The Text of the Hebrew Bible in Light of the Discoveries in the Judean Desert

18-21 June 2000, Hampton Court, Herefordshire

'Ah-ha, the Qumran mafia' whispered a distinguished scholar who possibly was The Godfather of the gathering. The 6th annual academic conference, in the series The Bible as Book, was held by The Scriptorium: Centre for Christian Antiquities and the Van Kampen Foundation from Michigan, USA, at their beautiful UK location near Hereford. Everyone who was anyone in the study of the famous scrolls, from Jewish or Christian perspective, was there. Contributors came from Jerusalem, Copenhagen. Helsinki, and multiple centres of learning in Germany, Holland, England, Scotland and the United States. Those of us who did not present papers or fire questions -often the most lively and intensely argued part of the sessions - swiftly absorbed the correct terminology: Qumran not Dead Sea (if true the precious documents were found underwater); Covenantors preferred to Essenes, a sensationalist and inaccurate term for a community that preserved many other kinds of writings. We learnt the first rule of textual criticism, 'Get to know your scribe', and that bad spelling was a bonus, a precious clue. Long debate raged about classification: what should be considered scripture, what quotation with exegesis? It was widely agreed in the end that the distinction was alien to the community of Qumran for whom the parallel texts formed a living bible -a corpus not a canon.

Harold Scanlin of the United Bible Societies spoke about popular perception of the scrolls, causing near riot by holding up a USA tabloid headline: Dead Sea Scrolls written by Jesus: 'Reveals exact date of my return'. But more seriously he outlined the extent to which new bible editions are already incorporating changes based on scroll evidence. Eventually there may be 400 new readings from this source.

After the obscurity of the early decades of their discovery more than 50 years ago, it is a triumph for international scholarship that by the end of 2000 all the material found will have been published, with English translation. From the treasure-trove of over 8,000 documents it seems likely that most were not made or even copied in the desert, but brought there for safekeeping: as one scholar put it, no-one would presume the contents of an Oxford library were written in the college. At Qumran the books of the bible most valued, of which the greatest number of copies have been found, were Psalms (4,500 of them new), Isaiah (including the Great Isaiah Scroll 7.34 meters long), Daniel, and Deuteronomy -pleasing to a Ploughboy for whom Tyndale wrote: 'This is a book worthy to be read in day and night and never to be out of hands'.

Mary Clow

Valid XHTML 1.0!