The Bible and the Biblical Scrolls

            In the Second Temple period and later, the books that we now place together between two covers as one book, “the Bible,” were generally copied and circulated as separate scrolls. About 200 of the identified manuscripts from Qumran are copies of biblical texts. Of the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, all but Esther are represented among the Qumran scrolls. Fragments of the Bible in Hebrew have been found in caves 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 11; caves 4 and 7 held Greek biblical fragments; caves 4 and 11 contained copies of Aramaic targumim (translations) of Leviticus and Job. For more information, on how the scrolls were produced, see Tov, “Copying of a Biblical Scroll.”

            The greatest significance of these finds may simply be their collective impact—the next earliest surviving copies of the Hebrew Bible are a thousand years younger than the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating to the Middle Ages. Thanks to the discoveries at Qumran and related sites, our earliest copies of Hebrew biblical texts are more than two thousand years old! Speaking more scientifically, the discovery and analysis of these ancient biblical scrolls have contributed to our understanding of the Hebrew Bible in two major spheres: text criticism (the study of the transmission of the biblical text, mainly by comparing different copies of the same book), and the development of the biblical canon (the list of the different writings that are now included in the scriptures).