Evaluating Early Evidence of Ancient Scripture
The Hebrew Bible (like the New Testament or the Qur‘an) has come to us as an almost hermetically sealed corpus of writings. According to the religious claims of this corpus its authority is indisputable. As a result, biblical scholarship, which is usually bound to a religious (Jewish or Christian) community, is sometimes struggling to apply the usual methods of historical criticism to the collection of its “holy scriptures.” For this reason, biblical scholarship today is desperately looking for empirical evidence and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls seventy years ago, has given us such empirical evidence in abundance. For the first time, we are given an authentic insight into the status of the manuscript tradition of biblical and many parabiblical Jewish writings in the period from the third-century BCE to the first-century CE. As such, we have the opportunity to check the results of the 250-year history of critical biblical scholarship on ancient manuscripts.
The Dead Sea Scrolls invite us to review our hypotheses concerning form, tradition, religious, theological, and historical criticism. Above all, they allow us to study the means, techniques and trends involved in ancient interpretations of biblical writings, which are documented in various forms. Ultimately, the manuscripts represent a welcome opportunity of control for the methods of compositional criticism. The new evidence not only raises the question of what biblical scholarship and criticism can learn from the Dead Sea Scrolls, but also the reverse.
What Did Biblical Criticism Learn from the Dead Sea Scrolls?
The most important contribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls to biblical criticism is found in the field of textual criticism. Various hypotheses on the history of the biblical text previously based on the Masoretic Text, the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Versions (especially the Septuagint) could now be confirmed, falsified, or modified on the basis of a wealth of new material. There were new insights gained in matters of scribal praxis, morphology, and the classification of the textual tradition, which further enriched our understanding of textual histories.
The methodological repertoire of textual criticism proved fruitful, not only for the now enlarged corpus of biblical manuscripts, but can also be applied to non-biblical texts (both sectarian and non-sectarian) that are preserved in multiple copies. For example, the manuscripts of the Rule of the Community attest many significant variants: scribal errors, corrections, as well as orthographical, morphological, and semantic variants can frequently be observed between and amongst a variety of manuscripts.
Of particular interest are the cases where questions of a text-critical nature intersect with the history of the composition. Such examples for this phenomenon include, the Samuel scroll 4QSamuela (4Q51) and the so-called “Reworked” Pentateuch manuscripts (4Q158; 4Q364–367). These texts are regarded as proper “biblical” manuscripts, which are partly in accordance with the Masoretic Text, partly with other versions (Hebrew Vorlage of the Septuagint, Samaritan Pentateuch), and partly go their own ways. With the differences (pluses and minuses, reformulations and rearrangements), they show a significant similarity with examples of “rewritten bible” or “rewritten scripture.” For example, the Temple Scroll where we find both the excerpt and the reformulation or rearrangement of a “biblical” book and a certain amount of new material. The same is already attested in the bible itself, namely in the books of Chronicles, which share some features with the manuscript 4QSama.
The boundaries between textual and compositional history are fluid and the Scrolls provide examples of the techniques and models of how a text of the biblical tradition in general grew. The different versions—Masoretic Text, Samaritan Pentateuch, Qumran, Septuagint, and “rewritten bible”— are witnesses of the same text and part of the same literary and textual history. Both the literary production and textual transmission of biblical and parabiblical writings follow the rules of interpretation. Thus, compositional and redactional history are a history of reception and interpretation. With regard to a reconstruction of the text formation, the examples from the Dead Sea Scrolls can demonstrate the limitations, but also the means and possibilities, of analysing biblical texts.
What Can Qumran Studies Learn from Biblical Scholarship?
The critical study of the Hebrew Bible draws on a well-established canon of exegetical methods. As far as the application of these methods to the Dead Sea Scrolls is concerned, textual criticism and the historical (occasionally, historicist) interpretation have been particularly prominent. Along with recent research in biblical studies, Qumran studies has witnessed growing interest in the application of new methods such as rhetorical criticism, anthropological and sociological approaches, and new historicism. Both the more traditional and the newer methods are not mutually exclusive but complementary.
The compositional history of individual books was largely complete by the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Consequently, the Hebrew Bible is usually seen as a fixed and closed entity and studied exclusively as the object of biblical reception history. However, the biblical reception history begins already in the making and growing of the biblical texts themselves. Therefore, the results of critical biblical scholarship concerning the literary growth of the biblical books should also be taken into account for the interpretation of the Scrolls.
If the complex development of a biblical text, from its earliest beginnings to the final form, is best understood as a dynamic process of reception and interpretation, this understanding invites the question: how is such a process related to the reception and (so to speak “extra-biblical”) interpretation of the biblical texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls? Here, again, numerous examples are relevant, illustrated here by way of some sample cases.
On the level of the biblical text we might think of the additional episode on Nahash, the king of the Ammonites, in 1 Samuel 11, attested by 4QSamuela. This addition continues the literary history of 1 Samuel 11, where we find a gradual supplementation of the text in vv. 6–8 and 12–14.
The rewriting of Gen 12:10–20 in Genesis Apocryphon, which combines the two versions of the story of the endangered ancestress, Sarah, in Genesis 12 and 20, continues the literary history of this narrative in the book of Genesis itself in Genesis 26 (Isaac and Rebecca), adopted in Genesis 12 (Abraham and Sarah) and reformulated for the second time in Genesis 20 (Abraham and Sarah again).
The changes generally made in the “Reworked” Pentateuch, and 4Q158 in particular within the book of Exodus, continue the literary processes, which was already going on in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Among numerous variations in this text we find additional references to the patriarchs in Exodus 4, identification of the mountain of God in Exodus 3 with the mountain of Sinai, and the harmonization and rearrangement of the two versions of the Decalogue in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.
Similar examples may be found in the non-biblical (sectarian) texts. The rule texts Rule of the Community (cf. the varied copies in caves one and four) and the Damascus Document, and the Penal Code in particular, show a number of intertextual connections. This reminds us of the literary development of the biblical law, starting with the composition of the so-called Covenant Code and its integration into the “holy history” in the book of Exodus, followed by its rewriting in Deuteronomy, and the further rewriting of both the Covenant Code and Deuteronomy in the Holiness Code.
Commentaries on the prophets and Psalms (Pesharim) make the interpretations of the biblical text explicit, which—in the same or in different directions—already started implicitly in the gradual literary growth and many supplements of the prophetic books, individual psalms, and the Psalter.
The external evidence in the Dead Sea Scrolls strongly suggests to abstain from speculating too much behind the preserved texts about diverse, free floating oral traditions, independent sources and/or historical motifs. The material shows a great deal of intertextuality and interdependency in the literary development of the texts, which is best explained by a supplementary hypothesis. Thus, we should concentrate on reconstructing the compositional history of the texts and the relative chronology of the various literary stages of growth of this literature. Only after this work has been completed might we try to correlate the relative chronology with an absolute dating of the literary stages and start with the reconstruction of the historical setting.
There is a need for dialogue between biblical scholarship and Qumran studies which must go further than simply the application of methods developed in critical biblical scholarship to the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. While the latter approach is certainly necessary, we should by no means stop there. Instead, careful consideration of, and mutual illumination between, the results of critical biblical scholarship and the study of the Scrolls promises fruitful results, and both areas of scholarly endeavor stand to make considerable gains from such an approach.
The Scrolls cease to be an isolated corpus of texts and become part of the well-established, dynamic process of the emergence of the Hebrew Bible, a process that lasted at least until the completion of the book of Daniel in the second century BCE. The Hebrew Bible, likewise, ceases to be a fixed canonical entity, which lacks a historical context. Instead, the Scrolls shed new light on the literary history as well as the historical and sociological background from which the biblical literature emerged. Biblical scholarship and Qumran studies share not only a historical-critical methodology, but are very much interdependent in the quest for our understanding the relationship of the Hebrew Bible to the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Further Reading on Topics and Texts Treated in this Article
D. M. Carr, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011).
R. G. Kratz, “Das Alte Testament und die Texte vom Toten Meer,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 125 (2013): 198–213 (English version forthcoming).
R. G. Kratz, “Rewriting Torah in the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in Wisdom and Torah: The Reception of 'Torah' in the Wisdom Literature of the Second Temple Period, edited by B.U. Schipper and D.A. Teeter, JSJSup 163 (Leiden: Brill 2013), 273–292.
R. G. Kratz, “Bibelhandschrift oder Midrasch?: Zum Verhältnis von Text- und Literargeschichte in den Samuelbüchern im Licht der Handschrift 4Q51 (4QSama),” in The Books of Samuel: Stories – History – Reception History, edited by W. Dietrich, BETL 284 (Leuven: Peeters, 2016), 153–180.
R. G. Kratz, “Reworked Pentateuch and Pentateuchal Theory,” in The Formation of the Pentateuch: Bridging the Academic Cultures of Europe, Israel, and North America, edited by J. C. Gerz et al., FAT (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016).
D.A. Teeter, Scribal Laws: Exegetical Variation in the Textual Transmission of Biblical Law in the Late Second Temple Period, FAT 92 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014).
M. Zahn, Rethinking Rewritten Scripture: Composition and Exegesis in the 4QReworked Pentateuch Manuscripts (Brill, 2011).
Reinhard Kratz is Professor of Old Testament in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Göttingen. He is director of the “Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Dead Sea Scrolls” and a principle investigator in the international “Scripta Qumranica Electronica” project. His publications span biblical, Septuagint, and Qumran studies, as represented in his recent volume Historical and Biblical Israel: The History, Tradition, and Archives of Israel and Judah (Oxford, 2016).
The Ancient Jew Review and Trinity Western University Dead Sea Scrolls Institute forums and reviews commemorating the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the Qumran scrolls were edited by Dr. Andrew Perrin (Trinity Western University), Dr. Andrew Krause (University of Münster), Dr. Jessica Keady (University of Chester), and Spencer Jones (Trinity Western University).