In the last post, I mentioned that I’m finishing up a book titled Paul and Judaism Revisited, which compares Paul’s understanding of salvation with the Dead Sea Scrolls.
So I thought I’d back up a bit and give a layperson’s overview to two things: (1) what are the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) and (2) what was my conclusion about salvation in Paul and the Scrolls. We’ll cover the first one in this post and then talk about Paul in the next post.
In 1948, tons of ancient manuscripts were discovered in 11 different caves near the Dead Sea in Israel—a find that was quickly labeled the most significant archaeological discovery in history. Over 900 different scrolls were found, some were very fragmentary (like the size of a stamp), while others were large scrolls preserved with little decay. Among them we found tons of copies of the Old Testament, and also many other religious writings produced by the members of the Jewish sect (probably Essenes) that lived around the time of Jesus. This community of Jews believed that they were the remnant of Israel and settled in a small monastic-type community at a place called Qumran near the Dead Sea.
Journalistic activity buzzed like a swatted beehive in the wake of the discovery, so most people have heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Unfortunately, the popularity has lead to many misconceptions about them. So here’s a couple correctives; the first one is quick, while the other is more complicated.
First, the DSS did not contain any portions of the New Testament, nor do they interact with Christianity. Jesus is not mentioned among them, and neither is Paul, John the Baptist, or any other early Christian leader. I say this because some people have argued that the DSS contain references to Jesus, John the Baptist and others (e.g. Barbara Thiering, Robert Eiseman), but these theories have not been taken seriously by other scholars. So if you hear one of your unbelieving friends argue that the DSS have disproved Christianity, you don’t have to worry for a second. Just smile and ask for proof. You won’t get any.
Second, the biblical scrolls discovered in the loot do not necessarily prove that the Old Testament was translated with uniform accuracy down through the ages. Let me explain. Until the scrolls were discovered, our earliest Hebrew manuscript dated back to around 1000 AD. That’s more than 1,500 years after the Old Testament was written (the last few books, anyway). Naturally, critics of the Bible have argued that surely such a distance between the original writings and our earliest copy of those manuscripts has allowed tons of discrepancies (changes, alterations, copy errors, etc.) to creep into the current (namely, 1000 AD) version of our Old Testament. But the discovery of the Scrolls, which contains portions of the Old Testament dating back to 200 B.C., correlates with near uniformity to our 1000 AD manuscript, thus confirming—so the argument goes—the accuracy of preservation.
Is this true? Did the DSS confirm that the Old Testament that we read from (which is a translation of the 1000 AD manuscript) matches up with the original writings of the OT?
Yes and no. It is true that some of the biblical scrolls line up with remarkable closeness to our 1,000 year old OT, but other DSS do not. The scroll of Isaiah, for instance, found at Qumran is very close to our 1000 AD copy of Isaiah, scrolls of Jeremiah and Samuel were revealed quite a few differences (some minor, a few major). The biblical scrolls discovered by the Dead Sea really just confirmed what scholars had already known, that there were different “textual traditions” (versions of the OT) in and around the first century. And we can see clear evidence of different versions of the OT among the Scrolls.
I know this may be getting a little technical, and a bit off track, but hang in there, it’s important to know.
Even the New Testament confirms that the OT that we read and the OT that the NT writers read has some minor differences. This demonstrates, again, that there were different versions of OT in existence in the first century (similar to our different translations today). Have you ever compared, say, New Testament quotations of the Old with the original context and seen some differences? If not, check out Acts 15:16-17 and then look at Amos 9:11-12, the passages that James (in Acts 15) is quoting from. It’s slightly divergent. This is because the version of the OT that James is quoting from is comparable to, but not exactly the same as, the Hebrew manuscript (the one from 1000 AD) that forms the basis of our English translation.
I’m not sure if this is old news, new news, or faith-shaking news for our readers, so let me close with a few practical points. First, since it’s the original writings of the OT (and NT) that are inspired and inerrant, we should not expect the copies of those writings to be totally uniform. They’re not. And this doesn’t affect our view of inspiration or inerrancy, since Evangelicals never (or shouldn’t) claim that the copies of the original writings are without error. Second, none of the divergences among manuscripts change any major doctrine in the Bible. The way of salvation, existence (or non-existence) of other gods, the person and character of Jesus all remain the same, even though there are differences in the manuscripts. Third, praise God for the scholars two devote tens of thousands of quiet hours translating, comparing, and analyzing all the different copies of our Old and New Testaments. Because we need them to sort out all the mess that is needed in order to produce our English translation (or whatever language you’re reading from). As I’ve said in some previous posts, I really think that the anti-intellectual wing in the Evangelical Church (which runs rampant on the West Coast where I live) bites the hand that feeds it when they want to read their English translations, preach the gospel, and look down on those who pursue Christian academics.
Now, I’ll be the first one to say that there needs to be a serious renovation in the way Christians pursue scholarship. Staring deep into the Scriptures should only magnify your passion for Jesus, fuel your worship, and ignite a greater love for the people around you. But sometimes this isn’t the case; there’s a bit of truth to the dictum that Seminary can easily become Cemetery for the soul. But this doesn’t mean that the inherent problem is too much study. I don’t think that the most effective way to know God more is to study His word less. You don’t need to be a scholar, but you do need scholars. You wouldn’t be reading the Bible or (probably) know Jesus had not God raised up a few men and women to study Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Ugaritic, Akkadian, and other ancient languages to hand you your English translation of the Bible. Others have done the tedious work of studying the culture, history, and background of the Bible to help our pastors and teachers understand the Bible and therefore teach it more effectively.
All in all, we are a body. The church of God is a community of believers, with many different gifts and callings. And we need each other. Scholars and evangelists should join arms and constantly thank each other for the unique way in which God has wired them.
Next up, Paul’s understanding of salvation—and why I think Calvin got it right. Stay tuned!