A Bible Jesus Could Have Used
by Nathan Jastrum 

It is June of 1989.  I walk past the guard at the outer gate and approach the Rockefeller Museum.  There are pockmarks left in its thick limestone walls from the bullets that were fired when the Israelis captured the museum from the Palestinians in 1967.  I speak briefly to the guard at the entrance, and am led to the office of Ruth Peled.  She asks for my letter of introduction from the chief editor of the Dead Sea scrolls, Prof. Strugnell.  After reading the letter, she smiles and invites me to follow her to the scrolls.

As the ancient cage-like elevator sinks to a lower floor of the museum, I think back to the unlikely events that brought me here.  Less than a year ago, I had met with Dr. Cross in his office in the Harvard Semitic Museum, and he had entrusted me with the task of publishing the second scroll (b) of the biblical book of Numbers (Num) from Qumran (Q), Cave Four (4), or 4QNumb.  It was a tremendous opportunity.  I spent months learning about the Dead Sea scrolls in general and pouring over the infra-red pictures of this manuscript in particular.  The style of handwriting, the shapes of fragments, the problem readings, were etched in my memory and crowded my dreams.  The elevator jerks to a halt, the cage doors slide open, and we stand in the hallway leading to the scrolls.

Here, the curator of the museum, Joe Zias, comes to escort me to the scroll room.  We walk past shelf after shelf of ancient stone coffins, skeletons waiting to be processed, and pottery from the time of the Israelite kings.  He unlocks the room with the scrolls, asks me which scrolls I wish to examine, and retrieves the scroll fragments from the locked file cabinets.  I find in my hands the remains of a biblical scroll so old that it would have been thirty to fifty years old when Jesus was born!

I imagine Jesus walking into the synagogue and unrolling a scroll like the one in my hands.  He would have felt the same sheepskin material, seen the same carbon-black ink, read the same style of Hebrew handwriting, appreciated the "dry lines" tooled into the skin for margins and lines of writing, and noticed the corrections that scribes occasionally inserted in the margins or between the lines.  I know that it is unlikely that Jesus held the scroll now in my hands, since he would not have been welcome among the separatistic sect of Jews who lived at Qumran.  Nevertheless, the scroll was being used during the time that Jesus was teaching and healing in Israel, and when he traveled to Jericho, he came within eight miles of the scroll.  It is a scroll he could have used even though he probably did not.  There can no longer be any doubt about what the Bible looked like at the time of Jesus.

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the Dead Sea scrolls for biblical studies.  Before the scrolls were discovered, only one ancient fragment had been discovered of a small portion of the Hebrew Bible.  The Nash Papyrus from Egypt preserves a portion of Deuteronomy 5-6 (the Ten Commandments and the Shema, "Hear O Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one") from about 150 b.c.  No manuscript evidence of the Hebrew Bible exists for the next thousand years.  Four partial manuscripts are preserved from the tenth century a.d.  The oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible is from a.d. 1008, and it is the text that is used in the standard scholarly editions of the Hebrew Bible today.  With the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, a window opened upon the ancient text of the Bible, showing what it looked like between approximately 250 b.c. and a.d. 70.  Thousands of fragments from hundreds of copies of biblical books now provide hard evidence about the precision with which the text was copied for a thousand years without the aid of copying machines or printing presses.

So what does the hard evidence show?  Would Jesus, who was the "Word of God made flesh," have been disappointed that the Word of God in the scrolls had been mangled in transmission?  Should Christians who base their faith and life on the Word of God (sola scriptura) modify their beliefs and practices because the text has been corrupted by the scribes?  The hundreds of copies of biblical books at Qumran provide irrefutable proof that the text of the Bible at the time of Jesus was incredibly close to the text of the Bible that survived in many medieval manuscripts and that has been used by both Jews and Christians since that time.  There is more difference between modern translations of the Bible than there is between the ancient Hebrew texts of the Bible.

The scroll of Numbers provides especially interesting information about the "outer limits" of variations in the biblical text at the time of Jesus.  It is always best to know the extremes of textual variation before making general comments about the reliability of textual transmission.  4QNumb belongs to a small group of manuscripts that are the most different from the later standard Hebrew text.  The manuscripts in this small group are similar to the Samaritan version of the first five books of the Bible because they include expanded readings in some locations.  The method for including these expansions is similar to the method followed in our churches today during the season of Lent.  Churches will often use for their Lenten readings a "harmonization" of the accounts of Jesus' suffering and death, drawn from all four Gospels.  Nothing new is added; nothing is taken away; everything that the Bible says about each event or topic is gathered together and read as one full account.  In the same way, there are fourteen places where the Samaritan version (and 4QNumb when it is extant) have sentences or paragraphs from Deuteronomy inserted into Numbers when both books speak about the same events.  For instance, Deuteronomy 2:24-25 is inserted before Numbers 21:21, so the combined text in Numbers reads:  "And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Set out now and cross the Arnon Gorge.  See, I have given into your hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his country.  Begin to take possession of it and engage him in battle.  This very day I will begin to put the terror and fear of you on all the nations under heaven.  They will hear reports of you and will tremble and be in anguish because of you.'  So Israel sent messengers to say to Sihon king of the Amorites…."  Such insertions from Deuteronomy are the major difference between 4QNumb and the standard text of Numbers, but even here, no material is inserted that is not already found elsewhere in the Bible.

Many other variant readings are found in 4QNumb, but they are so minor that they do not change the content of the text, only the form in which the content is expressed.  For instance, it does not matter whether the verb "traveled" in Num. 11:35 is singular (4QNumb) or plural (standard text), or whether the phrase "that has never been under a yoke" in Num. 19:2 has an "and" before it (4QNumb) or not (standard text), or whether the "I" of "while I go aside" in Num. 23:3 is expressed by a separate pronoun (4QNumb) or only by the Hebrew verbal form itself (standard text).  Though there are hundreds of such variants, they make so little difference that the English translation often looks the same regardless of which variant is followed.

The remarkable similarity of the texts also makes it possible to find the proper locations of miniscule fragments of 4QNumb by doing computer searches for the same sequence of letters in the standard Hebrew text.  These are fragments containing only a few letters from a couple of words on different lines!  Such evidence shows that there is no other book in the world that has been copied so faithfully for such a long time as has the Bible.  Even the most "eccentric" Bible Jesus could have used would have been very, very, similar to the Old Testament we use today.

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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