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The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible

The importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls [DSS] for the Bible, well, I can think of at least three areas.  First of all, the text; we’ve got copies of biblical books [from the DSS] that are different from the Hebrew of the biblical books that we have received, the traditional text.  Some of them are very close to the Hebrew version of the Greek translations, suggesting that anyway, that at the time, first century B.C.E., first century C.E., there were different versions of the Hebrew text in circulation, even in the same place.  And that certainly the history of the Hebrew text is much more complicated than we thought, and in some cases, these versions might be older than the ones that we have traditionally received.  So, it’s kind of undermined the authority of the received texts, historically, in some ways, which is good. 

Secondly, in terms of canon, we’ve got all the so-called biblical books there [in the DSS] apart from Esther, but we also have some others.  It’s not at all clear that they had a scriptural canon as the same as the one we have received from the Jewish canon—the Masoretic canon—so it gives some evidence of the canon being more or less set, but maybe not accepted everywhere. 

Thirdly, is what they do with the Bible, the way they interpret it.  They interpret it in a legal way, a quite interesting way that anticipates what the Rabbis do.  They are making their own community laws out of the Bible.  They are extending them and applying them to everyday life, which is actually very interesting.  They are rewriting certain stories; they rewrite the flood story, for example, in a way that doesn’t quite follow the Bible.  They rewrite the story of Abraham and Sarah in an interesting way, and other things in Genesis, as well.  So they were not too bothered about the literal meaning of biblical stories. They also interpret texts which they regard as prophetic, like Habakkuk, Isaiah, some Psalms as well, as fortelling events in the history of their own community, and they do it in the classic, modern, commentary way.  They cite the text, and then they say this is the interpretation—you know, such and such a thing applies to such and such.  And that is a method of exegesis that we find echoed in the New Testament—less so in rabbinic literature, but it’s still there.  It shows clearly that they believed that the Bible was full of prophecies about the end of time, in which they were living.


  • Philip R. Davies

    Philip R. Davies has written extensively on the Hebrew Bible, Judaism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among his books are In Search of “Ancient Israel” (T&T Clark, 1992), Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures (Westminster John Knox, 1998), The Origins of Biblical Israel (T&T Clark, 2007), and Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History (Westminster John Knox, 2008). Since 2002 he has been professor emeritus at the Universty of Sheffield, United Kingdom.