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Has the Bible Become Corrupt?
by Stephen E. Witmer
For many years Islamic doctrine and liberal scholarship have alleged that Bible manuscripts have become corrupt over time. Is this true? We asked Stephen Witmer to respond to the charge. Stephen is a graduate of Wheaton College (B.A.), holds an M.Div. and a Th.M. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and is now in the final year or so of his doctoral program at Cambridge University in England. Here is his answer:
If you’re one of the millions who have read Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, you may remember the following claim, referring to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Coptic Scrolls: ‘The scrolls highlight glaring historical discrepancies and fabrications, clearly confirming that the modern Bible was compiled and edited by men who possessed a political agenda’
The DaVinci Code contains many inaccurate claims, and this is one of them. I don’t intend to address the Coptic Scrolls in this article. Rather, I’ll focus on the Dead Sea Scrolls and examine a few ways in which they have affected our study of the Bible.
Let’s begin with a story. In the Winter/ Spring of 1946-47, a Bedouin shepherd, tending his flock with two friends, began tossing rocks into the mouth of a nearby cave. He heard something shatter inside. Two days later, early in the morning, one of his friends returned to the cave, entered it, and discovered the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as they would come to be known. From 1947-1956, eleven caves in the area were excavated, yielding the often fragmentary remains of some 800 ancient manuscripts. The work of a group of Jews (probably Essenes) living in a monastic-like community at a place called Qumran on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, these manuscripts are one of the greatest archaeological finds of the twentieth century.
The Scrolls contain portions of every book of the Old Testament, except for Esther and Nehemiah, as well as other early Jewish works, commentaries on Old Testament prophetic books, rules for ordering community life, texts for worship, and many other fascinating manuscripts.
THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS AND BIBLICAL STUDIES
Although the Scrolls never mention Jesus (contrary to some erroneous assertions), they have had a significant impact on our study of the Bible. Let’s look briefly at two examples.
Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, our oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament (the Masoretic Text) were from A.D. 895. That’s more than a thousand years later than the latest book of the Old Testament was written – a lot of time for errors in transmission. Our oldest complete manuscripts of the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) were from the 3rd-4th centuries A.D. Compare this with the best-preserved Biblical scroll among the Dead Sea
Scrolls, the Isaiah Scroll, which dates to 100 B.C. – one thousand years earlier than our earliest Hebrew manuscripts! When scholars compared the Isaiah Scroll with the Masoretic Text, they found that the two were almost identical except for some insignificant details. This confirms the remarkable accuracy with which Jewish and Christian scribes copied the Scriptures for hundreds of years. We must note that not all of the Old Testament manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls agree with the Masoretic Text. Sometimes they support readings from the Greek translation. But even these cases help us to establish the original
Here’s another example. Critical scholars in the 19th and early 20th centuries maintained that the Gospel of John was written late (mid-second century), was very Hellenistic, and was influenced by Gnostic ideas. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been a major factor in changing that consensus. The Scrolls are not only early and Jewish, they are also strikingly similar to the Gospel of John in numerous ways, e.g. dualism, light/darkness imagery. The Scrolls, together with other manuscript discoveries, have now convinced the majority of New Testament scholars that the Gospel of John is very Jewish and was written earlier than many scholars once maintained. This bolsters the case that the Gospel was written by an eyewitness of Jesus and is historically accurate.
These are just two examples of how the Dead Sea Scrolls have impacted biblical studies. More could be given. Far from establishing the historical inaccuracy of the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls have played an important part in confirming its trustworthiness.
SOURCES & RESOURCES
James Charlesworth, ‘Reinterpreting John: How the Dead Sea Scrolls Have Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Gospel of John,’ Bible Review, February 1993.
Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, InterVarsity Press, 2001.
James VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today, Eerdmans, 1994. [Author’s personal note: I have drawn much valuable material from VanderKam’s book in writing this article.]