"Dead Sea Scrolls" yield "major" questions in Old Testament understanding

Author: Richard N. Ostling

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The Dead Sea Scrolls, hidden away in Holy Land caves 2,000 years ago and unearthed after World War II, are often rated the 20th century’s greatest archaeological find. The chief reason for most people: the rediscovery of 230 texts of biblical books, which have begun to change details in the Scriptures read by millions. For instance, the height of Goliath. "He’s barely tall enough to make the all-star game,‘’ remarks Frank Cross, a Harvard University expert on the official team working on the scrolls. In 1 Samuel 17:4, most English translations say Goliath stood "six cubits and a span," meaning a towering nine feet plus (about 3 meters). But a damaged Dead Sea scroll can be read as saying "four cubits and a span," a mere six and a half feet (2 meters).

That’s why the official U.S. Catholic Bible gives Goliath the shorter stature. Consider Psalm 145, an acrostic where each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This chapter was always a head-scratcher because the verse for one letter is missing in the standard Hebrew text. But a phrase with that letter turned up in a Dead Sea scroll and is tacked onto 145:13 in most recent translations. "God is faithful in his words and gracious in all his deeds…"

Further rewordings are expected and some of them could shift meaning. In all Bibles, Deuteronomy 8:6 speaks of "fearing" or "revering" God, but a Dead Sea scroll says "loving" instead. Should scholars consider this change? To those for whom each word of the Bible was inspired by God, even such small alterations are significant

Still, as Cross puts it, "There is no 11th commandment." The rewording prompted by the scrolls does not challenge basic beliefs but a fellow researcher, Eugene Ulrich, professor of Hebrew at the University of Notre Dame and chief editor of the Dead Sea biblical materials, sees far more sweeping implications for the Old Testament (the Christian term for what Jews call the Tanakh).

Seated at a customized computer surrounded by galley proofs, infrared photographs and marking pens in six coded colors, the red-bearded, 61-year-old scholar surveys his 23 years of labor. "I feel like the person who put the last stone atop the pyramids," he says. "I’m as weary as can be, but I’m glad I did it." Ulrich was polishing the last volume on biblical texts for the official scholarly series from Oxford University Press, which will be a landmark in this painstaking and highly technical project.

The overall effort hit the headlines in 1991 when two independent groups, frustrated with the slow pace of the official scholarly team, rushed unauthorized editions of the texts into print so all scholars could begin assessing them. Ulrich’s own assessment? He repeatedly encountered scrolls that "did, and didn’t, look like what we call the Bible." His conclusion: In ancient times, two or more contrasting editions of many biblical books existed side by side and were all regarded as Scripture. In other words, back then the Old Testament was far different from what we think of today.

He concludes that there were multiple editions for at least these books: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Samuel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Psalms and Song of Solomon. Ulrich spells out his theory in "The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible." An example of the problems he and others ponder: In two of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Psalm 33 directly follows Psalm 31, skipping number 32. Did the scribes who wrote those manuscripts believe 32 was not God’s Word? And the opposite situation: Various scrolls include 15 psalms that are not found in standard Bibles. Sample: "Blessed be he who has made the earth by his power, who has established the world in his wisdom…" Was this Scripture that was later lost, or did Dead Sea scribes merely collect devotional poetry and mix it with biblical psalms?

"If Ulrich is on the right track, we’ve got some major thinking to do," acknowledges John H. Walton, a staunchly conservative professor at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute. The problem as he sees it: "If it could be demonstrated we have two biblical traditions arising independently of one another, instead of one being a revision or corruption of the other, then which one are you going to call God’s Word?" Personally, Walton thinks Ulrich’s conclusions are premature and professes himself untroubled by any findings to date. The scrolls, which include portions of all books except Esther and Nememiah, were written between 200 B.C. and 70 A.D. In that same period, rabbis began establishing the standard Masoretic Text, the basis for all Old Testaments since the early Middle Ages.

Should the Bibles used in churches, synagogues and homes be thoroughly revised to reflect all the variations? Not necessarily, says Ulrich, a lay Roman Catholic. But at least serious students should be reading a Bible with multiple options. And he insists that future Bible translations should be less wedded to the Masoretic Text and rely more on the alternate renditions. Scholars have just begun work on an ‘’eclectic Bible’’ to show these textual variations, which will take years to complete. But Ulrich, with co-editors Martin Abegg Jr. and Peter Flint, has taken the first step with "The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible." The book presents new English translations of the Dead Sea biblical manuscripts (the scholarly Oxford volumes have the original Hebrew) with user-friendly explanations of how they differ from standard Bibles.

The book is billed as "the oldest known Bible." The reason: The scrolls are a millennium older than the surviving Masoretic Hebrew manuscripts that provide the basis for all modern Old Testaments, which date from around A.D. 1000.p. Specialists know that this puzzle of different Old Testaments, raised anew by the scrolls, is not really new. Before the scrolls were discovered, scholars were aware of three main editions: the Samaritan, which included only the first five books; the early form of the Masoretic Hebrew; and the Septuagint, a Greek translation from a different Hebrew version.p. (Catholic and Orthodox Bibles follow the Septuagint in including seven extra books that Jews and Protestants do not recognize as part of the Bible.)

Various scrolls provide evidence of all three traditions, plus a fourth group of texts unique to the Dead Sea community. In understanding the whole complex situation, it’s important to remember that in ancient times there was no single bound "Bible" but separate scrolls for each biblical book, and that Judaism did not fix the final list of biblical books till the period after the Dead Sea Scrolls were written. Lawrence Schiffman of New York University, co-editor of Oxford’s "Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls," thinks that for Judaism, Ulrich’s theorizing is "irrelevant." 

No other Bible besides the Masoretic Text has any authority. He says flatly: "There’s nothing in the scrolls that could possibly have any interest" in terms of revising the biblical canon. Schiffman is an Orthodox layman, but says his attitude is shared by more liberal Jews. He sees the variant editions as an issue only in Christianity, where scholars try to reconstruct the best text from whatever source. In addition, he’s convinced the Bible Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries knew was Masoretic, substantially the same as ours.

If the Masoretic version is the one and only true Old Testament, then the Dead Sea Scrolls are extremely good news for Bible believers, Jewish or Christian. The Masoretic manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls are astonishingly similar to the standard Hebrew texts 1,000 years later, proving that Jewish scribes were accurate in preserving and transmitting the Masoretic Scriptures.

Who originally wrote the scrolls, and who preserved them? Those issues are raised by a leading conservative Protestant scholar, Walter Kaiser, president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Though experts are unable to agree, it appears the Dead Sea community was a marginal group, he says. "So we can’t figure out from what perspective they were writing. That has to be factored in. Should cultic groups set the norm?" He warns that relying on non-Masoretic manuscripts could be "like going to the Branch Davidians" of Waco.

A related issue is "who decides what is authoritative?" He figures the ancient rabbis, "those closer to the scene, obviously had a better shot" in determining the best text. He also contends that many of the Dead Sea Scrolls are simply too fragmentary to support Ulrich’s sweeping conclusions about conflicting Old Testaments. Kaiser recalls the late Harry Orlinsky, the only Jewish translator on the Revised Standard Version, who used the scrolls to make 13 last-minute changes before that translation was issued in 1952. But he later told Kaiser and other students that 10 of those changes were too hasty and the Masoretic wording would have been preferable.

Similar caution comes from Ulrich’s Notre Dame colleague James VanderKam, co-editor of the scrolls encyclopedia. "To say that one or another version is more original is very difficult," he thinks. "We have very early evidence for all of them." He says the Masoretic Bible "is the one we’ve always had, and that’s unlikely to change."

In analyzing the various editions, "at the meaning level, most of the variants are not important," says VanderKam. "I don’t know that any issues of faith are involved". The implications of Ulrich’s view fall heaviest upon evangelicals and fundamentalists who believe, as the creed at Kaiser’s seminary defines it, that the biblical books "as originally written were inspired of God, hence free from error.

If so, which version of Jeremiah or Psalms was original? The technique of deciding that, known as textual criticism, has long been recognized and practiced by conservatives, notes Moody’s professor Walton, though until now most energy has been applied to manuscript variations in the New Testament. Kaiser readily grants that some implications of the scrolls’ variations could become unsettling but insists, "Truth should never upset anyone. If we think God is a God of truth, real evidence ought never be shunned."

Will all of this ever be settled? Assessments of the ancient texts develop slowly. But now that the Dead Sea biblical manuscripts are becoming fully available, specialists expect that within a decade there could be broader consensus on what they mean and how they should be applied.