The Authority of the Book, Not the Text:

Some thoughts on Biblical interpretation.

While I have read a number of books on the Dead Sea Scrolls[1] (DSS), as well as many other books that refer to them in varying detail, there is an interesting question and perspective that I have only just come across and considered.

I will share some thoughts and a little relevant evidence here and I look forward to some discussion and feedback on these thoughts and perspective.

During the time of the Qumran Yachad[2] (approximately 250 BCE up to 50 CE) there were Biblical books that they clearly considered authoritative, and in some sense canonical, but what also appears apparent is that the Qumran Yachad were happy to use many different textual versions and adaptations of these biblical ‘books’.

“Many of these authoritative texts were present in very different textual forms (short, long, revised, reworked, abstracted, versions) and even in very different editions. This proves, as Ulrich emphasized, that what was considered authoritative was the book itself, not the concrete textual form of the book, since all these forms and editions were kept harmoniously together in the same library and, to judge from the interpretations, were used indiscriminately.”- see ‘RETHINKING THE BIBLE: SIXTY YEARS OF DEAD SEA SCROLLS RESEARCH AND BEYOND’ by Florentino Garcia Martinez[3].

Before considering this any further, it may be worth setting a little more context. From my reading and research I support Frank Moore Cross’s argument that there are really three distinct major groups of Biblical texts, namely the ‘Palestinian’ group (mostly from Qumran), the Egyptian group (LXX, Greek versions of Samuel; Kings, a short Hebrew version of Jeremiah, etc) and the ‘Babylonian’ group. It is the Babylonian group that appears to have been the work of Hillel and his son and disciples.

It is the ‘Babylonian’ group (or proto-Masoretic Text) that was canonized sometime between the 2 revolts of 70 and 135 CE and became the preeminent version within Judaism and Christianity. For a little more on this see my article ‘Some Similarities Between the Qumran Manuscripts (DSS) and the New Testament’ at

Professor Martinez explains this Qumran difference here:
 “A well-known example (4Q175) will clarify my point. This manuscript, known as 4QTestimonia, is a single sheet of leather, written by the same copyist who penned 1QS and 4QSamuelc and using the same convention as other Scrolls of replacing the Tetragrammaton with four dots. It contains a collection of four quotations without further commentary or explanation, though each quotation is clearly marked, both by three blank spaces and by marginal marks after each quote. The first quotation (in lines 1–8) is taken from Exod 20:18b according to the Samaritan tradition, a text which here brings together Deut 5:28–29 and Deut 18:18–19 of the masoretic Bible and announces the coming of a prophet like Moses, which was used by the Samaritans to foster the expectation of the coming of the Taheb, and which is used here to express the belief in the coming of the eschatological Prophet.

The second quote (in lines 9–13) is taken from Num 24:15–17 in a textual form similar to the one preserved in the Masoretic Text, but with several differences—not only orthographical but substantial—both with regard to the masoretic and to the Samaritan traditions, such as the

use of ויקום instead of וקם , inserted above the line. This second quotation interprets the oracle of Balaam on the Scepter and the Star as referring to the coming of a future messianic figure.

The third quote (in lines 14–20) is taken from Deut 33:8–11 and also included some variants from the Masoretic Text, applying the blessing of Levi to the expected priestly messiah.

The fourth quote (in lines 21–30) is taken from a composition that was totally unknown until it was discovered in two Qumran manuscripts (4Q378–379), published under the name of 4QApocryphon of Joshua, a composition that is a narrative reworking of the biblical book of Joshua, interspersed with prayers and discourses, most of them pronounced by Joshua, like the curse of Jericho, quoted from Josh 6:26.”


So here is evidence that the Qumran Yachad not only accepted various versions of their authoritative ‘books’ (now canonised in the Tanakh), but also they accepted as authoritative other texts no longer accepted in the canon of the Hebrew Bible today.  And this contrasts quite noticeably with the fact that the Biblical manuscripts from the other Dead Sea Scroll collections (like Masada and Murabba‘at) are very much in agreement with the texts which we know from the medieval manuscripts (i.e. Masoretic Text) of the Bible.

So, it poses an interesting question. Was the use of various textual forms and versions of the biblical books valid and in conformity with a Torah-centric interpretation of the text and life itself? Surely, we ourselves today tend to make use of many different translations and versions to suit our own purposes, even if only to help our understanding and communication of the Scriptures?

As I have discussed in my book ‘The New Testament: The Hebrew Behind the Greek’, the interpretative method of applying certain passages from the Torah and Prophets in particular to present realities, as per the Qumran’s ‘Pesher Habukkuk’, is also quite common in the New Testament, especially in the Apostle Paul’s epistles.

In this different? Were the Qumran Yachad really any different to us in their desire to see the biblical texts as very much relevant to their time and place, not only in answering the questions of how best to live a righteous life, but also in trying to better anticipate and hope for a brighter future when the Coming Age, the Olam HaBah would fully dawn?

January 2020

[1] Books on the DSS:

In my opinion the very best is Prof Gary Rendsburg’s ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls’.

Others I have read include,  ‘Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls’ edited by Herschel Shanks; ‘The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English’ translated by Geza Vermes; ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible’ by Martin Abegg Jr, Peter Flint and Eugene Ulrich; ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography’ by John J. Collins and ‘From the Dead Sea Scrolls: The Books of Wisdom of Sirach, Tobit, and Epistle of Jeremiah’  by Robert Bagley III.

[2] The Qumran Yachad (community) were most likely Essenes but this is not definitive.

[3] Prof. F. García Martínez, Professor of Religion and Literature of Early Judaism and Director of the Qumran Institute, University of Groningen, Netherlands.

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