The Dead Sea Scrolls are undeniably the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century. The nearly 900 documents that were found, many of them fragmentary date anywhere from 340 BCE to 60 CE, with some of the manuscripts representing what we have embraced as biblical texts dating as far back as 270 BCE. Before the discovery of these manuscripts, the earliest extant copies of manuscripts we had were from the 11th century CE. These texts, found in jars in the Judean desert, pre-date those texts by approximately 1,200 years - making the Dead Sea Scrolls the oldest copies of biblical manuscripts we possess.
Starting today and running through December 31st, 27 of the Dead Sea Scrolls will go on display at the San Diego Natural History Museum. If you're interested in seeing something truly extraordinary, this is your chance. They are truly an amazing phenomena, and one that has vast reaching implications for how we see and understand manuscripts, and in particular Biblical manuscripts. The scrolls have formed a central part of my Masters thesis, as well as what I'm exploring for doctoral work - so I'll be heading down for sure. As a part of the exhibit they will also be hosting a series of lectures by some of the foremost scholars in the field of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
If you're new to the Dead Sea Scrolls and their impact on our understanding of texts, Second Temple Judaism, and early Christianity, here's an exerpt from an interview with Geza Vermes in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review:
Moving from the outward appearance to the study of the contents of the Qumran manuscripts, I noticed that as a rule no two copies of the same document were strictly identical. There were always some verbal differences. The order of the paragraphs varied. One text was longer than another. The documents were frequently revised by later editors. I concluded from this that plurality of the textual tradition preceded the unity to which we are accustomed in the transmission of texts. This applies to Biblical, non-scriptural and specifically sectarian (Essene) texts alike. This means that the ultimate unification of a textual tradition was due to the intervention of later representatives of doctrinal authority (rabbis, Church) that could not tolerate variants in a text that was declared binding. In my view, this priority of the multiple as against the unified tradition relates to the text of the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic law, as well as the New Testament.
In other words, one of the key implications of the Dead Sea Scrolls was the existence of different literary editions of texts, including Biblical texts. What was found were actual different versions of Biblical texts existing side by side one another. Hence, books were considered scriptural, not necessarily a specific literary edition. They could handle multiple versions of a text rather than insisting on a uniformed textual edition. This is why staking a claim to an "original version" of the Biblical texts is so problematic. There simply is no such thing as a monolithic, "original" text. As Eugene Ulrich observes,
Thus, because the text of each book was produced organically, in multiple layers, determining "the original text" is a difficult, complex task; and arguably, it may not even be the correct goal. Historically, was there ever such a thing? Theologically, how do we decide which to select of the many layers that could claim to be the "original reading"? [The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible, p. 16]
[Photo courtesy of San Diego Natural History Museum and IAA]