Most people have at least heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but they may be relying on tabloid headlines near a grocery checkout to get their facts about these artifacts.
"People get really excited when they hear about the scrolls coming to Grand Rapids, Michigan," said Ellen Middlebrook Herron, guest curator of The Dead Sea Scrolls: An Exhibition of Biblical Proportions, on display February 16 through June 1 at the Van Andel Museum Center.
"Then they ask, 'What, exactly, are the Dead Sea Scrolls?' The second question is often, 'Wasn't there some Vatican cover up?'"
Thanks to her work—plus input from key Calvin-related scholars—an estimated quarter-million visitors will view Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, learn why they're important and explore the context in which they were found and studied.
Discovery of the Scrolls
Over the next decade Bedouins and archaeologists found 900 documents. A quarter of the manuscripts are biblical texts, fragments from every Old Testament book except Esther and Nehemiah. Others contain biblical commentaries and religious books not later accepted into the Hebrew Bible canon. Some manuscripts are manuals of the beliefs and practices of the Qumran religious community, which was located near the cave site.
Dr. Bastiaan Van Elderen '49 was attending Calvin Seminary during the major scroll discoveries. "In 1962 I visited the Qumran caves and realized the impressive antiquity. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, we have copies of the Hebrew Bible a thousand years older than anything else we'd had," said the 1953 seminary grad and professor emeritus.
Van Elderen explained that linguistic and letter formation studies, carbon 14 dating and coins and pottery found in the caves show that the scrolls were written from the 2nd century B.C. to the 1st century A.D. Most are now in the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem.
Publishing the Scrolls
Wild theories about the scrolls' contents arose during the delay between their discovery and publication. One scholar claimed that Jesus was crucified at Qumran, fainted, then revived and married Mary Magdelene, with whom he had two sons. He then went to Asia Minor, divorced Mary and married Lydia of Thyatira.
There were also competing theories that the Pope knew the Dead Sea Scrolls disproved Christianity or that Jewish leaders knew the manuscripts confirmed Christianity. The real reasons for the scrolls' slow release were less dramatic.
People picture scrolls as long swaths wrapped at either end around wooden dowels. The Dead Sea Scrolls, most of which are written on animal hide or papyrus, are not intact.
"Actually, very few complete or nearly complete scrolls were found. One scroll, made of copper, was impossible to open and had to be sliced. Most texts are just battered fragments, often damaged by moisture or dung," said James VanderKam, a 1968 Calvin and 1971 Calvin Seminary grad who is now John A. O'Brien Professor of Hebrew Scriptures at the University of Notre Dame.
These fragments had to be cleaned, photographed and pieced together. For decades, only eight scholars were allowed to transcribe, translate and publish them. In 1990 Emmanuel Tov, a Hebrew University Bible professor, became chief editor of an expanded DJD team, which included VanderKam.
"I first saw and worked with actual fragments in 1990 at the Rockefeller Museum. It was thrilling to stare at those ancient pieces," VanderKam said. He and a Notre Dame colleague, Eugene Ulrich, a professor of Hebrew Scriptures, spend a third of their time on Dead Sea Scrolls research and have worked with Tov on more DJD volumes than anyone else.
Comparing and Verifying Texts
"The big question among Christian students is: 'Is the text of the Old Testament reliable?' When I explain how texts were copied, recopied and deliberately changed, it can be unsettling," said Dan Harlow, a Calvin College assistant professor of religion. He's been an editor for the Eerdmans Publishing Dead Sea Scrolls series and teaches a semester course on the scrolls.
"When you compare Qumran scrolls to the texts we'd been using, you see that scribes were generally very tenacious and careful," he said.
Qumran finds include 37 copies of the Psalms, 30 of Deuteronomy and 21 of Isaiah. They aren't all perfect matches because, as Harlow explained, scribes worked from several versions.
"At the turn of the eras, the Hebrew canon wasn't yet set. Rather than demanding that only a certain version was correct, the Qumran community thought all forms applied to them," Harlow said.
He reminds his students to focus on the function of scripture to help them understand and do God's will, as Paul recommends in 2 Timothy 3:16: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness ."
Anyone who reads margin notes in newer Old Testament versions will find multiple references to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Though the scrolls generally do confirm the Masoretic text, they also reveal spelling and word variations or missing lines that are used to clarify biblical text.
Van Elderen noted that the 1978 New International Version (NIV) adopted 9 readings in Isaiah based on the scrolls. The 1990 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) based 20 readings of Isaiah and 39 in 1 and 2 Samuel on the scrolls. He cites more examples in his Calvin Theological Seminary scrolls course.
Isaiah 21:8a appears in the King James Version as, "And he cried, 'A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime.'" The NIV translation reads, "And the lookout shouted, 'Day after day, my lord, I stand on the watchtower.'"
"The word lion never made any sense in that context. From the scrolls, we see that a later scholar transposed two letters. We now know the word in question was a participle of to see, translated in the NIV as lookout," Van Elderen explained.
English translations of Psalm 145 rarely surprised lay readers. But those who could read Hebrew wondered why this passage, set up as an acrostic, had no line for nun, the Hebrew letter n. Apparently, a scribe missed a line when copying the Masoretic text. Based on the scrolls, the NIV restored the omission as verse 13b.
Another puzzle solved by the scrolls concerns the awkward transition between 1 Samuel 10 and chapter 11, which suddenly mentions Nahash, a cruel Ammonite. The scrolls include a paragraph after 1 Samuel 10:27 that tells how King Nahash gouged out Israelites' right eyes. The 1st century AD historian Josephus described the same episode. Therefore, the NRSV adopted the Dead Sea Scrolls addition between chapters 10 and 11.
As to how a Masoretic scribe missed an entire paragraph, scholars point out that the words just before and after this paragraph look almost the same in Hebrew.
"Does Christian faith change because we know more about Nahash? No, but we have a better understanding of what the Old Testament originally contained," said Kenneth Pomykala, a 1976 Calvin and 1981 Calvin Seminary grad who is now a Calvin College professor of religion.
Pomykala has visited Qumran and describes the caves and nearby settlement ruins as "a desolate place." Archaeologists say the ruins reveal a communal center used for meals, meetings, scripture study and scroll copying.
Most scholars believe the Qumran settlement was started by a splinter group of Essenes who moved to the wilderness to "prepare the way of the Lord." The community probably hid their scrolls in caves when the Romans attacked in A.D. 68.
"The Qumran community wanted to make themselves ready for the Messiah through a life of radical righteousness and holiness. Their scrolls describe rituals for washing and sacred meals. They use messianic terms such as Son of Man and Son of God. Now we can see how a Jewish group contemporaneous with early Christianity understood those terms.
"The scrolls helped scholars see that intertestamental Judaism was more diverse than they'd realized. If you see early Christianity as an outgrowth of Judaism, you can understand why Paul was fighting with other Jewish Christians about the role of the Law," Pomykala said.
James VanderKam sums up what is perhaps the most important lesson of the Dead Sea Scrolls: "The Qumran scholars came to different conclusions than early Christians did, but they knew the answers were to be found in the words that God spoke long ago and that were written down."
— In Grand Rapids, Mich., Joan Huyser-Honig is a partner in Huyser-Honig Creative Services, which provides publication services to cause-related organizations.
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