The Dead Sea Scrolls are currently on display at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science through September 3. This is the exhibit’s final display in the US before the artifacts will be taken back to Israel. (More information and tickets here)
Discovered in 1946 in caves on the North-West of the Dead Sea, the Dead Sea Scrolls are made up of 981 different manuscripts dating from the third century BC to 68 AD. They have been called, “the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times,” and it has been said that they have “forever changed New Testament scholarship”1
Why do the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter?
1. They Verify That the Bible Is Reliable and Hasn’t Been Changed Over Time
“The older the copies, the closer we get chronologically to the autographs, the fewer copies there are between the original Old Testament writings and these copies that we have,” explains Ryan Stokes of Southwestern Seminary.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are hundreds of years older than the previously known oldest manuscripts, and they prove that the Old Testament text had been faithfully preserved over the centuries, and that the Hebrew text translated for modern Christians accurately represents the Bible that Jesus read and the Bible as it was originally written.
In at least one instance, the Dead Sea Scrolls helped to solve a mystery which has great theological significance regarding Jesus.
Psalm 22:16 says: a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet.
Christians have always considered Psalm 22 and this verse in particular to be a prophecy about Jesus’ crucifixion, which is all the more incredible since it written hundreds of years before crucifixion had even been invented.
However, there was some dispute historically over whether this was actually what the original text said, since the Masoretic text (the Hebrew Bible preserved from the Middle Ages, and the oldest known version of the Old Testament before the discovery of the DSS) read, “Like a lion are my hands and my feet.”
However, this problem was resolved when scholars discovered that the much older Dead Sea Scrolls confirmed the text indeed should say: “they have pierced my hands and feet.”
2. They Give Us Insight into Jewish Culture at the Time of Jesus
Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the historical veracity of the New Testament was often called into question. From the expectation of the Jews regarding the Messiah, to the world of Pharisees and preachers like John the Baptist, many claimed that the world the New Testament described was purely fictional. However, with the discovery of the DSS, it could be confirmed that the New Testament very accurately described the culture and history of first-century Israel.
Of the nearly 1000 scrolls which have been found, around 700 of them are non-biblical writings. These non-biblical writings include things like community rules and expectations regarding the Messiah. It is from this that we learn that certain Jewish communities practiced baptism for repentance (ala John the Baptist), and that they were expecting two Messiahs: one who would be an priest and the other who would be a king. Jesus ultimately did fulfill this biblical expectation, albeit not in the exact way they expected.
Of the 240 biblical scrolls from Qumran, 235 are written in Hebrew and 5 are in Greek. Of the 701 non-biblical scrolls, 548 are written in Hebrew, 137 in Aramaic, and 5 in Greek. This shows that Jews at the time of Jesus did indeed speak Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, the three languages of the Bible.
Scholars believe that many of the scrolls were originally taken from Jerusalem, when a group of priests who believed that the temple worship and leadership had become corrupt, left Jerusalem, taking with them many of the scrolls from the temple, and formed an alternative “pure” community out in the desert, where they proceeded to make many more copies of the biblical texts.
This parallels exactly what the New Testament describes about the corruption at that time of the office of the high priest and the religious leaders in Jerusalem.
Other scrolls were taken from Jerusalem when the Romans attacked Jerusalem after the Jewish Uprising in 68 AD, and they took them with them as they fled to Masada near the Dead Sea, where they were able to successfully hide some of these scrolls.
The long and short of it: We can trust the Bible.
The Bible stands up to scrutiny, and the more scholarship and archeology discovers, the more the Bible is proven to be accurate and trustworthy.
For more on this topic, listen to this recent sermon I gave at White Fields about whether we can trust the Bible:
As well as this Sermon-Extra addressing a few more proofs of the Bible’s veracity: