Ezra reading, wall painting (c. AD 245), Irag

the dead sea scrolls
making the good book even better?

excerpt from article by
jeremy lott

The Dead Sea Scrolls turn a lot of modern New Testament research on
its head because they show that much in the New Testament actually
was part of Judaism in the first century B.C. and was not projected
back onto Jesus and the early Christians by a later generation.

Dr. PETER FLINT, Trinity Western University


TRINITY WESTERN'S Department of Biblical studies and its Dead Sea Scrolls Institute are fomenting a biblical revolution. At the heart of this revolution are the Dead Sea Scrolls, the famous set of manuscripts containing early versions of all but one of the books that ultimately composed the Hebrew Bible as well as other noncanonical works and assorted ordinances, commentaries, and liturgical texts. Most scholars believe that the scrolls belonged to one or more of the Jewish sects that settled in Qumran before the fall of the Second Temple in A. D. 70. As such, the scrolls provide an invaluable snapshot of at least one important strain of early Judaism, though they are by no means a complete record of Jewish belief at that time.

The Trinity Western scholars believe that evidence from these documents vindicate much of their traditionalist religious worldview. In particular, they think the scrolls cast doubt on the widespread "liberal" view that Christianity is largely the invention of scribes and saints who lived after Jesus' time. Attracted by the scholarly prospect of religious vindication, Trinity Western has developed a unique biblical studies major with a strong focus on the Dead Sea Scrolls (offering language courses in Syriac, Hebrew, and Aramaic, and access to some of the best scholars in the field) and has agreed to foot part of the bill for big-name guest speakers like Emmanuel Tov, the general editor of the Dead Sea Scrolls translation project.

...Evangelicals have traditionally been committed to the idea of the Bible as a single, inerrant text that has been kept intact for two millennia. By contrast, ever since the German higher criticism of the nineteenth century, liberal scholars have regarded the Bible as a hodgepodge of conflicting traditions, texts, and ideological influences worked together over time.

parchment Torah scroll, 15th century, Germany

Liberal Old Testament scholars, for instance, argue that the texts of the original Hebrew Bible, transmitted and replicated throughout thousands of years of religious and political turmoil, emerged heavily corrupted. Scribes were under immense pressure to alter texts to meet shifting ideological needs, and the chances for accidental or whimsical elisions were great. In pre-Luther translations of the Old Testament, Christian themes or concepts were often introduced retroactively, thereby allowing the Old Testament better prefigure to the New. Some scholars, like Julius Wellhausen and Martin Noth, had even claimed that monotheism was not an aspect of early Judaism (though they believe it did arise before Jesus' time).

In the face of this academic onslaught, Protestant theological conservatives resorted to the simple tactic of declaring the Bible in its current form infallible. In 1910, the Congregational evangelist RA. Torrey began producing a series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals (from which the term "fundamentalist" was derived), in which a group of conservative theologians laid down the basic beliefs of "Bible Christians." Key to the whole endeavor was the "inerrancy" and "all sufficiency" of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New that make up the Protestant canon, which was established by Luther during the Protestant Reformation.

The 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in a cave near the Judaean desert offered evangelical biblical scholars a potential escape from their scholarly theological bind. Because the scrolls dated back to the time of the New Testament, making them a thousand years older than any other extant Old Testament manuscript, they allowed conservative theologians to determine if the Bible had remained intact. But to the frustration of evangelicals and others, the reconstruction and translation of the scrolls into a Dead Sea Scrolls Bible proceeded at a snail's pace. By the late 1980s, many scholars, led by Hershel Shanks, the fiery editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, were charging that this withholding amounted to a "scrolls cartel." Some scholars who were denied access began to speculate that the scrolls contained damaging information about established theories of Christianity and its origins.


Trinity Western's own Martin Abegg, co-director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute, played a significant, if rather accidental, role in making the scrolls accessible to a greater array of scholars. In 1991, as a master's student at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, he happened upon a series of note cards in the Hebrew Union library chronicling all the transcription work that had taken place on the scrolls in the 1950s. Though the cards had recently been added to the library's collection, those overseeing the scrolls did not intend for them to be kept in the open stacks, where even a young master's student could find them. The cards contained a jumble of short passages in no meaningful sequence, but there was an index that included context indicators and manuscript references. Using this index, Abegg was able to reconstruct the entire text with the help of a computer program. When he had a substantial portion of the manuscript completed, he plunked it down on the desk of his mentor at Hebrew Union, who insisted on publishing it as a bootleg copy of the scrolls.

PETER FLINT, Trinity Western University

The result has been a literal godsend for evangelicals. Peter Flint feels that the scrolls establish that today's Bible bears few of the traces of corruption and doctoring that liberal scholars have imagined. "The Dead Sea Scrolls turn a lot of modern New Testament research on its head," he explains "because they show that much in the New Testament actually was part of Judaism in the first century B.C. and was not projected back onto Jesus and the early Christians by a later generation."

Take, for example, the New Testament Gospel according to John. Before the discovery of the scrolls, scholars believed John was written by someone in the Greco-Roman empire many years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. The humanist theologian Rudolf Bultmann, for example, argued that numerous elements in John particularly its famous dualism between light as goodness and darkness as evil simply had no counterpart in the Jewish literature of Jesus' time. But the scrolls have revealed certain practices and images that place John firmly in a first-century Jewish context.

As evangelical scholars had hoped, the scrolls have also suggested that standard editions of the Bible are not nearly as unreliable as had been thought. For instance, the Masoretic text - the rabbinic text of the Hebrew Bible dating to roughly A.D. 900 that has served as the backbone of all modern translations of the Old Testament - has been largely cleared of charges of development and corruption in the intervening years. The verdict is that Jewish scribes were very careful transmitters of the written texts and tended not to tamper arbitrarily with the wording. Amazingly, in the face of religious and political turmoil over a thousand-year period, the text remained virtually the same.

Liberal biblical scholars now concede that the scrolls have upended some of their most fundamental assumptions. Forty years ago, they would never have considered John a Palestinian Jewish document. But today, as Marcus Borg, a professor of religious studies at Oregon State University, notes, "we take it for granted that John's Gospel was written in the Jewish homeland, not in Hellenistic culture somewhere outside Israel, and that many of the symbols of John's Gospel-the light/darkness contrast and so forth, employ language that is in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Most of us accept that John's Gospel reflects a Palestinian Jewish environment."

But Trinity Western scholars feel that they, too, take the human context of the Bible quite seriously. Much of their work on the Dead Sea Scrolls is dedicated to showing that Jesus and his followers utilized the fullness of the religious traditions that existed at the time in order to declare "the Kingdom of God." The difference between the two camps (liberal and more fundamental) has much to do with where each sets the burden of proof. Liberal scholars doubt that anything in the Bible should be taken for granted without additional evidence. But Trinity Western scholars emphasize that much of the New Testament was written at or around the time of Jesus; therefore, they conclude, it can largely be taken as a reliable journalistic document. That means shifting the burden of proof back on liberal scholars to prove that Jesus and his followers did not say and do whatever the New Testament reports.


Jeremy Lott's article on page 34 of February's Lingua Franca

The above article is an excerpt from The Born Again Bible, published in the February 2001 edition
of Lingua Franca magazine. JEREMY LOTT is a student at Trinity Western University.

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