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This topic is adapted from the PhD TV YouTube channel.

What Are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of religious writings, or “texts,” by a community of ancient Jews called Essenes who were contemporaries of Jesus. Some of these texts provide new information about life in Israel during the time of Jesus, the Essenes’ criticism of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, etc. Other texts are fragments or whole copies of Old Testament (OT) books except for Esther. These 2,000-year-old copies of the OT books are virtually identical to the OT texts scholars translate from today to give us modern Bibles.

The scrolls were one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century. They were first discovered by a young shepherd in 1946 at Qumran, Israel. Nearly a thousand scrolls have been found since. Scholars have dated the scrolls and scroll fragments between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D.

[Related: Archaeological Evidence – The Bible – Can You Dig It?]

Who Were the Essenes?

Like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots, the Essenes had their own way of understanding the Hebrew scriptures. The Essenes exiled themselves to the wilderness where they believed they could live faithfully to God by following Torah (the Law of Moses) and living monkish lifestyles. Despite their presence in first-century Israel, the Essenes are never mentioned in the New Testament (NT).

[Related: Understanding OT Law]

[Related: Why Should I Read the Old Testament?]

Why Are the Scrolls Important for Understanding the Bible?

During the Renaissance (14th-17th centuries in Europe) and the Enlightenment (17th-18th centuries) scholars, politicians, artists, philosophers, and others began criticizing historical authority structures. These authority structures included the Roman Catholic Church and the monarchies of European countries like England and France. Eventually Christian history and the Bible itself came under fire. One line of argumentation was that the Bible was untrustworthy: either that the biblical text itself had been corrupted over time, or that the miracles and stories in the Bible, regardless of how accurate the text was, were simply untrue.

[External Resource: What was the Enlightenment, and what impact did it have on Christianity?]

Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest complete copy of the OT was dated to around 1,000 A.D. This manuscript is called the Leningrad Codex. Because it is dated a thousand years after the time of Christ, skeptics had plenty of space to suggest that the Bible could have been changed countless times between Jesus’s day and 1,000 A.D. Many OT prophecies about Jesus Christ, like those about the “suffering servant” in Isaiah 53, were claimed to have been added after Jesus. The circumstances of Jesus’s death were too specific in the minds of skeptics, so it was said that Isaiah 53 had to have been changed by Christians after Jesus’s death to make it look like he fulfilled prophecy. The Dead Sea Scrolls proved that the OT books found at Qumran were not changed since the time of Christ and that the prophecy in Isaiah definitely existed before Jesus was born into the world – at least two hundred years before his birth. The Isaiah scroll found at Qumran is called the Great Isaiah Scroll. It was one of the first scrolls discovered in 1946-47 and contains the entire text of the Book of Isaiah in a form nearly identical to what we have today.

[Related: Manuscript Evidence – Has the Bible Changed Over the Centuries?]

[Related: Bible Basics – Where Did We Get the Bible?]

The Dead Sea Scrolls prove that the OT has been faithfully translated down to us since the time of Christ. While it will always take faith to believe that the miraculous stories of the OT – like the Exodus from Egypt – took place, no one can feasibly argue that the OT was changed by Christians to fit a later reading or to make prophecies about Jesus Christ seem plausible. People today can trust that they are reading the OT Jesus taught from.

Written content for this topic by Daniel Martin.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
  2. What is your initial reaction to this video? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
  3. Who were the Essenes and why does it matter?
  4. What do the scrolls prove? What don’t the scrolls prove? Why does it matter?
  5. What other archaeological or historical findings that you know of have proven the the Bible to be trustworthy?
  6. Have you ever encountered a biblical text or a skeptical argument that has caused you to doubt the Bible? Explain.
  7. “When we encounter a difficult text or teaching in the Bible, we should give the Bible the benefit of the doubt and trust there is a sufficient response to the difficult topic.” Explain why you agree or disagree with this statement.
  8. If you were to prove to a skeptic beyond a shadow of a doubt that the biblical accounts have been faithfully transmitted over time, would that skeptic still need faith to follow God? Why or why not?
  9. Write a personal action step based on this conversation.

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