Shedding Light on the Enduring Word

Southwestern’s Dead Sea Scroll fragments testify that “the Word of the Lord endures forever,” a truth that undergirds the seminary’s effort to train ministers who will faithfully preach God’s Word throughout the world. But these scroll fragments are not mere collector’s items, showcasing the truth and endurance of Scripture. As Southwestern  Seminary biblical archaeologist Steven Ortiz says, the seminary’s acquisition of the scrolls was “not a race to see who can collect the most fragments.”

“Since these are some of the oldest biblical texts, Southwestern has a sacred trust to see that these are properly studied and preserved for perpetuity,” says Ortiz, associate professor of archaeology and biblical backgrounds and director of the seminary’s Charles D. Tandy Archaeology Museum. The seminary endeavors to find what light these scroll fragments may shed on God’s Word.

‘A Center for Biblical Research’

For this reason, five scholars at Southwestern Seminary have labored, in partnership with Dead Sea Scroll experts, to discover and describe what the seminary’s scroll fragments reveal about the Bible.

This team of researchers includes George Klein, professor of Old Testament; Eric Mitchell, associate professor of Old Testament and archaeology; Ishwaran Mudliar, assistant professor of Old Testament; Ryan Stokes, assistant professor of Old Testament; and Joshua Williams, assistant professor of Old Testament. In the process of research, this team has gained counsel from Dead Sea Scroll experts, including Weston Fields, executive director of Jerusalem’s Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation, and Peter Flint, professor at Trinity Western University and co-director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute.

Southwestern Seminary’s fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, according to Stokes, “contain readings of Old Testament passages that are nowhere else attested.”

“We are just beginning to comprehend their importance for the field,” Stokes adds, “but we expect them to shed light on how we came to have the Old Testament text that we have today.”

Currently, Southwestern’s scholars are researching six unpublished fragments of the scrolls containing passages from five portions of the Old Testament: Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Daniel. Handling such fragments and having such a rare opportunity to invest in biblical scholarship, Klein says, “is a very humbling experience.”

“I’ve expressed that sentiment as well as just a sense of the significance and of my own gratitude to Dr. Patterson, in particular, and to others,” Klein says. “This is just not the kind of thing that one gets an opportunity to do in one’s professional life.”

“It is incredible,” Williams says. While millions of people have studied Scripture, very few have had the opportunity to look at these particular fragments. “The ability to do original research on evidence that nobody else has researched is very exciting in and of itself.”

Mudliar agrees, noting what a “privilege and honor” it is to do such original research, to handle and analyze the fragments, and to present findings to other scholars.

These scholars presented their research at an annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in San Francisco last November as well as during a regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, held on Southwestern Seminary’s campus in March. In months to come, Southwestern’s scholars will continue to study the scrolls, preparing their research for publication in major academic journals on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“The SBL presentation was received positively,” Stokes says. “Scholars were complimentary of the quality of our work and suggested some potentially fruitful avenues of investigation as our research moves forward.”

According to Ortiz, the SBL conference left scholars with a good impression of Southwestern’s purposes and capabilities in studying the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars can see “that Southwestern is serious about becoming a center for biblical research.”

High-tech Meets Ancient Text

Southwestern’s team of scholars has been assisted in their research by a convergence of ancient Scripture with the latest advances in photographic technology. During a workshop hosted by the seminary’s Tandy Institute for Archaeology in the fall of 2010, Southwestern hosted a team from the University of Southern California’s West Semitic Research Project, which specializes in producing high-definition images of ancient texts and artifacts.

“The West Semitic Research Project is one of the best for the digital imaging of ancient manuscripts, particularly Dead Sea Scroll fragments,” Ortiz says, adding that “digitally documenting” Southwestern’s scroll fragments was an early step in the process of researching and publishing “these rare and valuable texts.”

According to Bruce Zuckerman, director of the West Semitic Research Project, 21st century imaging technology has revolutionized the study of ancient texts. In the past, scholars could primarily examine ancient texts only with the naked eye. As a result, damaged or faded texts provided little information about the past.

But with the appropriation of new technology, scholars can read otherwise illegible texts. Infrared photos of Southwestern’s scroll fragments, for example, have allowed scholars to see clearly Hebrew characters that were otherwise impossible to decipher.

The Future of the Scrolls

While such advanced photography allows Southwestern to preserve the content of its scroll fragments with ease, the 2,000-year-old fragments themselves can only be preserved with great care.

“We want to make sure that we preserve these fragments and that we’re taking good care of them so that they will last for generations and generations to come,” Stokes says. “I’ve heard it said that the Dead Sea Scrolls have been damaged more in the last 60 years since they’ve been discovered than they were in the nearly 2,000 years leading up to that time.

“I don’t know that you can make that an absolute statement, but there is probably some truth to that, so we want to be an exception, to be sure that we stop that process, and that they are preserved, and that they are cared for in the best possible way.”

For this reason, Southwestern takes caution by regulating the temperature, humidity, and other aspects of the environment in which the scrolls are held and displayed. With such special care, the seminary can preserve these scrolls for generations to come as a testimony to the enduring Word of God.

Read this article and more in the Spring 2012 issue of Southwestern News magazine on the Dead Sea Scrolls. For more information and to purchase tickets for the Dead Sea Scrolls & the Bible exhibition coming to Fort Worth, Texas, July 2, 2012 – January 13, 2013, visit SeeTheScrolls.com.