This is the story of the life of a Dead Sea Scroll named 4QSama: It was written on a piece of animal skin about 2,030 or 2,055 years ago and was discovered in a cave near Qumran more than 50 years ago. It is the last of the Dead Sea Scrolls to be published in a definitive scholarly edition (the editio princeps).
Although 4QSama is an aristocrat of sorts—the editors tell us that the scribe was “highly skilled” and his script is “polished and elegant”—it has had a difficult life from the beginning, which is to say that it was read and, perhaps, studied so frequently that it began to wear thin and had to be repaired on the back with pieces of papyrus and leather.
Sometime before 68 C.E., when the Roman legions destroyed Qumran on their way to Jerusalem, 4QSama was deposited in a cave—now known as Cave 4—adjacent to the site (hence the “4Q” at the beginning of the siglum 4QSama). We don’t know precisely why it was deposited there. Some would question whether the scroll even belonged to the people at Qumran; it would be unlikely if the latest suggestion—that Qumran was a pottery factory rather than an ascetic community of Essenesa—is correct. Perhaps 4QSama was placed in the cave by a group of refugees fleeing from Jerusalem.
If 4QSama had a difficult life before being deposited in the cave, things only got worse. The scroll soon became a delectable morsel for worms. As the editors put it, “Trails left by hungry worms may be seen throughout the leather, occasionally causing shallow surface damage (which removes the inked letters), more often eating complete holes through the leather.” But that was just the beginning.
In time 4QSama was buried deeper and deeper. The tan leather turned brown, sometimes even black, and decayed as moisture caused shrinking and twisting. The editors tell us that the scroll became covered with yellow crystals, “evidently animal urine, but very old urine.” The debris and bat dung on top of the now-fragmentary scroll grew higher and higher until finally 4QSama lay more than 3 feet below the surface.
There it lay until 1952. The earlier discovery of intact scrolls by Bedouin tribesmen had alerted the scholarly world to the potential importance of the nearby ruins of Qumran. G. Lankester Harding, the British scholar who headed the Jordanian Department of Antiquities at the time, arranged for an archaeological excavation at Qumran headed by his colleague Père Roland de Vaux, a Dominican father who was a distinguished Biblical historian and archaeologist at the École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem. De Vaux hired as workmen some Bedouin from the same tribe (the Ta?amireh) as those who had discovered the first scrolls, teaching them the skills of archaeological excavation.
When the professional archaeologists were not at the site, however, the Bedouin amateurs searched the nearby caves for more scrolls. It was they who, in early September 1952, found the now-famous Cave 4, almost literally under the noses of the scholars. By the time the archaeologists discovered the Bedouin in the cave, the tribesmen had removed 80 percent of the scrolls (about 400 of the 500 scrolls in the cave), all of them, however, in tatters. In late September 1952, the archaeologists took over in what was essentially a mop-up operation, nevertheless one that was important not only for the additional scroll fragments recovered, but for the eventual confirmation that the scrolls the scholars bought from the Bedouin, through their infamous middleman nicknamed Kando, had indeed come from Cave 4.
Frank M. Cross, then of McCormick Theological Seminary and later at Harvard, was the first member of the team of scholars appointed to publish the Cave 4 fragments that arrived in Jerusalem. There he was given the fragments excavated from Cave 4 by the professional archaeologists, which had to be prepared for study—a process of humidifying them, cleaning them and flattening them under glass. When he had done this, he found 27 fragments that fit together, which he recognized as coming from the Book of Samuel. That was the beginning of the scroll later named 4QSama. Cross promptly made available the fragments in a preliminary publication, unlike so many other scrolls from Cave 4 that were kept under wraps for decades. Now, more than 50 years later, we have the final publication.
The same preparation process on the Cave 4 fragments recovered by the Bedouin revealed hundreds of other fragments from the Book of Samuel that were originally part of three different scrolls. (The other two scrolls are also published in this book and have been designated 4QSamb and 4QSamc; they are much more fragmentary than 4QSama.) At the end of the process at least part of 26 of the 31 chapters of 1 Samuel were identified in 4QSam, as well as a part of every chapter of 2 Samuel. Even so, we have only about 15 percent of the text. The editors still have some fragments (170 if my count is correct) that they cannot place but can identify as part of 4QSama by the handwriting. Perhaps reflecting his own daunting but unsuccessful efforts to place these fragments, senior author Cross advises scholars who want to take up the task “first to learn the peculiarities of this scribe’s hand better than he or she knows his own spouse’s hand.”
I began this review by noting that this copy of Samuel was originally copied between 2,030 and 2,055 years ago, which would date the scroll to between 50 and 25 B.C.E. You might wonder how the scholars can be so precise. The answer is paleography, the science of the shape and form of the letters. Each of the letters has a history of its own and changes from time to time. Over the years (beginning in 1961), Cross developed a typology of scripts that is used to date texts of this period. When his paleographical dating was found to correlate with those determined by carbon-14 testing, Cross was heard to have remarked that he was happy to see that his paleographical dates confirmed the validity of carbon-14 testing.
So what have we learned from 4QSama? For the text-critical Bible scholar, an enormous amount. But even the layperson will find some fascinating details. For example, did you know that “David,” as in King David, is spelled two ways in the Hebrew Bible? In largely consonantal Hebrew script, “David” is spelled DWD (or Dvd) in the Book of Samuel and DWYD in the later (post-Exilic) Book of Chronicles. The added “Y” is a yod, a consonant that early on served also as a vowel (double-duty letters like this are called matres lectionis—mothers of reading—the earliest vowels in Hebrew writing). In 4QSama, “David” is spelled not as it is in the Book of Samuel in the standard Hebrew text (the Masoretic text), but as it is Chronicles.
So what? Well, it’s an interesting oddity in itself, but it hints at a broader issue.
At various times Jews from widely dispersed areas of the Diaspora would bring their Biblical texts to the Holy Land and it would be discovered that they varied considerably. This led to a “textual crisis” in which “the establishment of an authoritative text became urgent.” The authoritative Hebrew text, known as the Masoretic text, was redacted only in the tenth century of the Common Era. But this resolved only the latest “textual crisis.” Much earlier, we find that the Qumran Biblical manuscripts reflect several different textual traditions. Perhaps we should call one stream proto-Masoretic. Another could be called proto-Septuagintal. As early as the third century B.C.E., parts of what later became the Bible were translated into Greek for Greek-speaking Jewish communities in the diaspora, for example, in Egypt. This Greek text is known as the Septuagint. (Legend has it that the translation is the work of 72 scholars.) For more than a hundred years, we have known of Bibles in Greek from this tradition that date to the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. (manuscripts known as Alexandrinus, Vaticanus and Sinaiticus). Before the discovery of manuscripts like 4QSama among the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars hesitated to give much credence to variations in these Greek Septuagint texts because they may well have been bad translations or corruptions of the Hebrew text. Instead, pride of place went to the Hebrew of the Masoretic text.
Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, are many Hebrew texts that were the base text for Septuagintal translations, including 4QSama. What texts like 4QSama show is that the Septuagintal translations are really quite reliable. This gives new authority to the Greek translations against the Masoretic text. As Cross has written, “We could scarcely hope to find closer agreement between the Old Greek [Septuagintal] tradition and 4QSama than actually is found in our fragments.”
There are literally thousands of differences, albeit mostly minor, between the Masoretic text and what Cross calls the Old Greek tradition. At Qumran, before the “textual crisis” was resolved (in favor of the Masoretic tradition), the proto-Masoretic and proto-Septuagintal traditions lived happily side by side.
Finally, 4QSama allows us to recover an entire paragraph that had fallen out of the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible—and an important one at that. The beginning of 1 Samuel 11 tells about an attack on the Israelites of Jabesh-Gilead by the Ammonite king Nahash. The Israelites asked for surrender terms; Nahash demanded that the right eye of each of the Israelites be gouged out. The Masoretic texts gives us no explanation for this barbaric cruelty. Why did Nahash make this demand? The answer lies in a paragraph at the beginning of the chapter (or the end of chapter 10) that had fallen out of the Hebrew text but is preserved in 4QSama: The Israelites had apparently rebelled against Nahash, and in those days that was the punishment for rebelling. Fighters whose right eyes were gouged out could see but they were no longer effective fighters since they had no depth perception.
How did the paragraph fall out of the Hebrew text? Apparently, the editors tell us, by “parablepsis owing to homoioteleuton or homoiarkton.” In other words, the scribe was copying a Hebrew text in which a word (“Nahash”) was repeated in two successive paragraphs; he looked up after copying its first appearance, but when he looked down again, his eye alighted on the word’s second appearance and he began copying at that point in the text. The result: a dropped paragraph.
As the editor-in-chief of the series Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, Emanuel Tov states in a foreword to this volume: “It is no exaggeration to say that the critical study and exegesis of the book of Samuel is no longer possible without consulting these three scrolls in conjunction with the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint.”
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