New discovery: ancient Old Testament fragment is identical to copy 2,000 years later

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are going to take a look at the data
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are going to take a look at the data

A new discovery of an ancient text fragment was reported in the Associated Press, of all places.


The charred lump of a 2,000-year-old scroll sat in an Israeli archaeologist’s storeroom for decades, too brittle to open. Now, new imaging technology has revealed what was written inside: the earliest evidence of a biblical text in its standardized form.

The passages from the Book of Leviticus, scholars say, offer the first physical evidence of what has long been believed: that the version of the Hebrew Bible used today goes back 2,000 years.

The discovery, announced in a Science Advances journal article by researchers in Kentucky and Jerusalem on Wednesday, was made using “virtual unwrapping,” a 3D digital analysis of an X-ray scan. Researchers say it is the first time they have been able to read the text of an ancient scroll without having to physically open it.

“You can’t imagine the joy in the lab,” said Pnina Shor of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who participated in the study.

[…]Scholars have believed the Hebrew Bible in its standard form first came about some 2,000 years ago, but never had physical proof, until now, according to the study. Previously the oldest known fragments of the modern biblical text dated back to the 8th century.

The text discovered in the charred Ein Gedi scroll is “100 percent identical” to the version of the Book of Leviticus that has been in use for centuries, said Dead Sea Scroll scholar Emmanuel Tov from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who participated in the study.

“This is quite amazing for us,” he said. “In 2,000 years, this text has not changed.”

The article mentioned the Dead Scrolls, which were earlier copies of some of the Old Testament books that we have today. In this case, there was a long gap between these early Dead Sea Scrolls documents, and the earliest copy that we had prior to the Dead Sea Scrolls. How much had changed in the period in between?

This article from Probe Ministries explains:

The Dead Sea Scrolls play a crucial role in assessing the accurate preservation of the Old Testament. With its hundreds of manuscripts from every book except Esther, detailed comparisons can be made with more recent texts.

The Old Testament that we use today is translated from what is called the Masoretic Text. The Masoretes were Jewish scholars who between A.D. 500 and 950 gave the Old Testament the form that we use today. Until the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947, the oldest Hebrew text of the Old Testament was the Masoretic Aleppo Codex which dates to A.D. 935.{5}

With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we now had manuscripts that predated the Masoretic Text by about one thousand years. Scholars were anxious to see how the Dead Sea documents would match up with the Masoretic Text. If a significant amount of differences were found, we could conclude that our Old Testament Text had not been well preserved. Critics, along with religious groups such as Muslims and Mormons, often make the claim that the present day Old Testament has been corrupted and is not well preserved. According to these religious groups, this would explain the contradictions between the Old Testament and their religious teachings.

After years of careful study, it has been concluded that the Dead Sea Scrolls give substantial confirmation that our Old Testament has been accurately preserved. The scrolls were found to be almost identical with the Masoretic text. Hebrew Scholar Millar Burrows writes, “It is a matter of wonder that through something like one thousand years the text underwent so little alteration. As I said in my first article on the scroll, ‘Herein lies its chief importance, supporting the fidelity of the Masoretic tradition.’”{6}

A significant comparison study was conducted with the Isaiah Scroll written around 100 B.C. that was found among the Dead Sea documents and the book of Isaiah found in the Masoretic text. After much research, scholars found that the two texts were practically identical. Most variants were minor spelling differences, and none affected the meaning of the text.

One of the most respected Old Testament scholars, the late Gleason Archer, examined the two Isaiah scrolls found in Cave 1 and wrote, “Even though the two copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran Cave 1 near the Dead Sea in 1947 were a thousand years earlier than the oldest dated manuscript previously known (A.D. 980), they proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The five percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling.”{7}

Despite the thousand year gap, scholars found the Masoretic Text and Dead Sea Scrolls to be nearly identical. The Dead Sea Scrolls provide valuable evidence that the Old Testament had been accurately and carefully preserved.

Now, if you listen to skeptics, agnostics and atheists, you would think that nothing in the Bible is reliable, because the stories were supposedly changed over time, and sometimes intentionally. That’s the message that popularizers like Bart Ehrman sell to a public audience that is hungry to dismiss the Bible. He likes to talk about the supposed distortions that have crept in, because all we have are “copies of copies of copies of copies”. But if you take a look at the hard evidence, rather than Bart’s rhetoric, then you get a very different picture of what really happened.

I think this is an exciting opportunity for people who dismissed the Bible as hopelessly unreliable to think a second time about whether there might be a message in there that tells us who God is, how he has interacted with people in the past, and what he expects from us today. For those who are open to the demands of a two-way relationship with the Creator, the Bible is the place to start.

5 thoughts on “New discovery: ancient Old Testament fragment is identical to copy 2,000 years later”

  1. Reblogged this on BELLATOR CHRISTI and commented:
    Check out the following article by the Wintery Knight describing a 2,000 year old Old Testament fragment which is identical to the Masoretic text (used in turn to translate modern Old Testament texts). Folks, we have a reliable transmission of the Bible.

  2. As I remember, a whole lot of the DSS caches were Gnostic stuff– basically, fan fiction, but more serious.
    Back when our methods were a lot less than they are now, it was really easy to not be able to tell the difference between “this text took some chunks from those other places, but it’s obviously different” and “this text IS the same one, but there are differences.” Especially when you can’t read half of it, so you fill in the “missing” bits with text you do know.

    When folks had axes to grind, it got messier, of course.

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