Recent Dead Sea Scroll Discoveries

On March 16, Israeli archaeologists announced some recent discoveries of Dead Sea Scroll fragments that appear to be part of the Minor Prophets scroll that was discovered in the 1950s, probably from the same cave. The recently discovered scroll is in Greek, with the divine name in Hebrew, apparently resembling an older Hebrew script (possibly paleo-Hebrew). The Greek text represents a later revised form of the Septuagint (see DJD VIII).

This cave, designated as Cave 8, was used by a number of people associated with the second (Bar Kokhba) Jewish Revolt in AD 132–136. They may have fled to the cave to avoid the fighting or capture. They were probably starved to death by the Romans, who camped above them and made sure that the people inside couldn’t escape. That’s why it is called the Cave of Horror (Nahal Hever Cave 8 [8Hev])—the archaeologists found the remains of 40 human skeletons when the cave was first discovered. Three of the deceased had their names inscribed on ostraca placed on each skeleton; who these three were is still unknown. It is worth noting that the cave is located in Ein Gedi, Israel, roughly 25 miles (40 km) south of Jerusalem.

There are some interesting observations to be made regarding this discovery. First, consider what those in the cave took with them when they fled to the cave, just as we would think about what items to take with us during an emergency escape. They too probably took their most important items with them, such as their Bibles, including the Minor Prophets scroll. It is interesting that this Bible was in Greek; so far no other texts have been found in the cave except in Greek.

But second, this leads to the question of who these people were who escaped to this cave. We don’t know if they were a part of the inner circle of the Revolt or if they were merely outside supporters or observers. We know they were most likely Jewish. If they were a part of this inner circle, then this inner circle, those involved in its leadership, seemed to have used the Scriptures in Greek. Yes, they may have had the divine name in Hebrew, but the text itself is in Greek. The use of a Greek text but with the Tetragrammaton seems to actually reflect the strong “Jewishness” of these people. In any case, this recent discovery is reminiscent of the P.Yadin 52 letter. This letter was from one of the Bar Kokhba leaders to other leaders in the movement. He says at one point that he wrote the letter in Greek because he did not have the “opportunity” (there is a hole in the papyrus and the word is debated) to write in Hebrew. So leaders of the strongly nationalistic Jewish revolt wrote in Greek. Why? Because they could write in Greek but could not write in Hebrew. They also probably read their Bibles in Greek for the same reason.

But perhaps those in the Cave of Horror were not those in the inner circle of the Revolt but simply Jewish supporters of the revolt or Jewish refugees who were fleeing persecution. If this is the case, it may even be more significant. It indicates that at least for some of the Jewish people, their Bible was in Greek. Whatever they thought about Hebrew (it was probably a restricted religious language for many) or even Aramaic, for those who had access to a Bible, some seemed to have read it in Greek. Whether they were leaders or supporters of the Revolt, or simply seekers of refuge, they had a Greek biblical text with them in a time of life or death.

These are some interesting implications to think about when discussing the language of the Jewish people in the first and second centuries. This discovery seems to add to the argument that Greek may have been just as commonly used by the Jewish community as it was by the Greco-Roman community.

— Stanley E. Porter and David I. Yoon

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