January 22, 2017

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Text of the Old Testament

By Mike Willis

The Dead Sea Scrolls are particularly important for the study of the text of the Old Testament. Without minimizing the contribution that the Scrolls make for the backgrounds of the New Testament era and for vocabulary, one needs to emphasize the contribution the Scrolls make to the study of the text of the Old Testament. K.A. Kitchen said, “Ultimately, by far the most important contribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls for biblical study lies in their witness to the recopying and transmission of the Hebrew text of the books of the Old Testament” (The Bible in Its World 129).

What Was Found at Qumran

In this section, I will limit my comments to what biblical texts were found at the caves near Wadi Qumran. Lasor said, “Tens of thousands of fragments were gathered from the floors of the caves, and are gradually being sorted and classified in the Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem. The exact number is probably not known, and would be of no great value. Dr. Frank Cross says that 382 different manuscripts are represented by the fragments so far identified from just cave 4Q alone. Add to this number the different manuscripts represented by the fragments in each of the other caves (none of which yielded as much as cave 4Q), and it is possible that the total number of manuscripts was between 600 and 800. Some of the fragments are so small that they contain a single letter of the alphabet. These are of little value. Other fragments contain just a few words, and still other fragments contain two or more columns (or portions of columns) of text” (The Dead Sea Scrolls 39). Here is a partial list of what was found:

Genesis: fragments of 5 different manuscripts (mss.) 
Exodus: fragments of 6 mss. 
Leviticus: fragments of 5 mss. plus one nearly complete scroll 
Numbers: 4 mss. 
Deuteronomy: 16 mss. 
Joshua: 2 mss. 
Judges: 3 mss. 
1-2 Samuel: 3 mss. all following the LXX text 
1-2 Kings: 2 mss. 
Isaiah: 14 mss. The Isaiah scrolls were the most significant texts found 
Jeremiah: 5 mss. 
Ezekiel: 3 mss. 
Minor Prophets: 8 mss. 
Psalms: 11 mss. 
Job: fragments in 2 caves 
Ruth: 4 mss. 
Song of Solomon: 3 mss. 
Ecclesiastes: 2 mss. 
Lamentations: 2 mss.
Esther: none 
Daniel: 4 mss. plus fragments 
Ezra-Nehemiah: 1 mss. 
Chronicles: 1 mss.

The Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Biblical Texts

Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest extant copy of the Hebrew text was Codex Leningrad which is dated A.D. 916. The rabbis had a practice of destroying worn out copies of the Scriptures. Hence, the earliest Hebrew texts are very late. Most scholars think that rabbis in the Council of Jamnia (approximately A.D. 90) worked out a standard text; hence, variant readings are relatively few in the Old Testament as compared to the New Testament. The translation of the Old Testament into Greek, known as the Septuagint (abbreviated by the Roman numeral LXX for the seventy men who worked on it) was made in approximately 250 B.C. It differs significantly on some passages from the Masoretic text. Because of the variants between the LXX, the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the Masoretic Text, scholars questioned how reliable is the Hebrew text on which we depend. There was no basis on which to check the reliability of the Masoretic text.

Suddenly in 1947 the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, providing a copy of Isaiah that is conservatively dated approximately 200 B.C. It predated our existing Hebrew texts  of Isaiah by over 1000 years. For the first time, scholars could examine the accuracy of the Masoretes. What conclusions have scholars drawn from the texts?

1. The accuracy of the Masoretic text. Millar Burrows wrote, “What has been said may be enough to indicate the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls and fragments for the technical study of the text of the Old Testament. The general reader and student of the Bible may be satisfied to note that nothing in all this changes our understanding of the religious teachings of the Bible. We did not need the Dead Sea Scrolls to show us that the text has not come down to us through the centuries unchanged. Interpretations depending upon the exact words of a verse must be examined in the light of all we know about the history of the text. The essential truth and the will of God revealed in the Bible, however, have been preserved unchanged through all the vicissitudes in the transmission of the text” (The Dead Sea Scrolls 320). 

Yigael Yadin added,  “The great importance of the antiquity of the Dead Sea Scrolls, therefore, lies in the fact that they belong to the period in which no standardization of the holy scriptures had been effected. This is at once obvious by comparing the text of the scrolls with that of the translations on the one hand and the Masora on the other. What is astonishing is that despite their antiquity and the fact that the scrolls belong to this pre-standardization period, they are on the whole almost identical with the Masoretic text known to us” (The Message of the Scrolls 83). 

The conclusion drawn by textual scholars is that the Dead Sea Scrolls confirm the accuracy in the transmission of the text of the Old Testament back 1000 years earlier than the manuscripts that existed prior to their find.

2. The value of the LXX. Charles F. Pfeiffer said, “Although many of the Qumran Biblical texts are not yet available to the student, the information which we now have has caused the whole question of the relationship of the Septuagint to the traditional Masoretic text of the Old Testament to be reopened. Competent scholars have indicated their belief that the Septuagint is a literal translation of a Hebrew text in some respects different from the traditional one. This does not, of course, deny that the Septuagint, like translations in all ages, expresses the theological viewpoint of its translators in many areas, but it does insist that the Septuagint is a witness to an ancient text of the Old Testament as well” (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible 106). The effect of this is to re-assess the testimony of the LXX when it varies with the Masoretic text. Scholars are suggesting that the difference in the two readings may not be caused by a less than literal translation of the LXX, but may reflect a different Hebrew text behind the translation.

The full impact of Dead Sea Scrolls for the text of the Old Testament will be assessed for many more years. However, already they are demonstrating the accuracy of our Old Testament text, although there obviously will be cases of specific improved readings.

The Isaiah Scroll And The Text of Isaiah

The most important text found at Qumran was the Isaiah scroll. A replica of this scroll is displayed at the Shrine of the Book museum in Jerusalem. Regarding the influence of this manuscript on the Revised Standard Version (RSV, Old Testament copyrighted in 1952), Burrows wrote, 

Thirteen readings in which the manuscript departs from the traditional text were eventually adopted. In these places a mar­ginal note cites “One ancient Ms,” meaning the St. Mark’s Isaiah scroll. A brief review will show that even in these thirteen places the superiority of the manuscript’s reading is not always certain. For myself I must confess that in some cases where I probably voted for the emendation I am now convinced that our decision was a mistake, and the Masoretic reading should have been retained.

In eight of the thirteen instances the reading of the scroll is supported to some degree by the ancient versions (305).

Of the thirteen readings adopted by the RSV, the New American Standard Bible follows the Dead Sea Scrolls text in four places. In the other nine places, the translators thought the received text is superior. One should remember that antiquity is not synonymous with accuracy. Thus for the 66 chapters of Isaiah, only four changes occurred as a result of transmission of the text by hand over a period of 1000 years and none of these changes made any significant difference in our understanding of God’s will for mankind.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and Inspiration

How did the first century Jews view the Old Testament? Charles F. Pfeiffer wrote, “While the Dead Sea Scrolls can neither prove nor disprove inspiration, they clearly indicate that a community of Jews more than nineteen centuries ago possessed a library of sacred writings which, in all essential details, is the same as the Bible which we have regarded as authoritative. They also had books which we term apocryphal, as well as works distinctive to their sect. Their regard for the Old Testament was, however, supreme. Commentaries were written on its books. Scholars who have examined the manuscripts assert that the Biblical scrolls are written in a style of writing which is distinctive — as if to mark them off for special consideration. Those who believe in an inspired Bible find much encouragement in the Qumran texts” (The Dead Sea Scrolls and The Bible 111). The belief in an inspired Old Testament existed years before the coming of Christ.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Canon of the Old Testament

The Dead Sea Scrolls are also important for what they show us about what books of the Old Testament were considered a part of their canon of inspired books. Were the Apocryphal books incorporated in the Catholic Bible a part of the canon of the community at Qumran? Pfeiffer wrote, “Indicative of the fact that the Old Testament as we have it was regarded as sacred Scripture at Qumran is the fact that every book except Esther is represented, at least in the form of fragments. In editing the Zadokite work, Chaim Rabin notes that quotations or allusions to every book in the Old Testament except Joshua, Joel, Jonah, Haggai, Ruth, and Lamentations are made in that document. Since the Zadokite work is related to the Qumran community, and copies of it have been found at Qumran, this gives added testimony to the canon of Scripture. Thus every book of the Old Testament is found either in manu­script, quotation, or allusion in the Qumran literature. The absence of Esther from the Qumran library may be due to the fact that it was not composed among Palestinian Jews. Since its locale is Persia it may not have been well known by the Qumranians. It is not quoted in the New Testament” (Ibid. 111-112).

The evidence of Qumran regarding the Old Testament canon confirms the testimony of Josephus (Against Apion I:8) and the testimony of Scripture (Luke 11:51, the “blood of Abel” to the “blood of Zacharias” reflects the death of the first and last persons in the Old Testament according to the accepted order of the books of the Old Testament in the Hebrew Bible). The 39 books that we accept in the Old Testament were the 39  accepted in the time of Christ.


The Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed that the text of the Old Testament has been transmitted accurately to modern man. Finding the scroll of Isaiah enabled textual scholars to see how accurately the text had been transcribed over a period of 1000 years. The result is that modern Old Testament scholars found that the text of the Old Testament was accurately transcribed for that period, leaving one with the confidence that the text one has in his hand is the text of Scripture as it was inspired by God. 

6567 Kings Ct., Avon, Indiana 46123 mikewillis1@compuserve.com

Truth Magazine Vol. XLV: 1  p2  January 4, 2001