Secrets of the Scrolls
SPU Professor Says Dead Sea Manuscripts Shed New Light on Judaism, Christianity, and the Scriptures
IN EARLY 1947, as the United Nations debated the partition of Palestine, three young
Bedouin cousins were tending their goats in the Judean Desert near the
Dead Sea. The youngest, Muhammad Ahmed el-Hamed, noticed a hole
leading into a cave in the rocky hillside above the ancient Jewish sectarian
settlement of Qumran. Throwing a stone through the hole, he was surprised
to hear the sound of shattering pottery. He told his cousins, and
the three imagined they had come upon a golden treasure.
This is the entrance to a cave in the hills above the ancient settlement of Qumran, Israel, home of the Jewish scribes responsible for recording the 24 Dead Sea Scrolls.
But when el-Hamed snuck back the next morning to explore, he found
not gold, but earthen jars containing seven scrolls. Little did the young
goatherd know the surpassing value of the
find — arguably the greatest archaeological
discovery of all time.
In the end, more than 50,000 fragments
of some 900 manuscripts were discovered
in 11 caves, where members of the Qumran
community, fleeing a Roman invasion, had
hidden them nearly 2,000 years earlier. The manuscripts date from about 250 BCE
(BC) to about 70 CE (AD). Approximately
one-quarter are biblical, comprising fragments
of every book in the Hebrew Bible
(what Christians call the Old Testament)
except Esther, I Chronicles, and Nehemiah. The rest are religious
texts: apocryphal writings, biblical commentaries, legal and liturgical
manuscripts, and hymnals and prayer books.
Ten of the scrolls — including four never before been seen by the
public — are on exhibit at the Pacific Science Center (PSC) in Seattle
until January 7, 2007. Among those advising the PSC in its preparations
for the exhibit was Seattle Pacific University Professor of New Testament
John Levison, author of The Spirit in First-Century Judaism.
Levison moderated a panel of international Dead Sea Scrolls scholars
for a standing-room-only audience at SPU on October 12, 2006, and
spoke at a private dessert and tour of the PSC exhibit for Seattle Pacific
Fellows and friends on November 3. He will also be the featured speaker
December 6 at Seattle’s Town Hall as part of the PSC’s Distinguished
Lecture Series. In the following interview, Levison talks about the scrolls
and their significance in illuminating our interpretation of Scripture, as
well as our understanding of first-century Judaism and early Christianity.
Q: What would you say is the greatest significance of the
discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls?
A: In terms of the Hebrew Bible, or what is commonly called
the Old Testament, the greatest significance is this: Prior to
1947, our oldest text — the Masoretic Text (which takes its
name from Hebrew scribes called Masoretes) — was from
about the year 925 CE. All of our translations of the Old Testament
were based on the Masoretic Text. Then, overnight, we
discovered manuscripts dating from a thousand years earlier.
That is amazing.
Q: You use the notations “BCE” (Before the Common Era)
and “CE” (Common Era) instead of “BC” and “AD.” Why?
A: Chronologically, dates are equivalent in both systems. For
the most part, BCE and CE have become the standard for anybody
who does scholarly work involving ancient history. It’s
really a matter of sensitivity. As a Christian scholar, I use BCE
and CE because I wouldn’t expect my Jewish colleagues to continue
to use notations meaning “in the year of the Lord” [AD]
and “before Christ” [BC] when a religiously neutral notation
Q: Since they were discovered in 1947, what has been the
focus of Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship?
A: There have been several areas of focus. Key, of course, is simply
piecing together thousands and thousands of fragments into
comprehensible texts. This is exhausting and painstaking work.
Most of the scrolls from Cave 1 (the first one discovered) were in
good shape, and scholars immediately saw their value for understanding
early Christianity. Other scholars have focused on what
the scrolls tell us about the history of the text of the Hebrew
Bible. Still others have simply tried to piece together this strange
and mysterious community of Qumran — their beliefs and
practices, and to set them in the context of early Judaism. Finally,
the last 15 years have seen, under the leadership of Emanuel Tov,
the production of the excellent published series, Discoveries in the
Q: What prompted your own involvement in Dead Sea
A: I came about my interest in the scrolls by a more general
interest in what’s called “Second Temple Judaism,” or Judaism in
the Greco-Roman era. For instance, the scrolls play a major role
in my research about the Holy Spirit in early Judaism because
we know from a scroll called The Community Rule that the
Qumran community claimed you had to be purified by the Holy
Spirit. In fact, there’s a high concentration of “Spirit” language in
the Dead Sea Scrolls. My interest has been in how the Jewish
world in the Greco-Roman era understood the Holy Spirit, and
then how that relates to the way the early Christians viewed the
work of the Holy Spirit. So I came from a broader topic to a
more narrow focus on the scrolls.
Q: Is there any tension among Jewish, Christian, and other
scrolls scholars in terms of bringing personal religious
biases to the work?
A: No. Many of the scholars who work on the scrolls are
Christians, such as John Collins [Yale Divinity School], Jim
VanderKam [University of Notre Dame], and Marty Abegg
and Peter Flint [Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C.].
Emanuel Tov is an Israeli scholar. Scrolls scholars come from all
different kinds of national and religious backgrounds, and focus
on a wide variety of research questions. But as a rule they don’t
define themselves in categories. If they’re doing their job well —
as real historians — they don’t conflict; they dovetail.
Q: What implications does the discovery of such early
manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible have for our
understanding of the Old Testament today?
A: Many interesting questions are raised by this discovery. I
think one of the most important has to do with the canonization
process. Perhaps the best illustration is the issue of Psalm 151.
Prior to the discovery of the scrolls, we knew there was a
Psalm 151 in the Septuagint, which is the earliest Greek translation
of the Hebrew Bible, begun in the third century BCE. But
the Hebrew Masoretic Text — dated 1,000 years later — had
only 150 psalms. Scholars and biblical translators could not
account for the extra psalm, and they tended to give preference
to the Masoretic Text in principle, so they did not as a rule
include Psalm 151 in the canon.
Then, in 1947, we discover that a Hebrew Psalms scroll
includes Psalm 151 in a manuscript a thousand years older than
the Masoretic Text. It was easy to dismiss Psalm 151 as not
being a part of the canon when there was no earlier Hebrew
equivalent. You could say that somewhere along the line it got
added; let it go. But what happens now is that we have Psalm
151 both in Greek and in a similar pre-70 CE Hebrew form.
We know that the Bible used by the early Christians included it.
So do you open the canon and say, “This was in the Bible of the
early church, so it should be included”? Or do you say, “No, the
canon is sealed.” Is canon a process that can be revised? Or is the
door closed, like a treaty? It’s a big question.
Q: Are there substantial differences between the text of
the Hebrew Bible manuscripts found at Qumran
and the Masoretic Text?
A: Yes … and no. On the one hand, they show a stability in the
text. We see how faithful the Masoretic tradition was, that it
could preserve a lengthy ancient text for over a thousand years.
On the other hand, there are some key differences. An extra
psalm. Slightly different wording. Most important is the occasional
variation that clarifies something that was puzzling in the
Masoretic Text. A good example is Isaiah 53:11. The translation
of the Masoretic Text reads: “Out of the suffering of his soul, he
will see and be satisfied.” He will see what? The word “see” has no
object. But in the Isaiah scrolls found at Qumran, we find that verse 11 contains the missing object: “Out of the suffering of his
soul, he will see light.” And guess what? The Septuagint also has
the missing word.
Q: What kinds of things do the scrolls tell us about first century
Jews and Judaism?
A: Some scholars have suggested that we should not say “Judaism”
but “Judaisms.” That sums up part of the contribution of the
scrolls; we see in them still another form of early Judaism. The
scrolls, for instance, provide keen evidence that some Jews were
highly apocalyptic. They expected earnestly and excitedly the
end of the age. This segment of Judaism, in turn, helps us to
understand John the Baptist’s apocalyptic edge. Remember how
he said, “The ax is laid to the root of the tree”? It also helps us to
appreciate the apocalyptic language of Jesus, himself a Jew. And
it helps us to understand Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthians
not to change their physical or social circumstances; in his
early days, he clearly expected the end of the world in his lifetime.
And I have not even mentioned the scrolls’ importance for
illuminating Revelation, itself an “apocalypse.”
Q: You say that scrolls research helps us to understand early
Christianity as well. If the content of the scrolls is primarily
pre-Christian and doesn’t include the New Testament, how does
it help shed light on the early followers of Jesus?
A: The scrolls are illuminating for early Christianity as part of
early Judaism. The early church did not see itself as Christian as
opposed to Jewish; they understood themselves as a Jewish movement
within Judaism. I have already talked about how a Jewish
apocalyptic view aids our understanding of John the Baptist,
Jesus, Paul, and Revelation. There are countless other ways the
material in the Qumran scrolls sheds light on early Christians
and indeed the New Testament; some of the best examples are
perhaps in the first eight chapters of Acts. There we see that the
early Christians enjoy a common meal; this was also a key feature
at Qumran. They share their financial resources; this was an
essential dimension of life at Qumran. They have clear lines of
apostolic authority; there are clear lines of authority (though not
apostolic, of course) at Qumran. The followers of Jesus first
receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; the community of Qumran
celebrated its annual covenant renewal on Pentecost. The correspondences
are actually stunning … as are the differences. But
there is much to be gleaned about the life of early Christians from
Q: Do you think that either Jesus or John the Baptist ever
visited the Qumran community in its later days?
A: John the Baptist may have. Here’s a guy who is baptizing
7 miles north of this community. He’s dressed in camel’s hair
and eats locust and wild honey. It wouldn’t surprise me that he
associated with this separatist community. The Qumran Community
Rule says about purification, “And if your heart is not
pure, then the water will not wash you.” Boy, does that sound
like John the Baptist when he sees the Pharisees and Sadducees
coming to be baptized. “You snakes,” he says, “who warned you to
flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping
with repentance.” John the Baptist would have fit in very well
with the Qumran way of life — though they would have had
some differences of opinion, not least that John believed Jesus
was the awaited Messiah.
Jesus is less likely to have visited Qumran because his lifestyle
was so different from theirs. He was accused of hanging
with prostitutes, sinners, and the abettors of Rome — tax collectors.
No room for them in the enclave by the Dead Sea!
Q: Do you think the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls has
A: It has been said that the scrolls unlock everything, or that
they don’t give us anything, or that they uncover a world of mystery
that Christians have suppressed (á la The Da Vinci Code).
But they don’t do any of that. They’re a remarkable find. We have
an actual, isolated community that sequestered itself, kept hundreds
of scrolls, copied them, and preserved them in such a way
that 2,000 years later they are illuminating our understanding of
the Scriptures, first-century Judaism, and early Christianity. In
that sense, it would be difficult to overstate their importance.
KATHy HENNING (firstname.lastname@example.org)
— photo by Richard T. Nowitz / CORBIS
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