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Dead Sea Scrolls Confirm Bible?

26th October 2006

According to Billy Graham, the Dead Sea Scrolls “repeatedly confirm the accuracy of the Bible.” In his Q&A column in the Kansas City Star and elsewhere, Graham gave the latter answer to an inquirer who told about a friend “who says that the Dead Sea Scrolls disprove Christianity.”

While I certainly agree that it is utter nonsense to argue that the scrolls somehow disprove Christianity, I found Graham’s comment on the reliability of the texts of the Hebrew Bible a bit misleading. Here’s an excerpt:

Many contain books of the Old Testament and have repeatedly confirmed the accuracy of the texts of our Bibles. Other scrolls show that many people were eagerly looking for the coming of the Messiah.

While the largest group of biblical manuscripts found at Qumran are proto-Masoretic (i.e., they are of the same tradition as the modern text of Hebrew Bible) and in this sense they underscore the antiquity of our biblical text, the Dead Sea Scrolls also give witness to a significant textual plurality. They also raise many issues about the nature of the biblical “canon” (to use the term anachronistically) before the time of Jesus. That being said, I don’t think this new understanding of the development of the biblical text has many implications to the authority of the biblical text, it does complicate things dramatically.

For more discussion of the text of the Hebrew Bible, see my series of posts on the Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, especially the one on the Dead Sea Scrolls. You may also want to check out my Dead Sea Scrolls Resource pages.

On another related note, there is an article in the Chicago Tribune about Norman Golb‘s theories separating the scrolls from the remains at Khirbet Qumran. The article doesn’t really provide any new evidence; it just refers to an article in the September 2006 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review that I had already blogged on here. See Jim Davila’s comments on this most recent article here.

8 Responses to “Dead Sea Scrolls Confirm Bible?”

  1. Ken Says:

    Hey why are you picking on Billy Graham? It actually seems to me, all things considered, a fairly responsible statement, especially for a non-scholar. He doesn’t make any blanket, absolute statements… and his statement is basically defensible. Despite the textual plurality to which the Qumran scrolls attest, they do confirm that the MT preserves quite accurately a tradition attested at Qumran. There are biblical scholars who are invited to make presentations in your very institution who make statements of this kind… Heck, are you sure you haven’t even said something to this effect once upon a time? :-)

  2. Tony Parry Says:

    The dead sea scrolls are facinating, not because the prove or disprove Christianity but because they reinforce the Bible’s claim to divine authorship.

    Chinese whispers
    The reason is that many people claim that the Bible has changed beyond all recognition since it was originaly penned. The oldest copy of the whole of the book of Isaiah was found amoungst other manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls. When compared with a copy hundreds of years younger, there were only very slight differences in spelling. This is because the Masorets were highly skilled copyists. They used a method similar to modern day “error correction” on a computer or fax machine. They counted the number of letters on the original and the copy. If they were at all different, they tore it up and started again! Amazing I know, but it worked. That’s one of the reasons we can completely rely on the thousand of Bible texts in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. They have been protected by Jehovah God himself because he wants us to have the truth. As Jesus said “My followers will know the truth, and the truth will set them free” Incidentally, as you know Jesus is the Word and he was used by God to transmit these wonderful scriptures to his servants the prophets, including Isaiah.

    With warm Christian Love

  3. Tyler F. Williams Says:

    Hey Ken… I don’t mean to pick on Billy (of any evangelical leader, isn’t he untouchable? :-) )…. all I said is that his statement was “a bit” misleading. I find that many people appeal to the Dead Sea Scrolls rather selectively. So they will highlight the relative stability of the MT tradition (as he did), without even mentioning the plurality also found at Qumran.

  4. Ken Says:

    Given the context of the response, why should he have done other than he did? I don’t think it is necessarily misleading to be selective. If it were, everything ever written would be misleading in some way or another. He simply chose the information that was important for the point he was making, namely a rebuttal to the proposition that the DSS disprove the Bible. To me, quibbling so with Christian leaders unnecessarily opens them up to ridicule by others, which in this case I don’t think Billy Graham’s comments would deserve (especially when compared to the comments of others on this topic). Wouldn’t it better to say that you’d simply like to flesh out Billy Graham’s response to point out another often neglected fact about the DSS? Anyways, just a thought that struck me… No big deal, I guess.

  5. Ken Says:

    Incidentally, Tony’s comments up above are probably more deserving of your criticism/clarifications than Billy Graham’s…

  6. Matthew Hamilton Says:

    How do you define the term “Dead Sea Scrolls”? If you define it narrowly, limiting it just to Qumran, then, yes, pluriformity of the Old Testament text is found. But even then, why do so many of the Qumran OT MSS exibit a text type that may be described as proto Masoretic?
    If “Dead Sea Scrolls” is defined to include all the other locations where ancient Jewish scrolls of the First Jewish Revolt and the Bar Kokhba Revolt were found, then textual pluriformity is found at only one location – Qumran. It isn’t found at Wadi Murabba’at (Caves 1,2 and 5), or at Wadi Sdeir, or at Nahal Hever (Caves 5/6 and 8), or at Nahal Seelim (Cave 34), or at Masada.
    Of course someone may argue that the Qumran is a First Jewish Revolt site while the other sites are Bar Kokhba Revolt sites, and so the difference is that the OT from these two revolts may be compared diachronically, but many if not most of the OT MSS from the other sites also date to the First Jewish Revolt, so most comparisons are synchronic.
    In summary, apart from OT MSS found at a single site, Qumran, the broad sample of OT MSS from both the First Jewish Revolt and the Bar Kokhbra Revolt shows that Billy Graham’s statement that the Dead Sea Scrolls “repeatedly confirmed the accuracy of the texts of our Bibles” is correct.
    Explaining why Qumran is the odd-one-out might take another 100,000 words or so.

  7. Tyler F. Williams Says:

    Hey Matthew, thanks for your comments. You are right, though even if you define DSS broader, you still have to reckon with the plurality of biblical texts in antiquity (especially if you include the LXX and other versions into the equation). My point was not that the MT is not a reliable text; it was that full picture is far more complex than Graham’s answer suggests.

    Furthermore, in regards to the large Isaiah Scroll (1QIsa-a) — which seems to be the parade example used in such discussions — there are some 1200 variants between it and the Leningrad Codex (the Hebrew Masoretic text behind modern translations), 270 of which are more than just orthographic/spelling differences, including a number that likely reflect interpretive changes (see Pulikottil’s Transmission of the Biblical Texts in Qumran: The Case of the Large Isaiah Scroll [JSOT 2001]). All that being said, the large Isaiah scroll is firmly within the Masoretic tradition and highlights the relative stability of that tradition. However, I don’t think you can make a case for divine inspiration based on the transmission of the biblical text. The Masoretes were indeed amazing copyists and I have no major issues with the reliability of the biblical text they preserved; it’s just that I think some people define “reliable” a bit more stringently than they should.

  8. Jeremy Pierce Says:

    Graham doesn’t say it confirms the accuracy of the MT, does he? He just says it confirms the accuracy of the biblical texts.

    My understanding of one of the common arguments from the DSS is that the DSS findings for Samuel-Kings, as scanty as they are, seem to confirm the MT readings in Chronicles as opposed to the MT readings of Samuel-Kings. This means that the older skepticism about Chroncicles readings as mere inventions later on is unwarranted. Longman and Dillard, for instance, make this point in their OT introduction.

    It’s surely true that Graham’s comment is more simplistic than the true story seems to be when you look at the details, but it sounds to me like it could be a summary of a more complex story that includes the sort of thing in my previous paragraph, and therefore it might not be ignoring the plurality of manuscript traditions. In fact, it may be relying on that.