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What We've Learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls

Fifty years ago, a dramatic discovery promised to revolutionize our understanding of the Bible. Has it?

God must have chuckled when he picked a sheep—and a mischievous one, at that—to make the archaeological discovery of the century.

The year was 1947, and the world was a'swirl with change?World War II had ended, and the United Nations was preparing to allow the Jewish people of Palestine to form the modern nation of Israel.

But for shepherd boy Abu Dahoud tending his father's sheep on rocky hills next to the Dead Sea, the biggest problem was tracking down one sheep that had scampered off?again. As Abu Dahoud surveyed one rocky cliff where the sheep might have climbed, his eye caught a small opening.

Hoping to scare the sheep out, Abu Dahoud picked up a stone and tossed it into the hole. Instead of his bleating sheep, however, he heard the sound of breaking dishes. His curiosity piqued, he and a friend climbed up to the small cave. When their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they saw several large clay jars holding tattered scrolls.

Little could Abu Dahoud have known that one of the jars contained the oldest existing copy of the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Neither could he have realized how his discovery would rattle the ivory towers of a world far removed from his own.

The world of Bible scholars is normally one of journals and conferences and musty university offices. It is a world in which academics attempt to piece together in new ways what the authors of the New Testament and Old Testament really said and meant when they wrote their books millennia ago. Sometimes the scholars produce enlightening discoveries, but just as often pose intriguing but fanciful hypotheses.

Take, for example, Rudolph Bultmann, a New Testament professor in Germany who died in 1976. Highly educated, he came to doubt that the stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John closely represented what they claim to represent: the life and words of Jesus. He sought to show, for instance, that because the Gospel of John was written by Christians generations after Jesus and his disciples had lived, the portrait it painted of Jesus was one Jesus himself would never have recognized because it was so "Greek," and not Jewish. (The widely publicized Jesus Seminar continues to popularize this kind of "research" to this day, once a year publicizing their "discoveries" of more Gospel sayings Jesus supposedly couldn't have spoken.)

Other scholars have questioned the reliability of our present Bible texts. They suggest that something akin to the game of telephone has happened to the texts of the Bible?changes were made as they were copied, recopied, and re-recopied over the centuries. They taught that so much has been dropped or added or altered that we could never be confident of what the biblical writers originally wrote.

A library of scrolls

Then Abu Dahoud and his sheep found Isaiah, which the experts determined was made one hundred years before Jesus was born in nearby Bethlehem. (While we will never know, it is not unthinkable that when Jesus as a boy read from the Prophets in the Temple, he might have held this very Isaiah scroll in his hands.)

Soon more manuscripts were discovered, including 100,000 manuscript fragments, in other nearby caves in Qumran (the name of the area northwest of the Dead Sea where Abu Dahoud found his scrolls). When the explorations were finished, scrolls and fragments of every book of the Old Testament except Esther had been found. One leading scholar of the day, W.F. Albright of Johns Hopkins University, quickly declared the scrolls and fragments "the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times."

Fifty years have elapsed since the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered. Abu Dahoud is now an old man (several Dead Sea scroll researchers have interviewed him on videotape within the last several years). And still the scrolls ignite the public imagination as much as they did five decades ago.

But what have the manuscripts shown us that we didn't already know? This question must be answered at several levels.

At one level, the answer is a surprising, "Not much." That is, there have been no dramatic findings proving or disproving the central tenets of the Jewish or Christian faiths, as some had predicted. This lack of surprises is in itself very revealing.

Ironically, the scrolls show that the most important manuscripts are the ones we've always held in our hands?the Old and New Testaments.

Take the Isaiah scroll. Until 1947, the oldest manuscript of Isaiah was a Masoretic text that had been copied in the late 900s. Although any book or scroll produced 1,000 years ago is very old, the Masoretic text is actually very "young" when you consider the prophet Isaiah lived 1,600 years before that (around 700 B.C.). This means it had been recopied many times during that interim, with plenty of opportunity for errors to be introduced. With the Qumran Isaiah text, 1,000 years older than the Masoretic text, how accurate was the later text? How significant was "the telephone game" problem?

"Despite the fact that the Isaiah scroll was about a thousand years older than the Masoretic version of Isaiah," says James VanderKam of the University of Notre Dame, "the two were nearly identical except for small details that rarely affected the meaning of the text." In other words, a word like "over" in one text might read "above" in the other?not the kind of difference that rocks your faith in the reliability of the Bible texts. Though the Isaiah text had been "whispered" down the telephone line through generations of scribes, God had carefully protected his Word.

Uncovering Jesus' world

Besides the copies of the Old Testament scriptures, the Dead Sea caves also contained other kinds of writings, including commentaries on the Bible, a plan for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, fanciful writings about Adam, Eve, and other Old Testament characters, and writings about a coming war between the forces of Darkness and the forces of Light. Many refer to a Righteous Teacher and a coming Messiah who will save the faithful.

Together they give us a picture of how the Jews who lived at Qumran between 200 B.C. and A.D. 70 lived and thought. Having discovered their library, we can compare their sacred writings to those of the New Testament, which would have been composed after A.D. 50.

Interestingly, the comparison has knocked down some long-cherished liberal theories about the New Testament. If we take Bultmann's claim that the Gospel of John is Greek, and therefore foreign to how Jesus would have really taught, we find today a respected expert like Edwin Yamauchi of Miami University writing: "John's Gospel, once considered by critics to be late and Hellenistic (Greek), is now shown by the Qumran parallels (in the Dead Sea scrolls) to be the most Jewish of the Gospels."

Rudolph Bultmann, needless to say, would find this hard to swallow, since John focuses on the divine nature of Christ?that before he was born in Bethlehem he was "with God, and was God." This was "Greek thinking" at its worst, Bultmann believed, and because Jesus was Jewish, he wouldn't have accepted this description of himself, much less taught it to his disciples. Now the Dead Sea scrolls show how wrong Bultmann was?Jesus was a Jew of his day, and there is nothing anti-Jewish with John presenting him as God incarnate.

Today research on the Dead Sea scrolls is moving along faster than ever. Photocopies of the scrolls, which until the early 1990s were available to only a handful of overly busy scholars, have been made available to all scholars. Undoubtedly, we will continue to learn more about the world in which Jesus lived and in which the New Testament was written.

Ironically, however, the scrolls serve to show that the most important manuscripts are the ones we've always held in our hands?the Old and New Testaments. They not only tell us directly about the Jew named Jesus (unlike the Dead Sea scrolls), but through divine inspiration they reveal why he was the true Teacher of Righteousness and Savior for whosoever will believe.

The scrolls also remind us not to put our trust in what biblical scholars may teach in any given generation, but in the One who "was pierced for our transgressions" because "we all, like sheep, have gone astray, each one has turned to his own way."

Isaiah's words are somehow a fitting perspective for a story that began fifty years ago with a shepherd boy named Abu Dahoud and his straying sheep.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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