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.


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34 Responses

  1. Rick Galbraith says:

    There is an online Septuagint via Oxford or Cambridge university. I read an article concerning the age of the patriachs. I checked Septuagint re Genesis 11 and it adds over 700 years to biblical timeline, so Shem cannot be Melchizedek as some claim.

  2. Richard says:

    Not being a Hebrew scholar, I can only read the DSS translated into English. The English copy of the DSS that I have say in an introduction to The Tales of the Patriarch’s, the DSS community would sometimes rewrite the Bible to stress certain points to conform to their community. This may have only occurred with the non-canonical text, but then again, it may be in the “canonical” text also.

    For that reason I wholly agree with James A Sanders, “keep each tradition separate”.

  3. Shel Haas 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!!!!

  4. Lois Cha says:

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

  5. 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?

  6. 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”.

  7. Silverwolf 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

  8. Scott says:

    To Kurt, the NWT translation committee ( how many even had a degree in Biblical languages) decided on jehavoh as reasonable. By what authority?

  9. Virginia says:

    Regarding a couple of points claimed by yaakov.

    1. There doesn’t seem to be any valid reason to believe that the prohibition on written or oral use of Yhwh was established until a relatively late period. The two Ketef Hinnom amulets dated to approximately 600 BCE use the name in a formula very nearly matching Hebrew biblical blessing. All of the archaeological finds (which are very few) which include reference to this god use Yh or Yhwh or something very close — nothing at all like the rabbinical substitutions. In fact, according to authoritative jewish sources, prohibitions didn’t exist prior to the Talmud. Certainly there are thousands of times in the scripture that the name is specifically stated to be made *known* — not hidden or veiled or evaded.

    2. As for the translations, only cave 4 (which contained 40% of the finds) was delayed, and jews weren’t the only people who were aggravated by that. However, as to the original texts themselves, the evidence is substantial. Unlike documents from later times, there haven’t been any issues concerning forgeries, tampering, or alterations.

    My potential problems with “generally accepted” ideas about the scrolls are related to early dating, and the practice of deeming certain texts as “canon” and treating others — where they have survived — as basically invalid. The same is true of texts that ended up in the “Christian canon”. The picking and choosing has been used retroactively by authorities to support their ideas of what is correct. And since there are variations even in the earliest manuscripts available, it’s clear that neither the Jewish nor Christian texts were “fixed” until fairly late.

    The Dead Sea Scrolls are among some of the most valuable aids to help us sort through, analyze, and understand the development of belief which emerged and characterized three of the world’s most significant religions. I appreciate the general scholarly work BAS makes available. Thanks.

  10. yaakov says:

    Wikipedia the koine Greek new testament papyri.Look at papyri miracle healings or Jesus forgiving an Adulteress woman…Trinity and end of Mark not there either ..So why not focus on these later roman additions ?And leave our Torah and our people alone!

  11. yaakov says:

    One point that should be noted is the fact that these scrolls may be “shaimis” defective writings that contain HaShems name must be buried as per halakic law. So to put 100% reliance on them and ignore rabbi Asher and the sages knowledge and effort is not realistic.
    From 1949 until 1992 no Jews were allowed to view or study the scrolls. The chief Christian priest in charge said publically that “Judaism is a dirty false belief” on international news..the Israeli gov soon after forced the release of the scrolls for the world to.see…I would wonder what was tampered with over 45 years in the hands of amtisemetic scholars who were and still are attempting to discredit the hebrew Tanakh ??
    One thing to research is the fact that there are hundreds of admitted additions by antisemetic church fathers to the original koine Greek papyri of the New Testament. Johanna comma 1john57-8,.Mark16;9-20 and hundreds of other words changes made which appear in most of the Christian bibles today are not in the original pre Nicean papyri from 150ce.
    So it seems Christian scholars ignore this and instead try to some how “prove” Judaism wrong by insinuating the masoretic text was corrupted by rabbis…I find this amusing. Their Jesus quoted Talmud “you notice the speck in your brothers eye but ignore the plank in your own”Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 149a…lol. G-d has a sense of humor…The NIV version of the NT notes all the roman additions to the koine Greek originals…Yet many Christians reject this truth and instead try to prove the Tanakh wrong.My artscroll Tanakh matches the Isaiah copper scroll at Qumram 99%…compare your Latin or KJV..Watch Tenak Talk on you tube for more detailed data.שלום

  12. Simon says:

    Interesting to compare the transmission and editing/redaction of the ‘Old Testament’ with the Quran. In the latter case, God instructed Muhammad and his followers to rote-learn the Quran. Many were able to learn the whole Quran (and millions today are ‘Hafiz’ i.e. can recite the whole book). This was to prove more reliable than handwritten copying of texts, which we see has brought challenges for Jews and Christians.

  13. Gee says:

    Looking in to archaeological things ,
    I notice no one here mentions the ARAMAIC TEXTS , Marya = YHWH ,
    Mshikka = Messiah , Hebrew YHWH Yod Hey Vav Hey , and so on ,

    Have not so far discovered any direct translation YHWH which translates to Jehovah,
    The name so i am finding, seems to consist of four letters , Dead sea scrolls should be translated chronologically if possible and from Masoretic & Aramaic , in to other languages , Yashuah / Jesus spoke Aramaic as did his disciples or is this also incorrect ?

  14. MonicaJW says:

    Jehovah or Yehowah YHWH
    (YaHoWaH adonai)lord God are just titles, the world needs to call the Creator by his name forget the jewish tradition, as Jesus told them Hyprocrites you honor me with your lips but your heart is off from me and many verses were he condems the jewish people. Psalms83:18

  15. Tracy says:

    The originals I believe were burned perhaps only leaving these scrolls and fragments. I also believe they were Ennesses (?) Which may be why they his these scrolls to protect them. Christianity enveloped from here.

  16. faith says:

    to the q& u it should be separate! if they like they may make a note where it defers for the one we have in English and not another translation! and for the love of god add in there the Hebrew and Greek and any other language found so others may learn…last time i checked just cause god cause you to be scholars it does not give anyone the right to hold bk the word of god to any! freely give freely receive new testament and old testament or other wise known Hebrew bible or many other names….as remembered {their may be more to this passage } if a stranger so journey in the land and will for sake his fathers house and all others to worship the one true god of Israel then he must be received unto them as and equal or family kinsfolk etc….so i do believe we should have it separated not another translation of it or revised edition this is bringing all ppl not to believe in god and well we will all be accountable for sure……..

  17. raymond says:

    So far, no other manuscript can take over the lxx as the oldest manuscript known to us.

  18. tapani annila says:

    I think that Dead Sea Scrolls have own Psalms. Generally they reveals their faith in own words. Different text forms in situations can be. The Bible is not in need to move its words. Jahve and Jeshua are Hebrew idioms. We have translations, and they are good enough.

  19. Victoria Mery Diaz says:

    Hello! My name is Victoria Mery Diaz,

    I am writting because I know in the dead sea scrolls his name YHWH. In our common day english wouldn’t his name be known as Jehovah God. Just like Jesus Christ they called his Yashua isn’t it weird that jesus name changed with the common english language. Wouldn’t it be the same with Jehovah God. That would make sense to me.

  20. Sean Suitor says:

    I hear about books now and when I was younger all I heard is the Bible is the only book. Now that I’m fully into finding answers about the book or Books I just want to know how many and what the names are so I can read and study so I can truly become one with God, Amen !!

  21. Sean Suitor says:

    I just want to know the total amount of books there are ? If I was God and my 12 disciples is all I sent out for information and to spread the word, then I want to know how many books will be brought back before me to read ? God sent out 12 Disciples to spread the word of the bible rite ? Then how many others were sent out by the disciples to bring them back books of knowledge that they had in countered on there journey ??????

  22. Markus says:

    Not sure after all is said and done. The Dead Sea Scrolls do lend a big helping stable and reasonable accurate hand. To Kurt: I don’t see anywhere in the Bible, or Gods word (so therefore nowhere does God tell people), not to mention or praise his name. Its is a big mistake that some religions have taken the freedom to remove such a necessary matter. (Revelation 22:18-20)

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

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  28. s harring 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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