Translating the Dead Sea Scrolls

A glance at the periodical rack in any supermarket checkout confirms that the Dead Sea scrolls continue to fascinate the general public 50 years after their initial discovery. Two new books by Notre Dame theology professors and scroll scholars Eugene Ulrich and James Vanderkam make the ancient religious texts more accessible to academics and laymen alike.

Vanderkam and New York University professor Lawrence H. Schiffman edited the exhaustive 1,024 page Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Oxford University Press). The book presents a sweeping survey of ongoing research on the scrolls that were discovered hidden for 2,000 years in caves at Qumran near the Dead Sea. Although readable, the reference book’s hefty $295 price tag is likely to place it only on the shelves of scholars and libraries.

Meanwhile, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (HarperCollins), edited by Ulrich, Martin Abegg Jr. and Peter Flint, presents the biblical manuscripts translated into English for the first time. Laid out in canonical form, each book is accompanied with an introduction detailing how the Jewish sect called the Essenes viewed the text and what historical events shaped their interpretations.

A thousand years older than the oldest surviving biblical text, the scrolls are significant for what they include and exclude. On the one hand, they confirm that the Old Testament as handed down is mostly accurate. On the other, they demonstrate how fluid the written text was at the time of Christ.

“Prior to Qumran we’d always thought there was one original Hebrew text and the Greek was translated from that and so on,” Ulrich notes. “Any variations were thought to be mistakes scribes made in copying.” However, he says the scrolls show that before the biblical books were codified into a single version in the first century A.D., the written texts had been developing for a long period. The scrolls, for instance, include four different literary editions of some biblical books.

“Ultimately this will transform how we translate the bible,” Ulrich predicts. “Some people already are calling for a polyglot bible, printing the differing texts side by side.”

— John Monczunski