In March 1947, two Bedouin shepherd boys were tending their goats in the hills northwest of the Dead Sea, near Jericho. One of the goats wandered into a cave. The boy was afraid to go into the cave, so he threw a rock in, presumably to help scare the goat out. He heard the cracking of pottery.
That aroused his interest, so he climbed into the cave. That day Muhammed ed Dhib discovered what is now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, a treasure trove of manuscripts.
He had no idea what he had discovered. He took the sheepskin manuscripts to a local dealer in Bethlehem, named Kando, who saw that they were documents. Eventually the manuscripts wound up in the hands of the Syrian archbishop of Jerusalem, Archbishop Samuel, who searched in vain for a buyer. An ad, placed in the classified section of the New York Times, read “For sale: ancient manuscripts, $250,000.”
What scrolls were found?
After Israel became a state in 1948, Archbishop Samuel sold the manuscripts to the State of Israel. At that time the collection included the following: a complete scroll of Isaiah, a second, partial scroll of Isaiah, The Habakkuk Commentary (including two chapters of Habakkuk), The Manual of Discipline (rules for members of the religious community who lived nearby), Thanksgiving Hymns (which sound a lot like the biblical Psalms), A Genesis Apocryphon (apocryphal accounts of some of the patriarchs) and Wars of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness (a cataclysmic battle that the people who copied the scrolls anticipated would probably happen in their lifetime).
Finally, at the end of January 1949, about two years after the scrolls were discovered, it was possible to locate the cave in which they had been stored (now called Cave 1) and to excavate it thoroughly. The cave yielded thousands of manuscript fragments, as well as fragments of jars and cloth that had wrapped the scrolls.
The discovery of the magnificent collection in Cave 1 raised the possibility of finding treasures in the other caves of the Qumran area. Both the Bedouins and archaeologists scoured a total of some 275 caves between 1949 and 1956. Of these, 40 yielded pottery and other objects, 26 of which contained pottery of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. In 11 caves there were manuscript finds like those of Cave 1.
How the scrolls bear on the Bible
In all, every book of the Old Testament, except Esther, was found among the manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. What have all the magnificent discoveries near the Dead Sea done for Old Testament studies? By comparing the manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls with the Old Testament, we can get a good understanding of the accuracy of our Bible.
The complete Isaiah manuscript from Qumran became available to the scholarly world at the time when the Revised Standard Version translation committee was preparing its new version. As the scholars compared the Book of Isaiah from Qumran with the Hebrew text that we call the Masoretic text (dated about 1,000 A.D), they decided to adopt only 13 variations from the Qumran manuscript.
Millar Burrows, an archaeologist and a member of the translation committee, said, “It is a matter for wonder that through something like a thousand years the text underwent so little alteration. Herein lies its chief importance, supporting the fidelity of the Masoretic tradition.”
In other words, your Bible was translated from the Masoretic text, the Hebrew text that dates about 1,000 A.D. And if you lay that Isaiah manuscript down beside the Dead Sea Scroll manuscript of Isaiah, you will find only 13 small differences, mostly miss spelled words.
Gleason Archer noted that the Isaiah manuscript from Cave 1 “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.”
Roland de Vaux has observed, “And so new material has been provided for textual criticism, but we must at once add that the differences only have a bearing on minor points. If certain restorations can now be proposed with more confidence, and some obscure passages become clear, the content of the Bible is not ‘changed.’”
Archer concludes, “Nothing in the new discoveries from the Qumran caves endangers the essential reliability and authority of our standard Hebrew Bible text.”
All the evidence attests to the fact that Jewish scribes of the early Christian centuries exercised the same care in copying the Old Testament that they did during and after the days of the Masoretes. There is at least 95 percent agreement between the various biblical texts found near the Dead Sea and the Old Testament we have had all along. Most of the variations are minor, and none of the doctrines have been put in jeopardy.
As I look at my Bible today, I am reminded that the Dead Sea Scrolls predate the manuscripts from which my Bible was translated by 1,000 years. That means the Dead Sea Scrolls allowed us to go back 1,000 years closer to the actual writing of the Old Testament. Yet they corroborate the text from which my Bible was translated.
Thus, the Bible that you hold in your hand is true, and you can trust it. The discovery of the Dead sea Scrolls helps us understand how incredibly accurate and trustworthy the Bible is.