Catherine McDowell (PhD, Harvard) teaches Old Testament for Gordon-Conwell’s Charlotte campus. She previously taught at Wheaton College and was a teaching fellow at Harvard. Along with numerous articles, she has contributed to the NIV Archaeological Study Bible and is the author of The Image of God in the Garden of Eden

A team of Israeli archaeologists led by Drs. Oren Gutfeld and Ahiad Ovadia of Hebrew University recently announced the discovery of another cave (identified as Cave 12) near Qumran that likely contained scrolls dating to the Second Temple Period (538 BC – 70 AD).

Archaeologists found the remains of jars identical to those used to house scrolls in contemporary caves in the region, along with a blank piece of parchment, a leather band used to secure a rolled scroll, and a small piece of linen in which a scroll would have been wrapped before it was placed in a store jar. Unfortunately, however, Cave 12 was apparently looted in the 1950s, as indicated by the smashed jars, discarded linen, and several modern pickaxes left behind by the thieves, who presumably took the scrolls and sold them.

Why Is Qumran Important?

Until their discovery in the 1940-’50s the oldest Hebrew manuscripts for the Old Testament dated to the 9th-10th c A.D., and the oldest Hebrew copy of the Old Testament, the Leningrad Codex, dates to 1008 A.D.! The Dead Sea Scrolls range in date from c. 250 B.C. to 68 A.D., and, thus, they provide us with the oldest extant copies of the Hebrew Old Testament by more than 1,000 years!

With roughly a 1,000-year gap in time between the medieval Hebrew manuscripts, on which our English Old Testaments are based, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, can we be confident our English Bibles are reliable? The significant continuity between the biblical texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the medieval Old Testament manuscripts testifies to a scribal tradition that was committed to the preservation of the Scripture, and to a God who superintended the process. There are differences, to be sure, but they constitute only about 1 percent of the readings. Thus, we can rest assured that our English Bibles are excellent and faithful translations of God’s Word.

Within that 1 percent, however, there are conundrums that the DSS can resolve (cf. the ESV and NIV of Deut 32:8 and Isa 19:18) and, in some cases, the DSS may preserve an original verse that was lost! For example, the Leningrad Codex on which our English Old Testaments are based is missing the last half of Psalm 145:13, “The LORD is trustworthy in all he promises and faithful in all he does” (NIV). This text is preserved, however, in the Dead Sea Scroll of this psalm (11QPsa) and in the Septuagint (LXX), the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament.

How are we to know which manuscript preserves the original reading? This psalm is an acrostic, that is, each line begins with a successive letter of the alphabet. In the Leningrad Codex, the acrostic pattern is interrupted between vs. 13 and vs. 14—we are missing a line that starts with the letter “nun” (n)!

Bible translation committees have recognized this and hence most of our modern English translations have adopted the reading of Psalm 145:13 in 11QPsa. There are other places where our English Bibles have adopted the reading of the DSS, but this should not shake our confidence. Rather, through the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls we see the wonderful way God has preserved his Word.