BR 15:03, Jun 1999
The Fluid Bible
The blurry line between biblical and nonbiblical texts
When the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, no canonical Bible existed. That is, in the two or three centuries before the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D, there was no one list of sacred books that was considered authoritative. At the same time, there was no clear border between biblical books and nonbiblical books. Rather, different groups of Jews considered different books authoritative, even though all Jews accepted the Torah, or Pentateuchthat is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Torah was, after all, the source of the Law, which provided the underpinning of Jewish ritual and daily life.
But the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal a surprising fact: Even in the case of the Torah, there was no fixed text either of the Torah as a whole, or of any of the individual books. Among the scrolls is a whole group of texts that are related to, but differ from, the present-day books of the canonical Torah. Some of the texts are simply copies of biblical books with variants, the result of centuries of hand copying (scribal error or manipulation) and textual growth. These documents provide critical new material to the text critic who attempts to recover the best text of a biblical book, using all copies available.