The Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls

In the June 1999 issue of Bible Review, Sidnie White Crawford, associate professor and chair of the Department of Classics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, considers what the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal about the position of early Jews on the emendation, authority, and canonicity of biblical texts.1 Crawford begins by noting that neither a canonical Bible nor even a fixed text of the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy) existed when the Dead Sea Scrolls were written (250 B.C.-A.D. 70).

Because some of the Dead Sea Scrolls biblical texts differ significantly from the three major textual traditions of the Hebrew Old Testament (the Masoretic text, Septuagint, and Samaritan Pentateuch), Crawford asks, “In ancient times, how far could these texts deviate and still be considered biblical? Or authoritative?” She approaches this complex issue by looking at two kinds of scribal alterations evident in the scrolls-“harmonizations,” which she suspects did not detract from the authority of the texts, and new additions, which she believes probably did. Her first example concerns three variations of the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy, found in Exodus 20:8-11, Deuteronomy 5:12-15, and the Dead Sea Scroll text 4QDeuteronomyn.

Crawford explains that the difference between the Exodus and Deuteronomy texts (“remember the Sabbath day” and “observe the Sabbath day,” respectively) is one of context. The rationale for the Exodus version is that “the Israelites must remember the Sabbath because the Lord rested on the seventh day after creating the universe in six days,” while the Deuteronomy version emphasizes Sabbath observance because of the Israelites’ former slavery in Egypt. Crawford observes that 4QDeuteronomyn harmonizes these two versions simply by combining both justifications: “Observe the Sabbath day,” it charges, because Israel was “a servant in the land of Egypt. . . . For [in] six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, . . . and he rested on the seventh day.”

According to Crawford, first-century readers would probably have recognized the 4QDeuteronomyn version of the fourth commandment “as a harmonization of the other two existing versions. . . . Would that have made any difference to the authority of the text? Probably not. For Second Temple period Jews [those living before A.D. 70], the authority of these books lay in each book’s general message rather than in its precise words or their order. The words of the biblical text could be manipulated-moved around, updated, added to-without detracting from the authoritative status of the book. This . . . certainly seems to have been true for the Jews of Palestine.”

But what about the addition of new material to biblical texts? Did that kind of alteration undermine their authority? In search of an answer, Crawford turns to the “parabiblical” Dead Sea Scrolls text called 4QReworked Pentateuch, one manuscript of which (4Q365) adds seven lines to Miriam’s song in Exodus 15:21. Although Crawford acknowledges that we simply do not know if that addition of new text affected the authority of the Exodus text, she surmises that it probably did, since circumstantial evidence suggests that the altered passage was no longer circulated, copied, or quoted elsewhere in literature of the period, nor in later rabbinic literature. So although “4Q365 may have had authority for a limited audience around the time of its production, it was never generally accepted as authoritative.”

Crawford believes that a “canon, or list of sacred books, and an authoritative, unchangeable text” were beginning to take place by the end of the first century A.D. The Dead Sea Scrolls throw light on this transition: “A number of fragmentary biblical scrolls dating to the second century A.D., discovered in caves south of Wadi Qumran, suggest that at about the time a canon was developing, so too was the notion of a fixed authoritative text.” Crawford concludes that “after the fall of the Temple in A.D. 70, the canonical list becomes fixed in Palestinian Judaism, as does the text of those canonical books. No deliberate changes would henceforth be made. A great tradition of innerbiblical exegesis-so clearly reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls-had come to an end.”

While Crawford cites instances in which scribal emendations of the Dead Sea Scrolls appear to have produced or preserved better readings of biblical texts,2 she also acknowledges that the centuries-long process of hand copying those texts sometimes resulted in errors. For many people of faith, the idea that uninspired scribes tampered with biblical texts originally penned by prophets is disturbing, particularly if that tampering led to errors in modern versions of the Bible. Donald W. Parry, a Latter-day Saint member of the international team of scholars working on the Dead Sea Scrolls, has observed that although “variant readings are frequent in the ancient versions and textual witnesses of the Old Testament,” the Bible remains a remarkable treasury of prophetic material.3 LDS Church leaders have continually affirmed the value of the King James Version of the Bible and the Prophet Joseph Smith’s inspired revision of it. Latter-day Saints are also fortunate to have the Book of Mormon and modern revelation to guide them as they search revealed scripture and look forward to additional records that have been prophesied to come forth.

What of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Parry advises Latter-day Saints who are interested in the scrolls to approach them as they would the Apocrypha, concerning which the Lord said: “There are many things contained therein that are true . . . ; there are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men. . . . Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; and whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom; and whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited” (D&C 91:1-2, 4-6).4


1. Sidnie White Crawford, “The Fluid Bible: The Blurry Line between Biblical and Nonbiblical Texts,” Bible Review, June 1999, 34-39, 50-51.

2. Other scholars have made similar observations. See, for example, Eugene Ulrich, “The Bible in the Making,” in The Community of the Renewed Covenant: The Notre Dame Symposium on the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. Eugene Ulrich and James Vander-Kam (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 84, where Ulrich argues that scribal efforts to enrich and adapt the biblical texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls was part of a “traditioning” process that made the texts more relevant and authoritative; John Tvedtnes, “The Isaiah Variants in the Book of Mormon” (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1981), in which Tvedtnes shows that the Isaiah scroll (1QIsaa) from Qumran supports many readings of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon that differ from those in the Bible; and Donald W. Parry, “The Contribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in LDS Perspectives on the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. Donald W. Parry and Dana M. Pike (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1997), 59-60, where Parry gives examples of scriptural passages missing from the Bible that were discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls texts, “many of which may be inspired writings of God.” He also discusses the extent to which modern English editions of the Bible favor variant readings from the Dead Sea Scrolls (64-65).

3. Parry, “Contribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” 55, 65-66.

4. Donald W. Parry and Stephen D. Ricks, The Dead Sea Scrolls: Questions and Responses for Latter-day Saints (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), xi.