TW Viewpoint | The Importance of the Dead Sea ScrollsOctober 29, 2021 | Michael Heykoop
Juma, Khalil and Muhammed. The three young boys went about their task of herding goats, following those which strayed high up into the cliffs. Juma spotted the opening to a cave, and not thinking much of it, did what just about any boy in his position would have done. He picked up a rock, threw it into the cave and turned to continue his work. Little did he know; his rock throwing would result in the most important archaeological find of the 20th century.
What Juma didn’t expect when throwing that rock, was to hear the sound of something breaking. The boys knew they had found something, but still needed to complete their task of caring for the goats. Curiosity caused them to return the next day to find that the rock which had been thrown had broken some pottery hidden within the cave. The broken pot was far from the only pot in the cave. They did not contain gold coins or similar treasure, as the boys had hoped, but the rolls of papers found within would prove invaluable.
This was a find, truly of biblical proportions. The age of the scrolls, combined with the shear quantity of documents provided an almost complete copy of the first two-thirds of the Bible, known as the Old Testament. Additional writings found at the site provide fascinating information relating to Jewish tradition at the time of writing. While some of the scrolls are still undergoing translation, new A.I. technology has revealed even more exciting finds regarding the writings.
The findings included fragments from more than 900 different manuscripts including every book of the Old Testament except for Esther.
To understand just how significant of a find this was, we have to ask what other manuscripts of the Bible were available at the time. Prior to finding the dead sea scrolls, the oldest complete Old Testament manuscript was the Leningrad Codex, which dates back to the year AD 1008. Compare that with the estimated time for the writing of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Considering the vast amount of written materials recovered, it is logical that they would have been written over the course of centuries. Current estimates place the writing of these texts to as far as the last 300 years before Christ, more than a thousand years earlier than the Leningrad Codex.
The age of the text known as the Bible has always been a point of contention. Those wishing to dispute claims of authorship recorded in the Bible often pointed to the lack of any surviving copies from such an early date. However, It is not just the age of the scrolls that proved meaningful, but the contents as well.
It is well understood that the copies of the Bible were made from previous copies of the Bible. Anyone who has played the children’s game of telephone can spot the potential for error. A series of small changes overtime add up and you eventually have a text that is unrecognizable from the original. Comparing the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Leningrad Codex revealed the impressive skill of those whose task it was to preserve and copy the text.
Writing for Sapiens, an Anthropology Magazine, Stephen Nash describes the comparison:
We now know the Dead Sea Scrolls date to between about 250 B.C. and A.D. 70. They are thus a full millennium older than the Leningrad Codex! Even more remarkably, the preserved Biblical texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Leningrad Codex are virtually identical, demonstrating that written records can show remarkable stability when scribes are ordered to copy texts verbatim. Dead Sea Scrolls - How Do We Know Which Historical Accounts Are True? (sapiens.org)
Just how skilled were these scribes? Scholars are now using Artificial Intelligence to compare the handwriting on perhaps the most famous scroll included in this find—the Great Isaiah Scroll. One of the original scrolls to be found, this well-preserved scroll dates to approximately 125 BC and when unrolled is nearly 25 feet long.
The researchers' methods detected "subtle and nuanced differences in [the] handwriting that we cannot [discern] with the human eye only," Popović told Live Science. The discovery that two scribes collaborated on the Great Isaiah Scroll reveals that ancient scribes "worked in teams," he said. Mysterious second writer of Dead Sea Scroll uncovered by AI | Live Science
It is important to note that many of the accounts recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls were already hundreds of years old at the time they were recorded on these manuscripts. However, the question of whether or not such texts could be preserved accurately has been answered. The skill of the scribes whose responsibility it was to care for the text was impeccable.
If you want to learn more about the preservation of the Bible as well as evidence to support its authenticity, be sure to read our free booklet: The Bible: Fact or Fiction.