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Until that discovery, the oldest complete manuscript we have of the Hebrew Bible dates from over a thousand years after Christ's birth—the Codex Leningrad, about A.D. 1000. That is 1,600 years after the time when the book was first written (sometime in the 7th century B.C.). That seems like a lot of time for copies of copies to start showing significant differences from the original. But the Isaiah Scroll, which has a date from about 100 B.C., shows that the difference between that copy and that of the Middle Ages are hardly anything to talk about. For example, in the medieval version, what is called the Masoretic text, Isaiah 53:1-3 reads (KJV):

Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?
For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

In the Qumran version, it reads like this (with differences in italics):

Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?
For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor he hath comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire ourselves.
He is despised and rejected of men and man of sorrows, and he knows grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; and despised him, and we esteemed him not.

So, at one level, it may be immaterial whether we ever find the original autographs, because what we have is nearly perfect as it is. On the other hand, it's something that amazes one to think, that in looking at the Great Isaiah Scroll from Qumran, we're another 1,100 years closer to looking at the original autographs.

Well, sort of.

Parchment Abuse

In fact, the Scrolls have in many cases deteriorated significantly since their discovery, more so in the last half century than they had in the two thousand years they sat in the caves. Thank goodness someone took photographs of them soon after they were discovered. And praise be to infrared technology and computer enhancing techniques today.

Apparently, we didn't know much about the science of preservation in 1948. We have old black and whites of scholars studying the fragments in a room where the bright sun is beaming through a wall of glass on to the precious documents. And the scholars are smoking while examining the fragments! Adhesive tape was used to join fragments (sometimes right over letters) and to cover cracks. The aging of the adhesives and the pressure of the glass under which they were placed caused the skins to darken, so that in some cases, the texts are no longer legible. In a few instances, the edges have completely gelatinized.

Yikes! Who let these people into the Scroll rooms?

There has been much breast beating about such procedures, so that today, the Scrolls are treated like the delicate things they are. For example, they are exposed to light only in the most limited way—in fact, the Scroll fragments at the exhibit have been swapped out half way through, with new scrolls on display while the others are put back into the safety of darkness.

Still that means that the most accurate, least inerrant (so to speak), most legible editions of the scroll are either photographs or digitized files. The Israel Museum has partnered with Google to make five major scrolls available online, employing the most advanced imaging technologies. James Charlesworth, director and editor of the Princeton Dead Sea Scrolls Project, has said that the new images allow him to decipher in 30 minutes fragments that once took 14 hours to analyze when he handled the original parchments.

SoulWork
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Galli is editor of Christianity Today and author of God Wins, Chaos and Grace, A Great and Terrible Love, Jesus Mean and Wild, Francis of Assisi and His World, and other books.
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