For those of you who have studied Biblical archaeology, you’ll recognize that I am not mentioning the greatest discoveries of the last 40 years during this series. That’s because I’m limiting my comments to those discoveries available for me to consider during the early part of 1971. These findings, and others too many to mention in a limited series, were part of my journey from atheist to theist.
The combination of atheist, investigative journalist and radio talk show host was certainly not conducive to any quick sell about the existence of God. I did not believe in God, I did not like people who believed in God, and I enjoyed making fun of them until they either hung up, yelled or cried. It didn’t matter what they did, as long as what they did gave me the opportunity to ridicule them and their belief in God.
Ridicule, intimidation and bullying (R.I.B.) are stock and trade for many atheists. I used those tactics and those are the same tactics atheists use today. Many atheists will say something like this – “There is absolutely NO evidence to support the Bible as being anything other than myth and legend.” NO evidence? Not true. That’s where archaeology comes in – as evidence.
I, like so many baby-boomers, was born within a year after my father left military service at the end of World War II. One of the greatest archaeological discoveries supporting the accuracy of the ancient Hebrew Bible was made during that same period of time – in the late 1940s.
Interestingly, archaeologists did not make one of the most important discoveries. Bedouin shepherds found the caves about a mile from the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. A Jewish settlement was established in the late part of the 2nd century BC and was occupied until the Roman Army destroyed it about 68 AD.
The Bedouins initially found seven ancient scrolls in clay jars in one of the caves. They eventually came to the attention of Dr. John Trever of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR). He compared the scrolls to the oldest biblical manuscript known at the time and saw similarities. The ASOR made the announcement of the discovery in 1948. The first seven scrolls included the Great Isaiah Scroll, the Community Rule Scroll, the Pesher on Habakkuk, the War Scroll, the Thanksgiving Hymns and the Genesis Apocryphon.
Continuing the search for more scrolls in the caves became more difficult because of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, but the original cave was found in the early part of 1949. During the next several years, more caves were discovered containing thousands of biblical and other Jewish documents. About 90% of the scrolls and fragments were found in Cave #4 (see photo above), including all or portions of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Daniel, Ezekiel, Song of Songs and various ancient commentaries on the Writings in the Hebrew Bible.
Other scrolls found in the 11 Qumran caves included portions of 1 and 2 Kings, Psalms, Jeremiah, a scroll of Jubilees, the Wisdom of Sirach, the Targum of Job, the Book of Enoch. Many other Jewish documents were also found, including the Temple Scroll, Angelic Liturgy, Hymn to King Jonathan, Testament of Joseph, the Copper Scroll and the Damascus Document. Along with the scrolls and fragments, searchers found tefillin cases (phylacteries), mezuzah, jars, lamps, linens and leather objects.
Carbon dating tests done on a piece of linen in 1950 showed it was from the early 1st century AD, plus or minus 200 years. Carbon dating done on the scrolls showed them to belong to the last two centuries BC and 1st century AD. Paleographic dating (handwriting analysis) done on the Dead Sea Scrolls showed them to be from the same period of time as the carbon dating tests. Other tests done on the scrolls included parchment and ink which also supported the dating.
So what? What do old scrolls and stuff have to do with proving the existence of God? This is where we enter into textual evidence for the Bible. I knew little about Bible texts as an atheist, so Dr. Edward Hindson guided me through the process of understanding what the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls meant for the credibility of the biblical documents.
The Hebrew Bible of the mid-20th century AD was made up of 22 Books. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible from the late 2nd century BC (Septuagint) contained 39 Books (same writings as the Hebrew Bible, but divided differently for Greek readers), plus several Apocryphal books. After the advent of Christianity, which included a majority of Gentiles by the end of the 1st century AD, many Jews turned away from using the Septuagint and supported using only the Hebrew Bible. However, prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, the oldest complete or almost complete copies of the Hebrew Bible were the Aleppo Codex (10th century AD) and Leningrad Codex (11th century AD).
Again, we ask, so what? The “what” is that the scrolls of the Hebrew Bible found among the Dead Sea Scrolls were almost identical to the copies made more than a thousand years later. It demonstrated in a powerful and evidential way that the Jewish Masoretes who made the 10th and 11th century copies were not inventing or re-inventing text, but carefully preserving text that had been written centuries before.
This was exciting news for both Jews and Christians. Jews now had access to texts of their Hebrew Bible that were more than a thousand years older than the oldest texts they had at the time. Christians who depended on the Hebrew text for their Old Testament (instead of the Greek Septuagint) had more evidence that their translation was based on accurate accounts of original texts.
Dr. Hindson explained that every Book of the traditional Hebrew Bible is represented by the scrolls found at Qumran, except for Esther. That provided textual critics the opportunity to compare somewhat recent texts (10th century AD) with much older manuscripts (2nd century BC) to check for accuracy in transmission. Dr. Hindson also pointed out that the Dead Sea Scrolls were within just hundreds of years of the original writings instead of more than a millenium-and-a-half for the Masoretic texts. The fact that the Masoretic texts compared so well to the Qumran texts was evidence in support of the accurate transmission of the original writings of Old Testament prophets to the translations in use today.
As an atheist I had often asked Christians how anyone could trust the text of the Hebrew Bible (Christianity’s Old Testament) if the oldest manuscripts were thousands of years distant from the original writings? Dr. Hindson introduced me to the archaeological discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and it demonstrated why we can trust those documents. The ancient scribes who copied the Hebrew texts carried along a special tradition that protected and preserved the copied texts from error — proven by the discovery of The Dead Sea Scrolls.
* Here are some of the Dead Sea Scroll research websites where you can see the ancient documents.
Israel Antiquities Authority – The Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition
Digital Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem
** Here are some of the research resources available to me during my investigation in 1971.
Albright, W.F. (1949), The Archaeology of Palestine (Hardmondsworth, England: Penguin Books)
Burrows, Millar; Trever, John; Brownlee, William (1950), The Dead Sea Scrolls of St. Mark’s Monastery, Vol. I, The Isaiah Manuscript and the Habakkuk Commentary (American Schools of Oriental Research)
Sellers, O.R. (1951), Radiocarbon Dating of Cloth from the ‘Ain Feshka Cave (Bulletin of the American Schoolf of Oriental Research)
Albright, W.F. (1952), The Bible After Twenty Years of Archaeology (Religion in Life XXI, 4, 1952)
Cross, Frank M. (1955), The Manuscripts of the Dead Sea Caves (Biblical Archaeology XVII)
Unger, Merrill (1954), Archaeology and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan)
Cross, Frank M. (1955), The Oldest Manuscripts From Qumran (Journal Biblical Literature, LXXIV)
Fred Wright (1955) Highlights of Archaeology in the Bible Lands, (Chicago: Moody Press)
Yadin, Yigael (1957) The Message of the Scrolls (Simon & Schuster)
Kenyon, Kathleen (1957), Beginning in Archaeology (New York: Praeger)
Kenyon, Kathleen (1957), Digging Up Jericho (New York: Praeger)
Unger, Merrill (1957), The Dead Sea Scrolls (Chicago: Moody Press)
Nelson Glueck (1959) Rivers in the Desert, (New York: Farrar, Strous and Cudahy)
Free, Joseph (1969), Archaeology and Bible History (Wheaton, IL: Scripture Press)