Qumran: God’s Word Stands Forever

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

The Judean Desert is east of Jerusalem and descends to the Dead Sea. The land is mountainous, half desert and half cultivable land. The tribe of Judah inherited this land that is west of the Dead Sea. The territory was vast and as a populous tribe, Judah was tasked with a significant responsibility, because it was situated on the border between Israel and some of its most ferocious enemies. 

Considering the mountainous land and its precarious border, one should not be surprised to know that Judah’s material prosperity never compared to that of the northern territories. Judah, nevertheless, had one supreme advantage: its mountain strongholds were easily protected. Any nation attempting to invade the Judean Desert would be severely challenged by the mountainous terrain. By contrast, the fertility of the Jezreel (Gk. Esdraelon) Valley has attracted numerous conquerors and warriors from every nation under the sun who have encamped in the plain, so that it has been called the “battlefield of Palestine.”

Judah’s eastern border extended the complete length of the Dead Sea, “as far as the mouth of the Jordan. And the border of the north side was from the bay of the sea at the mouth of the Jordan” (Josh 15:5). The northern boundary started from where the Jordan entered the Dead Sea. There were no cities in the Judean Desert, which made it particularly attractive to those wanting seclusion. The Qumran community in particular lived a monastic life, situated northwest of the Dead Sea shore on the West Bank, from the second century BC until the first century AD. The Jewish sect is known as the Essenes and is believed to have been responsible for producing the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among the areas excavated at Khirbet Qumran (a cemetery, an extensive water system, and refectory), a room was discovered with inkwells and writing benches of plaster, which archaeologists suggested was the scriptorium where the scrolls were copied.

The Essenes were a priestly sect known for their strict asceticism. The Jewish historian Josephus explained them as “Jews by birth” with “a greater affection for one another than the other sects have [i.e. the Pharisees and Sadduccess]. These Essenes rejected pleasure as an evil, but esteem continence, and the conquest over our passions, to be virtue” (Wars of the Jews 2.8.2). He continued: “These men are despisers of riches, and so very communicative as raises our admiration. . . . They have no certain city but many of them dwell in every city; and if any of their sect come from other places, what they have lies open for them, just as if it were their own; and they go into such as they never knew before, as if they had been ever so long acquainted with them. . . . And as for their piety towards God, it is very extraordinary [ibid. 2.8.3-5]. . . .”

The Essenes were bound closely as a community. They were devout and reflective, and concerned with ceremonial purity, in addition to the preservation of Scripture. With the impending destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the Essenes knew the Romans would soon be at their site. It was necessary to hide a number of the scrolls in the caves of the western hills surrounding the area prior to the desertion of Qumran. In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd discovered the ancient scrolls while allegedly chasing a stray goat. He found the majority of the manuscripts in what is known as Cave 1 (since it was discovered first). Eleven caves were identified (between the years 1947-56) that contained manuscripts wrapped in leather scrolls and hidden in clay jars. The entire Old Testament corpus is represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls except for the book of Esther. Other texts were also discovered, such as those addressing community rules and religious ideas. Copper scrolls indicated the location of treasure sites. The Essenes anticipated the coming of a Deliverer, and believed they would have a prominent role in establishing the kingdom of God on earth. They considered themselves faithful to the prophet Isaiah’s admonition: “Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness” (Isa 40:3).

Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest extant Hebrew manuscripts—copied by a group of scholars called the Masoretes—were dated to the 10th century AD. The copies were at least 1,300 years removed from the original writings (autographs), and questions arose with regard to how accurate the copies truly were. Rabbis had a practice of destroying worn copies of Scripture, and are the reason why the earliest manuscripts are very late. However, the finds at Qumran proved to be absolutely fascinating because they were dated from the second century BC, and verified that available copies of the Old Testament today are the same (only translated) as those in the first century AD.

Seven scrolls were discovered in Cave 1; some were complete and some fragments. Included in this find was the earliest known complete book of Isaiah (Isaiah A). There was a commentary on Habakkuk, the Genesis Apocryphon (embellished patriarchal tales and the Apocalypse of Lamech), an incomplete text of Isaiah (Isaiah B), a community rulebook called the Manual of Discipline, the War Scroll (a manual for military organization and strategy of “the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness”), and approximately 30 thanksgiving hymns.

Cave 4 is the most popular because it is the most productive in terms of finds. More than 15,000 fragments from an excess of 200 books were found in the fourth cave. This included a fragment of Samuel, which possibly is the oldest extant piece of biblical Hebrew dating from the fourth century BC. A total of 122 biblical scrolls (or fragments) were found in Cave 4. Unfortunately, the scrolls were poorly preserved because they were not stored in jars. Of those not recovered by purchase from the Bedouins (which were purchased individually, resulting in the creation of some 15,000 fragments from single pieces), archaeologists sifted the dust of the cave floor to find other fragments.

The last scrolls to be discovered were found in Cave 11. Excavations were productive with thirty scrolls found, including a well-preserved copy of some Psalms. Among these was the apocryphal Psalm 151, which was previously known only in the Septuagint (but not the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible). The cave also yielded a scroll with a portion of Leviticus, in addition to a Targum (paraphrase of Job). Among the biblical scrolls, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and the Psalms seem to have been the favorites of the Qumran community.

The total number of manuscripts collected from the eleven caves is stated to be between 600 and 800. One of the more notable contributions of the Qumran literature is the dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls, somewhere between 200 BC and the middle of the first century AD. The majority of scholars will affirm 100 BC as an approximate date for the manuscripts, though some are dated earlier.

The greatest significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls is the overwhelming confirmation of the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible. The text of the Isaiah scroll, for instance, is nearly the same as the standard Hebrew Bible. The majority of the variants are details of grammar and spelling (though there are instances of some very obvious discrepancies). Even though two copies of Isaiah—the complete Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsa a of St. Mark’s Monastery) and the incomplete Hebrew University Isaiah Scroll (1QIsa b)—were discovered in Cave 1, they proved to be word-for-word identical to the traditional book of the prophet (in the large majority of the text). Thus, despite being 1,000 years earlier than the oldest dated extant manuscript, they demonstrated inconsequential alteration in the text.

The discovery of both versions is significant for the textual history of the Old Testament, because several versions of many books existed concurrently between the second century BC and the first century AD. Furthermore, the Masoretic text was essentially standardized prior to its official acceptance in later centuries, since both copies of Isaiah are nearly identical with the standard, presently known book. The small number of variations is such that the truth of the biblical text is unaffected. For example, Isaiah 40:12 in the Masoretic text reads, “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand?” The Qumran Isaiah Scroll reads, “Who has measured the waters of the sea in his palm?” While it is true that a few variants could result in a difference of meaning, the principles of textual criticism will be applied to determine which reading is correct. However, even in such cases, no doctrine of Scripture is ever compromised or negated. Translations of the Old Testament into English and other languages can be done with confidence, knowing that Scripture—as it is presently available—is accurate and reliable, and represents the original manuscripts (autographs).

The Dead Sea Scrolls indicate the messianic expectations both prior to and with the coming of Jesus, and provide knowledge of the Semitic background to the New Testament. The Essenes existed at the time of Jesus, yet none of the Dead Sea Scrolls refer to the Lord, nor do they mention any follower of Jesus named in the New Testament. They do reflect the New Testament concepts of good and evil, a coming judgment, and kingdom rule of the Messiah. The non-biblical scrolls reflect life at Qumran and illumine many aspects of the pre-Christian world.

The Judean Desert is demarcated by a barren wilderness. Green patches of grass and desert flowers are present for only a few weeks in the winter. The wilderness is the “dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps 63:1b). As an illustration of this fact, Isaiah 40:8 indicates the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls in declaring, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” External evidence can never make people believe in the God of the Bible. Yet there is every reason to believe in God’s Word and to live with complete trust in Scripture, without any external evidence whatsoever. Nevertheless, the Lord God chose to give encouragement to the believing, and even provide evidence to the unbelieving that the Holy Bible truly is His accurate and reliable Word.

Midnight Call - 10/2023

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