The Dead Sea Scrolls

POSTED BY: holzapfel


This past month Andrew Lawler published an essay on the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Smithsonian magazine (“Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?” [January 2010]: 40–47). The media likes controversy, and Lawler highlights it in this interesting essay.

Since the first discoveries in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls have captured the imagination of the public, including Latter-day Saints. The importance of these textual discoveries on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea can hardly be overestimated. They open an important window onto the past, particularly for the period when the paucity of sources made it frustrating for scholars attempting to reconstruct the Jewish world during the intertestamental period. They also illuminate the world of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, although it is doubtful that either of them spent time at the site where the scrolls were copied.

In the end, some 800 manuscripts were found in eleven caves near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Among them were the oldest copies of the Old Testament, except for the book of Esther. Additionally, numerous unknown texts were discovered at the site, increasing our appreciation for the complex and interesting world of Second Temple Judaism. Most of the manuscripts are written with square Hebrew characters (Aramaic or Assyrian script), but a few manuscripts exhibit what scholars call the Paleo-Hebrew script. The dating of the manuscript range from as early as 300 BC until just before the Romans destroyed the site in AD 68.

From the very beginning, many scholars believed those who collected, copied, and hid the massive library were the Essenes, a first-century Jewish sect known only, until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, by what other people had written about them. Scholars never unanimously accepted the identification, although a majority has done so reasoning that it as the best explanation for the documents and the site.

In the latest installment of the debate, some consensus has been reached. There is almost universal agreement that many of the scrolls found at the Dead Sea were not produced at the Dead Sea site. One of the current theories, highlighted in Lawler’s article, is that Jews fleeing the advancing Roman army during the Jewish War gathered at Qumran, a fort, and brought with them the writings they felt were sacred and important. This proposal suggest that “the scrolls reflect not just the views of a single dissident group [Essenes] . . . but a wider tapestry of Jewish thought” (p. 44).

If anyone ever wanted to get inside the world of academia to see how scholars deal with controversial topics, this essay will surprise and depress you as it highlights the intrigues of one such debate. In the end, the debate concerning who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls will continue to attract attention, but it will most likely never be resolved, leading us to consider the possibilities.

New Testament Manuscripts

POSTED BY: holzapfel


The New Testament is an amazing collection of many types of documents, including letters, ancient biographies, sermons, and historical narratives. New Testament studies have helped us reconstruct the world of Jesus and his disciples by providing historical, cultural, and linguistic insights. Additionally, textual studies have helped us appreciate the complex and interesting story of the New Testament’s transmission from antiquity to the present.

Today no original New Testament manuscripts, or autographs, appear to have survived. In other words, we cannot visit a museum or library to see the original book of Matthew or the original letter Paul wrote to the Romans. In fact, the earliest New Testament manuscripts that have survived the ravages of time are not even copies of the originals or even copies of copies.

The oldest known New Testament text is a rather small papyrus manuscript fragment (see image) with John 18:37-38 on one side (recto) and John 18:31-33 on the other (verso). Its small size belies its major importance. Produced around AD 125, it suggests an earlier dating of the Gospel of John than traditionally assigned (many scholars assume that John’s Gospel was written in the AD 90s). Additionally, the manuscript was discovered in Egypt, suggesting a rather quick dispersion of the Gospel.

The earliest complete copies of an individual New Testament book date from around AD 200. During the following decades and centuries, scribes continued to make copies of the New Testament—some 5,700 manuscripts in Greek from the early second century to the sixteenth century still exist.

It is not surprising that these manuscripts contain numerous differences because they were copied by hand over the years. In fact, there are some 30,000 variant readings. Most of these variant readings are not theologically significant and likely were a result of human errors—unintentional changes made to the text during the processing of copying them. However, there are rather significant changes that were most likely intentional. These changes were made for a variety of reasons, including (1) to promote theological views, (2) to correct errors a scribe believed was in the text, (3) to harmonize the text to match what was recorded in another passage, and (4) to clarify certain passages that might be confusing or misunderstood.

The King James Version (KJV) of 1 John 5:7 preserves a significant change: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. The KJV translators used the best manuscripts available to them at the time. Since 1611, new discoveries have produce older manuscripts that scholars believe gets us much closer to the original text. This particular verse, which supports a Trinitarian interpretation of the Godhead, is not found in the earliest manuscripts of 1 John, suggesting that a scribe added it for theological purposes.

How we understand the New Testament depends on which variant reading we accept as being closest to the original. In this case, some scholars argue that the New Testament does not explicitly teach the doctrine of the Trinity because this single and most important reference is not found in any Greek manuscript—manuscripts that cover more than one thousand years of New Testament transmission. Because it does not appear before the fourteenth century, some recent modern translations and versions of the Bible do not include this verse.

Today we live in an amazing time when work on the New Testament produces great insights and allows us to get closer to the texts as originally prepared in the first century.