Last night my son Arthur, who is a theology student at California Baptist University, and I had the wonderful privilege of attending the Religious Leaders Reception and Exhibition Viewing of the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition that is opening today, June 29, at the San Diego Museum of Natural History. This exhibition is actually two exhibits, one now through September and the other from October through December. Each of these two exhibits will feature different scrolls found in the caves near Qumran.
The museum is to be greatly commended for this ambitious project of bringing these historical treasures to our area. What an impressive exhibition it is. The building is lovely, the presentation exquisite and even the museum store has been beautifully enhanced to offer mementos of the occasion. All of us in the West owe a hearty thanks to Dr. Michael Hager and his staff for their tireless efforts in making the exhibit a reality.
Included in the exhibit is a Virtual Tour of the Qumran community by Robert Cargill of UCLA. His use of the water system of the site is a fascinating vehicle by which the observer is literally floated on a journey through the day-to-day life of this interesting community. Along with the Virtual Tour and some of the actual scrolls found in the caves near Qumran is a stunning photographic exhibit of that part of the globe. Whether one is a student of the Old Testament or not this exhibit, from an historical standpoint, is certainly on a par with the treasures of Tutankhamun.
While wandering through the exhibit and also perusing the list of distinguished lecturers who will make presentations during its stay through December of this year, I must confess one regret. Obviously, the exhibit is the result of cooperation from many different entities both religious and secular. This is the only way it could be. However, as an evangelical pastor I couldn’t help wishing there were something to help the committed Christian to understand the enormous significance of these scrolls in relation to our Bibles today. With that in mind I want to try and answer that need in my own simple way for those of you who are planning to visit the exhibition.
WHAT ARE THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS?
Before we answer the question of the importance of the scrolls to Biblical Christians today, we must first know what they are. These scrolls were found in clay pots hidden in 11 caves near the Qumran community at the northwestern edge of the Dead Sea between 1947 and 1956. There were a total of over 900 separate documents pieced together from thousands of fragments found in these caves. The scrolls themselves are dated over a period from about 250 B.C. to around 68 A.D. The origin of these documents is the subject of much debate but most recent scholarship leads to three possible conclusions: they were copied at Qumran by the residents there or they were brought there from Jerusalem or, perhaps most likely, some combination of both.
SETTING THE SCENE
Let’s pretend. Pretend you write a book. In writing this book your original is a handwritten document, not printed from a professional printing company or even your computer. And let’s pretend the only way for others to get a copy of your book is for you or someone else to hand copy your book line for line, word for word, letter for letter. Back and forth from page to page, turning the head, attempting to keep a mark in the proper place, not inadvertently skipping a line—what an enormous task.
Now suppose that job of copying is done by many copyists over many years so that a thousand years from now the only copy available is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy (you get the point) done by many different copyists over hundreds of years. What is the likelihood that the copy you have will be even remotely close to the original. What could one logically expect the accuracy to be?
AN ACTUAL DOCUMENT
We could turn to one particular writing from ancient history, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, for an example of what this laborious copying process might produce. We have two different papyri available in regard to this writing dated about 1,000 years apart.
“Quite startling differences appear, for example, between chapter 15 contained in the Papyrus of Ani (written in the Eighteenth Dynasty [roughly around the time of Moses]) and the Turin Papyrus (from the Twenty-sixth Dynasty or later [toward the end of the Old Testament]). Whole clauses are inserted or left out, and the sense in corresponding columns of text is in some cases altogether different.” (Gleason Archer quoted in New Evidence…, McDowell, 70).
Not too surprisingly one would suspect the very kinds of errors found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead in any document hand-copied over that amount of time. Imagine how different your book would be under the same conditions. Imagine again that the same types of errors might be expected to be found in the texts of the Old Testament over the same period of copying time. Unless something or someone else acted to prevent the errors. As Professor Archer went on to say, “Apart from divine superintendence of the transmission of the Hebrew text, there is no particular reason why the same phenomenon of divergence and change would not appear between Hebrew manuscripts produced centuries apart.” (ibid.) Certainly, this would be the case were there no divine intervention.
THE WOW FACTOR OF THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS
Why are these scrolls so important to us as Biblical Christians? The simple answer is the manuscripts found in the caves near Qumran speak to the very heart of the issue of the reliability of the Biblical text. How certain can we be that the Old Testament we have today is the same Old Testament written by the original writers centuries ago?
Let’s take the best known example from the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is the scroll known to us as the Great Isaiah scroll found in Cave 1 in 1947. Sadly, this particular scroll is not included in the San Diego exhibition but another scroll of Isaiah is along with many other Biblical scrolls, especially some from the Psalms, Exodus and Deuteronomy. How similar is the Great Isaiah to the previous earliest manuscript of Isaiah? Were there significant changes, errors or omissions?
Again, we hear from Dr. Archer: “Even though the two copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran Cave 1 near the Dead Sea in 1947 were a thousand years earlier than the oldest dated manuscript previously known (A.D. 980), they proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling. They do not affect the message of revelation in the slightest.” (ibid.) As I said, “WOW!!!” One thousand years of hand-copying and the only variations amount to what we would think of as on the level of the dotting of i’s or crossing of t’s.
Do you see the enormity of that discovery in relation to the reliability of the text of the Bible which you hold in your hands today? This constitutes an enormous leap in authenticity. Surely there has been divine oversight of both the process of the copying and the preservation of the texts for us today. We can rest assured that we have an accurate Bible that is the same as the one God inspired the original writers to write.
Now imagine yourself standing and looking at an actual document that is over 2,000 years old with the words of one of the Psalms written on it:
“1 Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil upon the head, coming down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard, coming down upon the edge of his robes.
3 It is like the dew of Hermon, coming down upon the mountains of Zion; for there the Lord commanded the blessing—life forever.” (Psalm 133)
Well, there’s no need to imagine. You can see that very scroll with that very Psalm at the San Diego Museum of Natural History. I encourage you not to miss it!