…and numbers of you are saying, “So what?!” But before you click elsewhere, take a minute to read why I think this is a pretty big deal.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are rolls of parchment, or fragments of parchment, on which are written portions of the Old Testament. They were found beginning in 1947, initially by shepherd boys who were tossing stones into caves high above the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is a large, salty (thus ‘dead’) lake that separates Israel from Jordan, east of Jerusalem. See the map for orientation (thanks to MSN/Encarta).
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls revolutionized Old Testament biblical scholarship as we know it. There is an entire discipline within biblical studies that is dedicated to the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it has a language all its own. If you thought my ModelTrainSpeak was difficult to understand, try carrying on a conversation with a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar! Each scroll fragment has an alphanumeric designation that makes my references to an AC4400CW locomotive seem simplistic. Really! In 2007, as part of my work with the Canadian Bible Society, I attended a symposium on the scrolls that we sponsored. Most of the lectures went a long way over my head.
The great thing, though, is that the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has confirmed the reliability of the Old Testament. Understandably, no one has possession of original manuscripts of the Old Testament. So when the scrolls were found, scholars were very curious to find out if the manuscripts they had been working with – which were virtually all more recent than those found at Qumran (the ancient community whose ruins are near the caves) – would show any significant differences in how we understand the Old Testament.
Remarkably, the differences were very, very few – usually in the form of small spelling errors that had been made in the process of copying manuscripts. (Remember, this was in the days before Xerox or Gutenberg! Everything was copied by hand.) Where there were significant differences, these have been noted in all newer Bible translations beginning with the Revised Standard Version in the 1950s. Footnotes are used to show where there are differences. For example, in the New International Version (our pew Bible translation), Isaiah 51.19 reads, “These double calamities have come upon you – who can comfort you? – ruin and destruction, famine and sword – who cana console you?” Then, at the bottom of the page, the footnote reads, “a19 Dead Sea Scrolls, Septuagint, Vulgate and Syriac; Masoretic Text / how can I”.
What that footnote means is this. When scholars looked at the Dead Sea Scrolls, they found that the scrolls agreed with the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament, originally dating back to around 250 BC), the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible, originally dating back to the 4th century AD), and the Syriac version of the Old Testament (the Bible in that language dates back to around the 5th century AD). They found that this was slightly different than the Masoretic Text, which was, up to the time the Scrolls were found, the oldest version of the Old Testament available for translation. It was named for the Masoretes, who were a faithful guild of Jewish transcribers of the Old Testament.
The Dead Sea Scrolls contain some part of every book of the Old Testament except the book of Esther. In the case of Isaiah, Deuteronomy and the Psalms, there are multiple copies. Most of the scrolls are written in Hebrew, but some are in Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke). There are writings in the scrolls that are not part of the accepted canon of the Old Testament, too.
Maybe I haven’t gotten to the “So what?!” part for you yet. Here’s a thought: the Scrolls are coming for an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto beginning June 27. Many of your friends have an interest in the Bible, even if they don’t go to church. Why not have a fun day with your friends, and invite them to join you on the trip to the ROM? You’ll find, together, that the exhibit will strengthen your trust in the Old Testament as an integral part of God’s Word. It might even open your friends to consider coming to church with you.
In 1 Peter 3.15, the apostle Peter wrote to the church (and to us): “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”. Being “always prepared” doesn’t mean having to have all the answers; it means being receptive to the questions, and willing to seek answers. The ROM is giving us an opportunity to share our faith with hundreds of thousands of people who will visit the museum during this exhibit; some of them will be our friends. I encourage you to see this as an opportunity to share your love for the Lord and his Word with others.