The Dead Sea Scrolls turn a lot of modern New Testament research
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.
PETER FLINT, Trinity Western University
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.
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.
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.
Torah scroll, 15th century, Germany
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).
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.
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.
FLINT, Trinity Western University
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
- J. LOTT
Lott's article on page 34 of February's Lingua Franca
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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