Israeli researchers and archaeologists unveiled this week several groundbreaking discoveries, including dozens of biblical scroll fragments that represent the first newly uncovered Dead Sea Scrolls in more than half a century.
The Dead Sea Scrolls contain some of the earliest known Jewish religious documents, including biblical texts, dated from the third century B.C. to the second century A.D. The manuscripts were first unearthed in the immediate aftermath of World War II in the caves near Qumran and the Judean Desert.
Even an initial review of the new fragments—which will be analyzed and scrutinized for years to come—offers some exciting findings about how the earliest biblical texts were translated and adapted in ways like our own.
The discovery comes at a time when demand for antiquities has skyrocketed, spurring looting and forgeries over the past several years as wealthy collectors hope to acquire any remaining scraps of the priceless scrolls.
Starting around 2002, a number of widely publicized “Dead Sea Scroll” fragments emerged with questionable origin stories. After a series of illegal attempts to acquire artifacts and scrolls, Israeli Antiquities Authority conducted a series of archaeological surveys to reexamine the interiors of the caves along the cliffs of the Judean Desert.
Beginning in 2017, its researchers uncovered two dozen scroll pieces, each measuring only a few centimeters across, from the so-called Cave of Horror near the western shore of the Dead Sea. It’s a site where insurgents were believed to have hidden during the uprising led by Simon bar Kokhba against the Roman empire in A.D. 133–136. It gets its name from the discovery of 40 bodies during initial excavations decades before.
Unlike most of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written in Hebrew and Aramaic, the fragments from the Cave of Horror contain Greek letters. Scholars determined they came from a Greek translation of the Book of the Twelve in Hebrew, what many Christians call the Minor Prophets.
The job of reconstructing the original document is akin to trying to assemble a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle with only a handful of pieces. The largest fragment contains portions of Zechariah 8:16–17, and some smaller bits are identified as Nahum 1:5–6. These pieces appear to be connected to other previously discovered fragments from the same cave along the ancient gorge of Nahal Hever and were part of a single large scroll including all of the minor prophets.
The text comes from the oldest physical scroll of the Greek Bible we have, but it likely represents a development or revision of the standard Greek translation—often referred to as the Septuagint, LXX, or Old Greek.
Two characteristics found for the first time in this ancient Greek translation correspond in remarkable ways to our modern English Bibles.
First, the newly discovered pieces show a special treatment for the four letters of God’s name, the Tetragrammaton (see Exodus 3:14–15). Instead of rendering the name in typical fashion with the Greek word Kyrios, the name of God is represented in Hebrew letters written right to left. It would be similar to us using the Hebrew letters יהוה (YHWH) or possibly the Latin DOMINUS in the middle of an English sentence.
This representation is significant because using specialized characters for the divine name has carried through to our modern Bibles. Most English Bibles represent the name as “the LORD” with small capital letters, rather than representing its supposed pronunciation Yahweh, as many scholars suggest. This substitution follows the ancient tradition of reading Adonai, a Hebrew word meaning “Lord,” or even HaShem “The Name,” in place of representing God’s name according to its sound.
Moreover, the lettering for God’s name is not typical of most of the other Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew manuscripts. It is an even older script, sometimes called paleo-Hebrew, which was mostly abandoned in everyday writing during the second temple period. Think of it as the difference between our modern Latin lettering and the calligraphic Fraktur or Gothic script, or possibly even like Greek letters. Putting these representations into a translated text provides both a foreignness to the writing and a type of reverence for the name’s uniqueness.
The second correlation we find in the new fragments is evidence of changing words to try to improve a new translation. The Minor Prophets scroll represents a revision of an older Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. The original version was used widely by Greek-speaking Jews in the first century throughout the Mediterranean world, but at some point, a new translation became warranted.
For Zechariah 8:17, the Old Greek translated the first word in the Hebrew text (אִישׁ) as a distributive term meaning “each other, another,” which put at the end, similar to every major English version. For example, the NIV reads, “Do not plot evil against each other.”
In the new fragment, the same term is translated by a different Greek word at the beginning. Using an interlinear approach—finding a corresponding word without accounting for the context of its use—the verse starts by representing the same Hebrew word as “man.” It forms an overliteral translation: “As for a man, do not plot evil against his neighbor in your heart.”
It would seem that the efforts to render the Bible accurately into common languages date back to our earliest textual evidence of the Scriptures. Yet this difference anticipates the various modern opinions about how best to represent God’s word in our vernaculars.
These texts will undoubtably launch an array of research in years to come, with other features possibly revealed through multispectral imaging and digital magnification. As a biblical scholar, I can imagine these ancient readers striving to translate the Hebrew Scriptures that we read today and then carrying these meaningful texts into the darkest moments of their history to help them better understand God and their world.
Our connection to these people through this ancient text—now brought forward in tiny pieces, bit by bit—demonstrates the profound human desire to seek God especially in our moments of greatest trial and uncertainty.
Chip Hardy is associate professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Exegetical Gems from Biblical Hebrew: A Refreshing Guide to Grammar and Interpretation.