Are There New Testament Documents Among the Dead Sea Scrolls?

IN THE spring of 1972 the scholarly world was caught by surprise when in Italy a Spanish papyrologist (with an Irish name) working on Greek papyri found in Jordan (near a Jewish sectarian settlement from the Roman period) announced that he had discovered the earliest extant manuscripts of the New Testament! Jesuit Jose O'Callaghan published his scholarly conclusions and a working hypothesis in the quarterly of Rome's Pontifical Biblical Institute. . .

-Assistant Professor of Old Testament Studies at Andrews University at the time this article was written

IN THE spring of 1972 the scholarly world was caught by surprise when in Italy a Spanish papyrologist (with an Irish name) working on Greek papyri found in Jordan (near a Jewish sectarian settlement from the Roman period) announced that he had discovered the earliest extant manuscripts of the New Testament! Jesuit Jose O'Callaghan published his scholarly conclusions and a working hypothesis in the quarterly of Rome's Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1 but its implications were headlined to all on March 19 in the Sunday edition of the New York Times thus: "Scrap of Dead Sea Scrolls Said to Show That Gospel Was Written Earlier Than Believed." Many Seventh-day Adventists may have first heard the news through Don Neufeld's two editorials in the Review and Herald. 2 Eternity, an evangelical monthly, claimed that the fragments in question "appear to be the most dramatic evidence ever uncovered to validate the account of Christ and the early church which we find recorded in our New Testament." 3 Time magazine quotes one researcher as saying, "This means that seven tons of German scholarship may now be consigned to the flames." 4 Most competent scholars, however including members of the international team editing the Dead Sea scrolls tend toward more caution in their reaction to the news.

What is the story behind this sudden and continuing flurry of excitement? Hardly a reader of this journal will not have some acquaintance with the fact that numerous scrolls and fragments (many of them Biblical) dating from the second century B.C. to the first century A.D. (in the case of Qumran) have been found since 1947 in caves carved out of the steep cliffs along the desolate western shore of the Dead Sea.5 The first caves to be discovered, and the most productive so far as manuscripts are concerned, were those in the vicinity of Khirbat Qumran, a few miles south of Jericho, although other caves farther to the south in Wadi Murabba'at, and at Ein Gedi and Masada, have also produced important literary finds, some of them from a later period.

The original caves at Qumran were found by shepherds of the Ta'amireh Bedouin tribe. In February, 1955, however, during the controlled excavation of what is now thought to be the Essene community that produced most of the scrolls, archeologists (under the direction of the late Father Roland de Vaux) themselves discovered a nearby cave, which they numbered Cave 7. Its contents, published in 1962,6 consisted of several Creek papyrus fragments, subsequently numbered 1 to 19 (the last consisting actually of three chunks of mud on which fragments of inscribed papyrus had left their imprint), a few pottery vessels, including three jars (one bearing on its shoulder in black paint the twice repeated Hebrew letters [in transcription] rwm'), one cover, two large bowls, and numerous shards--all attesting to the fact that the cave had been used during the main periods when the Essene community at Qumran flourished. 7

In the 1962 publication8 of the nineteen numbered fragments, only two were identified: Fragment 1 (in two parts) contained parts of fifteen lines from Exodus 28:4-7, and Fragment 2 contained parts of five lines from the apocryphal Letter of Jeremiah (found in Roman Catholic Bibles). Both were dated to c. 100 B.C. on the basis of the style of the individual letters. Fragments 3 to 5, although not identified, were presumed to be long to Biblical texts of the same period, except for the last fragment, which was dated between 50 B.C. and A.D. 50 by the eminent British papyrologist C. H. Roberts. The remaining fragments were published without classification.

Thus the situation remained until about a year ago, when Father O'Callaghan was engaged in preparing a list of papyri of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures), and in the process noted the two identified manuscripts from Cave 7. Curious as to the identification of the other fragments, he began an attempt at decipherment with 7Q5 (i.e., the fifth fragment from Cave 7 at Qumran). The editors of the original publication assumed that the letters vvno in the fourth line of the fragment could belong to some word derived from the verb yevvaw (meaning "to beget"), so O'Callaghan tried to fit it into a genealogical text of the Septuagint. Unsuccessful in following up that clue, he struck on another word frequent in the New Testament--- that contains the same first four letters: Tewnoapet ("Gennesa ret"). He soon came to the conclu sion that 7Q5 corresponded to Mark 6:52, 53. Within three hours he went on to identify eight more fragments as New Testament texts: 7Q4 = 1 Timothy 3:16; 4:1, 3; 7Q6, 1 = Mark 4:28; 7Q6, 2 = Acts 27:38; 7Q7 = Mark 12:17; 7Q8 = James 1:23, 24; 7Q9 = Romans 5:11, 12; 7Q10 = 2 Peter 1:15; 7Q15 = Mark 6:48.9

So far the evidence for the identification of only 7Q5; 7Q6, 1; and 7Q8 has been published, but the evidence for the rest is in press and will soon appear. 10 What is the evidence in support of these controversial identifications?

1. The dating of the fragments indicated by O'Callaghan is possible, based primarily on the science of paleography. His case is strengthened by the fact that C. H. Roberts arrived at this general dating before the thought that they might be New Testament manuscripts was entertained. There are also problems with the paleography, however.

2. The fact that O'Callaghan proposes the identification of nine of the seventeen fragments the original editors were unable to identify makes his case stronger than if he claimed the identification of only one or two. Although the cumulative identifications add weight to the hypothesis, the matter of the quality of each identification must be considered too.

3. The most striking evidence in favor of O'Callaghan's thesis comes from the argument of stichometry (the division of a text into its constituent lines). He has proposed a standard length of line (19 to 22 letters) that conforms to the already identified 7Q1 and 7Q2, and on this basis has achieved his identifications. Whether there are enough readable letters to provide the necessary vertical and horizontal grid for identification is another question.

4. There appears to be a space on the left edge of 7Q5 that cor responds to the ancient separation between verses 52 and 53 of Mark 6, although the preservation of the fragment at that point leaves some thing to be desired.

5. Cave 7 is unique in certain ways: it is the only cave with Greek manuscripts (except for a few from Cave 4, where the greatest number were in Hebrew and Aramaic); it contains Greek manuscripts to the exclusion of those in any other language (though there is the jar with the name in Aramaic letters); the fragments are exclusively of papyrus, a comparatively rare phenomenon for Qumran, where most Biblical texts are on parchment or leather. Christians are known to have used papyrus extensively for both scrolls and co dices. Inasmuch as these fragments contain no writing on the backside they must come from scrolls rather than codices---another evidence of their antiquity.

6. If these fragments are from the New Testament, it would be quite safe to assume that they are not related to the Essene community at Qumran. The suggestion that they come from a subsequent use of the cave, i.e., when Christians (Jewish Christians?) might have fled the Romans during the Second Jewish War, A.D. 132 to 135, is plausible. But what does one do with the ceramic evidence from the main occupation of Qumran?

One can see that with each bit of evidence in favor of O'Callaghan's hypothesis, one must point to certain reservations. But if all these assumptions prove correct (and only time will tell), modern New Testament scholars will have some extremely important new data to work with. Until now, P52, a papyrus fragment containing John 18: 31-34, 37, 38, held the distinction of being our oldest New Testament manuscript, usually dated to the first half of the second century A.D., but 7Q5 might predate this by 75 years and thus have been copied within a generation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Since Mark 6:52, 53 is a typically "Markan" passage, this identification would have an important bearing on current theories of how the Gospels came to be written. If one considers the disparate collection of manuscripts found in 7Q, one might ask whether a protocanon was involved. Was it a recognized collection at this early date?

But it is premature to consider the implications of a hypothesis that is far from proved. At this point one can marshal considerable evidence against O'Callaghan's identifications as well:

1. Though O'Callaghan's dating is possible, he takes the latest possible date paleographically, a procedure that is methodologically questionable. One could just as well date these fragments to the first century B.C. as to the first century A.D., and it is even possible to argue that certain letter forms are earlier in this period than later. 11 Until a more thorough study of the paleography of the Greek material from the area of the Dead Sea is undertaken, at the very least one must allow for a wider margin in dating than the five years allowed by O'Callaghan, particularly because the paleographical comparison necessary is possible with only a few letters.

2. There are some serious problems with regard to O'Callaghan's readings. Some letters he proposes simply are not there, with others he surely must be mistaken, and with still others it must be admitted that their state is too dim or fragmentary for us to be certain. A further problem is that his identifications call for several unattested variants of the New Testament text and even an unattested phonetical variation.

3. Stichometrically, it must also be admitted that by manipulating the length of line according to an arbitrary scheme (i.e., simply leaving out words that do not fit, even though such an omission is unattested, as O'Callaghan has done), one could probably find a number of Greek passages that would fit.

4. Though the largest fragment contains parts of twenty letters (at the most) distributed over five lines, it must be emphasized that none of these letters are characteristic, with the possible exception of VVTJS. Furthermore, the only complete word in any of the identifications is the ubiquitous xai , the conjunction and.

5. The uniqueness of 7Q is a problem for O'Callaghan as well as evidence in favor of his hypothesis. Exceptions often need the most justification, and this is certainly the case with the first claim for Christian manuscripts at Qumran. The burden of proof rests on the proponents of that claim.

6. It is a fact that at one time the Greek fragments existed in the same cave with a ceramic repertoire typical of the Qumran community, one of the vessels even bearing painted inscriptions in Aramaic letters, themselves apparently contemporary with the community. Their relationship must be explained in a more satisfactory way than that the scrolls were imported from Rome in a vessel bearing that name, intriguing as that suggestion is.

7. Finally, it is the combination of these questionable assumptions (omissions, unusual readings, coincidences, and so on) that carries considerable weight against the identification of New Testament manuscripts in 7Q.

But the dust from the debate has not yet settled, for the final solution (if one is possible) will await a thorough paleographical study of the documents themselves (O'Callaghan had access to photographs only) and a careful comparison of the results of that study with securely dated scripts from the first century B.C. through the first century A.D. In the meantime, we can be thankful that the New Testament is not dependent on the outcome of those results for it to continue to bear its authoritative message to a world whose life depends on its good news.


1. "¿Papiros neotestamentarios en la cueva 7 de Qumran?" Biblica 53:1 (1972), pp. 91-100, subsequently made available in English translation as a supplement to the Journal of Biblical Literature 91:2 (1972).

2. "Possible Biblical Breakthrough Reported," Review and Herald, April 27, 1972, p. 10, and "More on the Dead Sea Creek Fragments," May 18,1972, p. 12, were both written before the editor had access to O'Callaghan's published evidence.

3. Review and Herald, in an editorial, June, 1972, p. 6.

4. May 1,1972, p. 54.

5. The best general treatment of this material remains Frank M. Cross, jr., The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies (revised edition). New York: Anchor Books, 1961.

6. M. Baillet, J. T. Milik, and R. de Vaux, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert of Jordan, Volume III ("Les 'Petites Crottes' de Qumran"), 1962, Part 1 being the text and Part 2 the plates.

7. Ibid., pp. 27-30.

8. Ibid., pp. 142-146.

9. Biblica 53:1 (1972), p. 92; cf. David M. Estrada, "On the Latest Identification of New Testament Documents," Westminster Theological Journal XXXIV:2 (May, 1972), pp. 110-112.

10. In coming issues of Biblica and Studia Papyrologica.

11. Cf. R. Seider, Palaographie der griechischen Papyri, Volume II ("Literarische-Papyri"), Stuttgart, 1970, pp. 64-67, and Table IX.

12. F. F. Bruce, "On Dating the New Testament," Eternity, June, 1972, p. 33.

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-Assistant Professor of Old Testament Studies at Andrews University at the time this article was written

January 1973

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