The Dead Sea Scrolls and Old Testament Reliability

We previously looked at the basic principles used in the discipline of Textual Criticism. We then applied these principles to the New Testament. By these measures the New Testament reliability exceeds that of any other ancient book.

But what about the books of the Old Testament? Are they as reliable and unchanged as the New Testament? What role do the Dead Sea Scrolls play in this?

The Old Testament: An Ancient Library

The Old Testament’s uniqueness comes in several ways. First it should be thought of more as a library since many authors wrote the various books of the Old Testament. Second, they wrote them a very long time ago. To appreciate the immense antiquity of the Old Testament writings, we compare them in a timeline with other ancient writings:

Historical Timeline with Major Biblical Characters

The timeline above places Abraham, Moses, David and Isaiah in history. They are the major characters of the Old Testament. Compare where they sit on the timeline with Thucydides and Herodotus, whom historians consider the earliest ‘Fathers of History’. Herodotus and Thucydides only lived when Malachi wrote the final Old Testament book. Their writings only looked back about 100 years before their time to conflicts between Greek city states, and between Greece and Persia. Other important historical persons and events like the founding of Rome, Alexander the Great, and the Buddha all come much later than the Old Testament characters. Essentially, the rest of the world only woke up to history when the Old Testament added its final books to its rather extensive collection.

Textual Criticism of the Old Testament Masoretic Text

The authors of the 39 Old Testament books wrote between 1500 BCE and 400 BCE. They wrote in Hebrew with small portions in the later books written in Aramaic. The blue band shows the 1100 year period when the various Old Testament books were written (1500 – 400 BCE):

Timeline of the Old Testament Masoretic Manuscript

These original writings are preserved today in Hebrew manuscript copies known as the Masoretic Text. Modern Bible translators use the Masoretic Text to translate the Hebrew Old Testament into today’s languages. So using the principles of Textual Criticism (see here for details), how reliable is the Masoretic Text?

The Earliest Existing Masoretic Copies

ManuscriptDate of Composition
Codex Cairensis895 CE
Aleppo Codex950 CE
Codex Sassoon1000 CE
Codex Leningradensis1008 CE

So you can see that the earliest existing Masoretic manuscripts date only starting from 895 CE. If we put these manuscripts in a timeline with the original writings of the Old Testament, we are given the following:

Timeline of the Old Testament Masoretic Manuscript

You can also see that the interval between the date of composition and the earliest existing copies (the primary principle in Textual Criticism) exceeds 1000 years. 

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Qumran Caves (Cave #4)
Effi Schweizer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1948, Palestinian shepherds discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls hidden in caves by the shores of the Dead Sea in Qumran. A shepherd boy had thrown some stones into the mouth of a cave higher up in the face of a cliff. He then heard the sound of clay jars breaking from the impact of the stones. Intrigued, he climbed up the cliffs and found the sealed clay jars with the Dead Sea Scrolls inside. The Dead Sea Scrolls contained Hebrew manuscripts of all the books of the Old Testament, except the Book of Esther. Scholars date their composition between 250 and 100 BCE.

Dead Sea Scrolls in the Timeline of the Old Testament Manuscripts
Short Video on Textual Criticism and Dead Sea Scrolls

Significance of Dead Sea Scrolls for Textual Criticism

With the discovery and publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-twentieth century the whole world witnessed a monumental event in Textual Criticism. In basically one instant, the Dead Sea Scrolls pushed the Old Testament Hebrew text 1000 years back in time. This raised the intriguing question: Had the Hebrew text of the Old Testament changed during this 1000 year period from 100 BCE to 900 CE? Europe at this time had built its civilization over the preceding 1500 years based upon the Old Testament. Had that text been changed or altered during its history? The Dead Sea Scrolls could shed light on this question. So what did they find?

“These [DDSs] confirm the accuracy of the Masoretic Text… Except for a few instances where spelling and grammar differ between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic Text, the two are amazingly similar.”

M.R. Norton. 1992. Manuscripts of the Old Testament in The Origin of the Bible.
Dead Sea Scrolls in the Timeline of the Old Testament Manuscripts

Scholars found almost no change in the Hebrew between the Masoretic Text and the Dead Sea Scrolls, though they jumped back 1000 years. In comparison, consider how much the English language has changed in the last 700 years, yet the remarkable Hebrew text remained static over such a great length of time.

The Psalms Scroll
Photograph: The Israel Antiquities Authority, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the Bible’s Integrity

The Dead Sea Scrolls support the Bible’s primary claim to authenticity. The New Testament claims that Jesus fulfills God’s Plan announced since the beginning of human history. The many Old Testament prophecies fulfilled by him throughout his life provides a central proof, or evidence, for this claim. The reasoning is as simple as it is logical.  No human, no matter how clever, educated, or knowledgeable knows the future, especially when looking hundreds of years ahead. But God does know, and even sets up, the future. So if we find writings that correctly prophesy minute details of monumental events hundreds of years into the future they must have been inspired by God rather than merely thought up by men. You can think of the Old Testament prophecies forming a lock, waiting for a key to ‘fit’ into the lock to open it. Jesus claimed to be that key.

Genesis 1:1-8 From the Dead Sea Scrolls
Photograph: The Israel Antiquities Authority, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, before the Dead Sea Scrolls, we did not have definitive proof that these prophecies were actually in writing before the events that they foresaw. Some dismissed them by arguing, for example, that perhaps the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus were ‘inserted’ into the Old Testament say in 200 CE. Since no Hebrew Old Testament text before 900 CE existed, that objection could not be quickly refuted. But with the Dead Sea Scrolls we find these prophecies had indeed been written down at the very latest by 100 BCE, 130 years before Jesus taught, performed miracles, and resurrected from the dead. 

The Old Testament Prophecies in the Dead Sea Scrolls

So the Dead Sea Scrolls prove that the prophecies were in print before Jesus fulfilled them. The prophecies found in the Dead Sea Scrolls include:

The Dead Sea Scrolls and Israel

The world discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948. This was the same year as the modern revival of Israel into a nation after almost 2000 years of Jewish exile. The timing of these two central events of the 20th century, being the same year, makes their remarkable re-entry to our world even seem scheduled by a Higher Power. Even just in their discovery, the Dead Sea Scrolls hint that The Mind foreordaining Jesus’ coming thousands of years ago seems to be still organizing events today.

Living Water by the Dead Sea

The Biblical land of Israel straddles the world’s largest mirage, giving an illusion of life where there is none. This has forced her inhabitants to lead out in the human quest for that indispensable and life-giving substance – water. It also provides an enlightening backdrop for some of the wisdom, wildest hopes, and extravagant promises in the Bible. These promises extend to you and, offer a life lived with satisfaction. But to glimpse this we need to see what those living there have had to learn to do because of it.

The Unique Dead Sea
David Shankbone CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Unique Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is the most prominent geographical feature in the land of Israel. It is located at the lowest elevation on earth, 431 m below sea level in the middle of a desert. To have such a beautiful and large body of water in the middle of a parched land would seem to be most fortunate for the surrounding inhabitants. However, at 35% salt content it is the largest permanent hypersaline lake in the world. Therefore it supports no life – hence the name Dead Sea. You cannot drink this water. Even getting some in your eyes and on any open sores causes extreme irritation.

The Bible first mentions the Dead Sea in accounts of Abraham some 4000 years ago. The Dead Sea has provided the backdrop to all subsequent writers, kings, and prophets through Biblical history, just a few miles from Jerusalem. These writers used water, a life-or-death necessity in that region, to illustrate truths about ourselves. They used water as a theme to extend promises to us.

Jeremiah Diagnoses our Thirst

Historical Timeline including Jeremiah

Jeremiah lived at the close of the period of Kings (600 BCE), when corruption and evil extended through Israelite society. He denounced their evils, the same ones also common today in our societies. But Jeremiah began his message with this.

13 “My people have sinned twice.
They have deserted me,
even though I am the spring of water that gives life.
And they have dug their own wells.
But those wells are broken.
They can’t hold any water.

Jeremiah 2: 13

Jeremiah used water as a metaphor to help them understand sin better. He declared that they were like thirsty people searching for water. There was nothing wrong with being thirsty. But they needed to drink good water. God himself was the good Living Water that could quench their thirst. However, instead of coming to Him to quench their thirst, the Israelites relied on other sources, leaking ones, to drink from. But their broken cisterns would not hold water long-term and would thus leave them even thirstier.

In other words, their sin, in all its many forms, could be summed up as turning to other things apart from God to satisfy their thirst. But these other things would not be able to quench their thirst just as a leaky glass cannot be relied on to provide ongoing refreshment. In the, after all, their empty pursuits, the Israelites remained thirsty. They were left holding only their broken cisterns – i.e. all the problems and difficulties caused by their sins. Solomon, the richest and most successful person in all history, detailed, in masterful ways, the pursuit he undertook to quench his thirst.

Thirsty People in a Sea of bad water sources

This aptly also applies to us today in our age of wealth, entertainment, self-fulfillment and pleasure. Modern society is by far the wealthiest, best educated, most-travelled, entertained, happiness-driven, and technologically advanced out of any age. We easily turn to these, and other things of our age: pornography, illicit relationships, drugs, alcohol, greed, money, anger, jealousy. We hope that perhaps these will satisfy our thirst. But as the Dead Sea is a mirage, holding only sterile death even while appearing like fresh water from afar, these are also mirages. They cannot quench thirst in a lasting way and will only result in death.

Jeremiah’s warning and Solomon’s chronicles should provoke us to ask some honest questions ourselves.

  • Why in our modern age with so much, do we struggle with depression, suicide, obesity, divorce, jealousy, envy, hatred, and pornography,?
  • What ‘cisterns’ do you use to satisfy your thirst? Do they hold ‘water’?
  • Do you think you will ever get enough to satisfy your thirst? If Solomon’s thirst could not be quenched with all he obtained, how will you?

Jesus taught on these same questions, promising to quench our thirst. He did so claiming to represent Israel, with our conclusion here. His promise regarding water stands out particularly as we note that the nation Israel leads the world in water technology. The two Israels offer water, albeit of different kinds, to a thirsty world.

Israel offers great water to the world

Because of their arid conditions, Israelis have had to become world leaders in water technology, vital to their national survival. They have developed and built industrial-scale and world-leading, reverse osmosis water desalination plants that convert seawater to drinking water. This technology is energy efficient and less expensive than other desalination methods, which evaporate water. Israel has five such desalination plants giving it so much drinking water that it can now replenish the Sea of Galilee with drinking water. Countries across the Middle East are signing agreements with Israel so that this water technology can be developed for them.

Another Israeli technology can generate drinking water from moisture in the air. Begun by helping militaries to supply drinking water to troops, the technology has been expanded to quench the ‘global thirst’. Automaker Ford has recently added this technology to some of their so that you can take a drink ‘while you drive. SodaStream, which sells C02 cartridges with kits to carbonize your drinking water, has a global distribution allowing you to ‘fizz your way to sparkling water’.

Truly this arid land with its Dead Sea has become the world’s foremost leader in quenching the thirst of the world.

Israel offers Living Water to the world

It is fascinating then that the other Israel, Jesus, also offers water – Living Water – to the world. With the backdrop of Jeremiah’s diagnosis of our thirst, consider this conversation recorded in the Gospel.

Jesus Talks With a Samaritan Woman

Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard about him. They had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John. 2 But in fact Jesus was not baptizing. His disciples were. 3 So Jesus left Judea and went back again to Galilee.

4 Jesus had to go through Samaria. 5 He came to a town in Samaria called Sychar. It was near the piece of land Jacob had given his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from the journey. So he sat down by the well. It was about noon.

7 A woman from Samaria came to get some water. Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.

9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew. I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” She said this because Jews don’t have anything to do with Samaritans.

10 Jesus answered her, “You do not know what God’s gift is. And you do not know who is asking you for a drink. If you did, you would have asked him. He would have given you living water.”

11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you don’t have anything to get water with. The well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Our father Jacob gave us the well. He drank from it himself. So did his sons and his livestock. Are you more important than he is?”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again. 14 But anyone who drinks the water I give them will never be thirsty. In fact, the water I give them will become a spring of water in them. It will flow up into eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water. Then I will never be thirsty. And I won’t have to keep coming here to get water.”

16 He told her, “Go. Get your husband and come back.”

17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands. And the man you live with now is not your husband. What you have just said is very true.”

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our people have always worshiped on this mountain. But you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21 Jesus said, “Woman, believe me. A time is coming when you will not worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know. We worship what we do know. Salvation comes from the Jews. 23 But a new time is coming. In fact, it is already here. True worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth. They are the kind of worshipers the Father is looking for. 24 God is spirit. His worshipers must worship him in the Spirit and in truth.”

25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah is coming.” Messiah means Christ. “When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

26 Then Jesus said, “The one you’re talking about is the one speaking to you. I am he.”

The Disciples Join Jesus Again

27 Just then Jesus’ disciples returned. They were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want from her?” No one asked, “Why are you talking with her?”

28 The woman left her water jar and went back to the town. She said to the people, 29 “Come. See a man who told me everything I’ve ever done. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 The people came out of the town and made their way toward Jesus.

31 His disciples were saying to him, “Rabbi, eat something!”

32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

33 Then his disciples asked each other, “Did someone bring him food?”

34 Jesus said, “My food is to do what my Father sent me to do. My food is to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying? You say, ‘It’s still four months until harvest time.’ But I tell you, open your eyes! Look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest right now. 36 Even now the one who gathers the crop is getting paid. They are already harvesting the crop for eternal life. So the one who plants and the one who gathers can now be glad together. 37 Here is a true saying. ‘One plants and another gathers.’ 38 I sent you to gather what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work. You have gathered the benefits of their work.”

Many Samaritans Believe in Jesus

39 Many of the Samaritans from the town of Sychar believed in Jesus. They believed because of what the woman had said about him. She said, “He told me everything I’ve ever done.” 40 Then the Samaritans came to him and tried to get him to stay with them. So he stayed two days. 41 Because of what he said, many more people became believers.

42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said. We have now heard for ourselves. We know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

John 4: 1-42

Jesus asked her for a drink for two reasons. First, he was thirsty. But he also knew that she was thirsty as per Jeremiah’s diagnosis. She thought she could satisfy this thirst through relationships with men. So she had had several husbands and was with a man her husband. Thus her neighbors viewed her as immoral. This explains why she had gone alone to get water at noon. The village women did not want her along when they went to the well in the cool of the morning had alienated themselves from the other village women.

Following Jeremiah’s lead, Jesus used thirst as a theme so she could realize that she had a deep thirst in her life – a thirst that is quenched. He declared to her (and us) that only he could ultimately quench her inner thirst.

To Believe – Confessing in truth

But Jesus’ offer of ‘living water’ threw her into a crisis. When Jesus told her to get her husband, he was purposefully provoking her to recognize and admit her broken cistern. He pushed her to confess it. We avoid this at all costs! We prefer to hide our sins, hoping no one will see. Or we rationalize, making excuses for our sins, but if we want to experience the living water’ then we must be honest and admit our ‘broken cisterns’ because the Gospel promises that:

Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord,

Acts 3:19

For this reason Jesus told the Samaritan woman that:

God is spirit. His worshipers must worship him in the Spirit and in truth.”

John 4:24

By ‘truth’ he meant being truthful about ourselves, not trying to hide or excuse our wrong. The wonderful news is that God ‘seeks’ and will not turn away anyone who comes with this open honesty – no matter what they have drunk.

The Distraction of Religious Arguments

But this requires an honest vulnerability. Changing the subject from ourselves onto a religious dispute creates perfect cover to hide. The world always has many ongoing religious disputes. In that day there was a religious dispute between the Samaritans and the Jews regarding the proper place of worship. By turning the conversation to this religious dispute she was hoping to divert attention away from her leaking cistern. She could now hide her vulnerability behind religion.

How easily and naturally we do the same thing – especially if we have some religious affiliation. Then we can judge how others are wrong or how we are correct. We can ignore our need to be honest about our thirst.

Jesus did not follow into this dispute with her. He insisted that her honesty about herself in worship was what mattered. She could come before God anywhere (since He is Spirit). But she needed honest self-realization before she could receive his ‘living water’.

The Decision We all Must Make

So she had an important decision to make. She could continue hiding behind a religious dispute or perhaps just leave him. But she finally chose to admit her thirst – to confess. She did not hide anymore. In doing this she became a ‘believer’. She had performed religious ceremonies before, but now she – and those in her village – became ‘believers’.

To become a believer is not simply mentally agreeing with correct religious doctrine – important though that is. It is about believing that His promise of mercy can be trusted, and therefore you no longer should cover-up sin. This is what Abraham had modeled for us so long ago – he trusted a promise.

Vulnerable questions to ask oneself

Do you excuse or hide your thirst? Do you hide it with devout religious practice or religious dispute? Or do you confess? What stops you confessing before our Creator the broken cisterns causing guilt and shame?

The woman’s honest openness to her need led to her understanding of Jesus as the ‘Messiah’. After he had stayed for two days the villagers understood him as ‘the Saviour of the world‘.  They realized that Jesus who gave them Living Water must also be the Lord God, because it had been written:

Lord, you are the hope of Israel; all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.

Jeremiah 17:13

Postscript – Dead Sea will come to Life

Jesus promises to quench our internal thirst with Living Water today. So also the Bible promises that one day in the future the Dead Sea, that ever-present picture of our dead spiritual condition, will:

The Dead Sea and the Mediterranean Sea

“This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Dead Sea. When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. 9  Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. 10  Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea.

Ezekiel 47:8-10

This will happen when

8 On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter. 9  The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.

Zechariah 14: 8-9

The Bible foresees that Christ will return. When he does, in His Kingdom, he will transform the Dead Sea into one teeming with life. That image of sterile death will no longer be needed then. The Dead Sea will accurately picture the Living Water flowing from the two Israels, both the nation and its Messiah.

Next we see Jesus teaching about investing, and he does so with contrarian convictions.