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Episode 210: Sidnie White Crawford – What You Really Need to Know about the Dead Sea Scrolls

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Dr. Sidnie White Crawford joins Pete and Jared to discuss the most important manuscript find in Hebrew Bible studies and how it impacts the New Testament. Together, they explore the following questions: 

  • What are the Dead Sea Scrolls? 
  • Why was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls so significant? 
  • What would have been the earliest written form of the Hebrew scriptures we had prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls? 
  • Why did the community at Qumran exist and what were they doing sticking their writings in caves? 
  • I have heard of Pharisees and Sadducees…but who were the Essenes? 
  • How have the groups of manuscripts from the DSS revolutionized aspects of our study of ancient Judaism and early Christianity? 
  • What influence does paleography have on the way manuscripts are dated? 
  • Were scholars surprised by anything particular upon discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls and comparing them to previously discovered manuscripts from the Middle Ages?
  • In what ways would the scribes who were copying the DSS by hand update and make edits as they went along? 
  • As we go further back in time, do biblical manuscripts become more uniform or more fluid and diverse? 
  • Was the sole job of a scribe to copy down text? 
  • What textual evidence was present in the DSS for the book of Jeremiah? 
  • Why are there two Hebrew versions of the book of Jeremiah? How terribly inconvenient. 

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Sidnie White Crawford you can share: 

  • “The Dead Sea Scrolls…overlap with the lifetime of Jesus and then the beginnings of the early church. So, it’s hard to overestimate their importance.” – Sidnie White Crawford
  • “We sometimes forget that the Bible is a collection of books, and each book has a different history.” – Sidnie White Crawford
  • “The biblical books…their texts were still fluid. They had the shape that we recognize. The details of the words were not fixed as they are now, people had to wrap their heads around that. [The further back we go in time] we get messier and messier.” – Sidnie White Crawford
  • “There was no author of Deuteronomy or Genesis, there was oral tradition…and that’s how it was passed on. We can’t say there was an author who wrote it; we can say there were scribes who shaped it over a long period of time.” – Sidnie White Crawford
  • “The scribes had enormous respect for the tradition, and saw themselves as passing along the tradition, making it a living tradition for their own time. Not a dead letter from the past, but a living tradition for their own time.” – Sidnie White Crawford
  • “The Dead Sea Scrolls have more copies of Enoch and Jubilees than they do of Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. So, what did they think of those books? I don’t think you can say for sure that they thought of them as scripture.” – Sidnie White Crawford
  • “At the time the scrolls were copied, the Bible the way we think of it didn’t exist. These scrolls were all separate books. You could put them on a shelf, you could mix them up, you read them separately. It wasn’t in this fixed form, that we think of it as.” – Sidnie White Crawford

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript

0:00

Pete 

You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared

And I’m Jared Byas.

 [Jaunty intro music]

Jared 

Welcome, everyone to this episode of the podcast.

Pete

Before we get started, just a reminder, folks, Jonah for Normal People is out and you need to read this and buy it and give it to everybody you know.

Jared 

That’s right. You can just go to Amazon, wherever you get books, and get Jonah for Normal People.

Pete

It’s part of our series.

Jared 

It’s part of our series. So, we have Genesis out, we have Exodus Out, and now it’s Jonah.

Pete

Yeah.

Jared

And yeah, but I think it was, it’s fun. Jonah is, again, one of my favorite books. And I try to bring in critical scholarship and some of the understandings but also a personal spin on it. Because I think, as you’ll see in the book of Jonah itself, I think it invites personal response, discussion, conversation, argument, and so I tried to bring some of that in as well.

Pete

Okay.

Jared

Today, you’re in for a real treat. We’re talking about the most juicy topic.

Pete

Yes.

Jared

“What You Really Need to Know about the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

Pete

What?!?

Jared

The Dead Sea Scrolls, yeah. And then we have with us, no one better to talk about it than Sidnie White Crawford.

Pete

Yeah, she’s wonderful. Sidnie spent most of her teaching career at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and her main area is Dead Sea Scrolls. Also, like Second Temple Judaism, of course, because that’s part of it and like Hebrew language and things like that. But her area that she’s focused on is Dead Sea Scrolls.

Jared

Which you can tell by how she talks about it. She knows her stuff.

Pete

Yeah, yeah. Just off the top of her head. So anyway, it was a great discussion about the implications of this monumental, transformative manuscript find, for our understanding of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible, and indeed, to a certain extent, Christianity in its context in the 1st Century. 

Jared

And it’s surprising how recent it was. I mean, my Dad was born in 1947. The same year.

Pete

Really? Okay. My house was made in 1947.

Jared

Right. So, we’re talking, not, I mean, when we think about manuscripts and all of these things, we kind of think, well, all that got discovered a long time ago and now we’re building on all these things. But this is recent discoveries that, you know, Sidnie tells us at the end of the episode has only recently impacted English translations.

Pete

Exactly. Right. Yeah. And how profound they are, again, is this, when they were discovered, people said, We have to rethink a few things here that we thought we understood.” And who knows what the next manuscript pile is and where it’s going to be found, and how that might broaden our understanding. Let’s put it this way. It broadened our understanding, changing some things, but definitely broadened it. That’s what scholars love: broadening and understanding more.

Jared

All right, let’s hear from Sidnie.

[Music begins, plays in background]

Sidnie

We have to remember that all of these manuscripts were hand copied by trained scribes. And if you have enough of them, you can get within 50 years. We don’t have any dated text. But we can give these relative dates by the study of the handwriting.

[Music ends]

Pete 

Well, yeah, okay, so I think it’s worthwhile giving the listeners just the quick scoop on okay…

Jared 

What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Pete 

Yeah.

Sidnie

The Dead Sea Scrolls referred to a collection of manuscripts that were found in various find sites around the Dead Sea from above Jericho all the way down to Masada. But what most people mean when they say that are the scrolls found in the 11 caves around the site of Qumran, which is in the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, south of Jericho. And these were the original scrolls that were found beginning in 1947. So, they’re on their 75th anniversary right now.

Pete 

Happy birthday.

Sidnie

Yes, exactly. Happy birthday to the scrolls.

Pete 

[Chuckles lightly, amused by his birthday wishes to an inanimate object]

Sidnie

And they are important because they are the largest group of Hebrew manuscripts, Jewish manuscripts, ever found in the Holy Land. I mean, really, except for the Qumran scrolls, all our finds of written material are very small. A lot of them are just inscriptions on ostraca or stone, potsherds or stone, and a lot of them are business documents, bills of sale and wills and, which are important for reconstructing life. But the Qumran scrolls are literary texts, both the literature of ancient Israel that we think of think of as the Bible, but also the literature of the Second Temple period, the period between the Babylonian exile and the fall of the Second Temple in the year 70 to the Romans.

5:00

So, for New Testament studies, these scrolls overlap with the lifetime of Jesus and then the beginnings of the early church. So, it’s hard to overestimate their importance.

Jared 

If we can maybe situate this dating because I don’t know if people maybe understand the significance of that. Before 1947 and the discovery of these scrolls, what would have been the earliest written down form of the of the of the Hebrew Scriptures that we would have had?

Sidnie

We have the complete, in Hebrew, the complete manuscripts, the earliest are from the 9th century, the Aleppo Codex and the 10th century, the St. Petersburg Codex.

Jared 

So that’s a difference of, the Dead Sea Scrolls are from what time period? Because I think that’s important to name that gap. That we really, we stretched a significant gap with the discovery of these scrolls.

Sidnie

We sure did. The earliest manuscripts, which are all biblical, come from the 3rd century BCE, so say, around 250. And the latest come from, say, between 50 and 75, CE or AD. So, it’s really almost 1000-year gap. We do have manuscripts in Greek of the Hebrew Bible that are from the 3rd and 4th centuries, but they’re in Greek. And so, this is the actual Hebrew texts that we now have.

Pete 

Yeah, it’s taking us way, way back, not to the beginning, but you know, much closer than we had been back in the, you know, the medieval period. So, yeah, just briefly, like, why did this community at Qumran even exist? And what were they doing, sticking their writings in caves?

Sidnie 

[Light laughter]

Well, most scholars identify the people who lived at Qumran with one of the kind of wings or movements within Judaism that are identified by the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Jewish philosopher Philo, who talk about the Pharisees well known from the New Testament, the Sadducees, also well known from the New Testament, and the Essenes not mentioned in the New Testament. But it looks like the people who own the scrolls, collected them, and stuck them in the caves were the Essenes. And we can be not ever 100% certain, but it’s the best identification given what the scrolls say about the movement, the Jewish movement, where they’re located and the lack of other kinds of literature.

So, they were Essenes. The Essenes seem to have lived all up and down Judea. Both Philo and Josephus say there were about 4000 of them. Certainly, they weren’t all living at Qumran, but Qumran seems to be a kind of central location for them for collecting and storing their precious manuscripts. Why they chose Qumran is kind of a mystery, because we don’t know who owned the property, who gave it to them, you know, that kind of question. But they arrived somewhere between 100 and 75 BCE, and they built a settlement there that lasted until it was destroyed by the Romans in 68 CE. And their main occupation there seems to have been collecting, copying studying the literature of their sect which included the biblical literature.

Pete 

Okay, so they were, the Essenes were a sect. I guess we can say that, and this Qumran community, sect is not a bad word, by the way. So, they were a division, you know, of the time and this community at Qumran, they were… Is it fair to say they were separatists, from, let’s say mainstream Judaism?

Sidnie 

Yeah, they put up boundaries between themselves and other parts of Judaism. And I think that it’s really important to realize that the arguments that they were engaged in with other movements within Judaism were all about how to obey the precepts of the Torah. And the Pharisees had one set of traditions the Sadducees had another and the Essenes had yet another.

10:00

Sidnie 

And of course, they overlap. Nobody disagreed that you should observe the Sabbath. But what that meant, and how you were to fulfill that commandment could become an area of controversy, as it can in Judaism today. So that seems to be, that’s the main reason that they put up these boundary markers, because they didn’t think that other Jews were fulfilling the Torah as they should be.

Pete 

Alright, so let’s get into the manuscripts a little bit, because that’s what this community is known for, this copying of manuscripts that take us back 1000 years before, you know, the earliest complete Bibles we had in the medieval period. So how, let’s just talk about some of them. There are manuscripts of the Bible, there are some other manuscripts that are too. They also have commentaries on the Bible. And maybe we can just tease out some information about those groups of manuscripts and how they have impacted, and in some cases, actually, I think it’s fair to say, wouldn’t you agree, revolutionized aspects of our study of ancient Judaism and early Christianity.

Sidnie 

Absolutely. I when I think of when I started working on the scrolls, and I won’t say how long ago that was, but it’s not 75 years. But in any case, the difference in how we look at things like the history of the text of the Hebrew Bible, and the process of forming the canon of Scripture has really changed enormously. And it’s owing to what we’ve learned from the scrolls. So just as you know, a kind of overview: about 25% of the Qumran manuscripts are biblical, and there are about 900 manuscripts overall, so 25% of that. They were found in all the caves where manuscripts were found. So, in caves, 1, 2, 3, etc. They were found in, mainly in the Hebrew language, but in what we call Aramaic square script, which is the script that if you study the Bible today, and you’re using a printed Bible, that’s the script you see. But they also had it in what’s called paleo Hebrew script, which is a kind of descendant of ancient Israelite script, and they had it in Greek, too.

So they were serious biblical scholars, these people. The manuscripts of the Bible range in age from the 3rd century BCE, about 250, to between 50 and 75 AD. And the most popular books were the Psalms and Deuteronomy. So, the worship life of the community and the study of the Torah, I think, is the best way to think about that.

Pete 

How do you date manuscripts? I mean, you mentioned the dates and, and those are agreed upon dates in the academic community. But you know, when you’re staring at an old manuscript you got out of a cave. How can you tell?

Sidnie 

Right, right. Well, the first thing is to say that, we have to remember, that all of these manuscripts were hand copied. Right? That seems kind of obvious, but that’s the first statement you need to make. And then they were hand copied by trained scribes. So, people who literally went to school to learn to write, and so they had beautiful handwriting, and they had very uniform handwriting that only changed slowly. And so, by the way, they form their letters and the shape of the letters, you can establish a typology of scripts that you can say this script is older than, script A is older than script B, which is older than script C. And if you have enough of them, you can get within 50 years.

14:49

Sidnie 

So, we don’t have any dated texts where it says, you know, in the fifth year of the reign of Herod the Great, we don’t have anything like that. But we can give these relative dates by the study of the handwriting, which is called paleography. In addition, some of the scrolls have been Carbon-14 dated, and the Carbon-14 dates match the paleography dates closely. And so, we can be sure, if I say, a manuscript was written around 250 BCE, it could have been written in 250. It could have been written in 225, it could have been written in 200…I can’t be that exact. So, these are approximate dates. But I can certainly look at a manuscript and know if it’s a third century manuscript or a first century manuscript.

Jared 

So, I think I might ask the obvious question, because if someone’s hearing this, and they’re thinking, okay, before 1947, our earliest manuscripts were from the medieval period. And then we find these scrolls in a cave that have text from 1000 years earlier, of the biblical text. Were there any surprises in terms of differences? Or was the manuscript that we had in the Middle Ages, fairly faithful and consistent with what was written down 1000 years before?

Sidnie 

It depends on the book, because we sometimes forget that the Bible is a collection of books. And so, each book has a different history. So, let me take Psalms as an example, right? We think of Psalms as a book in the Bible with 150 Psalms in a certain order. But when we look at the manuscripts from Qumran, what we see is that that order of Psalms wasn’t yet finally established. And the number of Psalms wasn’t quite finally established. So that among the 36 Psalms manuscripts that we have, you have different orders, some, what people might think of as extra Psalms. So, it hadn’t gelled or solidified into the form that we know it now. And so that tells us that at this time, the 3rd to the 1st centuries BCE, the book of Psalms hadn’t reached its final form, it was still a kind of work in progress. So, that’s an example. And it was a surprise, right? No one expected that.

Another example is the question of variants in manuscripts and variants simply means differences between different copies. And when you have handwritten manuscripts, of course, you’re gonna get errors, right? I mean, if you think about when you copy something by hand, which no one does anymore, but when you used to, you would make a mistake, and maybe you would erase the mistake and correct it, or you missed the mistake, and it was there. So, you get mistakes. But you also get things like updating where it would be like if we wanted to update the language of Shakespeare and make it more comprehensible, or the way that Bible translations will update language. So, in the King James Version, where it says in John 1, “the darkness comprehendeth it not,” and it really means encompassed or overcome, but we think comprehend means know. So, that language needed to be updated. They would do the same thing, substitute a more common word for a less common word, put in explanatory notes. Sometimes material would drop out, and suddenly we find manuscripts that have longer texts. So, all of this is new. And we, the word that we use to think about this is that the Bible, the biblical books, their texts were still fluid. They had the shape that we recognize. So, if you think of Genesis, it starts with creation, it ends with the Joseph narratives, and in between you have all the patriarchal narratives, that shape was set by the time we have the Qumran manuscripts, but the details of the words were not fixed as they are now, people had to wrap their heads around that. And it took a while.

20:08

Pete 

I think some people, perhaps more than others, I mean, not trying to be funny, but many people are committed to a very early and fixed cannon. And to hear that there was something very close to the time of Jesus and probably extending into Jesus’s lifetime, that exhibits this fluidity of the texts. And I always found that fascinating teaching seminary students many years ago trying to explain that and watching their eyes pop out of their heads.

Sidnie 

Right.

Pete 

That’s why, I mean, it gave us, in other words, you know, the further back we go, this is the assumption. The further back we go in time, the more uniformity we’re going to see. And the more sort of a perfection of the text because we’re getting closer to the original author. But the exact opposite happened, in a sense, we see more diversity.

Sidnie 

That’s right. We get messier and messier. And we’ve really stopped thinking about an author. Like there was no author of Deuteronomy or Genesis, there was oral tradition, that’s all texts, you know…in literacy, the rate of literacy in the ancient world was very low. Maybe 3-5%, if that. And so, people had much better memorization skills than they do now. And that’s how the cultural tradition was passed on. And then as it began to be written, these texts took shape. But we can’t say there was an author who wrote it, we can say there were scribes who shaped it-

Pete 

Over a long period of time.

Sidnie 

Over a long period of time. Exactly.

Pete 

And that’s, again, not to put words in anyone’s mouth, but that is what scribes do. Right? They don’t just copy. There’s always, there’s an evolution or development of these texts over time, which was not antithetical to a respect for the tradition.

Sidnie 

Absolutely. In fact, the scribes had enormous respect for the tradition, and saw themselves as passing along the tradition, making it a living tradition for their own time. Not a dead letter from the past, but a living tradition for their own time. And I think that that’s really important to realize. In some ways, you know, today with electronic texts, and things like wikis and things that can be changed, we’re in a period that’s more similar to the ancient world than we were when there was just the printing press.

Pete

Yes. [Light laughter]

Jared 

I do think that’s important, because in certain religious traditions, exactly what we said was, we’re afraid of more diversity in the past. And we have this idea that the most faithful or respectful way to handle the Bible is to crystallize it, make no change. There is no evolution, there’s no development, and that just hasn’t always historically been the case. That for scribes, it actually was part of respect. It was part of what the sacred responsibility was to pass it along, almost like a midwife to the next generation.

Sidnie 

That’s right. That’s a really nice phrase, Jared, sacred responsibility. And I think they felt that very strongly. And sometimes you do get a sense of the scribes working with the text and trying to, not perfect it, because that that would be wrong, but trying to, to make it more accessible or to make sure that people looking at the text would or people who were hearing it, for the most part, would hear it in all its glory, really.

Pete 

So, okay, while we’re on this topic, I’d love for you to talk a bit about the textual evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls for two books in particular. Or just pick one: Isaiah and/or Jeremiah.

Sidnie 

Well, Jeremiah is kind of the easiest to talk about, because it’s so clear. There were in the ancient world, prior to the fall of the temples, so in the lifetime of Jesus, two forms of the book of Jeremiah in circulation.

24:54

Sidnie 

And we knew this prior to the discovery of the scrolls, because one form is found in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scripture that for centuries was the Bible of Christians. And the other form in the Masoretic text, the Hebrew texts that is the heir of the rabbinic Bible. And so, the canonical text in Judaism.

Pete

And for our English Bibles too. 

Sidnie

Yes, yes. Now, so that the Masoretic text of Jeremiah is about 5% longer than the Greek text, and the chapters are in a different order. And I had a funny experience with this once in a classroom. We were reading Jeremiah and I had a student who was Greek Orthodox. And so, he had an English Bible that was an Orthodox Bible, a translation of the Septuagint. And I asked him to read a certain chapter, and he started in and everybody’s looking around, because that wasn’t the chapter. And I realized what had happened. So, it was a wonderful lesson right there to explain, you know, even in the at that time, I think it was the 20th century, maybe the early 21st, but in any case, what was going on. And the interesting thing about these Jeremiah manuscripts is that they’re all in Hebrew and they all were found in cave 4, so they’re side by side. So, they’re not saying, “Oh, this is the real Jeremiah, and this is the fake one.” They’re saying, these are both forms of Jeremiah that we can read and benefit from.

Pete 

So just to be clear, at Qumran was found two Hebrew versions of Jeremiah, exactly right, one of which was used probably to translate it into Greek. That’s one tradition. And the other one that became this Masoretic text, this more official text of Judaism, which is still with us, you know, 2000 years later?

Sidnie

That’s exactly right.

Pete 

That’s inconvenient. Why would they have two?

Sidnie

I gather they didn’t think that. And I think that’s one of the things that we had to get our minds around. They didn’t think it was inconvenient, they probably thought it was great that you could read and benefit from different forms of the sacred text and learn different things. And that’s one of the things that they did that, again, would make us kind of nervous, they would take what we might think of as the classical literature of ancient Israel, the stuff that they inherited from their ancestors, and they would take it and create whole new works. That, you know, sometimes lengthened some themes and built on them and changed things. And this was especially true of the narratives found in the Pentateuch, the ancestral narratives, the Exodus narratives, even in the legal sections, that they would do this. And we have a lot of manuscripts from the scrolls that do this, the book of Enoch, the book of Jubilees, the temple scroll, and they’re all what would have been called rewritten Bible. That’s kind of awkward, but we, we think of it as rewriting this classical literature to create new works.

Pete 

Not canonical work, so to speak.

Sidnie

No, but interestingly, Enoch and Jubilees are canonical in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Pete 

Right. We have to keep remembering that there are different… [unintelligible].

Jared 

Well, I wanted to ask a question about that. Because, again, we maybe make the distinction. I’m not sure if there was anything like this at Qumran where, I feel like there’s this like, where the Bible was sort of in this glass case, and it can’t be touched, and it’s what it is. And then, sure, we have these other, we have these other books outside of that. But in Qumran when we have these, you said only 20, 25% of the of the scrolls were made up of biblical texts and then you had all these other texts. Was there any sense in which do we know if they sort of kept the “biblical books” that we think of as separate and more sacred than these other texts? Or were they all just kind of in there together? And there wasn’t this idea of, well, these are the primary ones and then we’re creating secondary works based on these and they’re not as important as these other ones. Was there any kind of hierarchy?

Sidnie

I’d say, actually, it’s kind of somewhere in the middle. It’s really clear that the five books of the Pentateuch, the Torah, were “the Word,” the sacred texts, bar none.

29:57

Sidnie

That was, and then you had the profits, and they were scripture. But then in the writings, Ruth, we have in two copies, there’s no indication that they thought Ruth was special in any way. Like, it’s a nice story. But they didn’t treat it in any way that indicates they thought, this is scripture. They have more copies of Enoch and Jubilees than they do of Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. So, what did they think of those books? I don’t think you can say for sure that they thought of them as scripture, as “the Bible.” Well, they may have thought of Enoch and Jubilees as scripture.

Jared 

It’s interesting though, that the Jewish Bible we have, like if you go get a Jewish Bible off the bookshelf, say, at Barnes and Noble, the Tanakh. And you have it that it’s already still situated, or it’s still situated in that same way, where you have the Torah, and then the Nevi’im and the Ketuvim. They have the first five books, then they have the prophets, then they have the writings to end it out. It’s almost like they’ve preserved this almost concentric circle. And I don’t know if a lot of Jewish readers today would say, well, the Ketuvim, the writings are less important than the Torah. But I think in some circles, they might say that where it is almost this concentric circle tradition.

Sidnie

Right. I’m not sure they would say it’s less, I mean, I don’t think they would use that language. But they would say that the Torah is central to our understanding of ourselves as Jews, and that means the Torah and all the interpretation that goes along with it—Mishnah, Talmud, Tosefta—everything else so that Torah in Judaism is more of a living, growing tradition than a fixed set of books. The fixed set of books are there, but it is a little different. Christianity, I think maybe we can blame Martin Luther, who said sola scriptura. And so, while Christians clearly do interpret the biblical text, sometimes they almost don’t want to admit it. Right? They just open it and read it.

Pete 

Yeah, true. Well, let’s, you know, to sum up, I guess, the manuscript evidence of Qumran at the very least, it brings to the table, questions of canon, and questions of just the state of texts in the ancient world.

Sidnie

Absolutely.

Pete

And the bottom line is that it’s not more clear, it’s from our point of view, from our expectations as modern people, it’s less clear. But maybe we need to think about it just in a different way, not about, not transferring, rather, our concerns or questions onto an ancient people, but just say, listen, here’s the way that it was, maybe they weren’t so hung up on things like we are.

Sidnie

Right, let’s let the scrolls speak. And I think one way that this is really difficult for us to do is to remember that at the time the scrolls were copied, the Bible the way we think of it didn’t exist, even in its physical form of a bound book, codex. These scrolls were all separate books, right? You could put them on a shelf, you could mix them up and have them in different orders. You read them separately. I mean, then they obviously knew all of this literature, but they, it wasn’t in this fixed form, that that we think of it as. We shelve our Bibles in libraries separately than we shelve commentaries, for example.

Pete 

Right, right. Well, let’s, I want to make sure we get to this a little bit too. Another group of writings among the Dead Sea community are these commentaries. We have a few of them on biblical books, like maybe the most, the best known as the commentary on Habakkuk. And these, these bring to light other kinds of issues. I mean, maybe we can say hermeneutical issues, but also things that might help us see something about maybe the rise of Christianity. That might be more than we can say from some of these writings. But let’s talk about these commentaries that are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Sidnie

Yeah, they are very interesting. We call them pesharim, from the Hebrew word pesher.

34:57

Sidnie

Because the way these commentaries were set up, they would quote a verse from the biblical text and then they would say, pesh rêy, “its interpretation is,” and then they would give a very contemporary interpretation. So that they weren’t, you know, I think Pete, when you teach or I teach, one of the things we emphasize is what was the original context? What was the historical context of this writing? They weren’t interested in that. They were interested in what, how, they believe that the scriptural text spoke about specific events in the life of their community, and that’s what they were interested in. And they interpreted these prophets in that way. And they, it’s funny, it’s they’re very, what we would think of as minor books, Habakkuk, Nahum, books like that. I mean, usually we don’t go and read Nahum very often. But they did. And they will use, they’ll use kind of fake names for figures, they talk about the wicked priest, and the teacher of righteousness, and the wrathful lion. And it’s been like a big puzzle for scholars to try and figure out who they’re talking about.

Pete

And the liar. Somebody called the liar. 

Sidnie

A liar, yes. This founder of lies. [Laughter]

Pete 

Now, give us a little bit more context, because, like, why did they interpret these biblical texts in terms of their own community? Were they somewhat of an apocalyptic eschatological kind of community?

Sidnie

They certainly seem to be from what the kind of texts they were reading. They’re very fond of Daniel, for example, and that they were producing, they have texts called “The War Rules” that talk about the final battle at the end of days. They have visionary texts, like the visions of Amram, the father of Moses, that talk about the last days. So, in a sense, they are in the same kind of basic milieu as the early Christians were, because early Christians were convinced they were living in the last days as well. And you can see that in books in the New Testament, the example, of course, is Revelation. Now, I want to say that there’s no indication in the scrolls of any New Testament books. So whatever fertilization there was, it was a more indirect fertilization than any kind of direct fertilization.

Jared 

But in some ways, I think that’s more important, because again, a lot of Christian traditions, or I would just speak for mine growing up, there was no sense that the New Testament had a context. If anything, the context of the New Testament was just the Old Testament, and you just skipped over all this intertestamental period. And it made the New Testament feel really unique, like it was saying really unique things because it was quite different than maybe the language and things of the Old Testament. But things like these scrolls at Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, and then of course, other intertestamental things. Second Temple Period literature, really, I think, opened up for I mean, scholarship, but then it’s beginning to trickle down for everyday people, by having people like Sidnie Crawford on podcasts. But would you say, then, that the New Testament, while it’s indirectly related  and that sort of thing, we can see the connections of the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament where they would have come from the same world.

Sidnie

Absolutely, absolutely. They come from the same world. They have the same issues of dealing with the Roman Empire, of being a people living under foreign domination. They have questions about how to fulfill the law. You know, I think that we forget that when Jesus is debating with the Pharisees in the gospels, it’s often on questions of how do you fulfill the law? Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Is it not? These are questions that were that were animating all Jews at the time and with the Dead Sea Scrolls, now we can see those kinds of questions in real life, you know, not kind of filtered through through the Gospels, which are written after the time of Jesus. These are these are contemporary with Jesus.

40:00

Pete 

Yeah, I think what freaked people out, at least some people out, was how, again, just reiterate the point, how much of the New Testament breathes the same air as something that is outside of the New Testament, indeed, in many respects prior to it. Which raised the question, which you already answered whether the New Testament sort of gets it from this community. And if I remember, I don’t remember specifically the literature, Sidnie, but I think some popular treatments of this sort of argued that the Gospel was directly dependent on the Dead Sea community. But you’re saying that’s not the case. But there is still an indirect connection?

Sidnie

Right, I think that the phrase “the air they breathe,” is the right one. Because how could you not be concerned about living under the Roman Empire? Right? The Roman Empire was everywhere. Everyone was concerned about that. You know, and of course, for the early Christians, it was the Roman Empire that crucified Jesus. And so, that was part of the reality for all of these groups, and how to live that way. And what did it mean that God was allowing the Roman Empire to dominate the world? And how do we handle that?

Pete 

Right, right. And they both felt that, again, to use maybe the contemporary expression, they were living in the last days. 

Sidnie

Yes.

Pete

It’s happening, or it’s about to happen. And, you know, we have this righteous teacher or teacher of righteousness among the Dead Sea Scrolls, who I guess probably was their leader?

Sidnie

In some way. We’re not entirely sure. But, but clearly a really important figure. I guess you don’t call someone a righteous teacher unless you think that. [Light laughter]

Pete 

Who also, I think, interpreted the texts for the community.

Sidnie

Yes.

Pete

Which is a very Jesus-y thing.

Sidnie

Exactly. And it mentions in pesher Habakkuk, the teacher of righteousness’ interpretive activity, and, you know, the teaching function, what does the text mean? How do we understand it? You know?

Pete 

And that’s about us.

Sidnie

Right.

Jared 

I mean, just to maybe not to be too on the nose. But I think tying to when Jesus says, “You have heard it said, but I say to you,” that is, that what you’re talking about in terms of that kind of somewhat interpretive function. That would maybe be the language of that we would maybe find in that world of saying, “Well, you’ve heard of this interpretation, I’m going to give you this other interpretation. And if you’re believing my authority, you’re going to kind of follow my lead in terms of how I’m reading these texts.”

Sidnie

Yes, exactly. Exactly. And in fact, there’s one passage in Matthew, and I don’t have chapter and verse in my head, but Jared, you brought it to mind that where Jesus says, “You have heard it said, You shall love your friend and hate your enemy. But I say to you love your enemies.” And it’s like, where did anybody say this? Well, the Dead Sea Scrolls, say things like that, right? You know, you love your fellow, your fellow community member, but you hate those outside the community. And how literally, they took that is an open question, but certainly, that’s the language.

Pete 

Well, I guess you know, what we’re looking at here. And we’re coming to the end of our time here, Sidnie, unfortunately. But it seems like one of the big lessons that we gain, let’s just limit it to the Christian world, Christians today, becoming familiar with these discoveries that are now 75 years old, that take us back, you know, over 2000 years. They are giving us a broader context within which to understand things like just the nature of the Bible. And also for Christians, something of the context where maybe the Gospel makes some sense. The Jesus movement makes some sense in that world, even if it wasn’t, you know, they’re not duplicating each other. They’re not consciously even aware of each other, probably, unless John the Baptist was an Essene.

Sidnie

Which, I don’t I think, he sounds like he was a pretty lone figure and these Essenes, they lived in community. That was really important to them, as it was to the early Christians. So that’s another way in which, you know, we see that same kind of milieu.

Pete

Right.

44:50

Sidnie

But I think you’re, I think that that’s a very fair way to put it. And especially now, in the world of Bible translations. You do see the biblical scrolls have a lot of influence in the latest update of the New Revised Standard Version for example, a lot of emphasis was placed on scroll manuscript readings.

Pete 

Right, right. Okay, well, let’s leave with this. I’m going to put you on the spot. If you were talking to somebody who was just starting to study the Dead Sea Scrolls, what one bit of wisdom would you give them about the study of the scrolls and the importance of digging into it? Because people are listening to this, there’s a reason for this, people are listening to this saying, “Oh, crap. Another thing I have to learn that’s going to ruin my life.” So how would you, as a professor, you know, and as a Christian, how might you just encourage them to move forward?

Sidnie

I would say, first of all, find a good translation, Geza Vermes’ translation of the scrolls, is very readable with good introductions, and then sort of see how they feel. They will feel very alien at first, right? It’s a different language, it’s a different world. And to get a good introductory text is also very helpful. But to persevere, just to keep at it and learning and I think it’s very rewarding to do that. But that, it’s really important. Good translation.

Pete 

Alright, Sidnie. Well, listen, thank you so so much for taking the time to talk with us about I think what is a very central topic for Christians who want to educate themselves about Scripture and about their own faith and just 1000 thanks for you being here.

Jared

Thank you.

Sidnie

Well, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much.

Stephanie

You just made it through another entire episode of The Bible for Normal People. Well done to you, and well done to everyone who supports us by reading the podcast, leaving us a review, or telling others about our show. We are especially grateful for our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you’d like to help support the podcast, you can head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month, you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.

Dave

Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Director, Savannah Locke; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared and the entire Bible for Normal People team—thanks for listening.

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the art of translating the bible with robert alter

Interview with Robert Alter: The Art of Translating the Bible

May 13, 2019

Robert Alter, Ph.D. has spent most of his life committed to studying the Bible and the last two decades creating an entirely new translation of the Old Testament. Pete and Jared talk about some of the insights he has gained from seeing the Bible as a literary masterpiece.

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  • “Almost every sentence in the Bible is itself an embodiment of sophisticated style.” – Robert Alter

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