The Masoretic Text and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Should the original Hebrew Bible text be modified based on information obtained from the Dead Sea Scrolls?

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2011.—Ed.

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 a thousand years older than our earliest complete edition of the Masoretic Text. Photo: Hershel Shanks.

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 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.

Interested in the history and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls? In the free eBook Dead Sea Scrolls, learn what the Dead Sea Scrolls are and why are they important. Find out what they tell us about the Bible, Christianity and Judaism.

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.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been called the greatest manuscript find of all time. Visit the BAS Dead Sea Scrolls Page for dozens of articles on the scrolls’ significance, discovery and scholarship.

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, founder and president emeritus 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!

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on July 20, 2011.


Posted in Bible Versions and Translations, Dead Sea Scrolls, Hebrew Bible.

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  • shel says

    The Masoretic Bible was compiled in the early Middle Ages. There are many variations between that Bible and the segments of the Bible that are part of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Samarian and Greek translations Bible are older than the Masoretic Bible! There are numerous variations from those Bibles as well. We do not have an original Bible!!!!

  • Lois says

    People who insist that Dead Sea Scrolls use the name “Jehovah” are all Jehovah witnesses. They quote from

    • Will says

      Incorrect. The oldest complete spelling we have of the name of the Creator is Close to what the witnesses say. I am a Jew and this same name matches that found in the allepo codex

  • Shebon says

    This is what the description of the link says, “Do insights from the Dead Sea Scrolls add to the Masoretic text, and if so, … Inside Qumran Cave four, where 15,000 Dead Sea Scroll fragments from more than …. So far, no other manuscript can take over the lxx as the oldest …” I DON’T SEE THIS IN THE ARTICLE. What gives?

  • Felipe says

    This article describes “there are differences (some quite significant) between the scrolls and the Masoretic text.”, but never cites at least what one of these differences are. The author casts doubt over the current significance of the Masoretic text, yet confuses the reader by concluding that the Dead Sea scrolls “have demonstrated the relative stability of the Masoretic text”.

  • ilan says

    Lets keep in mind that their is a variant in Deut that claim Mount Gerizim as the holy mountain chosen by God. This sounds more logical that they were told God would choose the place and then it took a few hundred years till David captured Jerusalem and so it was decided that was the place God chose.

    The Samaritans may be right on this one. The plains of Samaria are more the Israelite Plymouth rock when they crossed the Jordan then a mountaintop fortress.
    All other attestations to Jerusalem Oh Jerusalem, could merely be the Southern version of events

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