This post wraps up our Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology series. To see the complete series please click here.
Old Testament Scribes
How accurate is the Old Testament we hold in our hands? It’s popular today to attack the accuracy of the Bible on the grounds of its lack of effective transmission. Popular authors claim the Bible we have today has simply been copied too many times, with too many textual errors, to be believed as the very words of God handed down to us over the millennia.
Every single copy of the Old Testament was hand copied up until the printing press came along in the 15th century AD. Imagine that, some of the books of the Old Testament were copied over and over for more than 3,000 years (traditional view of dating). Can a document copied so many times by hand truly be accurate today?
Tradition tells us the Hebrew people were meticulous copyists of Scripture. Scribes were so aware of their task they would go to great lengths to make sure their hand-written copy of Scripture was free from error. Hebrew scribes were bound to the following rules:
- They could only use clean animal skins, both to write on, and even to bind manuscripts.
- Each column of writing could have no less than forty-eight, and no more than sixty lines.
- The ink must be black, and of a special recipe.
- They must verbalize each word aloud while they were writing.
- They must wipe the pen and wash their entire bodies every time before writing God’s name.
- There must be a review within thirty days, and if as many as three pages required corrections, the entire manuscript had to be redone.
- The letters, words, and paragraphs had to be counted, and the document became invalid if two letters touched each other. The middle paragraph, word and letter must correspond to those of the original document.
- The documents could be stored only in sacred places (synagogues, etc.).
Silver Amulet Scroll and Nash Papyrus
With all the careful scribal work a shockingly few number of Old Testament ancient manuscripts exist until today. The silver amulet scroll is by far the oldest. The scroll was mentioned as #4 in this top ten series. The amulet scroll dates way back to 600 BC. This is fantastic but it is only a couple verses of the entire Bible. So we can get a feel for the accuracy of those couple verses but not be able to get a good representative sample for the entirety of Scripture.
The Nash Papyrus dates to around 200 BC. It’s also a wonderful discovery but similar to the amulet scroll it only contains a hand-full of verses. Gratefully those verses are the Ten Commandments, but nonetheless our only 2 manuscripts of the Old Testament from the BC era are a very small representation of the entire Old Testament canon.
Codex Aleppo is the oldest entire Old Testament possessed by humanity. The manuscript dates to around 900AD. The priceless manuscript is indeed magnificent. When analyzing the more than 2.7 million writing details that make up the Old Testament, the manuscript appears to be very precise in its creation. Although we have such a beautiful manuscript, the elephant in the room is that this manuscript dates from 900AD. Many New Testament manuscripts are older than our oldest Old Testament manuscript. Most of the Old Testament was written over 1500 years before Codex Aleppo.
The greatest biblically relevant archaeological discovery, made in the winter of 1946-47, would shake up the biblical and archaeological world. John C. Trever has done a good job reconstructing the story of the scrolls from several interviews with the Bedouin people.
Muhammed edh-Dhib, a 15 year old Bedouin living in Bethlehem, was with his cousin in the region of the Dead Sea. Jum’a Muhammad, the cousin of edh-Dhib, noticed some possible cave openings while out shepherding some goats. Edh-Dhib made it into a cave and discovered something that had been untouched for more than 2,200 years. He reached into a pot and retrieved some scrolls and showed them to Jum’a.
The impact of these scrolls were not readily apparent. The scrolls were taken back to the Bedouin camp to show the rest of the family. The Bedouin kept the scrolls hanging on a tent pole while they figured out what to do with them, periodically taking them out to show people.
The scrolls were first taken to a dealer named Ibrahim ‘ljha in Bethlehem. In one of those famous dumb moments of history ‘ljha returned them saying they were worthless. Undaunted, thankfully, the Bedouin went to a nearby market, where a Syrian Christian offered to buy them. A sheikh joined their conversation and suggested they take the scrolls to a part-time antiques dealer. The Bedouin left one scroll with the dealer and then sold three scrolls to another for the ridiculous sum of $29!
George Isha’ya, a member of the Syrian Orthodox Church, heard about the scrolls and contacted St. Mark’s Monastery in the hope of getting an appraisal, news of the find then reached Metropolitan bishop Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, better known as Mar Samuel.
After examining the scrolls and suspecting their astronomical worth, he expressed interest in purchasing them. Four scrolls found their way into his hands. More scrolls continued to arrive on the scene. By the end of 1948, nearly two years after their first discovery, scholars had yet to locate the source of the manuscripts.
What was all the fuss about? After careful analysis and scientific analysis at the University of California, Davis it was determined that a new era of Old Testament biblical manuscripts had arrived. We were witnessing what appeared to be the discovery of an entire library of Old Testament and ancient Jewish writings. How old were these books? Remember our oldest complete Old Testament had been 900AD. An entire scroll of Isaiah was found and dated to around 200BC! Can you believe that, in one discovery 1100 years of biblical hand-written copies were spanned.
Magnitude of the Discovery
Archaeologists were able to track down the origin of the first scrolls and together with the Bedouins ended up finding a total of 972 manuscripts from 11 different caves. All 11 caves are in the southeastern Dead Sea area of Israel. The area receives almost no rainfall making it a perfect climate for ancient manuscripts to last thousands of years without decomposing.
The scrolls contain verses from every Old Testament book except for one. Only about 1/3rd of the scrolls are biblical writings. 2/3rds of the manuscripts are not biblical but pertain to Jewish life at the time. Think of it as stumbling across the 1,000 volume library of a Christian with many books of the Bible but then all sorts of books about 21st century Christian life and thought. This is the equivalent of the Dead Sea Scroll discovery. Many of the non-biblical books discovered were not known to even exist!
The scrolls, for some insane reason, were put up for sale in the Wall Street Journal on June 1, 1954. They were purchased for $250,000 and brought to Jerusalem where they eventually became housed in a museum called the Shrine of the Book where they reside today when not circulating in museums around the world. The scrolls today are considered priceless. Just to purchase a replica facsimile copy of 3 of the scrolls currently will run you $60,000 (a donation of replica scrolls to Parchment & Pen will not be turned down).
Significance of the Discovery
The scrolls are still, after decades, a discovery still being digested. The 972 manuscripts have shed great light on the accuracy and complexity of the Old Testament. The Isaiah Scroll, in comparison to Codex Aleppo and other manuscripts, show that the message of the Old Testament has not been changed over millennia. More articles and books have been written about the Dead Sea Scrolls than any other archaeological discovery with biblical significance. The scrolls are shedding a great deal of light on the Jewish religious world of roughly 200BC-90AD. The scrolls are generally showing the modern-day Old Testament to be an extremely accurate representation of the original writers.
Work in Progress
Google has announced a new deal with the Israeli Antiquities Authority to photograph all of the scrolls in order to make high-resolution photos available to anyone online for free. The scrolls continue to amaze and delight us; where we once had only a couple fragments of the ancient Old Testament we now enjoy an abundant library.
Please join the discussion by posting your thoughts in the comments section below.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]