What the Dead Sea Scrolls tell us about the Bible


E. J. Wilson D.O.

A. Basic Concepts

In order to understand how the findings at Qumran affected our notions of how the books of the bible came to be accepted and fixed into a canon, we must first examine the more general issue of how texts are written and transmitted, for even the material on which something is written can determine whether it is eventually used as scripture. After all, something written on a napkin in a Chicago diner may be quite profound, but if that napkin ends up in the trash can, those thoughts might perish with the material on which they were written. On the other hand, if those thoughts are transmitted to someone with a computer, who then creates a file, perhaps comments on, and expands those thoughts, and then submits them to a newspaper or journal, then there is a possibility that the wisdom that was first jotted down in a diner might someday be canonized.

But what do we even mean by “canon?” The word comes from a Greek (but also Semitic) root meaning “reed” and also “rule” (as in measure, but by extension also as in regulation). In our context, it refers to the list of books considered to be divinely inspired and therefore useful as holy writ.

Obviously, in order for a canon to exist, someone first had to write something down – whether his/her own words, or words spoken by someone else, perhaps even dictated. Now writing first appeared over 3000 years before Christ. The earliest writings come from Mesopotamia, but writing also appeared in Egypt at almost the same time. The writing may have been on various materials, but the writings which survived were done on clay tablets, and most of those which survived did so because the buildings in which they were housed caught fire (or were deliberately set afire by conquering armies), and the fire baked the tablets and hardened them, thus creating records which withstood the ravages of time better than any material we have today. This was the case especially in Mesopotamia where clay was found in abundance, whereas other writing materials, such as wood, were scarce.

In Egypt, on the other hand, the most abundant writing material was papyrus, made from a plant by the same name which still grows along the Nile. It was first used in Egypt over two thousand years before Christ. It was made from the stem of the papyrus plant, which was cut into thin strips, which were then layered on top of each other at 90 degree angles and pressed together, dried and rubbed smooth. A number of sheets could be glued together and made into a scroll of any desired length. Apparently, Egypt was supplying much of the Mediterranean world with the material, because there is an account of an Egyptian named Wen Amon who traveled to Phoenicia in 1090 BC, taking five hundred scrolls of fine grade papyrus with him to be exchanged for wood – a commodity not abundant in Egypt! And papyrus was widely used in Palestine, but not much has survived because it can be degraded in a moist climate. In the sands of Egypt, on the other hand, the climate was better suited for long-term survival of papyrus and we have some documents from that environment.

Parchment – specially treated leather – was named after the city of Pergamon in Asia Minor and came into use around 200 BC. By the fourth century AD it had become the principal material for books. It had some advantages over papyrus. First, it was more durable. Secondly, it could be inscribed on both sides, and finally, it could be re-used. This was important, because the material was expensive. In fact, some very interesting texts were actually erased so that the parchment could be reused for other purposes. For example, the oldest known Aramaic version of the four gospels was found in St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai in the 1890’s by Agnes Lewis and her sister, Mrs. Gibson, but it was very difficult to read, because someone in the 8th century had tried to erase the original text and then they overwrote it with stories of saints and martyrs. Fortunately, the underlying text could still be deciphered. Such a manuscript with newer writing on top of older writing is called a palimpsest, and now we can frequently make the underlying text plainly visible by using multi-spectral imaging (photographing the text with selected wavelengths of light which are selective absorbed by the underlying text, but not by the overlying text – a process only possible if two different inks were used).

The material on which most biblical texts survived is parchment. We have only a few fragments of papyrus on which biblical texts were written. For example, there are over 100 papyrus fragments of New Testament texts, but they are almost all very small.

Another factor in the transmission of texts is the form in which texts are preserved. The early biblical texts were written as scrolls. The scroll requires two hands to use and it could be very cumbersome. For example, the Isaiah scroll such as that found in Cave 1 at Qumran, required over 20 feet of parchment, so it was heavy and awkward to use. And since very large scrolls were difficult to handle, biblical books were generally circulated one to a scroll. That made them easier to handle.

It was not until the invention of the codex in the first century AD that things began to change. A codex is a book in much the same form as we use them today, that is with separate folios bound together in book form so that one can turn the pages. Among other advantages, that format allows one to jump to the last page without unwinding an entire scroll. But it also allowed much larger volumes of writings to be bound together, even many books, into the same codex. But this fact also introduced a new problem: in what order should the books be bound together? That was also an aspect of the canonization process, and one may observe that the Jewish and Christian canons of the Old Testament do not have precisely the same order of books. The Jewish Old Testament consists of the Pentateuch, followed by the prophets, followed by the writings. And the Christian Old Testament also begins with the Pentateuch, but that is followed by historical books (Joshua through Nehemiah), then writings (Esther through the Song of Solomon), and finally the prophets.

In addition to considerations of materials and formats, there are the even more important issues of traditions, recensions and versions.

By traditions, we mean the variations in texts which occur in different locations or among differing schools. These variations can creep in through simple mistakes in copying the texts, and in that case the mistakes might be carried forward by one scribe after another unwittingly. And we must remember that for many centuries all writings had to be copied by hand. This was true until the invention of the printing press in 1450 by Johann Gutenberg. 1 Since the mistakes in one scribal center would be different from the mistakes in another scribal center, one might imagine texts with noticeable differences developing in separated locations merely from a series of scribal errors over long periods of time. But that was not the main cause of variations. On the contrary, variations were frequently intentional revisions made in an attempt to make the text reflect particular ecclesiastical or theological interests. This was the case, for example, with the Koine text of the New Testament which took form in Antioch at the beginning of the fourth century, and the (somewhat different) text which was to become the ancestor of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis elsewhere in the east. 2

It appears that intentional changes were not as rare as we might like to think. In speaking of the Old Testament manuscripts, Würtwein states: “There is clear evidence that no qualms were felt in altering the text when there appeared to be adequate doctrinal reasons. . . the second part of the Old Testament, the Prophets, ranked higher in canonical esteem than the Writings, and was subjected to a more thorough revision with doctrinally objectionable elements consistently purged.” 3 In fact, the scribes themselves grouped their changes into two groups: the tiqqune sopherim or “scribal corrections,” and the itture sopherim, or “scribal omissions.” A good example of this kind of activity may be found in the Septuagint (or “LXX”). This is the Greek version of the Old Testament, which was created by the Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt during the third century before Christ. The name derives from the Latin word for seventy, and refers to the tradition that 72 scholars translated the Hebrew text into Greek for Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-247 BC). It was apparently used extensively by the Jews in Alexandria, perhaps because they were using Greek in all their daily activities and no longer could handle the Hebrew easily. In any case, the differences between the LXX and the Masoretic text reflect the Hellenized attitudes of the Jews of Alexandria, especially in terms of their conceptions of deity. For example, there is an obvious attempt to remove anthropomorphic (i.e. human-like in the physical sense) references. We see this in Exodus 19:3 where Moses does not ascent “to God,” but rather “to the mountain of God.” In Exodus 24:10, the elders of Israel do not see God, but rather the place where God stands, and in Joshua 4:24 the hand of the Lord becomes the power of the Lord.

Now, when we speak of “recensions,” we normally are referring to a text which has been edited to create an authoritative text for a particular group of people. In fact, the term presupposes that some scribe intentionally created a new text by modifying existing text either by changing some wording (perhaps in an effort to correct what he might assume to be errors of earlier scribes), bringing together certain elements which were not joined previously, or changing the order of the sections in a document. This may be seen, for example, in the fact that the Psalms scroll from Qumran Cave 11 contains several psalms which are not in the Masoretic (i.e. traditional Hebrew) text. Furthermore, the order of the psalms in the two texts does not agree. But the fact that there are more psalms in the Qumran text does not mean that it came later; it may mean that those psalms were simply lost, or else intentionally deleted by someone at a later date, for deletion is also a way of editing a text.

Finally, there is the issue of versions. By “versions” we mean the translations of scriptures into other languages. As far as the Old Testament is concerned, we may distinguish between primary versions and other versions. The primary versions are those translations which were made directly from the original language, which was Hebrew in the case of the Old Testament. 4 These fall into two groups: the Septuagint, or Greek version, and the Aramaic versions in various Aramaic dialects, including Syriac. The other versions are those which were based primarily on the Septuagint. These include the Latin versions and the Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian and Arabic versions.

In the case of the New Testament, the question of versions is much more complicated, because it is no longer completely clear what the original language was. It was long assumed that the entire New Testament, i.e. those books which were eventually accepted into the NT canon, were all originally penned in Greek. However, beginning in the late 1800’s some scholars began to question that. Scholars began looking at the possibility that some of the books of the New Testament had originally been written in either Hebrew or Aramaic. Some of this impetus may have stemmed from an awareness that Eusebius had stated that Hegesippus 5 had quoted from the Syriac (i.e. Aramaic) gospel according to the Hebrews, which lead some to believe that this indicated the presence of a Syriac/Aramaic 6 gospel prior to the Diatessaron.7 But a greater stimulus came from the emerging field of text criticism. For example, C. C. Torry, who supported the assumption that all four gospels were translated from Aramaic originals, looked at the phrase “ye are children” in Matt. 23:31 and compared it to Luke 11:48 which reads “ye are building.” Both of these phrases are possible translations from a single Aramaic phrase, viz. atun banin atun. In any case, most scholars now concede that at least the Gospel of Matthew had a Semitic original.

B. The Dynamic Processes

How do scriptures come into being? Peter tells us concerning the writings of the prophets that “. . . prophecy came not in old time by the will of man; but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” 8 But this does not explain other types of writings such as the law of Moses (unless one considers the entire Pentateuch to fall within the rubric of prophetic pronouncement), or the historical writings. And even prophetic pronouncements were normally made in some historical context, i.e. they were triggered by something happening in the prophet’s environment.

In the case of the historical books, the need for a written account of the events befalling a nation might be self-evident. The feeling that succeeding generations should know what has happened and is happening to the current generation might be considered to stem directly from divine commandment, if one is a firm believer in revelation; or it might be considered to be merely a need for self-validation which expresses itself in the opinion that what one has experienced is important (hence one’s life has meaning) and therefore must be transmitted to posterity, if one is a skeptic as relates to the idea of revelation. In any case, the stimuli for historical writings are not difficult to imagine. Prophetic writings, on the other hand, still need a bit more explanation.

The pronouncements of some of the early prophets are contained within the historical writings. For example, the works of Elijah and Elisha are briefly sketched in II Kings, and it appears that Elisha gave formal lectures to students who formed a group known as the “sons of the prophets,” 9 but it was not until Amos that the Israelites began to write down and transmit the utterings of the prophets separately. 10 And as far as the pronouncements themselves are concerned, it is evident that many of them were given at times when Israel was straying from its God and the prophets then warned of the coming consequences and exhorted them to return to the right path.

The material that was committed to writing, if judged sufficiently important, was then transmitted by means of copying the manuscripts by hand. There were basically two methods: one was for a scribe to have the original in front of him and to make a copy from that onto a new scroll or codex. The other method occurred when something was important enough to require as many copies as possible and more resources were available for that undertaking. In this case, a number of scribes would sit in the same room with their writing materials before them and someone would read aloud from the original. Both methods have their inherent weaknesses. For example, when a scribe copies something visually, he might occasionally omit a word, phrase, or even a whole line. When one copies things from dictation, this is less likely to happen, but variations in orthography (spelling) are more likely to creep in.

In view of these considerations, one might suspect that if two manuscripts of the same text are compared and one has some words or lines which are not present in the other, then the manuscript with the additional words would be older, because we might assume that the words were simply lost in the copying process in the other manuscript. However, that is not always true. In many instances scribes have added words, phrases or entire lines in order to clarify something which they felt was not clear in the original, or to modify the doctrine to bring it into line with their own beliefs. In those cases, the fuller text is newer, not older.

It should be apparent, that if mistakes, or intentional changes (corrections or emendations) are introduced into a text in one location, they will be propagated in that location, and if more changes occur, over time the text can take on a very distinctive character, and differ considerably from editions of the same text in other locations which may be widely separated by both geography and theological presuppositions, and where a different set of errors and emendations are producing a text with a second set of distinctive characteristics. For example, the New Testament texts produced by scribes in Alexandria, Egypt over time may begin to differ noticeable from New Testament texts being copied in Antioch. And thus, we could begin to speak of separate traditions for those two centers.

For a long time, these various types of texts can circulate without anyone fussing too much about the discrepancies. And that was the case in both Jewish circles as far as the Old Testament books were concerned, and also in Christian circles as far as the New Testament books were concerned. But eventually something happened which caused religious leaders in those communities to feel that they needed to decide first, what books were to be considered sacred, and secondly, which editions of those books would be accepted.

In the case of the Old Testament, we have traditionally assumed that the canonization process took place in the following sequence: first, there was the promulgation of the scroll of Deuteronomy b Josiah in 621 BC, then the Torah was edited in Babylonia and brought back to Jerusalem by Ezra in 445 BC. Thus, one assumed that the Pentateuch had been canonized by about 400 BC and the books of the prophets by 200 BC. Finally, the Writings were supposedly canonized at the Council of Jamnia/Yavneh in 90 AD.

This scenario presupposes that there was a single track for canonization for all of Jewry, and that authoritative ecclesial councils, or even royal or scribal decisions could decide all such questions for all Jews for all time. But the discoveries at Qumran changed our thinking on that. One of the questions which arose was whether the Jewish community had actually established a fixed canon for the Old Testament at the Council of Jamnia. In 1964 Jack Lewis looked at all the Rabbinic references to the Council of Jamnia and found nothing which indicated it had created a canon. That concept was apparently an anachronism borrowed from later church councils after Christianity had become the state religion in the fourth century. 11

Next, James Sanders, who published the Psalms scroll from Qumran Cave 11 in 1965, noted that that scroll contained 8 psalms not in the Masoretic, or traditional Hebrew, text. Moreover, the order of the psalms was also different from that which we now have in our bible. It was also clear from Qumran that there was nothing even close to an accepted canon at that time, for many different versions and recensions were found side by side there with no apparent preference being shown to a single one of them. Thus, there were multiple tracks of canonization at the same time, varying from place to place and influenced by the local situation. Sanders subsequently proposed that the Jewish canon did not become fixed until after the Bar Kochva revolt of 125 A.D., and the Christian canon not until after the time of Constantine. He also believed that the canons (both Jewish and Christian) became fixed in reaction to disasters, i.e. “the persecutions and threats of extinction experienced by both Judaism and early Christianity, and the effect of the conversion of and conquest by Constantine – for both faiths – were also decisive critical events leading to closed canons.” 12

This is compatible with what Paul Tillich tells about the reasons for closing the Christian canon. In terms of the threat posed, he says it was a life-an-death struggle with Gnosticism which triggered the closing of the canon for Christians. 13 In fact, this struggle eventually led to the establishment of an entire system of authorities, because fixing the canon is not enough by itself, for scripture is still subject to unorthodox interpretations. So, a rule of faith was established, along with the apostolic tradition, the baptismal creed and the rule that bishops were authoritative in matters of doctrine.

Of course, in fixing a canon, the church excluded the possibility of receiving any further revelation, but the church fathers felt that they were no longer in a position to decide what might be from the Holy Spirit, and people claiming additional information – whether from the Holy Spirit or elsewhere – might cause a great deal of damage to the church. So, they returned to the age of the apostles, and decided not to accept anything written after that. Ultimately, not even all the writings attributed to the apostles, or even their coworkers, were accepted, even though some of these writings were indeed included among the sacred works used in certain locations. An example of that is the Codex Sinaiticus. This is a copy of the Bible which was taken from St. Catherine’s monastery to Europe in the 19th century by the German Count Tischendorf and is now in the British Library. It contains two books which are not in the New Testament we use now: The Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas.

Not everyone agreed with the idea of excluding further revelation, and a separate movement of Christians arose in opposition to that process. These were the Montanists. They were characterized by a belief that they had the Spirit and also by the fact that they were preoccupied with the end times. They also established a succession of prophets. Their opposition to the fixing of the canon arose from the fact that one cannot claim to have the Spirit and at the same time deny that further revelation is possible, which is what happens when one closes the canon. Their influence must have been considerable, for even the illustrious church father, Tertullian, joined their ranks.

The orthodox Church was victorious over Montanism, but according to Tillich, it resulted in losses to the church, which were visible in four ways:
1) When the canon was victorious over the possibility of new revelations, the message of the Gospel of John that there will be new insights (always standing under the control of Christ) was reduced in power and meaning.
2) The traditional hierarchy was confirmed against the prophetic spirit, meaning that the prophetic spirit was more or less excluded from the organized church.
3) Eschatology (doctrines of the end times) because less significant than it had been in the apostolic age.
4) The strict discipline of the Montanists was lost, giving way to a growing laxity in the church. 14


C. How Reliable is our Current Bible?

Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest complete manuscript of the Old Testament books was the Aleppo Codex, which dates from the first half of the 10th century. That manuscript used the so-called masoretic or traditional Hebrew text. The Masoretic text was among the text types found at Qumran, but it was only one type among many, and there is no indication that it enjoyed any primacy over the other types. This was one of the most momentous aspects of the Dead Sea Scroll discoveries, for it begs the question of why one tradition would be chosen over another tradition as being authoritative. The answer to that question may be simply that given a choice, people will choose those texts which best match their own theological pre-conceptions and prejudices. But there are also political and social factors which ultimately play a role in these things, for differing factions will support different lists of books, and the victorious party may win the day based more on political clout than on theological correctness.

The other momentous fact presented by the Dead Sea Scrolls concerns the origin and place of the Septuagint. As was noted above, there are significant differences between the LXX and the MT (Masoretic text). Some of these differences may have crept into the text as a result of scribal corrections which were based on philosophical and/or theological prejudices of the scribes (as in the anti-anthropomorphic examples noted earlier). But there are other differences, such as the presence of whole verses or sections which may appear in the one text and not in the other, 15 and since the time of the discoveries at Qumran, many of our pre-suppositions about the LXX have had to be re-examined.

For centuries scholars had tended to believe that the differences between the MT and the LXX were due to sloppy copying or careless editing on the part of the LXX translators. The underlying assumption here was that the MT was indeed the primary text, or at least closer to the original than the LXX. Prejudices against the value of the LXX were perhaps further strengthened by the fact that after the second century the Jews largely rejected the very text they had created by distancing themselves from the LXX and relying solely on the MT. This, however, was occasioned, not so much by a conviction that the MT was more correct, as by the difficulties which arose in their disputes with the Christians over some of the translations in the LXX. For example, during the first two centuries, Christians argued with Jews over the Messianic import of Isaiah 7:14. 16 Was the female who was to conceive and bear a son a “virgin” (Greek parthenos), or simply a “young woman” (Greek neanis)? If it was a virgin, then the Christians could point to a rather convincing proof text in Isaiah to support their contention that Jesus was the promised Messiah. On the other hand, if it was only a young woman, then the virgin birth story of Jesus’ conception found no support in scripture. But the LXX text said parthenos, this supporting the Christian contention.

For this and other reasons, the Jews abandoned the Septuagint and recognized only the Masoretic text, where, it was probably claimed (as is currently the case among many non-Jewish scholars as well as Jewish scholars), that the Hebrew word bethulah meant nothing more than “young woman.” Of course, this argument can be easily attacked on two grounds: first is the fact that the translators of the LXX had no reason to translate bethulah as parthenos (“virgin”) unless they really understood that to be the semantic value of the word, for the LXX was created long before Christianity even existed. Secondly, the Hebrew word bethulim comes from the same root as bethulah, and it clearly refers to the tokens of virginity, for it occurs in places such as Deut. 22: 15, 17, where it refers to the blood on the sheet from the wedding night which is to be held by the bride’s father in case the husband later claims that she was not a virgin at the time of the wedding. Indeed, the LXX became Christian property for all intents and purposes, and the Jewish communities abandoned it, and even created some new Greek versions which followed the MT more closely.

But Qumran has shown us that the LXX is not merely a corruption of the MT. On the contrary, we now know that the LXX was actually based on another Hebrew text which was different from MT. In fact, the Qumran writings not only included the traditional MT text of Jeremiah, which is longer than LXX, but also perhaps a Hebrew witness to the shorter text of the LXX in one of the fragments which is part of the book of Jeremiah (4QJerb), and which may represent part of the original Hebrew text from which the LXX was translated. We are thus faced with the possibility that there was an original Hebrew text from which the LXX was translated, which differed from the MT, and we have no proof that the MT was older. In order to establish which tradition is older, we will need to discover more texts, and they will have to be from an even earlier period. Meanwhile, we have reason to take a new look at the LXX.

These facts also throw some new light on the Samaritan Pentateuch, which differs from the MT in approximately 4000 places, and in roughly 1900 of these it agrees with the LXX. One locus of particular interest is Exodus 12:40, which in the MT reads, “And the sojourn of the Israelites who dwelt in the Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.” Thus, the MT assigns a period of 430 years to the Egyptian period alone. The LXX on the other hand, says “And the sojourn of the Israelites while they stayed in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan was four hundred and thirty years.” This changes the history significantly, because it means that the entire time in Canaan must be deducted from the time the total of 430 to find out how many years the Israelites were in Egypt. This could affect estimates of when they went there and when they left.

The Samaritan Pentateuch essentially agrees with the LXX for it reads, “And the sojourn of the Israelites and their fathers who dwelled in the land of Canaan and in the land of Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.” If anything, the Samaritan text may be even more precise, because it notes that the fathers (viz. Jacob and his sons) had lived in both Canaan and Egypt (whereas their descendents had only lived in Egypt). Moreover, the Samaritan Pentateuch has Canaan and Egypt in the correct order, for they lived first in Canaan, then in Egypt. The LXX on the other hand, lists Egypt first, which is sequentially incorrect.

Finally, if the Dead Sea Scrolls force us to reconsider the authority of the Septuagint, then this may also shed further light on the composition of the New Testament, for Old Testament passages quoted in the NT frequently agree with the LXX rather than the MT. For example, let us look at Romans 9:27-28. In the NT (KJV) it reads:

“Esaias also crieth concerning Israel, Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved: For he will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness: because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth.” (Rom. 9:27-8)

In this passage, a remnant of the Israelites will be saved, whereas in the MT they shall return.

“For though thy people Israel be as the sand of the sea, yet a remnant of them shall return: the consumption decreed shal overflow with righteousness. For the Lord God of hosts shall make a consumption, even determined, in the midst of all the land.” (Is. 10:22-23, KJV)

In the LXX, as in the NT, the remnant will be saved:

“And though the people of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant of them shall be saved. He will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness; because the Lord will make a short work in all the world.” (Is. 10:22-23, LXX, Brenton’s translation)

At this point, it is again important to emphasize that in speaking of the Old Testament, we are not speaking of a single book. Therefore, the problem of traditions for the Pentateuch (MT vs. LXX, or the Hebraic proto-LXX) may be very different from the question of traditions for other books. It is conceivable that in some cases, i.e. for certain OT books, the MT might preserve the more ancient text, whereas in other cases perhaps the LXX preserves a text closer to the original. Therefore, this entire question of primacy of traditions is very convoluted and not likely to be solved soon.

D. Extra-canonical Scriptures at Qumran

In addition to scriptures which we recognize as canonical, commentaries and secular rules, there were also writings at Qumran which were obviously intended to be regarded as sacred writings. One such text is the temple scroll. This scroll would have been written after 400 B.C., and the German scholar, Hartmut Stegemann, believes it was intended to be the sixth book of the Torah, supplementing the five books of Moses in the way that Deuteronomy was written to supplement the original four books of Moses. But, according to Stegemann, it never became accepted as part of the Torah, because the five books of Moses had already been recognized around 400 B.C. by the Persian rulers as the exclusive civil law for Jews living in Jerusalem and Judea. 17 In any case, it is at least certain that the Qumran sect viewed the Temple Scroll as sacred writ, because in it they wrote the name of God in normal letters. They only did that in books considered holy scripture. In secular works, they wrote the name of God in an archaic fashion (using script forms several centuries older) to set it apart from the rest of the text.

The scholar who did the original work on the scroll, Yigael Yadin, dated it to the end of the second century B.C. on linguistic considerations, 18 but another Dead Sea Scroll scholar, Geza Vermes, notes that it may rest on an antecedent reaching back to a pre-Qumran period. 19 But the exaggerated laws of purity suggest to me that it was the sole creation of the Qumran community, for they were quite concerned with ritual purity and also convinced that the people in control of the Jerusalem temple were not fit for that work. Thus, the overemphasis on purity was probably a purposeful contradistinction to the conditions at the Jerusalem.

Examples of the unrealistic purity laws include a prohibition against unclean birds flying over the temple (column XLVI). One wonders how that was to be enforced! As another example of a law that was a bit extreme, men who had had sexual intercourse were not even to enter the city for three days (column XL). But the most incredible of the purity laws was the law concerning latrines. These were to be dug at a distance of three thousand cubits from the city (column XL). At roughly 44 cm per cubit, this would mean that people who needed to relieve themselves would have to leave the city and walk over a kilometer to get to the latrines. Pity the person with diarrhea!

The dimensions of the temple were also somewhat incredible. For example, the wall around the outer court was to have 12 gates – one for each tribe – and there were to be 360 cubits between each gate. That is a total distance around the outer wall of almost two kilometers. Of course, the temple precinct in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek. 42) is even greater than that, being 500 reeds on each side, and there were six cubits to each reed!

One of the most interesting aspects of the Qumran Temple Scroll is the information it gives us on a peculiar passage in the New Testament. It occurs when Jesus and his disciples get into a boat after having fed four thousand:

“Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, neither had they in the ship with them more than one loaf. And he charged them, Saying, take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and the leaven of Herod [or “Herodians”]. And they reasoned among themselves, saying, it is because we have no bread. And when Jesus knew it, he saith unto them, Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? Perceive ye not yet, neither understand? Have ye your heart yet hardened? Having eyes, see ye not? And having ears, hear ye not? And do ye not remember? When I brake the five loaves among five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? They say unto him, Twelve. And when the seven among the four thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? And they said, Seven. And he said unto them, How is it that ye do not understand?” (Mark 8:14-21 KJV)

In Mark’s version, they are to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Herodians, but gives them no reason. In Matthew’s version, however, he warns them of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees, but Matthew gives the explanation that by leaven he really means the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees. 20

Yadin, in looking at these verses, felt that the number of baskets (12 and 7) had some special significance in reference to the two groups named by Mark, viz. Pharisees and Herodians. He notes that if 12 refers to Pharisees and 7 to Herodians, then the number 12 must refer to the 12 loaves of the Presence eaten weekly by the priests in the temple. So, the seven baskets must have some special significance in characterizing the Herodians. He then notes that in the feast of dedication of priests, the Torah only prescribes one basket of bread. 21 The Temple Scroll, on the other hand, specified seven baskets. Therefore, seven baskets of bread would be a fitting symbol to indicate the Essenes. 22

But can we identify the Essenes with the Herodians of the New Testament? The symbolism here of the seven baskets would certainly fit nicely with the Essenes, in view of the Temple Scroll and its prescription of seven baskets of bread. But Yadin also points to a passage in which Josephus discusses how the Essenes came to be favored by Herod, 23 and thus the term “Herodians” might have been a derogatory term for Essenes during the New Testament period. 24

E. Summary

We can summarize by saying that the Dead Sea Scrolls provide good evidence that Judaism of the Second Temple Period (i.e. the time of Christ) was much more diverse than previously thought, and the evidence also forces us to rethink the process of canonization, for we now know that the canon had not even been fixed for the Pentateuch by the time of the Qumran sectarians. But the findings at the Dead Sea also give us hope of additional material coming to light in a similar fashion, and perhaps that new material will help clear up the questions raised by the Qumran material.


1. One could, of course, consider the cylinder seals and signet rings of ancient Mesopotamia as a type of printing, because they created faithful reproductions each time they were used. And in Asia there was some printing from wood blocks as early as 200 AD, but this was limited and did not seem to influence the invention of moveable type in the West.

2. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, translated by erroll F. Rhodes, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, second edition, 1989, page 51

3. Ernst Würtwein, The Text of the Old Testament, translated by Erroll F. Rhodes, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1979, p. 18

4. Except for some Aramaic passages in Ezra and Daniel.

5. Hegesippus was a Christian chronicler who lived approx. 110-180 AD. His works have been lost, but Eusebius quotes him and he was also known to Jerome.

6. Syriac is merely an eastern dialect of Aramaic, but it is the dialect used by the Christians from the end of the first century onward and it became widely used throughout the Middle East.

7. Tatian, a Christian apologist who lived during the second century, created a harmony of the Gospels in which almost all the events contained in the four Gospels was woven into a continuous narrative. This was the only gospel text used in most of Syria during the third and fourth centuries. There is still debate over whether he originally wrote it in Syriac or Greek. In any case, not much of it remains in either language, but the text was preserved in Latin and Arabic translations.

8. II Peter 1:21, KJV

9. II Kings 4:38 and 6:1

10. See Gerhard von Rad, Theologie des alten Testaments, Vol. II, München: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1975, p. 42f.

11. This information, and that which follows may be found in: James Sanders, “The Scrolls and the Canonical Process,” in The Dead Sea Scrolls after fifty Years, edited by Peter W. Flint and James C. Vanderkam, Brill: Leiden, 1999, pp. 1-23

12. ibid. p. 21

13. Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought: From its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism, ed. Carl E. Braaten, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968, p. 38

14. Tillich, op. cit. p. 41

15. For example, the book of Esther is longer in the LXX than in the MT, but conversely, the MT version of Jeremiah is about 2700 words longer than the LXX version.

16. Cf. Würtwein, op. cit., p. 52

17. Hartmut Stegemann, The Library of Qumran: On the Essenes, Qumran, John the Baptist, and Jesus, Grand Rapids/Leiden: William B. Eerdmans and Brill Academic Publishers, 1998, p. 96. Stegemann also makes the interesting suggestion that the portion of the scroll dealing with the temple may have been a much older work described in I Chronicles 28:11-19 as the blueprint for the temple which David entrusted to Solomon, but this seems unlikely to me.

18. Yigael Yadin, The Temple Scroll: the Hidden Law of the Dead Sea Sect, New York: Random House, 1985, p. 64.

19. Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, New York: The Penguin Press, 1997, p. 191.

20. Matt. 16:6-12

21. Lev. 8:2

22. Yadin, op. cit., p. 80 ff.

23. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XV, 10, 5.

24. For a contrary view, viz. that the Qumranites were not Essenes and were actually close to the Sadducees, see Abegg, Wise and Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls, A New Translation, San Francisco: Harper, 1996, pp. 26 ff.