a matter of spelling, which does not affect the sense. Four more letters are minor stylistic changes, such as conjunctions. The remaining three letters comprise the word ‘light’, which is added in verse 11, and does not affect the meaning greatly. Furthermore, this word is supported by the LXX [Septuagint] and IQ Is. Thus, in one chapter of 166 words, there is only one word (three letters) in question after a thousand years of transmission – and this word does not significantly change the meaning of the passage. (Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 1972, Josh McDowell, p. 61)

Hence, the Dead Sea Scrolls contribute to the case for the reliability of the Hebrew Old Testament by showing the remarkable agreement of these two ancient documents–even though they are virtually a thousand years apart.

The second point of interest is that where there is a notable difference between the DSS and the Masoretic Text, the DSS actually favor the Septuagint–a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament originally written around 250BC. In fact, of the more than 250 times the OT is quoted in the NT, the Septuagint, rather than the Masoretic Text, was the generally preferred Old Testament version used by the New Testament writers. For instance, Acts 7:14, says that Joseph brought 75 people from his family to Egypt. However, in Genesis 46:27 the Hebrew OT reports that only 70 people went to Egypt. Scholars agree that Stephen was quoting from the Septuagint which adds the names of one son of Manasseh, two of Ephraim, and one grandson of each, bringing the total to 75. In this way, the Dead Sea Scrolls may suggest that both the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint are of equal validity as foundations for interpreting the OT.

Finally, there have been claims (O’Callahan,1972) that the Dead Sea Scrolls even contain fragments from the NT Gospel of Mark, Acts, Romans, 1 Timothy, 2 Peter, and James (Cave 7, AD 50-70+). If verified this would offer strong prove that the NT documents were written in the lifetimes of their alleged authors, leaving no room for mythological embellishments or the development of legend some two generations later.3

1) How We Got Our Bible, by Ralph Earle (1972), p.48-51

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