Archives For The Dead Sea Scrolls

Old holy Bible in German little dusty and used.The Bible is of the utmost importance to Christians. This is our foundation for life and godliness; the source for our beliefs about God, ourselves, and our world; and the place we go to hear the voice of God. Whether your Bible is dusty or well-worn, the Bible is essential to your life as a Christian.

But can we trust it? Most of us would say yes. Yet most Christians would be hard pressed to explain why they believe the Bible is trustworthy. When skeptics tell us that the Bible is unreliable, that it has been copied and recopied so many times that it can’t be trusted, that the Bible has been changed by human beings, that it’s old fashioned and irrelevant for today, and many other such accusations, we brush them aside. But deep down, many of us feel uneasy.

So can you trust your Bible? Absolutely you can. I’m going to take six posts to explain why. Here’s my gameplan:

Part 1: Hasn’t the Bible Been Changed Over Time?
Part 2: Doesn’t the Bible Contain Errors?
Part 3: How Do We Know the Bible Is Scripture?
Part 4: Who Put the Bible Together?
Part 5: How Do We Know We Got the Right Books?
Part 6: What Gives the Bible Its Authority?

  So here we go.


Part 1: Hasn’t the Bible Been Changed Over Time?

Two accusations against the Bible go hand in hand. One is that the Bible contains errors (we will deal with this tomorrow), and the other is that the Bible has been changed over time. Christians have historically believed that the Bible is inerrant (i.e., it contains no errors). So if the Bible does indeed contain errors—whether historical, scientific, self-contradictory, etc.—and if the Bible has indeed been changed, then we have a problem.

First of all, it is important to clarify that when we say the Bible is inerrant, we mean that it contains no errors in its original manuscripts. We don’t have any of the original manuscripts for any of the books of the Bible (this seems like a good thing considering how easy it would be for these manuscripts to become idols). We have many (I mean that: many!) manuscripts that are very old, but none that are original. So if we find a minor mistake here and there (and we do find minor inconsistencies), we don’t need to be unsettled—we’re only claiming inerrancy for the original documents.

Coptic ManuscriptNow, I just mentioned two scary things: (1) we don’t have any of the original manuscripts, and (2) our copies contain minor errors. Don’t be afraid. In reality, the diversity of the manuscripts we have actually strengthens the reliability of Scripture. Early on, the books of the New Testament were copied, translated, and spread across the known world. So if someone was going to tamper with the words of Scripture, they had a narrow time frame in which to do it. The reality is that we have many manuscripts in a handful of languages. So there are “families” of Greek manuscripts that are very similar to one another. There are also “families” of Coptic manuscripts that are very similar to one another, etc.

Let’s put this into perspective. We have somewhere north of 20,000 manuscripts of the New Testament in museums and collections around the world. That’s a lot. And if that doesn’t sound impressive to you, consider that many of other works we have from the ancient world are considered reliable even though they are based on no more than a few manuscripts.

And here’s the impressive thing. These diverse manuscripts agree with each other more than 99% of the time. So the Bible spread around the world, was translated into a handful of languages, and was copied like crazy. And all of these copies agree with one another almost completely. That less than 1% disagreement is not scary in number or in content. It is significant that we know exactly where these discrepancies are located. You can see them as you’re reading your Bible. Most English translations mark these with footnotes that indicate “Some manuscripts read “_____.” Pay attention to these while you read, and you’ll find that they are rare and that none of them are very significant.

Dead Sea Scroll IsaiahWe’ll talk about the Old Testament a bit in Part 4, but it’s worth pointing out the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls were discovered in 1948 in caves near the Dead Sea. They contained a lot of things, but significantly, archaeologists found several copies of the Old Testament. Prior to their discovery, the oldest manuscript of the Old Testament that we had was dated around 1000 AD. The Dead Sea Scrolls, however, were dated around 200 BC. This means that they were written, sealed up, and hiding in the darkness long before Jesus and his followers were born, just waiting to be discovered in the 20th century. In many cases, these Old Testament scrolls match our Bibles very closely. In some cases, the scrolls differ. What this means (and this was not news to scholars) is that a handful of textual traditions were in circulation even at that early date. In any case, this finding confirms that our Old Testament has not been reworked wholesale since the time of Christ. (For more on the reliability of the Old Testament, stick around for Part 4).

So we can be confident that the Bible we have matches the Bible that the inspired authors wrote. But does that matter? If the original manuscripts contain errors, then we can’t trust our Bibles. I’ll address that possibility tomorrow.


I ended my last post with the bold assertion that Calvin got Paul’s understanding of salvation right. The claim is somewhat ridiculous; no single interpreter has captured the full contours of Paul’s (or any other biblical writer’s) theology. So let me explain what I mean.

After studying Paul’s’ understanding of salvation and comparing his view with that of the Essenes (as reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls), it seems rather clear to me that Paul emphasized the priority of God’s agency more consistently and thoroughly than any other ancient writings of his day. And inasmuch as John Calvin emphasized this too, I think he was correct.

Let me be more specific. In the first century, Jewish people knew the nation of Israel still stood under the curse of the covenant for (continually) breaking the law (Deut 28; Lev 26). The covenant that God made with the nation on Sinai, in other words, ended in failure (see Jer 11), and Jewish people living in the days of Jesus knew it. “So how do we fix it?” they wondered. “How do we get right with God?” For most Jews, they would say that we “repent and return to the law.” After all, isn’t this exactly what Deuteronomy says (Deut 4:29-31; 30:1-10)?

Well, yes it does, but Deuteronomy (and the Prophets) also says that people have hard hearts (Deut 29:4) and simply can’t return to God under their own power. No matter how loud the prophets preached, no matter how many curses God rained down, people simply cannot repent and turn to God. “If a leopard can change its spots,” says Jeremiah, “then you too can do who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer 13:23). Or in the words of Paul, “there is no one who seeks after God, no, not even one” (Rom 3:10-12). We are all dead as a doornail and cannot turn to God unless God first turns to us and declares us to be righteous even though we are wicked (Rom 4:4-5; 5:8-11). God must create faith in us and must cause us to obey if we are going to be in a right relationship with Him.

“Wait a minute,” you might say. “Cause us to obey? That’s taking things a little too far.”

But this is exactly what Ezekiel promised and what Paul believes took place through Calvary and Pentecost. God caused you to believe, repent, and then obey. Deep into the Old Testament, Ezekiel promised that God would “put His Spirit within you and cause you to walk in His commandments” (36:27). And for the few of you who care, the Hebrew word asah is in the hifil, which emphasizes causation. In fact, such radical emphasis on divine agency floods Ezekiel’s entire prophecy in chapters 36-37 and becomes a vital Old Testament text for our New Testament understanding of salvation. For instance, Jesus, Paul, and others often talk about the “Spirit that gives life,” or the “Spirit of life” (Rom 8:1-11; 2 Cor 3:3-6; John 6:63), and when they do, they are thinking of Ezekiel’s radical emphasis on divine agency being fulfilled in their midst. Not only did Ezekiel promise that the Spirit would cause God’s people to obey, but in Ezekiel 37 he promised that the same Spirit would breathe life into dead bones that were very dry. This “dry bones vision” becomes a paradigm, in the NT, for how God saves people. He unilaterally (i.e., by Himself) breathes life into them.

Leopards don’t change their spots, dead bones can’t manufacture life, and you didn’t turn to God. God turned to you.

All that to say, Paul emphasized the priority of divine agency in salvation. Since we are utterly depraved and incapable of turning to God, God must take the initiative to unilaterally infuse us with faith, obedience, and Spirit-generated life.

Now, you Calvinists may wonder what all the hub-bub is about. Nothing I’ve said is all that original, nor is it much different than what you can learn from any Systematic theology class (at some schools, anyway). But what I have discovered from studying the Dead Sea Scrolls is that Paul’s decided emphasis on divine agency in salvation was unparalleled in first century Judaism. Interestingly, even the Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, did not underscore God’s agency in salvation as comprehensively and intricately as Paul. And—this is important—of all the Jews in the first century, the Essenes were the so-called “hyper Calvinists” of the ancient world. According to Josephus, they believed that God controls everything, and yet according to their own writings, even they don’t emphasize God’s work in salvation to the same degree as Paul.

So, writing academic books can be water to the soul, believe it or not. Because when I woke up this morning, I wasn’t the best father, I was inadequate as a husband, and I fell far short of being a “good Christian.” But God still loves me just the same, because His love is dictated not by what I do but by what Christ has done. And this unconditioned, unilateral, one-way love that we call “grace” is not just a Christianeze buzz word, but the controlling and life-sustaining power that transforms us from offensive enemies to real ingredients of divine joy.

In the last post, I mentioned that I’m finishing up a book titled Paul and Judaism Revisited, which compares Paul’s understanding of salvation with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

So I thought I’d back up a bit and give a layperson’s overview to two things: (1) what are the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) and (2) what was my conclusion about salvation in Paul and the Scrolls. We’ll cover the first one in this post and then talk about Paul in the next post.

In 1948, tons of ancient manuscripts were discovered in 11 different caves near the Dead Sea in Israel—a find that was quickly labeled the most significant archaeological discovery in history. Over 900 different scrolls were found, some were very fragmentary (like the size of a stamp), while others were large scrolls preserved with little decay. Among them we found tons of copies of the Old Testament, and also many other religious writings produced by the members of the Jewish sect (probably Essenes) that lived around the time of Jesus. This community of Jews believed that they were the remnant of Israel and settled in a small monastic-type community at a place called Qumran near the Dead Sea.

Journalistic activity buzzed like a swatted beehive in the wake of the discovery, so most people have heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Unfortunately, the popularity has lead to many misconceptions about them. So here’s a couple correctives; the first one is quick, while the other is more complicated.

First, the DSS did not contain any portions of the New Testament, nor do they interact with Christianity. Jesus is not mentioned among them, and neither is Paul, John the Baptist, or any other early Christian leader. I say this because some people have argued that the DSS contain references to Jesus, John the Baptist and others (e.g. Barbara Thiering, Robert Eiseman), but these theories have not been taken seriously by other scholars. So if you hear one of your unbelieving friends argue that the DSS have disproved Christianity, you don’t have to worry for a second. Just smile and ask for proof. You won’t get any.

Second, the biblical scrolls discovered in the loot do not necessarily prove that the Old Testament was translated with uniform accuracy down through the ages. Let me explain. Until the scrolls were discovered, our earliest Hebrew manuscript dated back to around 1000 AD. That’s more than 1,500 years after  the Old Testament was written (the last few books, anyway). Naturally, critics of the Bible have argued that surely such a distance between the original writings and our earliest copy of those manuscripts has allowed tons of discrepancies (changes, alterations, copy errors, etc.) to creep into the current (namely, 1000 AD) version of our Old Testament. But the discovery of the Scrolls, which contains portions of the Old Testament dating back to 200 B.C., correlates with near uniformity to our 1000 AD manuscript, thus confirming—so the argument goes—the accuracy of preservation.

Is this true? Did the DSS confirm that the Old Testament that we read from (which is a translation of the 1000 AD manuscript) matches up with the original writings of the OT?

Yes and no. It is true that some of the biblical scrolls line up with remarkable closeness to our 1,000 year old OT, but other DSS do not. The scroll of Isaiah, for instance, found at Qumran is very close to our 1000 AD copy of Isaiah, scrolls of Jeremiah and Samuel were revealed quite a few differences (some minor, a few major). The biblical scrolls discovered by the Dead Sea really just confirmed what scholars had already known, that there were different “textual traditions” (versions of the OT) in and around the first century. And we can see clear evidence of different versions of the OT among the Scrolls.


I know this may be getting a little technical, and a bit off track, but hang in there, it’s important to know.


Even the New Testament confirms that the OT that we read and the OT that the NT writers read has some minor differences. This demonstrates, again, that there were different versions of OT in existence in the first century (similar to our different translations today). Have you ever compared, say, New Testament quotations of the Old with the original context and seen some differences? If not, check out Acts 15:16-17 and then look at Amos 9:11-12, the passages that James (in Acts 15) is quoting from. It’s slightly divergent. This is because the version of the OT that James is quoting from is comparable to, but not exactly the same as, the Hebrew manuscript (the one from 1000 AD) that forms the basis of our English translation.

I’m not sure if this is old news, new news, or faith-shaking news for our readers, so let me close with a few practical points. First, since it’s the original writings of the OT (and NT) that are inspired and inerrant, we should not expect the copies of those writings to be totally uniform. They’re not. And this doesn’t affect our view of inspiration or inerrancy, since Evangelicals never (or shouldn’t) claim that the copies of the original writings are without error. Second, none of the divergences among manuscripts change any major doctrine in the Bible. The way of salvation, existence (or non-existence) of other gods, the person and character of Jesus all remain the same, even though there are differences in the manuscripts. Third, praise God for the scholars two devote tens of thousands of quiet hours translating, comparing, and analyzing all the different copies of our Old and New Testaments. Because we need them to sort out all the mess that is needed in order to produce our English translation (or whatever language you’re reading from). As I’ve said in some previous posts, I really think that the anti-intellectual wing in the Evangelical Church (which runs rampant on the West Coast where I live) bites the hand that feeds it when they want to read their English translations, preach the gospel, and look down on those who pursue Christian academics.

Now, I’ll be the first one to say that there needs to be a serious renovation in the way Christians pursue scholarship. Staring deep into the Scriptures should only magnify your passion for Jesus, fuel your worship, and ignite a greater love for the people around you. But sometimes this isn’t the case; there’s a bit of truth to the dictum that Seminary can easily become Cemetery for the soul. But this doesn’t mean that the inherent problem is too much study. I don’t think that the most effective way to know God more is to study His word less. You don’t need to be a scholar, but you do need scholars. You wouldn’t be reading the Bible or (probably) know Jesus had not God raised up a few men and women to study Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Ugaritic, Akkadian, and other ancient languages to hand you your English translation of the Bible. Others have done the tedious work of studying the culture, history, and background of the Bible to help our pastors and teachers understand the Bible and therefore teach it more effectively.

All in all, we are a body. The church of God is a community of believers, with many different gifts and callings. And we need each other. Scholars and evangelists should join arms and constantly thank each other for the unique way in which God has wired them.

Next up, Paul’s understanding of salvation—and why I think Calvin got it right. Stay tuned!


Preston Sprinkle —  March 5, 2012 — 4 Comments

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from blogging, but I wanted to let you all know that I’m still alive and am back to blogging. I took a break because I’ve been trying to finish a book I’ve been working on for the last few years (since 2008 to be exact) and I should submit the manuscript to the publisher sometime next week, Lord willing.

Anyway, I thought I’d let you know a bit about the book and ask you to pray for me (and for the book) as I get ready to send it away. It’s tentatively titled Paul and Judaism Revisited (no subtitle yet) and will be published by InterVarsity Press sometime in 2013 (it takes awhile for the word.doc to transform into a book). In it, I examine Paul’s understanding of salvation and compare it with the way the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls understand salvation (They were probably written by the Jewish sect known as the Essenes.) I examine several soteriological motifs, such as the curse of the law, the eschatological spirit, anthropological pessimism, and judgment according to works.

Did I lose anyone?

If I did, don’t feel bad. The book is very technical and academic; it’s loaded with tons of footnotes, Greek and Hebrew words, and references to passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls. So those of you who are on the edge of your seat waiting to find out what 4Q504 frags. 1-2 iv 10-11 and 1QHa 5:19-20 say about salvation, then you’ll be very pleased to see a thorough discussion in chapter 5 of my book.

Ok, so I’m pretty sure I lost the rest of you!

So why would I spend so many hours wasting my time on such nonsense? Believe me, there were times when I asked myself this same question! But, I do believe that there is value in writing technical books on the Bible, even if most people are not called to this. Here are three reasons why:

First, ideas matter. None of you are the way you are simply because you read the Bible by yourself and chose to follow Jesus. Every single one of you have been hugely conditioned by the philosophical treatises of Francis Bacon, the economics of Adam Smith, the psychology of Sigmund Freud, and, of course, the revolutionizing political and social theories of G.W.F. Hegel. Some of you are influenced by way of agreement, others by disagreement, but none of you are untouched by their thought (probably mediated through the teaching and cultural productions of many other people) in one way or another—even though you may not know who these people are.

Ideas matter and they usually trickle down from the ivory down and end up governing the way people think about life. So I think it’s important—essential, actually—that we have at least a few Evangelical Christians peeking into the ivory tower to see what’s going on; perhaps a few others actually living there.

Second, thinking and writing on a scholarly level has shaped the way I teach, counsel, preach, disciple, and even make mundane decisions about raising kids. In other words, the very act of thinking critically with a high level of precision (e.g., I’ve spent several hours hovering over and honing individual paragraphs in the book) trains the brain to think precisely and clearly about all areas of life. So it doesn’t really matter what the subject matter is—the Dead Sea Scrolls or Botany—devoting at least some time in your week to chewing on an issue, resolving a problem, or studying a piece of literature (like 1QpHab), produces many different unforeseen practical benefits.

Third, I believe that the Bible is the breathed-out word of God. I believe it’s powerful, infallible, inerrant, and life changing. In order to unleash it’s power, though, it must be interpreted—and interpreted accurately. And to interpret it accurately, we need to pay close attention to the language, context, and—here we go!—the historical situation in which it was written. But if an accurate understanding of history shapes a more accurate understanding of the breathed-out words of the Creator God—whose words are powerful enough to create a universe filled with 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars—thereby mediating the power of God’s word to God’s people, then studying, say, Paul and the Dead Sea Scrolls may not change the world, but it does (or could) contribute a small piece of clarity to what the Bible says about God, Jesus, the Spirit, and our salvation.

Not every Christian needs to do this. In fact, most probably don’t. But the church of God needs at least some Evangelicals who do.

So this is where prayer comes in. Very few people will read my book, but please pray (this is a genuine request). Pray that what I say in it will be historically accurate and biblically truthful. Pray that the ideas promoted in the book will trickle down into the pew so that the average Joe or Joann will live a more fervent and faithful life that magnifies Jesus through a better understanding of God’s historically rooted word.