The Masoretic Text and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Should the original Hebrew Bible text be modified based on new information obtained from the scrolls?

At last, almost all of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been transcribed, transliterated, translated and either published or nearly published. But as soon as this task is accomplished, scholars are faced with new challenges: Do insights from the scrolls add to the Masoretic text (known as the original Hebrew Bible text, or the Tanakh, which roughly corresponds to the Protestant Old Testament), and if so, should the original Hebrew Bible text be modified based this information? Scholars from both sides of the divide weigh in on this issue below (see links below).

The Masoretic Text and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Inside Qumran Cave four, where 15,000 Dead Sea Scroll fragments from more than 580 documents were found. Many of the Biblical fragments from Cave 4 preserve readings that deviate from the standard readings of the Masoretic Text. To scholars, these variants are uniquely valuable because of their antiquity: The Dead Sea Scrolls are 1,000 years older than our earliest complete edition of the Masoretic Text. Photo: Hershel Shanks

The Dead Sea Scrolls did not, as some early dreamers speculated, answer the age-old question: Where is the original Bible? Not, as it turns out, in the caves of Qumran. Nor do the scrolls include long lost books of the Bible. Furthermore, the scrolls did not utterly transform our image of the original Hebrew Bible text. Indeed, one of the most important contributions of the scrolls is that they have demonstrated the relative stability of the Masoretic text.

Nevertheless, there are differences (some quite significant) between the scrolls and the Masoretic text. Furthermore, these differences have made scholars rethink variant readings found in other ancient manuscripts. How should scholars treat these variants with relationship to the Masoretic text? Should they try to determine which readings are the most original and then incorporate them in a new critical edition of the Hebrew Bible? Or should they continue to use the Masoretic text as their base? Does a single version of the Hebrew Bible exist that is older than all others presently known, and if so, where is the original Bible? These questions are not merely academic; for any changes made to scholarly editions of the Masoretic text will have repercussions for decades of research and will affect all future Bible translations.

Per usual in the world of academics and research, there are scholars two sides to every argument. The case of using the Dead Sea Scrolls to modify the Masoretic text is no different. Ronald S. Hendel of the University of California, Berkeley, argues that scholars can reconstruct a more original Hebrew Bible text if they “Combine the Best from Each Tradition.” James A. Sanders, president of the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center in Claremont, California, responds by urging scholars to “Keep Each Tradition Separate.”

And as far as answering the question: Where is the original Bible (and whether such a thing even exists): We don’t know. But to all scholars and Biblical archaeologists we can offer this advice: Keep digging!

Posted in Bible Versions and Translations, Hebrew Bible.

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8 Responses

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  1. s says

    The Dead Sea Scrolls were found separate from the other manuscripts and they should remain separate. However they should be published and made available to anyone interested. If someone then wished to combine them that should also be a separate book.

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  4. Kurt says

    Excerpts from the Psalms in a Dead Sea Scroll dated to the first half of the first century C.E. The text is in the style of the Hebrew letters commonly used after the Babylonian exile, but the Tetragrammaton appears repeatedly in distinctive ancient Hebrew letters
    Why is the name missing from many Bible translations? The reasons vary. Some feel that Almighty God does not need a unique name to identify him. Others appear to have been influenced by the Jewish tradition of avoiding the use of the name, perhaps out of fear of desecrating it. Still others believe that since no one can be sure of the exact pronunciation of God’s name, it is better just to use a title, such as “Lord” or “God.” Such objections, however, lack merit for the following reasons:

    Those who argue that Almighty God does not need a unique name ignore evidence that early copies of his Word, including those preserved from before the time of Christ, contain God’s personal name. As noted above, God directed that his name be included in his Word some 7,000 times. Obviously, he wants us to know and use his name.
    Translators who remove the name out of deference to Jewish tradition fail to recognize a key fact. While some Jewish scribes refused to pronounce the name, they did not remove it from their copies of the Bible. Ancient scrolls found in Qumran, near the Dead Sea, contain the name in many places. Some Bible translators hint that the divine name appeared in the original text by substituting the title “LORD” in capital letters. But the question remains, Why have these translators felt free to substitute or remove God’s name from the Bible when they acknowledge that it is found in the Bible text thousands of times? Who do they believe gave them authority to make such a change? Only they can say.
    Those who say that the divine name should not be used because it is not known exactly how to pronounce it will nevertheless freely use the name Jesus. However, Jesus’ first-century disciples said his name quite differently from the way most Christians do today. To Jewish Christians, the name Jesus was probably pronounced Ye·shu′a‛. And the title “Christ” was Ma·shi′ach, or “Messiah.” Greek-speaking Christians called him I·e·sous′ Khri·stos′, and Latin-speaking Christians Ie′sus Chri′stus. Under inspiration, the Greek translation of his name was recorded in the Bible, showing that first-century Christians followed the sensible course of using the form of the name common in their language. Similarly, the New World Bible Translation Committee feels that it is reasonable to use the form “Jehovah,” even though that rendering is not exactly the way the divine name would have been pronounced in ancient Hebrew.
    http://www.jw.org/en/publications/bible/nwt/appendix-a/tetragrammaton-divine-name/

  5. Kurt says

    The Septuagint
    Greek-speaking Jews in the time of Jesus and his apostles made extensive use of the Greek Septuagint. This is a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. Not only is the Septuagint noteworthy because it was the first known attempt to translate the Holy Scriptures into another language but it is also impressive because of the size of the translation project. A group of translators started work on the Septuagint in the third century B.C.E., and the work was completed by others over a hundred years later.
    The early Christians were quick to make effective use of the Septuagint to prove that Jesus was the Christ, the promised Messiah. So effective were they that the Septuagint began to be viewed by some as a “Christian” translation. This led to its losing popularity among the Jews and resulted in several new translations being produced in Greek. One of those translations was produced by a Jewish proselyte named Aquila in the second century C.E. When describing this translation, one Bible scholar refers to a “quite unexpected feature.” Represented by ancient Hebrew characters, the divine name, Jehovah, appears throughout Aquila’s Greek translation.
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/2009814#h=28:369-28:516
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/2008327#h=0:0-55:0

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Mormon Dilemma 1 Answered « Mormon Apologetic Research Studies linked to this post on February 3, 2012

    [...] stability within the Masoretic Text as we have it today, there are minor and major variants the Dead Sea Scrolls have illuminated within the Masoretic Text. One such major change is that of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 where the Masoretes removed and deliberately [...]

  2. The Septuagint and the Original Old Testament? | Veracity linked to this post on July 4, 2013

    [...] Ah, here you see the reference to worship in Deuteronomy just as it is found in Psalm 97:7. So while this is not as close at the Septuagint reading (“gods” vs. “angels”), we are getting a lot closer, thanks to the discovery in the Qumran caves. Remember that the Dead Sea Scrolls contain some of the oldest known copies of the ancient Old Testament, in many cases going back perhaps a few hundred years before Christ.  Granted, the Dead Sea Scrolls agree with the Masoretic text most of the time, which is remarkable in and of itself.  But in a few cases, such as where the readings of Deuteronomy 32:43 do vary in ancient copies of the Hebrew text, it is not fair to say that the Septuagint translators were simply making things up as they were doing their work. Some scholars are even suggesting that perhaps the Septuagint translators were relying on Hebrew texts that predate what we currently have in the s…! [...]

  3. [INTP] If God is all powerful, why create the entire universe? - Page 15 linked to this post on October 24, 2013

    [...] Text – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Masoretic Text vs. Original Hebrew | The Orthodox Life The Masoretic Text and the Dead Sea Scrolls – Biblical Archaeology Society Reply With [...]


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