By Michael O. Wise, Ph.D.
Why should a Christian care about the Dead Sea Scrolls? Perhaps the simplest answer is this: We should care about the Dead Sea Scrolls because we care about the Bible.
The Dead Sea Scrolls include copies of every book of the Old Testament except Esther. In fact, over 200 of the scrolls are copies of biblical books (only Old Testament books; no copies of New Testament books were found). For some books, copies are multiple. There are over 30 copies of the Psalms and Deuteronomy, for example.
When the scrolls were first discovered around 1947, these ancient copies raised great excitement. Would they show that the Bible has been passed down accurately? The first flurry of study on the biblical manuscripts focused on this and related questions.
Investigation showed the answer to be “yes”; the differences between the scrolls’ copies and the Bible have turned out to be minimal, despite a thousand years separating the two. Every copy was laboriously produced by hand, and inadvertent errors could easily have multiplied.
This first excitement has now passed, and scholars of the biblical texts are asking a different question: Can the scrolls help to tell us how the Bible came to be formed? The issue is not the words on the page and their accurate transmission, but which books came to be in the Bible, in which form and when.
As with most great discoveries the scrolls have helped answer old questions and have also stirred up new ones. This issue of biblical formation—the question of “canon”—is of critical concern to Christians. How do we know we have the “right” Bible?
One surprising thing to have emerged from study of the scrolls is the relative lateness of the Old Testament’s completion. Scholars today believe that the Old Testament as we know it only came into final form—the “cement hardening”—about AD 150. That means that in Jesus’ time, there was not yet a fully formed Bible, either New Testament (of course) or Old.
Argument existed among the Jews about the divine authority of books such as Enoch and Jubilees. Most Western Christians have never heard of these books, but they were found among the scrolls in multiple copies: 24 copies of Enoch, 16 of Jubilees. Among the scroll caches, only Deuteronomy and Psalms occurred in more copies than Enoch. Enoch was widely referenced and quoted in the Judaism of Jesus’ day. Indeed, the book is quoted in the New Testament (Jude, verses 14–15).
Raising further important issues is the fact that many of the books of our Old Testament are shown by the scrolls and related evidence to have existed in more than one form. About two-thirds of the Old Testament books circulated simultaneously in two and even three editions. Sometimes different groups of Jews used different forms.
At other times, everyone used whatever they had, more or less indifferently. How and why did the form we know come to be chosen? These are the sorts of questions about the Bible that scholars of the scrolls are now discussing. These questions are too new to have received definitive answers, and they may seem strange, even disturbing, to those who have never thought about them before.
They needn’t be. We may always be confident that where we find truth, there we find God. And He wants us to seek both.
Michael O. Wise, Ph.D. is professor of Hebrew Bible and ancient languages, scholar-in-residence and chair of the Department of Biblical & Theological Studies at University of Northwestern.