Text Criticism

            The ability to analyze and compare the hundreds of biblical fragments from the caves of the Judean Desert has changed our understanding of the formation of the biblical text. Although great care has been taken through the ages to preserve the stability of the received text of the Hebrew Bible—the Masoretic Text (MT)—there is not absolute agreement on the wording of particular passages, among all manuscripts of biblical books. Often, differences among the texts (“variants”) are minor, such as the presence or absence of a single vowel letter, but there are significant variants as well. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible relied mostly upon variants preserved in translated versions, especially the ancient Greek Bible, the Septuagint. The discovery of the biblical manuscripts at Qumran has allowed scholars to examine very early copies of biblical passages, in the original language, providing “witnesses” to early forms of the text. The multiplicity of differing versions or readings of specific passages, some of which appear similar to the later Masoretic text, others to the Septuagint or the Samaritan Pentateuch, offers new insight into the fluidity of the textual traditions during this period.

            In addition to the biblical scrolls, which are the most valuable resource for text criticism, the Qumran discoveries also include other witnesses to the biblical text—biblical citations in non-biblical texts, and biblical passages preserved in religious artifacts found at the site: phylacteries (tefillin) and mezuzot , which contain excerpts from Exodus and Deuteronomy (including Exod 12:43-13:16; Deut 5:1-6:9; 10:12-11:21; Deuteronomy 32.)
To illustrate the contribution of the Dead Sea scrolls to textual criticism, let us look at the Isaiah scrolls from Cave 1, and the so-called “Reworked Pentateuch” texts.

Isaiah Scrolls from Cave 1
            Among the first seven scrolls found in cave 1 were two copies of the biblical book of Isaiah, labeled 1QIsaa and 1QIsab. Both of these manuscripts are fairly close to the Masoretic version of the book of Isaiah, but both contain numerous differences in orthography (spelling), and a fair number of more substantive variants, both from MT and from each other. 1QIsaa, “the Great Isaiah Scroll,” dates from around 125 BCE, and is the only biblical text to have survived intact from that period. A total of 21 copies of Isaiah have been found in the Qumran caves.
See The Great Isaiah Scroll (1Q Isaa Column 6 [Isaiah 6:7–7:15]; courtesy of Fred Miller)

Reworked Pentateuch
            Another group of compositions that have been useful for rethinking textual criticism are the so-called “Reworked Pentateuch” texts. These are manuscripts that match the Pentateuch as we know it in most portions of the text, but also contain sections without any parallel in known biblical texts. For example, much of fragment 6 of 4Q365 Reworked Pentateuch consists of a familiar version of chapter 15 of Exodus; however, between Exod 15:21 and 15:22, there are seven additional lines supplementing Moses’ Song of the Sea with a “Song of Miriam.” Similarly, fragment 23 of this manuscript is identifiable as Leviticus 24, but adds in two festivals known from the Temple Scroll, the “Festival of Wood” and “Festival of New Oil.” These texts have challenged scholars to think about whether to consider these compositions as “variant” biblical texts or as nonbiblical interpretive works.