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Autumn 2006 | Volume 29, Number 4 | Features

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?
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 was available.

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 Judean Desert.

Q: What prompted your own involvement in Dead Sea Scrolls research?
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?
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?
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 the scrolls.

Q: Do you think that either Jesus or John the Baptist ever visited the Qumran community in its later days?
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 been overemphasized?
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.


—INtroduction by KATHy HENNING (
— photo by Richard T. Nowitz / CORBIS

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