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We have already covered much ground in the last few weeks. Here is where we are currently at: 

By 300 B.C., the Hebrew people had already collected and recognized the vast majority of the OT canon, which was predominantly written in Hebrew, though a few sections were written in Aramaic. Then we learned around 250 B.C., a Greek translation of the Hebrew bible was created. This translation was known and read by the disciples, because many of the OT quotes in the Gospels mirror almost exactly the LXX (the Septuagint). 

As you will read below, the earliest Hebrew manuscript we recovered was written in 930 A.D.. In theory, the closer the manuscript was to the originals, the more trustworthy it is. This is why the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is so important to our journey back to the original manuscripts. 

**The information below is adapted from The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible by Justin Rogers, PhD and other online sources.

The Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls 

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is widely regarded as the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century. A Bedouin shepherd threw a rock into a cave, heard a crash, and discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls. This story is not entirely true. First of all, the broken jar and discovery of the cave took place two days before the first scrolls were found. There was not one Bedouin shepherd, but three. One threw the rock, and another entered the cave two days later without the prior knowledge of his partners. The shepherds took only a few scrolls, and they had no idea what they were and how much they were worth. Once the news came out, both scholars and governmental organizations became involved in discovering additional caves and conducting formal excavations.

From 1947 to 1956 about 930 scrolls were found in 11 desert caves near Qumran, a site about 12½ miles southeast of Jerusalem. Other discoveries were made in about 11 other sites in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, but no place yielded the number of manuscripts as Qumran. The Qumran scrolls span four centuries, from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D., and are written in four languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Nabatean, in addition to discovered coins having Latin inscriptions. The Dead Sea Scrolls are important for the Old Testament in at least two major ways: (1) they allow us access to Old Testament manuscripts over 1,000 years older than we previously knew; and (2) they provide information about the formation of the Old Testament canon of Scripture.

Earliest Hebrew manuscripts

The Aleppo Codex

The Aleppo Codex, the oldest Hebrew Bible in existence today, is so named because it was housed for half a millennium in Aleppo, Syria. The codex, also known as the Crown of Aleppo, was written by scribes called Masoretes in Tiberias, Israel, around 930 C.E. The Aleppo Codex is considered to be the most authoritative copy of the Hebrew Bible. While the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are a thousand years older than the Aleppo Codex—contain books from the Hebrew Bible, the scrolls lack vowels (as was the tradition in ancient—and modern—Hebrew) as well as a discussion of different textual problems and their solutions. The Aleppo Codex features both vowel markings and marginal notations.

Appearing in Aleppo, Syria, sometime in the second half of the 15th century, the Aleppo Codex was preserved nearly intact in a synagogue for centuries—until the 20th century. After the 1947 United Nations vote to partition Palestine and create independent Arab and Jewish states, riots broke out in Aleppo, and parts of the Aleppo Codex were destroyed. What remained of the codex was smuggled out of Aleppo and brought to Israel in 1957. The Aleppo Codex is now kept at the Shrine of the Book wing at the Israel Museum. Unfortunately, almost 200 pages went missing. These pages were never found. 

The Leningrad Codex

The Leningrad Codex is the oldest complete Hebrew bible still preserved. While there are older parts of Bibles, or biblical books, still in existence, there is no older manuscript which contains the whole Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament in Hebrew). The Leningrad Codex is the best complete example of the Masoretic text.The Leningrad Codex was scribed in Cairo Egypt in 1008 AD. It was copied from manuscripts prepared by the famous Tiberian scribe Aaron ben Moses ben Asher sometime in the 10th century AD .

The Leningrad Codex is now preserved at the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg. In the 1840’s the Codex was purchased by the Russian Imperial Library from the famous ancient manuscript collector Abraham Firkovich. Nobody knows where or when Firkovich acquired the Codex. 

The Biblia Hebraica or Hebrew Bible is the printed version of The Leningrad Codex and along with the Greek Septuagint, and the Latin Vulgate it is the primary source texts used in nearly every modern Bible translation.

Who were the Masoretes?

The Masoretes were the final group of scribes who came together to help preserve the biblical text. The Masoretes’ primary work, which lasted from about AD 500 to 900, was meticulously copying the text and adding vowels so that pronunciation (and in some cases meaning) would be preserved. The Masoretes did not want to add anything to the text itself, so they added vowels as “points”—combinations of dots and dashes above and below the consonants—so that the reader would be able to easily tell the difference between the consonants of the original text and the points that had been added. Because of the Masoretes’ reputation for accuracy, the Masoretic Text (MT) came to prominence and was generally accepted by Jewish readers as the most accurate. The Masoretes also added additional material, including some variant readings and other explanatory notes. This material is called the Masorah.

The Non-Biblical Manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls

It surprises many people to hear the majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls are non-biblical. Of the approximately 930 scrolls discovered in the Judean desert, only 222 are biblical (i.e., less than 25%). The percentage of biblical scrolls is much higher at Judean desert sites other than Qumran. The biblical texts of Masada, for example, represent 47% of the total number of scrolls discovered. We may conclude Jews living in desert communities read many different books and were not readers of the Bible alone. This does not necessarily mean, however, that secular books were read more than the Bible. Still, the non-biblical Scrolls have relevance for how the Old Testament was understood and interpreted by some Jews prior to the time of the New Testament.

In order to better examine the non-biblical Scrolls, further classification is needed. So we shall first discuss works most certainly not written by members of the Qumran community, what Protestants might term “Apocrypha” as well as the so-called “Pseudepigrapha.” Then we shall turn to the “sectarian texts” that were either written by members of the Qumran sect or were formative for their development as a community.

Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

The term “apocrypha” is a Greek plural substantive meaning “things hidden.” The term is borrowed from the Church Fathers who used it frequently to refer to books outside of the canon of Scripture recognized by the church. The term “pseudepigrapha,” by contrast, properly refers to writings “falsely ascribed.” Based on this meaning, the term pseudepigrapha ought to be applied to books such as 1 Enoch (which was not written by the real Enoch), the Wisdom of Solomon (not written by Solomon), and so on. But the collection commonly called Pseudepigrapha now stands for almost any non-canonical book that does not belong to the Old Testament or to the Protestant “Apocrypha.”

Of the Apocrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls preserve five copies of Tobit, three of the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirah (Ecclesiasticus), and one of the so-called Epistle of Jeremiah (not actually written by Jeremiah). The position of the Pseudepigrapha is much better. The mysterious book of 1 Enoch is represented in 12 copies from Qumran, and the book of Jubilees in no less than 13 and possibly as many as 16 copies (depending on whether the fragments represent additional manuscripts). By manuscript count alone, Jubilees is better represented than all but four of the canonical Old Testament books (Psalms, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Genesis). Some scholars have suggested that both 1 Enoch and Jubilees were accepted as canonical Scripture in Qumran. This is certainly possible, although perhaps it is best to leave the question open. Popularity does not require canonicity. 

The Old Testament Manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The most celebrated of the Scrolls have been the Old Testament manuscripts. Although some scholars have asserted that fragments of certain New Testament verses can be located, most scholars agree that no New Testament copies, quotations, or fragments exist among the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

Biblical Manuscripts by the Numbers

All Judean desert sites show a special respect for the Law of Moses. The Pentateuch represents 87 of the some 200 biblical Qumran scrolls, and 15 of the additional 25 texts discovered outside Qumran are of the Pentateuch. In other words, 45% of the total number of texts from the Judean desert are Pentateuchal. The Major Prophets represent 46 additional manuscripts, and the Minor Prophets 10 more. So Prophetic books account for nearly one-quarter of the whole. This leaves 25-30% for the rest of the Old Testament.

The Historical Books did not fare as well, with only 18 copies. To illustrate, just one small fragment about the size of a human hand represents all of 1 and 2 Chronicles, and no copies were identified of the Nehemiah section of Ezra-Nehemiah (which is a single book in Hebrew) or of the book of Esther. The Poetic Books, excluding Psalms, represent 14 manuscripts. But 39 manuscripts of Psalms alone were discovered, 36 of which are from Qumran. Broadly speaking, the popularity and dispersion of biblical scrolls in the Judean Desert matches very closely what we observe among the books quoted in the New Testament.

Among stand-alone books at Qumran, Psalms takes the crown (39 manuscripts), followed by Deuteronomy (33), Genesis (24), Isaiah (22), and Exodus (18). Interestingly, four of these five books were in the “top five list” of books quoted by Jesus: Psalms (11), Deuteronomy (10), Isaiah (8), and Exodus (7). In fact, Table 1 compares the number of Qumran manuscripts with the frequency of explicit quotation in the New Testament. Although books can be used without necessarily being quoted, Table 1 provides an interesting point of comparison.

Biblical Book

Judean Desert

New Testament






















Minor Prophets















1–2 Samuel






Song of Songs









1-2 Kings















1-2 Chronicles









Table 1: Number of Dead Sea Scrolls by biblical book compared with New Testament


The Biblical Manuscripts and the Old Testament Canon

So far we have discussed mostly facts. But what do these facts mean? It is prudent to remember that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. In other words, if certain books are missing (such as Esther or Nehemiah) or are poorly represented (such as Chronicles or Ezra) among the Dead Sea Scrolls, we cannot on that basis alone conclude that the Qumran community rejected them from their biblical canon. And the opposite is true: if certain books are well represented among the Dead Sea Scrolls (such as Jubilees or 1 Enoch), we cannot on that basis alone conclude that the Qumran community accepted them into their biblical canon. What books people like to read and what books people consider inspired may, in fact, be different. We know from modern experience that certain books of the Bible are underappreciated and undertaught among Christians. Do we wish to exclude these books from the canon? Of course not. Again, popularity is not the same thing as canonicity.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Reliability of the Biblical Text

There is no doubt that the Bible has been transmitted faithfully to us through the centuries, and that the Dead Sea Scrolls further help to substantiate that truth. Some biblical apologists, however, have often exaggerated the “confirmation” the Dead Sea Scrolls offer the text of the Old Testament. Such comments are often made on the basis of the Great Isaiah Scroll alone, and are sometimes unwisely connected to a percentage evaluation. For example, I have heard several times, “the Dead Sea Scrolls confirm the text of the Old Testament in 99% of the cases.” Not only is such a figure untrue, this whole line of assertion paints an unrealistic picture of the evidence. First, most of the biblical Scrolls, as we have seen, are extremely fragmentary, and therefore cannot offer us a clear basis of comparison for the Bible as a whole. In fact, the only biblical book to be preserved among the Dead Sea Scrolls intact is the Great Isaiah Scroll. Even in the Pentateuch and the Psalms, where the evidence is good, whole sections of the biblical text are completely missing. In these cases, the Scrolls cannot confirm anything. But in other cases, the Dead Sea Scrolls may help bring us closer to the original manuscripts. 

Example #1: 

The traditional Hebrew Bible preserved in the two major Medieval manuscripts, the Aleppo and Leningrad Codices, respectively (the Masoretic Text), fixes the height of Goliath as “six cubits and a span” (1 Samuel 17:4). But 4QSama, a Dead Sea Scrolls manuscript dating to the first century B.C., reads in this passage “four cubits and a span.” This means Goliath is about six feet, four inches tall instead of the Masoretic text’s gigantic nine feet, four inches tall. Further, the reading of 4QSama agrees with the translation of the Greek Old Testament, which read “four cubits and a span” well before the time of the Medieval manuscripts. Should we revise the height of Goliath in our Bibles? Most modern translations have chosen either to ignore our oldest Hebrew copy of this portion of Samuel, or to relegate the information to a footnote. Why?

Example #2: 

Hebrew poetry is intricately designed in ways that English readers simply cannot appreciate. One of the most complex of their poetic forms is the acrostic poem. The author will compose a coherent poem beginning each line, verse, or stanza with subsequent letters of the Hebrew alphabet from ’aleph totav. Psalm 119 is one of the most famous and indeed one of the most beautiful pieces of literature in world history. Psalm 145 is an acrostic as well. But there is one problem: a verse is missing. Psalm 145 walks through every letter of the Hebrew alphabet with the exception of the letter nun. The Greek Old Testament always had this missing line, but the later Masoretic manuscripts had lost it somewhere along the way. Alas, due to the discovery of 11QPsa, the verse can now be restored: “God is faithful in his words and gracious in all his works.”

Other Examples: 

Deuteronomy 32:8

4QDeutj and the LXX say, "according to the number of the sons of God" while the MT and SP say, "according to the number of the sons of Israel." "Sons of Israel" does not make sense here. This is probably a theological change. The 4QDeutj and the LXX seem to preserve the older reading that implies a god, or guardian angel for each nation.

Genesis 4:8

Genesis 4:8 leaves us with the unanswered question about What did Cain say to Abel? The Samaritan Pentateuch and the LXX have what Cain said. The LXX says, "Let us go out into the field." 4QGenb does not have this reading, but scholars think the sentence dropped out because of scribal error.

Psalm 22:17

Psalm 22:17 in the MT "like a lion are my hands and feet" which does not make sense. The LXX and 5/6HevPs read "They have pierced my hands and feet."

Let us pause here to make an important observation: these cases we have been discussing are unusual. In fact, there are relatively few examples of passages that are totally different in the Dead Sea Scrolls than they appear in the Medieval Hebrew manuscripts. And the majority of the passages that are different match some other known version of the Old Testament (usually the Greek translation). This means that the Old Testament has been copied and transmitted with remarkable accuracy. It is not a stretch to say the Hebrew Bible known to Jesus is essentially the same as the one known to us. All of this leads to the conclusion that the Dead Sea Scrolls sometimes complicate, but generally confirm, our knowledge of the Old Testament text.


The Dead Sea Scrolls are important for a number of reasons. First, they shed light on an otherwise unknown Jewish group. Second, the Scrolls indicate that certain books of the Bible were more popular than others, a conclusion we could draw similarly from the New Testament quotations of the Old Testament. Third, the use of the Old Testament as an authoritative source for biblical interpretation and personal and community life matches material from the New Testament as well. Finally, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls allows us to access Old Testament manuscripts more than 1,000 years older than we previously possessed. Before the discovery of the Scrolls, the oldest complete manuscript of any Old Testament book dated to the 10th century A.D. To be clear, if Moses wrote the Pentateuch in circa 1400 B.C., then our earliest copy of his complete work in Hebrew dated 2,400 years after it was written! It is with justification that the Dead Sea Scrolls are considered by many the most important biblical archaeological discovery of all time.