Dead Sea Scrolls and the research surrounding their discovery and translation examined at presentation



CHARLESTON — The most significant archaeological discovery relating to the Bible was explored at a recent Sunday morning program sponsored by the Notre Dame Club of Charleston and the Jewish Studies Program at the College of Charleston.

“The Dead Sea Scrolls: Jewish and Christian Significance” was the topic of a Nov. 11 presentation given by James C. VanderKam, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, who discussed the contents of these scrolls, their importance for biblical studies, and the headline controversies they generated.

VanderKam is a graduate of Calvin College and Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich., and he earned his doctorate from Harvard University in 1976.

The professor worked with the scrolls in graduate school. “They were a backwater in terms of biblical scholarship. Interest was not high,” he said.

That changed in the early ’80s. Concerns were raised about the length of time it was taking for publication of translations. By 1985, even allowing for an academic pace, that seemed to be enough time, VanderKam said. “By then, the scrolls seemed to be headline news.”

All of that has calmed down nowadays. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the project kicked into high gear when photographs of the scrolls became available. Now, 30 volumes of material have been published. In the next year-and-a-half, all of the scroll should be translated.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are 850 to 900 different texts found in 1947 in caves near the ancient settlement of Qumran in southern Judea. Over 700 of the texts are written in Hebrew. Before they were found, there were almost no Hebrew documents from the last century B.C. to the first century A.D.

VanderKam said a number of methods were used to date the material. Handwriting samples were compared to dated samples and a form of carbon dating was also applied.

“I believe they were all Jewish texts by Jewish authors,” the theologian said.

Most of the scroll texts are fragmentary remains. They are believed to have been written by the Essenes, members of an ultraconservative religious community living in exile on the shores of the Dead Sea waiting for the end of the world.

Said VanderKam, “They took their cue from Isaiah, ‘In the wildnerness prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight the path.'”

They wrote rules for life in the sect and communal meetings. To join, a member had to hand over all of their property. “They were a radical group that didn’t speak for all the Jewish people in their time,” the Notre Dame professor said.

The scrolls contain the earliest known texts of several Old Testament books. Before their discovery more than five decades ago, the earliest copies were from around the year 900.

And they were preserved with tremendous care, VanderKam emphasized. He noted, “It’s remarkable how they agree with later versions. There are many differences, but they relate to small matters like the spelling of words. In some cases, there are interesting differences that arise in different versions of biblical books. Some follow the wording of the Samaritan Bible, some follow Greek.”

The professor then went into detail on one of those differences. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, an extra paragraph is added between 1 Samuel verses 10 and 11. In the most recent copy of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, that paragraph has been put in the text. “It’s an example of what can happen when copying,” explained VanderKam.

Thirty-six copies were found of the Psalms, the most of any book of the Bible. The best preserved copy, found in 1956, contains many psalms from 100 on. There are additional ones, including some Greek and additional translations. However, they come in a different order, too.

The theologian discussed how the Book of Psalms gradually came into being. “The first 89 are in fixed order, but from Psalm 90 to 150, the stability breaks down. The order of the psalms, where it can be checked, doesn’t match the Bible. There are different possibilities. Which psalms would go into the Bible wasn’t absolutely fixed.”

That led to the fundamental question of which books were considered authoritative by this community. VanderKam said scholars don’t know if this community had a fixed list of books and it would just be speculation about which were considered authoritative.

He said that much can be learned about other Jewish groups though. “For enemies, they always use vague terms, such as ‘the wicked priest.’ One of their opponent groups they call ‘those who look for smooth things.’ It’s probably the Pharisees. According to this group the Pharisees were taking the easy way out, they weren’t strict enough. Apparently they didn’t like the Sadducees — a wealthy, strong people — but their legal texts agree with Sadducean positions.”

According to VanderKam, the Essenes thought God was going to come help them fight their enemies. He added that the Dead Sea Scrolls are Jewish words, not Christian. “It’s very unlikely we have any Christianity in the scrolls.”

However, the professor listed a number of parallels between the ways Essenes and first Christians acted, describing areas of commonality in private property, group disputes, and biblical interpretation.

“Commentators believed biblical prophecies were coming true in their time,” he said.

VanderKam concluded, “The Dead Sea Scrolls allow us to see a period of history in a very different way. We’re ‘peeping toms’ in history. We can see history more fully than we ever could before.”

In taking questions from the audience, one listener asked about the materials from which the scrolls were made. Gazelle, a native animal, was the answer.