When Were They Written? The Dating of the Scrolls
by Neil Altman (September / October 2000 • Volume 16 • Number 5)
The traditional view posits the dating of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls as before the time of Jesus. Other textual evidence point to some time after Jesus' birth. The implications of a later dating may not be insignificant
(Editor: Neil Altman is a Philadelphia-based writer who specializes in the Dead Sea Scrolls and religion. He also receives assistance from his editor/colleague, David Crowder, an investigative reporter and former editorial page editor for the El Paso Times. Mr. Altman has done graduate work at Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning, Conwell School of Theology, and Temple University, and has a master's degree in Old Testament from Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.)
Since the discovery in the late 1940s of a huge cache of scrolls in caves near the Dead Sea in Israel, a tight-knit community of scholars has insisted they were written by a Jewish sect before the birth of Jesus.
But, as we move into the new millennium, the Dead Sea Scrolls debate will become hotter than ever as evidence mounts that they were written at a later date, after the birth of Jesus and by Christians.
At stake is the credibility of the original eight-member team of Dead Sea Scroll scholars and the thousands of articles and books they and other scholars have written.
Also at stake is the integrity of the Bible itself, which has undergone scores of changes because of the scrolls, with more changes on the way.
Some scholars, for instance, say the Temple Scroll should be incorporated into the Old Testament as the sixth book of Moses.1 In addition, "The New Revised Standard Version (of the Bible) adds a significant passage to 1 Samuel 10:27 from the text of the Qumran Samuel scroll," said David Scholer, of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.2
Interestingly, it is Christian versions of the Old Testament to which almost all of the changes have been made. Publishers of Jewish Bibles are far less willing to alter the Scriptures because of the scrolls.
Among Christians, their ministers and priests, few are aware that the Dead Sea Scrolls have led to more than 800 "minor" changes in Old Testament editions so far.3
The first scrolls reportedly were found by an Arab shepherd boy in 1947 in a cave near the ruins of Qumran overlooking the Dead Sea. Archaeologists and others discovered 11 caves in all that held more than 800 manuscripts, some remarkably well preserved and others reduced to fragments. Among the documents were parts of all but one of the 39 books of the Old Testament.
The prevalent theory is that the scrolls were hidden there in about 68 CE to keep them out of Roman hands during the Jewish revolt that led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
The Early Years
The traditional view of the dating of the scrolls is that they were written between 300 BCE and 50 CE. This theory was based upon three factors: archaeology, paleography (study of ancient handwriting), and carbon-14 testing.4
The first scholar to date the scrolls as ancient was William F. Albright, archaeologist at Johns Hopkins University. The first photographs of the scrolls were taken by John C. Trever, a young post-doctoral student from Yale, whose hobby was plant photography.
Approached by Arab middlemen about the scrolls while at the American Schools of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, Trever got involved in photographing the scrolls, and he subsequently contacted Albright for his opinion.
Albright wrote back in 1948: "My heartiest congratulations on the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times! There is no doubt whatever in my mind that the script is more archaic than that of the Nash Papyrus [variously dated 100 BC to 400 AD]...Of course, in the present state of our definite knowledge about Hebrew paleography...I should prefer a date around 100 BC"5
Trever's woes began when he left the American Schools with letter in hand from Albright to begin his crusade for a BCE dating of the scrolls. A wall of resistance started in England among British scholars, such as Oxford scholar G.R. Driver and J.L. Teicher, of Cambridge University. In Driver's own words: "The arguments to establish a pre-Christian dating of the scrolls are fundamentally unsound."6
Like the great guns of battleships firing, Driver let loose another salvo. Since there was no text from the time of the scrolls, there was nothing to compare them with except a mere fragment of the Nash Papyrus.
|Controversies surrounding the scrolls — including their place of origin and true authorship — all pale in light of the problem of dating.|
To date the scrolls paleographically was, in Driver's opinion, "at the best inconclusive, at the worst inapplicable... Only when the date has been fixed by the historical evidence afforded by their contents will a sound basis have been established for the palaeography of the period. Palaeography is the handmaid of history, not history of palaeography."7
Adding some credibility, however, to Albright's early dating was the work of French archaeologist Roland de Vaux. Though he first dated artifacts, such as lamps, found in Qumran Cave 1 as third century CE, de Vaux later back-dated them to the Greco-Roman period, falling in line with the ever-increasing view of the scrolls' antiquity.
Further evidence was supplied by a carbon-14 test done on linen found in the same cave and presumably from an outer wrapping of the scrolls. The linen was brought back to the U.S. by Ovid Sellers, then dean and professor of Old Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.
Unfortunately, the test, invented by William Libby, professor of chemistry at the University of California at Los Angeles, and done at the University of Chicago in 1950, was inconclusive, with a range from 245 BCE to 245 CE. Those hoping for a BCE result selected the earliest date, and carbon-14 began to be seen as the test which provided ultimate scientific proof of the scrolls' antiquity.8
But the tool of carbon-14 testing turned out to be problematic. Some 10 years later, it was learned that the margin of error was at 500 years. This significant problem led to the Upsala Conference in 1969, where scientists adopted a calibrated graph to make corrections in carbon-14 dating.
Since then, scientists have had to recalibrate the graph two more times. The May 31, 1990 issue of Nature, a scholarly journal, stated: "it is now well documented that radiocarbon dating is not a totally accurate" gauge for dating, as the Weinstein report on scroll materials had brought out earlier in 1984 in Radiocarbon.9
While scholars were promoting the antiquity of the scrolls through archaeology, paleography, and carbon-14, there was an ever-increasing number of scholars in the late 1940s and '50s who were challenging the traditional theory.
Solomon Zeitlin, professor at Dropsie College and the world's foremost scholar in rabbinics, found words and phrases in the scrolls to date them from the medieval period (300 to 1100 CE). He cited, for example, a term found in the scrolls, "Teacher of Righteousness" coined by a medieval Jewish sect called Karaites.10
Sidney Hoenig, chairman of rabbinics at Yeshiva University, found the phrase "in the Talmud" in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which Zeitlin saw as another proof for a later dating of the scrolls since the Talmud existed only since the fourth and sixth centuries CE.11
Zeitlin, like other scholars, found a host of problems in further internal evidence in the scrolls. For example, he found the use of ellipses, drawing a line through an incorrect word, and spellings that were indications of the medieval period.12
Zeitlin as a Jewish scholar spotted an agenda: "ascribing...the scrolls to the pre-Christian period was theologically motivated," and therefore, "the uniqueness of Jesus was at stake." In other words, the scrolls were being used as propaganda against orthodox Christianity.13
Even Trever became so alarmed that he spent three pages in his book, The Untold Story of Qumran, trying to put his finger in the dike against this new flood of anti-Christianity emanating from scholars who had joined his ranks for their own purposes.14
How intense this sentiment was is reflected in a statement made by Oxford scholar John Allegro. He reportedly told a colleague on the scroll team, "By the time I've finished there won't be any Church left."15
While there was a quiet period after the 1960s, when the voices of opposition to the scrolls' antiquity died out — literally, because of age — younger scholars now had no one to challenge their BCE dating. And thus began the assertion that this was always the factual consensus.16
Access to the scrolls was blocked until, by the late 1980s and 1990s, there was a universal outcry by scholars demanding to see the scrolls. By happenstance, in the early 1990s, the Huntington Library in California announced that they had all the negatives of the scrolls and they would make them available to scholars.17
Those who controlled the scrolls threatened suit but backed off because of press coverage and public opinion. The door was opened to a new wave of scholarship and interpretation.18
Another event of similar importance occurred just a few years before. The international team was accepting the first Jews. As unbelievable as it may seem, Jews, the very people who knew best the language and culture of the scrolls, were not permitted to be part of the international team until 1987.
One of the first theories to be challenged was the Essene authorship of the scrolls. A subtle shift was happening, as scholars began reassessing the data. For example, Orthodox Jewish scholar and now scroll team member, Lawrence Schiffman from New York University, began referring to the writers of the scrolls as the "Qumran sect," not the Essenes.
My article in The Lutheran (April 1994) openly challenged the same theory. Six months later, Biblical Archaeology Review followed with a more lengthy article by Alan Crown and Lena Cansdale, also undercutting the theory, though from a different perspective.19
Son of God Text
What has made the scrolls so intriguing all these years is what they contain. One text, kept secret for almost 50 years, was referred to as "pseudo-Daniel," which implies an Old Testament connection. When scholars first saw this text in the 1990s, they renamed it the "Son of God" text. Some consider it one of the most important texts coming out of Qumran for New Testament studies.
Murray Friedman, director of the Feinstein Center for American-Jewish History at Philadelphia's Temple University, was shocked to hear that a document like the Son of God text was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. "It's unbelievable" he said. "If this is real...Jesus has been authenticated. If it's a BC document, it announces in strict, clear-cut terms the arrival of the messiah. But if it's after, it's worthless."20
At one point the Son of God text reads almost like a carbon copy of Luke 2. Because it contains titles like the "Son of God" and "Son of the Most High," University of Chicago scroll scholar John Collins writes in his 1997 book, Apocalypticism in the Dead Sea Scrolls, that "it is overwhelmingly probable that Luke borrowed these titles, either from this text or from a common tradition, to identify Jesus as the messiah."21
John Walvoord, chancellor of Dallas Theological Seminary, said the implications of Collins' statement are profound because he "implies that Luke's gospel is not divinely inspired."22
But the Son of God text contains long-ignored Hebrew letters, vowel marks, and tiny letters that did not come into use until after 600 CE. It also contains word separation and a style of script that is far advanced from the Isaiah Scroll dated 100 BCE.
|The traditional view of the dating of the scrolls is that they were written between 300 BCE and 50 CE. This theory was based upon three factors: archaeology, paleography (study of ancient handwriting) and carbon-14 testing.|
Looking at the Son of God text, Rabbi Martin Rubenstein, a leading Philadelphia rabbi, said, "When I look at the writing that came from the early Aramaic alphabet (author's note: the Son of God text is written in Aramaic) compared to today, a few of those letters are closer to the modern than they are to the ancient. You don't have to be a scholar to see the difference."23
Like word separation, sentence separation is a product of the Masoretes, Jewish scribes and scholars of the 6th to 10th centuries CE. According to the Encyclopedia of Judaism, "Originally, the biblical books were written as continuous strings of letters without breaks between words...The Masoretes divided the text into words and sentences as well as into segments...."24
"If it is true that these scrolls display writing techniques that are from a later period, then they become historically interesting," said Erik Heen, associate professor of New Testament at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.25
Amazingly, sentences in the Great Isaiah Scroll are similar to those in modern Hebrew Bibles in many cases, starting and stopping at the same places. This scroll also contains an abundance of obvious and not-so-obvious evidence that suggests, if not proves, it was copied much later in Christian times.
Corrections made in the body of the Isaiah text, for instance, suggest that it was transcribed by Christian hands because Jewish scribes made their corrections in the margins of biblical texts. "Christian copyists usually made the change in the text itself," said Richard Nysse, in an interview with The Lutheran.26 Nysse is an Old Testament professor at Luther Seminary in St Paul, Minnesota.
Hayim Sheynin, an expert in Hebrew paleography and medieval Jewish literature at the Gratz College library in Philadelphia, confirmed there is a uniquely Christian-sounding change within the text itself of the Isaiah Scroll at chapter 7:11.
In that passage, according to the New International Version, God tells the Jewish king Ahaz to "Ask the Lord your God for a sign whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights."
But it reads very differently in the Isaiah Scroll — a fact overlooked by scroll scholars. As it appears in the scroll, Sheynin said he would translate the passage as "Ask a sign from the father of the Lord [your] God...."
After studying the passage, Sheynin said, "It looks like somebody wrote and corrected it. There is a possibility that someone corrected it to fit his own religious beliefs...The change was made after Christianity became prominent. We cannot think anything like this would appear before 90 AD..."27
Other scholars gave the passage an even more Christian twist, saying it could also be translated as God telling Ahaz to ask for a sign not from the father of God, but from the mother of God.
Controversies surrounding the scrolls — including their place of origin and true authorship — all pale in light of the problem of dating, which is having major consequences on the history of Christianity and the Bible itself.28
1. "Is the Temple Scroll a Sixth Book of the TorahLost for 2,500 Years," by Hartmut Stegemann, from Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Random House, 1992), chapter 10, pp. 126-127.
2. Sent via FAX from Prof. David Scholer on May 13, 1996. At that time, Dr. Scholer was division chairman of Biblical Studies at Fuller Seminary.
3. Interview held by author's editor, David Crowder (January 1996)
4. Solomon Zeitlin, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Modern Scholarship: The Hebrew Scrolls and Modern Scholarship (Philadelphia: Dropsie College, 1956, pp. x and xi).
5. John C. Trever, The Untold Story of Qumran (Westwood: F.M. Revell, 1965), first edition, p. 85 (second edition published by Pickering Inglis, 1966).
6. G. R. Driver, The Judean Scrolls: the Problem and Solution (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1965), Prologue, p. 3.
7. Ibid., p. 418.
8. O.R. Sellers, "Date of Cloth from the 'Ain Fashkha Cave," The Biblical Archeologist, vol. XIV, 1951, p. 29 where it states, "Thus the cloth by the Carbon 14 process is dated between 167 B.C. and 233 A.D. So epigraphy [paleography], archaeology, and nuclear physics now combine to support the genuiness and antiquity of the material found in the cave."
9. E. Bard and B. Hamelin, "Calibrating of the 14C timescale over the past 30,000 years using Mass Spectrometric U-Th ages," Nature, May 31, 1990, vol. 345, no. 6274, p. 405-411. The Weinstein report is devastating to carbon-14 and scroll paleographers who dated the scrolls, especially Nahal Hever and Wadi Murabba'at texts. The report states, "For the Middle and Late Bronze Age, Iron age, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods, 14C dating has only limited value because the technique is less precise than the normally available archaeologic and historic materials" (emphasis author's, p. 297). See James Weinstein, "Radiocarbon Dating in the Southern Levant," Radiocarbon, vol. 26, no. 8, 1984, p. 297-366.
10. S. Zeitlin, The Jewish Quarterly Review, p. 268. Moreh Zedek (Teacher of Righteousness) "was coined by the early Karaites." The Karaites were an 8th century CE sect of Jewry who claimed that rabbis and rabbinical Judaism's talmudic rulings have no authority on Jewry. Since their founding in 700's CE, they spread throughout Russia and Europe and even the Middle East.
11. Solomon Zeitlin, "Be-Talmud," The Jewish Quarterly Review, Oct. 1963, vol. 54, no. 2, pp. 89-98 (citing the work of Sidney B. Hoenig, "What is the Explanation for the Term 'BeTALMUD' in the Scrolls?" The Jewish Quarterly Review, April 1963).
12. Zeitlin, "The Propaganda for the Hebrew Scrolls and the Falsification of History," The Jewish Quarterly Review, 1955, pp. 128-129 (see also Thurman Coss, Secrets from the Caves (New York/Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1963), p. 72).
13. Ibid., Zeitlin, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Modern Scholarship (The Hebrew Scrolls and Modern Scholarship), and S. Zeitlin, "The Medieval Mind and the Theological Speculations of the Dead Sea Scrolls," The Jewish Quarterly Review, July 1958, vol. XLIX, pp. 1-3.
14. Trever, The Untold Story of Qumran, pp. 160-165.
15. Hershel Shanks, "Is the Vatican Suppressing the Dead Sea Scrolls?" from Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 287.
16. Trever, The Untold Story of Qumran, p. 136. "Our appraisal of the antiquity of the Scrolls was vigorously challenged in scholarly circles...Until 1952 the number and influence of negative pens seemed almost to outweigh those which came to our defense. If the scrolls were medieval,...their value could barely exceed a few thousand dollars...."
17. "Monopoly over Dead Sea Scrolls is Ended," New York Times, Sept. 21, 1991. Also "Library opens access to Dead Sea Scrolls," Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 22, 1991.
18. "Israelis plan meeting on Dead Sea Scrolls," Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 26, 1991. Also Hershel Shanks, "Of Caves and Scholars: An Overview" from Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls, pp. XXXI and XXXIII.
19. Neil Altman, "Were the Dead Sea Scrolls Written after Easter?" The Lutheran, April 1994, vol. 7., no. 4, pp. 31-32 Also see Alan D. Crown and Lena Cansdale, "QumranWas It an Essene Settlement?" The Biblical Archeological Review, Sept./Oct. 1994, pp. 25-35, 73-74.
20. Interview held by Altman's editor, David Crowder, on Aug. 18, 1997.
21. John J. Collins, Apocalypticism in The Dead Sea Scrolls (Routledge: London and New York, 1997), p. 158.
22. Updated interview with John Walvoord, April 26, 2000.
23. Interview held by Altman's editor, David Crowder, on Nov. 17, 1999.
24. "Masorah and Masoretic Accents," The Encyclopedia of Judaism, Geoffrey Wigoden, editor-in-chief (MacMillan Publishing Co.: New York, 1989), pp. 468-69.
25. Interview with Erik Heen, May 19, 2000.
26. Roger Kahle, "Texts shed light on Christianity's origins," The Lutheran (December 1992), vol. 5, no. 12, p. 31.
27. Interview held by Altman's editor, David Crowder, January 1996.
28. A new problem has started over the photos of the "Son of God" text. They do not match up. For example, Ayala Sussmann, at the Israeli Antiquity Anthority, has acknowledged in a June 22, 2000 e-mail to David Crowder that "We have checked the points you raised in your list by comparing b&w (black and white) photos as published n the DJD (Discovery in the Judean Desert of Jordan) XXIII, Plate XI, with the photo printed in the Chicago (Museum) Catalog. We do agree that the b&ws are superior to the color as printed. The color print is far too dark and does not do justice to the fragment." Several fragments were on display at the Field Museum in Chicago during Spring 2000 which were pictured in a museum catalog, including the "Son of God Text.