The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Reliability of Old Testament Manuscripts – Part 1

I typically do not pay a great deal of attention to Christian apologetic literature because I realize that it routinely oversimplifies matters. However, I had recently finished an audio course on the Dead Sea Scrolls when I came across a video on the reliability of Old Testament documents. According to the video, the Great Isaiah Scroll that was found among the texts at Qumran demonstrates the reliability of Old Testament documents. In other words, the Dead Sea Scrolls show that the Masoretic Text (the text used for modern English translations of the Bible) is reliable in the sense that it is extremely close to the original words that were written by Isaiah or any other Biblical author for that matter.

It was at this point that I thought this could be a useful teaching opportunity. The fact of the matter is that the Dead Sea Scrolls are far more complex and far more worthy of study than videos like the one I described above make them out to be.  If one is simply taught that the Great Isaiah Scroll is 95% the same as the Masoretic Text (MT), this stifles learning and promotes ignorance.  Why should a person study documents that are 95% the same as others if they are told differences are primarily in spelling and in individual words? Therefore, in this post and the next two I will attempt to give a broader view of how the Dead Sea Scrolls are invaluable for modern audiences, lay people and scholars alike.  The idea that the MT has been been proved entirely reliable can only be maintained if one both ignores immensely significant information that the Dead Sea Scrolls provide about the Book of Jeremiah and if the Great Isaiah Scroll is viewed uncritically.  In this post, I will discuss Jeremiah and in the following an important issue within the Great Isaiah Scroll.

With regard to Book of Jeremiah, one of the riddles that has puzzled scholars for years is the Septuagint (LXX) text of the book.  The LXX is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible from around the 3rd centure BCE.  The issue with regard to Jeremiah is that the LXX text of the book is one-eight shorter than the MT.  The LXX version is missing words, phrases and verses as well as fairly large chunks of material (e.g. 33.14-26, 39.4-13, 51.4b-49, and 52.27b-30).  From a text critical perspective, the shorter text is usually better and for a number of years certain scholars preferred the LXX text to the MT.

So, what have the Dead Sea Scrolls taught us about the text of the Book of Jeremiah?  They have taught us that we really do not know which text of the Book of Jeremiah is best.  According to Thompson in his commentary on Jeremiah, the Dead Sea Scrolls have provided two different texts of Jeremiah, one like the LXX and one like the MT.  He concludes, “It may be that both traditions had relatively long histories of scribal transmissions. Where they diverge it is not always possible to decide which reading is to be preferred.”  In addition, he proposes that there may have been a “middle ground” (my terminology) version of Jeremiah from which the LXX subtracted and the MT added.

In light of this discussion, the information that many people know about the Dead Sea Scrolls, namely that Isaiah proves the reliability of the Old Testament documents, does not hold throughout.  Indeed, the Dead Sea Scrolls present one with a more complex picture of the transmission of the Old Testament documents.  If nothing else, they help us to take a more moderate approach to their reliability.  And, with this in mind, hopefully, more will view these texts as far more worthy of study.  For more information about the Great Isaiah Scroll continue to check back for my next blog post.

For a free audio course on the Dead Sea Scrolls get this one free with a trial of Audible:

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