I have been reading about the Dead Sea Scrolls for years, but my interest was piqued to a higher degree recently after visiting two sites associated with them: the caves and the museum at Qumran, and the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem where the first seven scrolls are housed.
The scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, 13 miles southeast of Jerusalem. The first cave contained two Isaiah scrolls, including the nearly intact Great Isaiah Scroll.
The scrolls contain the remains of about 900 different writings, mostly written between 200 B.C. and 68 A.D. The vast majority of the scrolls are in fragments. The Dead Sea Scrolls have been called “the world’s greatest jigsaw puzzle.” Most of the scrolls were written on parchment (sheep or goat skins), while a minority were written on papyrus and clay, and two were written on copper (Geza Vermes, The Story of the Scrolls, 2010).
Advanced dating tests in the early 1990s confirmed that the biblical scrolls date to the two centuries before Christ (George Bonani, “Carbon-14 Tests Substantiate Scroll Dates,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 1991, p. 72).
The scrolls were preserved by the exceedingly dry climate, of the caves, which are 1,300 feet below sea level.
Four-fifths of the scrolls are written in Hebrew, and 25% of them are books of the Bible. There are parts of every O.T. book except Esther, thus confirming the traditional canon of Scripture. There are 15 copies of Genesis, 17 of Exodus, 13 of Leviticus, eight of Numbers, 29 of Deuteronomy, two of Joshua, three of Judges, 21 of Isaiah, six of Jeremiah, six of Ezekiel, 36 of Psalms, two of Proverbs, and four of Ruth.
There were no portions of New Testaments books among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Jesus is nowhere mentioned in them.
The Great Isaiah Scroll
The most important and complete O.T. book among the Dead Sea Scrolls is the Great Isaiah Scroll, which contains all 66 books of Isaiah. It was found in the first cave and was written on 17 pieces of sheepskin sewn together to form a scroll measuring about 24 feet in length. It resides at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and a realistic facsimile is on display in the main room. It has been dated at least four times by the carbon-14 method and the results have ranged from 335 to 107 B.C. Other techniques (e.g., writing material and style, associated coins and other artifacts) have dated it to 150-100 B.C. Thus it was written at least a century before Christ.
The Essenes Cult
The non-biblical books of the Dead Sea Scrolls represent a wide range of books, many of which are the heretical teachings of a Jewish cult called the Essenes, which probably operated a monastic community nearby at Qumran. They considered themselves the true Israel and believed that God had called them to restore the Law of Moses and establish the kingdom of God on earth. Their leader was called “the Teacher of Righteousness.”
Believing that the temple worship in Jerusalem was impure, they separated from it and moved to the desert to await the coming of the Messiah, thinking they were fulfilling Isaiah 40:3.
They saw themselves as the “Sons of Light” and the “Sons of Righteousness” and everyone else as “the Sons of Darkness,” and they were expecting the Messiah to return and lead them in defeating the “armies of Belial” in an extended war and then build a new temple and reestablish the pure temple worship. This is described in their books The War Rule and The New Jerusalem.
They expected the new Temple to be operated by their Temple Book, which was a 28-foot scroll purporting to be God’s instruction to Israel for the operation of the temple. They expected an end-time prophet and two Messiahs to lead in the conquering of the Sons of Darkness (the Gentiles and apostate Jews). One was a priestly Messiah of the lineage of Aaron, known as the Interpreter of the Law, and the other was a “lay Messiah,” which they referred to as “the Branch of David” (Vermes, p. 188). This confusion came about from their misunderstanding of the Messianic prophecies. The Branch of David is actually the one and only Messiah, who came in the person of Jesus and was rejected, just as Isaiah 53 prophesied.
The Essenes were ascetic and legalistic in the extreme. They wore their clothes until they fell to pieces and lived on a frugal diet. They wore white robes and took frequent ritual baths. Most were celibate but those who were married had to submit to the community’s rules even in matters of intimacy. If a husband and wife had intimate relations “against the rules,” they were put out of the community. They were fanatical sabbath keepers, not being allowed to assist an animal in labor or even pull it out of a hole, and if a man fell into a pit or the water, no rope or ladder could be used in his rescue. They were secretive, with some of their books written in code, and members were forbidden to communicate the secret teachings to outsiders.
They interpreted the Scripture in an allegorical manner after the fashion of Origen.
Though a minority of scholars have doubted whether the community at Qumran was associated directly with the scrolls found in the caves nearby, the evidence appears overwhelming. First, it is the most obvious conclusion. Most of the caves are only a stone’s throw from Qumran. Cave 4, which contained two-thirds of the Dead Sea Scrolls, was not merely a quick deposit place but a real library with wooden shelves. Second, the jars in which the scrolls were placed are exactly like ones found at Qumran. Third, evidence of scroll writing was found at Qumran. Fourth, it makes no sense that Jews from Jerusalem would risk carrying the scrolls all the way to Qumran, with the Roman armies spreading out across the countryside, when there were good hiding places nearby. Fifth, many of the scrolls are anti-establishment. They were written by a cult that had been evicted from the temple in Jerusalem and were opposed to the Jewish leaders of that day. Sixth, Qumran fits the location where the Roman philosopher Pliny situated the Essene settlement, on the western shore of the Dead Sea.
The Qumran site has been extensively excavated and is an open-air museum today.
Evidence that Bible Prophecy was Pre-written
For the Bible believer, the greatest significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls is that they prove that the hundreds of Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament were written before the birth of Jesus and thus authenticate their divine origin!
Authentication of the Masoretic Hebrew Bible
The Dead Sea Scrolls contain powerful evidence for the authenticity of the Masoretic Hebrew text that was the basis for the great Reformation Bibles such as the German Luther, the King James in English, and the Reina Valera in Spanish. The Masoretic text was preserved by the meticulous labor of Hebrew scribes prior to the invention of printing by moveable type in the 15th century. (The first printed Hebrew Bible appeared in 1488.)
The word “masoret” refers to the faithful transmission of the Bible. The Masoretic scribes actually counted each word of the manuscripts, and if a mistake was made that section had to be destroyed. Sixty to sixty-five percent of the Bible scrolls found at the Dead Sea represent the Masoretic text. This is amazing since the earliest Hebrew codexes of the Masoretic text used by textual scholars in the 16th and 17th centuries (such as the Aleppo) were written more than a thousand years after the Dead Sea Scrolls. The differences between the conservative Dead Sea scrolls and the Masoretic text are extremely minor, largely pertaining to spelling or grammar, the omission or addition of a word, or the mixing of Hebrew letters. For example, one of the two Isaiah scrolls found in Cave 1 leaves out one “holy” from Isaiah 6:3, obviously a scribal oversight. Comparing Isaiah 53 in the Great Isaiah Scroll of 100 B.C. and the Apello Codex of 900 A.D., there are only three letters that differ significantly. As for the Great Isaiah Scroll and its agreement with the Masoretic text, Dr. Ernst Wurthwein calls it “striking” and Adolfo Roitman calls it “extraordinarily close” (Wurthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 1979, p. 144; Roitman, The Bible in the Shrine of the Book, 2006, p. 43).
There are four powerful reasons why the non-Masoretic Dead Sea Scrolls should not be used to modify the Masoretic Hebrew text.
First, God promised to preserve His Word and He would not have allowed it to have been lost for nearly the entire church age while being hidden away in the sands of the Judean desert, not being restored until the 1950s! (Psalm 100:5, etc.). God put the safekeeping of the Scripture into the hands of the Jews (Romans 3:1-2), and though they didn’t obey the Scripture and though they covered it with their vain rabbinical traditions, they highly revered Scripture!
Scholars now admit that the Masoretic text was the standard Hebrew Bible at the end of the Second Temple period. This has been proven not only by the Dead Sea Scrolls but also by scrolls found at Masada, Wadi Murabba’at, Nahal Hever, and Nahal Tze’elim. Adolfo Roitman says the Masoretic “apparently became the authoritative text for mainstream Judaism toward the end of the Second Temple period” (The Bible and the Shrine of the Book, p. 56).
In light of Romans 3:1-2, that is a major admission! Liberal scholars see the Masoretic text and the Septuagint and Samaritan texts as representing equally legitimate texts. They believe it is only because the rabbis banned the former that the Masoretic text won out. Geza Vermes says,
“[The existence of both Masoretic and Septuagint texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls] suggests that in the Qumran age Hebrew texts corresponding to the Samaritan and the ancient Greek versions jointly circulated, thus buttressing the theory that the proto-Masoretic, Samaritan and Septuagint-type of Hebrew text forms happily co-existed before rabbinic censorship eliminated the last two around 100 CE” (The Story of the Scrolls, p. 106).
This is almost exactly what liberal New Testament scholars believe about the Alexandrian Greek text. They think that the Traditional Greek Text underlying the Protestant Bibles won out only because it was proclaimed official by church councils and pushed by church authorities. The reason they hold this view is that they do not believe that the Old and New Testaments were given by divine inspiration and preserved by the same God who authored them. The Bible to them is solely a human product, and in studying it they only consider the human element.
But in light of Paul’s statement in Romans 3:1-2 and the many promises in Scripture that God would preserve His Word, we know that God was superintending the transmission of the Old Testament, and God led the Jewish rabbis, even in their unbelief and spiritual blindness, to preserve the Masoretic Bible.
Second, it is no more likely that God would preserve the Old Testament by the hands of a weird Jewish cult than that He would preserve the New Testament by the hands of the unbelieving modern textual criticism cult. The Bible warns God’s people to mark and avoid heretics (Romans 16:17-18). It is therefore unreasonable to think that He would use such heretics to preserve the Scripture.
Three, the “Septuagint-type” text represented by the non-Masoretic Dead Sea scrolls is a loose, paraphrase type translation which should never be used to correct the Hebrew. (Copies of the Septuagint were found at Qumran in Hebrew and in Greek.)
Fourth, there is evidence that the Qumran cult had no fear of tampering with the Scriptures. They “arrogated to themselves the right to creative freedom and considered it their duty to improve the work they were propagating” (Vermes, p. 109). They even invented their own books, such as the Temple Scroll, purporting to be from God. It would be foolish to modify the Traditional Bible text that has been passed down to us from generation to generation by divine providence on the basis of such flimsy “evidence.”
Another reason for the Bible-believer to be wary about the Dead Sea Scrolls is that the recovery, translation, and analysis was done by skeptical scholars. Of the original editors, four were liberal Catholic priests, one was a Methodist who turned agnostic, and another was an Anglican who converted to Rome. Two were alcoholics. Most liberal Bible scholars consider the cultic writings found in the Dead Sea caves to be on equal authority with the Scriptures. Not believing that the New Testament was given by divine inspiration, these scholars are still looking for the “key capable of opening up the mystery of Jesus and the birth of the Church.” Many think they have found this in the non-Biblical Dead Sea Scrolls.
One of the original editors, John Allegro, claimed in the 1950s that the scrolls contained a description of the crucifixion of a Teacher of Righteousness that he identified with Jesus. Immediately, the other members of the editorial committee issued a statement to the London Times, March 15, 1956, saying, “We find no crucifixion of the ‘teacher,’ no deposition from the cross, and no ‘broken body of their Master’ to be stood guard over until Judgement Day. … It is our conviction that either he has misread the texts or he has built up a chain of conjectures which the materials do not support.”
In spite of this, Allegro and others have continued to claim that the Teacher of Righteousness described in the scrolls refers either to Jesus or John the Baptist or James, Jesus’ brother.
In 1970, Allegro published a book entitled The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, nonsensically claiming that Christianity originated with a hallucinogenic mushroom.
Because the editorial committee procrastinated in publishing all of the scrolls, a rumor surfaced that the scrolls contained material damaging to Christianity and that the Vatican had ordered that they be kept secret. The entire material has since been published and there is nothing damaging to the cause of Christ. “… despite the keenest search by the entire scholarly world for hidden explosives, no one came up with anything that might shake the foundations of Christianity, Judaism or any religion” (Vermes, p. 91).
The Shrine of the Book
It is fascinating that the two greatest historical witnesses to the authority of the Masoretic Hebrew Bible are located in one place, the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, an arm of the Israel Museum. They are the keepers of both the Great Isaiah Scroll and the Aleppo Codex, the most important ancient complete Masoretic Old Testament.
The Aleppo Codex (known in Hebrew as Ha-Keter, meaning the Crown) was made in about 920 A.D. in Tiberias, which was a center of Jewish scholarship after the razing of Jerusalem. It was also a center for the creation of the Talmud, which is a collection of Jewish tradition that was raised (in practice) to an authority equal to that of the Scripture and which Jesus soundly condemned in Matthew 15 and 23. The Aleppo manuscript was copied by Shlomo Ben Boya’a, and the vowel markings were added by renowned master scribe Aaron ben Asher. For nearly 1,000 years it “was used as the standard text in the correction of books” while “generations of scribes made pilgrimages to consult” it (Roitman, p. 62). It resided at the synagogue in Cairo, Egypt, from about 1099 to 1375, when it was moved to the synagogue in Aleppo, Syria, where it resided in a double-locked metal box in “the Cave of Elijah.” (According to their tradition, Elijah the prophet was exiled there.) The keys were held by two prominent men and the box could only be opened in the presence of both men on the authority of the synagogue’s leaders. On December 2, 1947, after the adoption of the UN resolution to establish a Jewish state, the Aleppo synagogue was destroyed by rampaging Muslims during the riots that broke out all over the Arab world. The rioters broke into the iron box and ripped pages from the Codex and threw it on the floor. Most of the Pentateuch was lost, in additions to other portions. Someone recovered the damaged Codex and it was hidden for the next several years.
In 1958 the Aleppo Codex was smuggled to Turkey hidden in a washing machine, and from there brought to Jerusalem (Roitman, p. 65). It was laboriously restored over a six-year period by the Israel Museum and today is on display in the Shrine of the Book.
Archaeological finds such as the Dead Sea Scrolls are interesting to the Bible believer, but they aren’t essential. Our faith is settled upon something much more solid than brittle fragments of ancient scrolls. Our faith is in the infallible Word of a God who cannot lie, a Word that was authenticated by “many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3).