Classics and Religious Studies, Department of


Date of this Version

January 1999


Published in Bible Review XV, pp. 34-39, 50-51. Copyright © 1999 Biblical Arcaeology Society. Used by permission.


When the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, no canonical Bible existed. That is, in the two or three centuries before the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., there was no one list of sacred books that was considered authoritative. At the same time, there was no clear border between biblical books and nonbiblical books. Rather, different groups of Jews considered different books authoritative, even though all Jews accepted the Torah, or Pentateuch—that is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Torah was, after all, the source of the Law, which provided the underpinning of Jewish ritual and daily life.

But the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal a surprising fact: Even in the case of the Torah, there was no fixed text either of the Torah as a whole, or of any of the individual books. Among the scrolls is a whole group of texts that are related to, but differ from, the present-day books of the canonical Torah. Some of the texts are simply copies of biblical books with variants, the result of centuries of hand copying (scribal error or manipulation) and textual growth. These documents provide critical new material to the text critic who attempts to recover the best text of a biblical book, using all copies available.

Some of these texts, however, differ markedly— at times startlingly—from the standard authoritative Jewish version of the Bible, known as the Masoretic text, or MT for short. Nor do they resemble the two other major biblical textual traditions, the Septuagint (or LXX for short) and the Samaritan Pentateuch. The Septuagint is a Greek translation made for the Jews of Alexandria, Egypt, the first five books of which were translated in the third century B.C. from a Hebrew text that differs somewhat from MT. According to legend, the name Septuagint, which comes from the Latin term for “seventy,” refers to the 72 Jewish translators brought to Egypt by Ptolemy Philadelphus [285–246 B.C.] to translate the Torah.) More about the Samaritan Pentateuch later. Suffice it to say that MT is the authoritative text for Jews and Protestants; LXX, for the Orthodox churches; and the Samaritan Pentateuch, for the small group of Samaritans who still live in Nablus and a few places in Israel. Each of these traditions is represented in various fragmentary manuscripts of the Pentateuch found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

But some of the seemingly biblical manuscripts from Qumran differ considerably from all of these traditions. The question I would raise is, In ancient times, how far could these texts deviate and still he considered biblical? Or authoritative? Scholars themselves are somewhat unsure, calling them “parabiblical” or “quasibiblical.” Those terms, however, describe the texts only from our viewpoint. To us, they are not canonical and therefore cannot be biblical. But to the people who copied and read them two thousand years ago, they may have been just as authoritative as the texts we consider biblical today.

Included in

Classics Commons