A reverent, musuem hush filled the room, as visitors circled the Scroll case, as if we were now in the holy of holies of archeology—which we were. In a secular world, being in the presence of written artifacts two millennia old is to have an experience of transcendence, perhaps not divine transcendence but certainly historical. Human beings are fascinated with looking at, and if possible, touching things that have been touched by human beings two millennial ago. We love to feel history in our hands. It puts us in communion with the dead, which is only one step away from the Christian idea of the "communion of saints." In this case, it was more like the communion of scribes.
Protestants, especially evangelicals—people of my tribe—are supposed to be less enamored with such experiences. We're people of the word, not people of the ancient manuscript. Who cares how the word comes to us as long as it faithfully reproduces the words of the text?
But there is something about seeing a Dead Sea Scrolls fragment of Scripture up close—even if protected by a glass panel and barely visible in low light. In a few instances, you see whole sections of a scroll, like the Psalms scroll, but what I remember most is those little scraps of parchment with a few indecipherable letters. It was Hebrew to me. But nonetheless impressive. The question is why?
There is this business of historical transcendence. One imagines the scribe hunched over parchments, the original to his right, his copy to his left, dipping his pen in an inkwell, meticulously reproducing each and every letter of the original, day after day, month after month. A writer can appreciate that.
Another fascination is this: These biblical scrolls and fragments are by far the oldest manuscripts we have of the Hebrew Bible. I was looking at something that is over 1,000 years closer to the original manuscripts of Scripture. The oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible have been dated to about the turn of the first millennium. Now we have manuscripts ten centuries closer to the so-called original inerrant autographs.
On Original Autographs
As with many doctrines, evangelical scholars are not necessarily in agreement about what we exactly mean by "original autographs," and in what sense they are "inerrant." Some imagine a solitary author writing out a book under the unique inspiration of God. Others say that some books show signs of having been authored by a community of scribes, who together were inspired. Some say these first copies were inerrant in all matters, including scientific ones. Others say they were inerrant only in matters of faith and practice. Of course, others wonder how you decide which passages are matters of faith and practice and which are not!
All well and good for scholars to have an honest if spirited debate about such matters. But most evangelical scholars agree on this: the copies of Scripture that we work with today are awfully close to the originals. They know this from studying the history of manuscript transmission. And they know it, now more than ever, from the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.