The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Canon and Text of the Bible

by John Bergsma February 06, 2019 0 Comments


You can find the full Bible study from which this clip comes here >


So let’s start by talking about the text of scripture. What was the situation for Bible scholars prior to 1947? We all go down to the religious bookstore, we buy a copy of the Bible, it comes to us already translated into English. The books are already chosen, you know, we don’t go up to the counter at a religious bookstore and the clerk never asks us, “Okay, which books would you like in your Bible?” Would you like one with Tobit or not? Would you like one with Genesis, or not? What about Revelation, what do you think about Revelation?” Okay, They don’t compile for you a Bible, they never ask you.  If you’re Catholic, okay, this is yours. And if you’re a Protestant you go to Family Christian stores or whatever and they already have one, and you never make a decision about it, you never think about it, it’s already English, you know, all of this is cut and dry.

We don’t think about…“How was this translated? What are they looking at when they translate it into English? And how do they decide what books are there? Okay, well the whole translation issue is the issue of text and what books to include is canon, so we’re going to talk about both of those.

Okay, so again, before Qumran, before 1947, what did you have to deal with? Say you want to translate the Bible into English, what are you going to translate from? Well you have many things to choose from to translate.  These are, perhaps for Catholics, the three most important:

First of all, you have what’s called the Masoretic text. Okay, again, this is Bible scholars before 1947. What do they have to deal with? Masoretic text. What is the Masoretic text? Around the 900s (A.D.), there was a movement, or a community, of Jewish scribes who perfected the means of copying the Old Testament. They got everything down so pat that they had an exact letter count for every biblical book. They knew the exact middle letter of say, Genesis, okay? They had an exact word count. They had extensive treatises discussing small variations of words that you found in different manuscripts that were there, so very, very high level of skill at re-copying the scripture and all these word counts and letter counts, that was quality control.

Nowadays when you transmit a file, via computer, after your file gets transmitted, your computer does what they call a “check sum”; it adds up all the numbers in the file that you transmitted and it comes up with a sum. And that sum better be the same sum that the sending computer says there is. You know, “there’s 83,000 bytes in this file,” well the receiving computer says, “yeah that’s what I got” and the sending computer says, “yeah that’s what you oughta have”, and that’s to verify your file transmission, right?  Well these Masoretes were all doing all that by hand. They copy out the Old Testament and then they go through and they count the letters and they make sure it was all coming up to what it ought to be. Alright, so that’s the Masoretic text. That was perfected in the late 10th century A.D., and our oldest copies (extent means existing), our oldest copies of that Masoretic text, which would be just the Jewish canon (of the Old Testament), those are from the late 900’s. So you could work with those to translate.

You could also help yourself out by availing yourself of the Septuagint, which is abbreviated “LXX”, the Roman number for 70. The Septuagint is the old Greek translation of the Old Testament, translated in Egypt, beginning in the middle of the 3rd century B.C., which is around 250 B.C., and they continued translating for a long time. 250 B.C. was when the Pentateuch was probably translated and then the other books were probably translated later.

What are our oldest copies of this? Well, they come from the 1st century A.D. Many of you have seen that this Codex Sinaiticus has just been put online by the British library; we were talking about that over dinner last night with some of the sisters. Okay, Codex Sinaiticus is a 4th century hand-written copy of the entire Bible in Greek, both Old and New Testaments. It’s one of our oldest copies that we have. It’s a translation of the Hebrew in the Old Testament, but you can use it to help you when you’re trying to translate the bible in to English. Okay, and you also have the old trustworthy Vulgate. St. Jerome’s Latin translation, begun in the late 300’s and concluded in the early 400’s A.D. Jerome was translating directly from Hebrew into Latin, and he did a good job, and our oldest complete copy is from the 8th century A.D.  So that’s what you have to use before 1947. If you’re a bible scholar and somebody gives you a lot of money to do a new Bible translation, you go to these manuscripts.

What happens once the Dead Sea Scrolls are found? Well, now you’ve got large chunks of Hebrew texts from as early as the 2nd century B.C. So the original language moves you back by 1,200 years. Now, the Dead Sea Scrolls changed the view of the Septuagint (which was the Bible of the early Church). As you all probably know, until the Vulgate was translated, the common Bible used in churches, both east and west, in early Christianity was the Septuagint or the old Greek translation of the Old Testament. So the Septuagint was the bible of the early Church. Now, the Septuagint, this old Greek translation of the Old Testament portions, up until the discovery of the Qumran scrolls, the idea was that these Greek translators of the Old Testament were very, either careless, or they took a lot of liberties. Because frequently in the Old Testament, when you compare the Greek and the Hebrew, we’ll see that the Greek is different in wording, and sometimes a little longer, sometimes a little shorter.  While it’s not so significant as to affect dogma, the feeling was, “ah, you know, the Greek translators back in 250 B.C., they took a lot of liberties, they weren’t very good. And so, the early Church was kind of foolish to use this as a Bible; how silly of them.” Well the Apostles and the New Testament writers used it as scripture. So the differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew (like the Masoretic text) were used to disparage and discredit early Christianity.

What happened with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Well with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls we found Hebrew copies of books of the Old Testament that matched the Greek translation. And suddenly the light went on and folks realized, “Hey! Those guys in 250 B.C., they weren’t taking liberties, they had a different edition of the Hebrew in front of them and they were translating word for word. They were good translators, they were accurate, they were faithful, and it’s just that there really were variations in the different Hebrew editions of the bible that were out there.” So, suddenly, the Septuagint is viewed in a new light.  Suddenly they say, “Oh, you know what? This is a faithful, fairly accurate, translation of one of several slightly different editions of biblical books in ancient times. So now the Septuagint is viewed with greater respect by scholars who work on the text of the Old Testament. In general, the discoveries at Qumran confirmed the accuracy of transmission. There were not “huge, drastic differences” between the Qumran scrolls and, say, these copies of the Hebrew from the late 900’s. In that 1,200 years, not much had changed. These copies from the middle ages, if you set them right amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls , you’d be like, “Yea, it looks like all the rest of them.” The amount of little variation in wording is not much different than what you find in the Dead Sea Scrolls, so, the fact that nothing crazy  — like, “oh! There’s only 1 chapter of Isaiah! The other 65 were added during the middle ages” — nothing like that was found. The transmission was very accurate.

And this is interesting, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, they found the Aramaic (and indeed, one copy, in Hebrew) of the book of Tobit. The folks at Qumran were using Tobit, they had at least 5 manuscripts of Tobit. Apparently, they seemed to think that it was scripture — that’s what I would argue. And for a long time it was thought that Tobit was translated, but we didn’t know for sure because all the copies of Tobit that we had were in Greek. But here we find the Aramaic (Aramaic is the spoken language of the Jews after the exile, when they come back from Babylon? They came back speaking Aramaic. It’s very closely related to Hebrew. It uses the same character set and pretty similar vocabulary). But of course Tobit claims to be written after the exile, there, Tobit’s up in Nineveh and it was written in the language of the Jews that they employed after the exile. So that was very interesting.

Okay, let’s talk about the canon of scripture. We’ve got to do this really quick. A Protestant claim against Catholics is that the Jewish canon of today was the canon of Jesus. Especially prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this was the current claim. Protestants say, “Hey. All the Jews were agreed on these books of the Old Testament, the ones that you find in Protestant and Jewish bibles, and Catholics have added in these seven deuterocanonicals; contrary to tradition, contrary to common sense.” And the Protestant claim was, “We should use the canon of scripture, the list of inspired books, Jesus had, and Jesus had the same canon of scripture as all the Jews of his day because they were all agreed that this was the canon. What did the Qumran evidence show? Well the Qumran evidence showed that at least one, very devout, highly respected Jewish community had a bigger canon than what Jews today and what Protestants today use. The Qumranites almost certainly accepted Jubilees as canonical, 1st Enoch as canonical. They had many, many more copies of Jubilees and 1st Enoch than most of the books in the Bible. There are many more copies of Jubilees than there are of the twelve prophets, for example.

Tobit was very likely considered scriptural; they had five copies of that, which is more than, say, of Ezra, of 1st and 2nd Kings, of many other books that we know are canonical. Sirach is a little bit doubtful, they did have a couple of copies of that, and then they had these other documents like the Temple Scroll that nobody else used, but they probably thought were inspired. So, what does that all mean? What it means is that there’s no consensus on canon in Jesus’ day. It wasn’t like all the Jews were agreed. In fact, if you look closely, the Sadducees thought only the books of Moses were canonical, the Pharisees considered the prophets canonical as well and the Psalms, and then the Essenes (the Qumran group was part of the broader movement known as the Essenes), they had this larger canon. So, what books are inspired and what books aren’t? There was not a consensus among Jews.

What do you need then? What you need is an authoritative body to make a decision, an infallible body that you can count on to be guided by the Holy Spirit to make a decision. And guess what neither Jews nor Protestants have? Neither has an infallible body that can make a decision for the people of God that you know is true. The theology of Judaism and the theology of Protestantism does not allow for an infallible council or an infallible pope. But that’s what you need to be assured that your list of inspired books is true; because there’s not a consensus in the tradition. So that’s why I say “non-Catholics are in a theological pickle”, because traditional Jews and traditional Protestants insist that the Bible is infallible and it’s inspired, but they don’t have an infallible and inspired list of which books ought to be in the Bible. So if you think about that long enough, you see that kind of undermines the whole thing. In Catholicism, at least we have a consistent theology. We have an inspired and infallible Bible. How do we know that the books that we have in the Bible are the ones that ought to be there? Because we also have an infallible magisterium that we can trust is guided by the Holy Spirit, the general councils, the Pope (under the proper conditions), etc.

So Catholic theology concerning scripture is kind of at least internally consistent, if you’re following me. This is a very important point. It’s very important especially for apologetics or for talking with people about the faith. What is special about being Catholic? I’m a convert; I was a Protestant pastor for 4 years in Grand Rapids, two hours north of here. I came to Notre Dame as a Protestant, converted after 18 months at Notre Dame. What led me into the Church? It is things like this. It’s the fact that in the Catholic Church you have, at least, an internally consistent system. The system makes sense on its own terms. That’s important, alright? Okay, so that’s the canon of scripture.

John Bergsma
John Bergsma