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Apologetics and the Dead Sea Scrolls

April 12, 2010

Recently I was asked to speak to a church group about the Dead Sea Scrolls. I thought I might share some of my thoughts from the experience.

In trying to express what the Scrolls are and their value for academic study I thought it necessary to locate them historically by giving a brief background of the Second Temple time-line and the possible groups that existed within Judaism at the time.

No one gave a shit.

They just wanted to know one thing: what do the Scrolls mean for my faith? In other words: can I use the scrolls in an apologetic defense of my faith or for an attack on your secular humanism?

No matter how I tried to guide and facilitate the conversation away from this the group kept coming back to these concerns again and again: Do they prove the reliability of the Bible? Do they prove the historical records in the Bible? Do they prove anything about Jesus? Do they prove our Bible is the right one?

Basically, they wanted me to do this:

(HT: Robert Cargill: How Not to Talk About the Dead Sea Scrolls)

As I commented on Dr. Cargill’s site the argumentation in this video is a selective appeal to critical scholarship (amongst its many other faults). Basically, it misrepresents a few items about the scrolls in an attempt to “prove” the reliability of the Bible. The reason it’s selective of course is the fact that if Mr. Niles mentioned the majority scholarly opinion on the authors of Isaiah most evangelical Christians would freak out. If Mr. Niles followed that up with some scholarly opinion on Hebrew prophecy, the dating of Isaiah 53, and its historical meaning… well, let’s just say it doesn’t “preach”.

———————-

Just as an aside: I work for Dr. Peter Flint who has recently finished work on DJD 32 “The Great Isaiah Scroll;” I’ve seen the variant list for merely the first three chapters, and just that is several pages!

———————-

Ultimately, what I found most interesting was the insatiable thirst for certainty and for proof. I would suggest that this is probably normal for human beings inculcated in a post-Enlightenment society that values the scientific process and a certain type of reason. I would also think that this is so natural for some people that they can’t even really see what it is they truly value. It’s like a fish swimming in water.

Sometimes I have to wonder if this sort of Christian has any “faith” whatsoever or if they are so blindly committed to some sort of epistemic certainty that their loyalties and arguments will always run towards some kind of apologetic.

Anyways, I was nice and suggested to the group that if anyone tells them that the scrolls disprove their faith they don’t know what they are talking about. Equally, I would suggest, they can’t “prove” your faith either. Sometimes texts are just texts; sometimes historical events are just historical events.

Of course, I believe that the scrolls are of great value, and there is many things we can learn from them, but as an apologetic tool? I would think their value is very limited.

Thoughts?

31 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2010 9:50 am

    It’s unfortunate that there was little/no interest in the scrolls for the sake of the scrolls themselves and what they might contribute to our understanding of Scripture. I once was very interested in apologetics, but not so much now. I believe there are those who are gifted for such pursuits, just not me. I think what many well-intentioned Christians end up doing is trying so hard to find evidence to refute this claim or that one that they will accept any claim that sounds even remotely applicable. Needless to say, this can be a disastrous thing. Shroud of Turin, anyone?

  2. April 12, 2010 9:52 am

    Hi Scott,

    I hate apologetics as usually understood. You may have missed it, because I’m not on your blogroll, but here is my take on what the DSS “does” for people:

    http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2010/03/the-dss-exhibit-in-milwaukee-a-review.html

    • April 12, 2010 10:05 am

      Yes, I suppose I should clarify. I would be in complete agreement: I hate apologetics as usually understood. Therefore, someone using something that I would perceive as not having apologetic value apologetically is hard to watch. Don’t even get me started on Reformed apologetics!

      “If you went into the exhibit with a love for Israel, the Bible, and/or your religious heritage, Jew, Protestant, Catholic, whatever, you left the exhibit with your pieties affirmed.”

      I suppose that’s sort of my point in a nutshell!

  3. April 12, 2010 10:18 am

    The best apologetics is by people who make it superfluous. Like Marilynne Robinson:

    http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2010/04/three-reasons-why-marilynne-robinsons-absence-of-mind-is-a-mustread-for-biblical-scholars.html

    But I would say that there is one thing worse than Reformed apologetics (some of it, after all, like that of Edward John Carnell, was good for its time): non-Reformed apologetics! And if you wish to prove me wrong, name one non-Reformed apologete that you can stomach.

  4. April 12, 2010 10:41 am

    Can we please steer this conversation back on course? Aren’t the Dead Sea Scrolls like 99% the same as the Bibles we have today with only minor spelling differences? And, doesn’t that show that the Old Testament we have was dictated by God to Moses in the 15th century BC? … You guys are missing the point …😉

    Bleh.

    I agree with everything you’ve said. To give a bit of encouragement, I’ve had some pretty good experiences when I’ve talked about the scrolls. But, I’m in a fairly moderate-ish Catholic parish. If I’m using language like “textual traditions,” I can keep a pretty captive audience. My community also has not been inundated with an apologetic approach to faith, though we do have that in Catholic circles. It is just nothing like I experienced when I was in evangelical communities. With that said, I hope you also have had and will have opportunities to share your knowledge with people who appreciate it.

  5. April 12, 2010 11:09 am

    my experience- when talking about the scrolls to church folk, is that they LOVE learning about the environment of 2nd temple judaism and they are quite happy to let the scrolls be the scrolls.

    i cant imagine that im alone in this experience though. surely other church groups are interested in 2nd temple judaism without having to have some false connection to christianity drawn.

    if not, how sad. but that’s what happens when illiterate pastors (i.e., pastors who don’t read scripture, they read translations of scripture) blather.

  6. Mike Koke permalink
    April 12, 2010 11:48 am

    Good point Scott. I have added my take that one of the worst offenders has to be the argument that a fragment of Mark was found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (or that the Scrolls have anything to do with the early Christians at all, except for revealing to scholars of Judaism and Christianity the plurality of Second Temple Judaism(s)).

  7. April 12, 2010 3:04 pm

    The only difference between the Great Isaiah Scroll and the Masoretic Text is “one word and seven or eight verb tenses and punctuation marks”? That’s not an exaggeration, that’s a lie.

  8. April 12, 2010 3:38 pm

    I agree with Jim West (sound the bells! blow the shofar!). A lot of people who are believers are not as dumb as some people make them out to be. They’re interested in learning new things, are happy to be challenged a bit, and, at the same time, do not take themselves too seriously.

    • April 13, 2010 7:19 am

      fantastic!!!!

      • April 13, 2010 7:29 am

        I would agree with both of you as well… however, on this particular occasion, and some others I have had in evangelical circles, apologetics was certainly the flavor of the day.

  9. April 12, 2010 4:29 pm

    Better you than me mate. I get in enough trouble by not telling people what to believe. My own church would love what you wanted to share – but they are the ones who stuck around because they were able to have a faith that allowed much thinking for themselves. In my opinion modern evangelical apologetics is a complete waste of time.

  10. Fr Craig permalink
    April 13, 2010 7:07 am

    I hate to sound like a nob, but I think the ‘search for certainty’ is endemic for those who can’t deal with ambiguity and ideas in tension. Sadly, in my experience, the less educated someone is, the more they want to believe that they ‘know the facts.’ My parish is largely well-educated professionals, and they are fascinated with the ideas they hear related to context and historical criticism. One guy, sadly (and he’s a great guy) constantly barrages me with how I can teach such things as – I don’t believe in the Jonah story, 40 years really means a ‘long time,’ etc. He’s a construction worker, and would be happier in a Southern Baptist church, but married a girl who grew up here… We live in a scary world, things are changing so fast, younger folks especially are bombarded with talking heads, twitter, FB, urban legends… I think this contributes to a ‘black or white’ mindset – they yearn for certainty.

  11. EricW permalink
    April 13, 2010 7:57 am

    A prideful skeptic by nature, Randall Niles returned his life to Christ after nearly 20 years of running from anything “religious.” Today, he serves the Ministry in areas of operations, finance and content. Randall is a former corporate attorney, who served as a VP in a public telecom company. He also served as managing partner of a law firm he founded to represent technology-oriented companies.

    Randall has a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration/Finance from Georgetown University, a Certificate in Comparative Business Policy from Oxford University, and a Juris Doctor from Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. Randall currently teaches business, law and philosophy at Colorado Christian University.

    I wonder if he can read the Isaiah Scroll? I wonder if he can read the MT or LXX of Isaiah so he can study the textual variants?

    Just askin’….

  12. April 13, 2010 8:27 am

    LOL, Eric. It takes a very small mind to get one’s knickers in a knot over such things as the variants in 1 QIsa-a. I don’t think even Bart Ehrman actually does, but he might pretend to, in order to offend his former brethren.

  13. Steven Carr permalink
    April 14, 2010 7:23 am

    A lot of people want really to have certainty that when Jesus told Peter there would be a coin in the mouth of a fish, then there really was a coin in that fishes mouth.

    Paul scoffed at the idea of showing that miracles had happened as a way of converting people.

    ‘Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’

    It seems even then people were demanding proof that these miraculous signs really had happened before they would convert.

    • April 15, 2010 4:50 am

      “Paul scoffed at the idea of showing that miracles had happened as a way of converting people.”

      Actually no he didn’t. It’s quite the opposite:

      1 Cor 15:12-12 “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. ”

      Christianity is centered on a miracle, Jesus resurrection.

  14. April 14, 2010 8:42 am

    In defense of Nigel, he is doing what Christians are encouraged to to do in 1 Peter 3:15 and commanded by Christ in the great commission. I wonder how you cynics and elitists are doing with fulfilling that commission? If that bothers anyone, perhaps you should step up and do a better job of it.

    Nigel is speaking to the general public, most of whom do not not have any exposure to, or care much for scholarly criticism. Why should they? Seems to me that most of the textual critics are not even Christians in any meaningful sense of the word. The general idea of Nigel’s argument is sound. The following is a quote from “A General Introduction to the Bible”,

    “Of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, there are only 17 letters in question. Ten of these letters are simply a matter of spelling, which does not affect the sense. Four more letters are minor stylistic changes, such as conjunctions. The three remaining letters comprise the word LIGHT, which is added in verse 11 and which does not affect the meaning greatly. Furthermore, this word is supported by the Septuagint (LXX). Thus, in one chapter of 166 words, there is only one word (three letters) in question after a thousand years of transmission – and this word does not significantly change the meaning of the passage.” (Norman Geisler & William Nix, “A General Introduction to the Bible”, Moody Press, Page 263).

    Isaiah 53 is arguable the best prophetic description of Jesus in the Hebrew Bible. I believe there is great apologetic value in the Isaiah scroll, especially since it is dated at 120 BCE. The prophecy is dated prior to Christ and there’s no way to dismiss it as after the fact. We have solid evidence of the supernatural in this scroll.

    If using prophecy to authenticate the message bothers you, take it up with God as he is the one who makes the challenge,

    “remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ ” (Isaiah 46:9–10, ESV)

    • April 14, 2010 9:06 am

      I meant to say Randall not Nigel.

    • April 14, 2010 9:43 am

      Chris, you may want to go back and read the words that are actually in this post, and then re-consider if anything you wrote above has any meaning to what I am commenting on. We are talking academics here man, not Sunday school apologetics.

      “We have solid evidence of the supernatural in this scroll. ”

      Hmmmmm.

      Just so we don’t end up talking past each other: how many authors were involved in the production of Isaiah in your mind? Where would you date Isaiah 53? What is Hebrew prophecy?

      • April 15, 2010 5:22 am

        “We are talking academics here man, not Sunday school apologetics.”

        Exactly my point, so why are you picking on some one doing Sunday school ap0logetics and not an academic?

        “Hmmmmm.”

        That’s right. If you don’t see this as a supernatural description of Jesus Christ, then I don’t know how to reason with you..

        He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
        yet he opened not his mouth;
        like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
        and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
        so he opened not his mouth.
        By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
        and as for his generation, who considered
        that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
        stricken for the transgression of my people?

        “What is Hebrew prophecy?”

        I believe the prophets were primary spokesmen for God, covenant enforcers, their message was not their own it was God’s. It was given in oracles and poetic forms.

        “how many authors were involved in the production of Isaiah in your mind? ”

        One author with some later arrangement by scribes. A lot of scholars with naturalist presuppositions don’t want to believe that Isaiah predicted the release from the Babylonian captivity by Cyrus. Thus it was necessarily written after the fact. Other scholars make an argument from style but this is also demonstrably wrong as they reflect 2 themes, one of judgment and one of restoration, not two authors.

        I don’t buy into the Trito or Deutero-Isaiah nonsense for a very simple reason. Jesus Christ did not. He quoted from both sections as from the same prophet. Deutero-Isaiah is calling Jesus a liar, dupe, or that the Gospels do not contain his words. If you don’t believe the Gospels contain Jesus teaching, then you have a much bigger problem than the authorship of Isaiah. The cognitive dissonance must be overwhelming for someone that holds both as true.

        “Where would you date Isaiah 53?”

        Probably the 700s BCE during the reign of Hezekiah or Ahaz

  15. Steven Carr permalink
    April 14, 2010 9:38 am

    Cris has a point with Isaiah 53’s prophecy about Jesus.

    The Bible is one of the few books where prophecy works better than hindsight.

    Take the following passage, which has been securely dated to after Jesus was killed.

    Romans 13
    For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

    Compare Paul’s inability to describe how God’s agents held terror for the innocent, and brought punishment on the innocent, with Isaiah 53’s ability to prophesy about Jesus.

    Of course, Isaiah 53 never mentions Jesus, but then neither does Romans 13.

    But Paul’s readers would have known what Paul meant when he said that the authorities do ‘not bear the sword for nothing’… They could read between the lines.

  16. Steven Carr permalink
    April 15, 2010 4:54 am

    However that was not a public miracle, as there was no evidence of it.

    Paul produced none, not even when talking to Christian converts who were scoffing at the idea of their god choosing to raise corpses.

    This was why Paul wrote ‘Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’

    The resurrection was not a miraculous sign. Paul knew that Jesus had ‘become a life-giving spirit’, but there was no evidence for it, other than private visions, and hearsay reports.

    Even Christians scoffed at the idea of their god raising corpses.

    • April 15, 2010 5:27 am

      Oh really? 500 witnesses is pretty public.

      “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. ” (1 Corinthians 15:3–8, ESV)

      Everyone saw him die on the cross and then they saw him alive. That is a public miracle and that is what Christianity is founded on.

    • April 15, 2010 7:36 am

      “Even Christians scoffed at the idea of their god raising corpses.”

      No that would be non Christians. I beg you to read this slowly:

      Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

      The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), 1 Co 15:12–19.

      If you don’t believe in the resurrection, you are not a Christian.

  17. Steven Carr permalink
    April 15, 2010 7:38 am

    None of those 500 are ever named. Nobody ever saw them. They are ghost people.

    Nor has any Christian ever been able to explain why 500+ Christians were gathered together in the short space of time between Jesus walking through a rock and then taking off into the sky on his way to Heaven.

    And Paul does scoff at Jews for demanding miraculous signs, is unable to give a single piece of eye-witness testimony as to what this resurrected body was supposed to be like, even when talking to Christian converts scoffing at the whole idea of their god raising corpses.

    Why would early Christian converts scoff at the idea of their god raising corpses?

    The question is its own answer, especially as even Paul told them that Jesus ‘became a life-giving spirit’ and explains in 2 Corinthians 5 that the earthly body is destroyed.

    CHRIS
    If you don’t see this as a supernatural description of Jesus Christ, then I don’t know how to reason with you..

    He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
    like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.
    By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
    that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?

    CARR
    This never mentions Jesus.

    Of course, Paul had a very different view on this.

    But then Paul was writing about the past, so Chris does not believe Biblical writers could talk about the past.

    Romans 13
    For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

    Compare Paul’s inability to describe how God’s agents held terror for the innocent, and brought punishment on the innocent, with Isaiah 53’s ability to prophesy about Jesus.

    Of course, Isaiah 53 never mentions Jesus, while Paul was writing to Christians and explaining to them that people killed by the authorities basically deserved all they got.

    Paul had no idea the Roman authorities were supposed to have crucified Jesus, or else he would no more have written that than Osama bin Laden would write about how the Americans only torture criminals in Guantanomo Bay.

  18. April 15, 2010 7:42 am

    ‘“Even Christians scoffed at the idea of their god raising corpses.’

    Chris disputes this , apparently living in a world where 1 Corinthians was written to non-Christians.

    The Christian converts Paul was writing to were worshipping Jesus. They ‘knew’ Jesus was alive. They simply doubted that their god would raise corpses.

    Paul explains to them that there are two bodies, a natural body and a spiritual body.

    He explains to them that a natural body differs from a spiritual body like a fish differs from the moon.

    Nobody discusses how a fish can turn into the moon, so why were they foolishly discussing how corpses could be raised?

    He tells them Jesus became a life-giving spirit, and writes another letter to them explaining that the earthly body is destroyed.

    Hence his total inability to produce a single eye-witness detail of what this resurrected body was supposed to be like, even when he is trying to explain just that very thing.

    It is all in my resurrection debate blog.

  19. April 15, 2010 11:47 am

    “Chris disputes this , apparently living in a world where 1 Corinthians was written to non-Christians.”

    It was written to the Church in Corinth. Perhaps they were as of yet unsaved. Paul rebuked them. Do you think that everyone in the church was a Christian? Maybe you don’t know what Christian means? Accepting the gospel is what makes you Christian by definition, the resurrection is a non negotiable. Paul made this clear enough in Cor 15 you are simply denying the obvious. He taught believed in and dies for his belief in a physical resurrection.

    Jesus himself rose corpses. Lazarus, ring a bell? After the resurrection Jesus ate fish and invited Thomas to touch his wounds. Your theories are gnostic – not Christian.

    If Jesus physical body had not been raised the Jews would have simply produced the corpse in Jerusalem and settled the matter. But Christianity took off right there in Jerusalem. The Jews themselves acknowledge the empty tomb by accusing the disciples of stealing the body in the Talmud. So we have independent hostile witness verification. The tomb was discovered by women – unlikely candidates fro a fabricated account as their testimony was not trusted in a patriarchal society.

    I’ll let Jesus have the final word on this issue. From Marks Gospel,

    “And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.” ” (Mark 12:26–27, ESV)

Trackbacks

  1. The Problem with Apologetics « The Golden Rule
  2. The Naked Bible » Apologetics and the Dead Sea Scrolls
  3. Apologetics and the Dead Sea Scrolls | NakedBible

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