The Dead Sea Scrolls

Lutheran Witness Interview with Dr. Nathan Jastram

QUESTION:  I have heard that access to the Dead Sea Scrolls was restricted to a small group of scholars, and that the many other scholars who wanted to study them were not allowed to do so.  How is it that you were granted the privilege to study the scrolls?

JASTRAM:  It is true that when I started work on the scrolls back in 1988, there were only about twenty scholars in the world that had access to them.  When I look back on the sequence of events that made me one of that group, I see many places where God's hand was working blessings in my life.  I had no way of knowing that majoring in the classical languages in college would serve as valuable preparation for the work I would later do comparing the scrolls' readings with those of the ancient Greek and Latin texts of the Bible.  When I majored in exegetical theology at our seminary in Fort Wayne, I had no plans to use that in the future for understanding and reconstructing the Hebrew readings on the scrolls.  When I was accepted into the doctoral program at Harvard, I didn't even know that two of the world's top six Dead Sea Scrolls scholars were professors there.  I could never have planned the timing of my studies so that I would be ready to write a dissertation at the same time that there was a sudden increase in pressure from other scholars and from the Israeli government to have the scrolls published as soon as possible.  As it turned out, all those factors came together so that I was in the perfect place at the perfect time to receive the assignment from my dissertation advisor to prepare one of the unpublished scrolls for publication.

 QUESTION:  It sounds like it could be almost impossible for a scholar to make the sort of plans necessary to gain access to the scrolls.

JASTRAM:  That is how the situation used to be, and that is why so many scholars were upset when they could not gain access.  A campaign was launched in 1990 to change that situation.  Editorials appeared in newspapers and journals, and on radio and television, in which unrestricted access to the scrolls was demanded.  A library in California decided to make available to the public its entire archival collection of Dead Sea Scrolls pictures, which had been considered restricted before that time.  While the Israeli Antiquities Authority was considering whether to sue the library for its action, the pictures were published in an unauthorized book and became even more widely available.  Finally the Antiquities Authority decided to join the movement instead of fighting it, and published a microfiche edition of the complete set of its own pictures of the scrolls.  Now any scholar in the world can have access to the photographs of the scrolls on microfiche, in books, and on CD-ROM.  Special permission can also be obtained from the Antiquities Authority to examine the fragments themselves in Jerusalem, either at the Shrine of the Book or at the Rockefeller Museum.

 QUESTION:  Open access to the scrolls sounds like a positive development.  How has that affected the research that is being done?

JASTRAM:  There have been both positive and negative results of open access to the scrolls.  On the positive side, there has been an explosion of interest in and work on the scrolls, with many new theories being proposed.  On the negative side, it has become more difficult to "sift the wheat from the chaff" as some writers misuse the new data to support idiosyncratic theories that confuse more than enlighten.

 QUESTION:  What are some examples of these strange theories?

JASTRAM:  Some of the strangest theories start from the idea that the Dead Sea Scrolls are Christian documents, speaking of the early struggles of the Christian Church. One theory claims that the scrolls contain evidence that John the Baptist, James, and Jesus were the enemies of  Paul, and that the New Testament presents an unreliable record of events skewed toward Paul's understanding of religion.  Another theory claims that the scrolls show that John the Baptist was the enemy of Jesus, and that Jesus never died on the cross, but took a narcotic and was revived in the grave.  One of the early researchers "went off the deep end" and concluded that Christianity was the product of hallucinations caused by mushrooms!  The vast majority of scholars agree that such theories have no legitimate support from the scrolls.  The scrolls are in fact Jewish documents from before, during, and after the time of Christ (approximately 250 b.c.a.d. 70).  Whether they come from the Essenes, which is the dominant theory, or from some other sect of that time, they teach about the Jewish world from which the Christian Church came, rather than about the Christian Church itself.

 QUESTION:  How did these ancient scrolls come to light in the first place?

JASTRAM:  You would think that the history of the discovery of the scrolls would be one thing everybody could agree upon.  But even here there are different stories that compete with each other, some with greater embellishments than others.  Even the identity of the person who first discovered the scrolls is now being debated; more than one person has claimed that honor.  But the backbone of the standard story goes like this.  In the early to middle months of 1947 a Bedouin shepherd was watching his sheep close to the ruins of Qumran by the Dead Sea.  He found an opening into a cave and tossed in a rock.  When he heard the sound of pottery being smashed, his curiosity was aroused, and he decided to come back later to explore the cave.  What he and his friend found were tall jars with ancient scrolls inside.  They arranged for an antiquities dealer to sell their find, and later that same year he sold some of the scrolls to a Jewish professor and some to the leader of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem.  From the beginning, then, there has been both Christian and Jewish interest and involvement in the scrolls.

            Discoveries of other caves containing ancient scrolls, both at Qumran and at other sites near the Dead Sea, continued  into the mid 1950s.  The last discovery included in this group happened in 1956, when the eleventh cave at Qumran yielded a magnificent scroll of the Psalms and a non-biblical scroll about the Temple.  Anyone who spends the time to read more about the discovery and acquisition of the scrolls will find that it is a fascinating story, including secret negotiations, illegal excavations, international politics, archaeological sleuthing, smuggling, and even an ad in the Wall Street Journal!

            These events of the last fifty years are neither the first nor the last about the Dead Sea Scrolls.  According to historical records, as far back as the early 200s, and again in the early 800s, ancient biblical scrolls were found at or near Jericho, which is only about ten miles from Qumran.  And from what I have heard, there is an excellent chance that more scrolls from the area will come to light.  The former chief editor of the Dead Sea Scrolls has said that he has been shown a couple of scrolls that were not turned over to the museum when they were discovered, and so remain in private hands today.  And archaeologists continue to comb the caves throughout the region, hoping to find other caches of scrolls that have not yet been discovered. 

 QUESTION:  What do you think?  Is it likely that other scrolls will be discovered in the Dead Sea area?

JASTRAM:  Who knows?  I guess I would not be too surprised if there were future discoveries of ancient scrolls in the area, but it is remarkable that any scrolls from so long ago could have survived until today.  The great libraries of the world hold as special treasures books that are two to five hundred years old, and these scrolls are two thousand years old!

 QUESTION:  How could the scrolls survive for so many years?

JASTRAM:  The Dead Sea area is one of the few places in the world with characteristics that allow ancient scrolls to survive for long periods of time.  It is the lowest place on earth, about 1300 feet below sea level, and it is hot and dry.  Its desolate location makes it more possible for early artifacts to survive without being destroyed by later settlements.

            The scrolls were made of sheep or goat skin, much more durable than modern paper.  When they were left in caves, they initially began the natural process of decay, and their deterioration was hastened by worms, bats, and other animals.  But after they were sealed from the atmosphere by bat guano or the crumbling rock that fell from the ceiling, deterioration almost ceased.  The process of decay began again when the surviving fragments of the scrolls were discovered and exposed to the air, so that they are in worse shape today than when they were discovered.  Scientists are still trying to decide the best way to preserve the fragments in the museums.

 QUESTION:  What do the scrolls contain, and what does that tell us about the people who produced them?

JASTRAM:  Here are some approximate figures:  there are about 800 total documents; 225 copies of biblical books (including at least one copy from every Hebrew book except Esther); and 575 non-biblical documents, 300 of which are well enough preserved to be analyzed for content.  The non-biblical documents include rules for the community at Qumran, explanations of ritual laws, accounts of the end times (including a final battle between the "sons of light" and the "sons of darkness," and various messianic expectations), commentaries on various biblical books, para-biblical literature (Reworked Pentateuch, Jubilees, Enoch, etc.), hymns, prayers, and religious calendars.  One "scroll" is in a class by itself; made of copper, it claims to be a guide to great treasures buried in secret locations.  It probably started out as a flat sign attached to a lintel, but was later rolled up for storage, and whether its contents should be taken at face value is still fiercely debated.  The impression that most scholars have is that the people who produced and preserved the scrolls were intensely religious, valued the Bible highly, and were intent on preserving the ceremonial laws more purely than the rest of the Israelites.

 QUESTION:  In what ways have the scrolls been most useful?

JASTRAM:  In my opinion the most important conclusion that can be drawn from the scrolls is that the Bible has been copied with amazing faithfulness for thousands of years.  The biblical texts discovered at Qumran are so close to the Hebrew texts produced a thousand years later that very small fragments of the scrolls can be properly identified, even when they contain only portions of a few words.  It is hard to beat the feeling of elation that comes when these identifications are made.  My family always knew when another fragment had been identified by the excited yells that came from the study where I worked.  Finally, after two thousand years, an ancient scroll of the Bible was being pieced together again, and it showed that texts from the time of Jesus and before were substantially the same as texts from the medieval age!  Sure, there are some minor variations in how the words are spelled, or how many times the word "and" occurs in lists, or whether an occasional explanatory word is original (for instance, is the original text "Jeremiah the prophet," or just "Jeremiah"?), etc., but the variations are almost always inconsequential for the meaning of the passage.  Scholars who still insist that the Bible cannot be trusted, because scribes must have introduced many significant changes as they copied the text for hundreds or thousands of years, are fighting against the actual evidence that the scrolls now provide.

            A second major conclusion is that the Christian faith shares many concepts with the Jewish world from which it emerged.  The scrolls show that Jews living before the time of Christ understood many prophecies in the Old Testament as predictions of a coming Messiah.  They divided the prophecies into two sets and came up with two Messiahs, one kingly and the other priestly, while Jesus claimed to have fulfilled both sets of prophecies himself as a king who was also a priest.  But their interpretations show that one does not have to be Christian to find the Messiah in the Old Testament, as some scholars had imagined.  Other similarities include teachings about liturgical washings, liturgical meals, the tendency to share possessions within the community, leadership by a group of twelve men, the resurrection of the body, predestination, and the end times.  There was also a tendency to see the world as divided into two camps:  the sons of light (or true believers) and the sons of darkness (or unbelievers).    

 QUESTION:  Is there anything in the scrolls that is dangerous to Christianity?

JASTRAM:  That depends on what you consider dangerous.  The scrolls have made it possible to practice textual criticism in the Old Testament, much like it has been practiced in the New Testament for many years.  Some within the Church believe that the doctrine of inspiration is endangered if scholars attempt to weed out textual errors that copyists have introduced.  But the doctrine of inspiration is actually distorted if it is used to insist that copyists never made mistakes.  As Francis Pieper says in his Christian Dogmatics,  "We have never held that the copyists of the holy writings were inspired" (vol. 1, p. 237).  The proper doctrine of inspiration is that the original author was inspired; therefore his original text is the authoritative text.  Textual criticism is the art of using the best available copies to get us closer to the original text.  And now we have copies that come from a thousand years closer to the original texts!  In a few cases, they may preserve readings that are closer to the original texts than are the readings from later copies.

            Another idea that some consider dangerous is the idea that Jesus did not create a completely new religion. They think that the truth of Christianity depends on its being completely different from the Jewish faith. It is easy for Christians living today to equate "Jewish" with "non-Christian," and to think that the two faiths have always been at odds with each other.  But at the time of Jesus, it was quite possible to be both Jewish and Christian at the same time. The traditional understanding of the Christian Church has not been that it is a new religion created at the time of Jesus, but that it is the continuation of the true faith that started in the Old Testament and continued in the New among those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah.  The scrolls show that there is a similarity between how the Old Testament was interpreted by Jesus and by some of the other Jews of his day. This finding helps to affirm the traditional understanding that Christianity flows naturally from the proper understanding of the Old Testament.

 QUESTION:  Let me go back to something you said earlier.  You mentioned "reconstructing" some readings on the scrolls.  What do you mean?

JASTRAM:  Well, in some respects working on the scrolls is like being a detective trying to find out who the murderer is.  Much tedious work goes into the process of preparing the scrolls for publication, and much of that work gets very technical.  That tedious but necessary work is the major reason why it has taken so long to get the scrolls published.

            The process starts with infra-red photography, which causes the writing on the scrolls to stand out more clearly from the darkened skin behind it.  The scholar then becomes familiar with how his particular scribe makes each letter of the alphabet, and makes judgments about which fragments belong together, which come from different manuscripts or scribes, and when the manuscript may have been written.  Then he begins the process of reconstructing the scroll from the fragments that have survived.  Is there a margin that shows whether the writing comes from the top, bottom, left or right edges of the column?  Is there enough writing preserved so that the width of the column can be estimated?  How many letters can fit into that width?  Is there the right amount of space between the preserved portions for the words that are expected in that area?  If not, is there the right amount of space for readings from other variant texts?  By paying careful attention both to what is preserved and to what must be reconstructed, it is possible to derive much more information from the manuscript than what appears at first sight.  Once the manuscript has been thoroughly read and reconstructed, then its readings are carefully compared to other ancient texts of the same passage to analyze the similarities and the differences, so that judgments can be made about how the text was transmitted.  It is often only after these carefully reasoned judgments are made that the significance of a manuscript is first realized.

            When I first considered the type of work it takes to prepare a scroll for publication, it looked like very dull work.  After I began the process, it became more like an intricate puzzle with many pieces left out, but with enough left to make it intriguing.  When I found some significant conclusions as a result of the work, I felt like Columbo when he nabs the murderer—it is hard to beat the satisfaction.

 QUESTION:  It is clear that you have enjoyed your work on the scrolls up until now.  Do you have any plans for future work?

JASTRAM:  It would be great to have more time for researching the many questions I would like to pursue.  But even as it is, I have been able to continue some work on the scrolls with the support of Concordia University, River Forest.  Because of faculty research grants, I now can use computer programs to refine my searches of the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin texts for variant readings and possible locations of fragments.  I have also learned how to use databases to help to analyze hundreds of variant readings to come to better conclusions about how the ancient texts of the Bible were transmitted.  It is wonderful to be involved in a field of study that has unlimited potential and has the possibility of contributing to our understanding of the precious Word of God.

Dr. Nathan Jastrum is an Associate Professor of Theology Concordia University-Mequon, WI.

Reprinted with permission from The Lutheran Witness magazine a publication of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

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