Understanding Isaiah is challenging for Jew and Christian alike, but the Dead Sea Scrolls have a special place for Mormons who are trying to understand this book. Two BYU scholars, Donald Parry and Stephen Ricks, renowned for their work with the Dead Sea Scrolls, coauthored a “FAQ” for Mormons called The Dead Sea Scrolls: Questions and Responses for Latter-day Saints.
The question I stopped at longest was “What is the Great Isaiah Scroll?” (see below). There I quickly learned that though it was worn from use (just as our scriptures get worn out) it is the best preserved of all the scrolls. It contains all the chapters of our modern Book of Isaiah and to our gain, it is the oldest record of the words of Isaiah anyone has ever found from antiquity.
This scroll is the largest among all the Dead Sea Scrolls at 24 feet in length and it is about 10 inches wide.
It is organized in seven parts with 54 columns that preserve all 66 chapters of the Hebrew version of the Book of Isaiah.
Compared to the source documents used for our own King James Book of Isaiah, it is nearly one-thousand years older than the oldest manuscripts used to produce our modern Book of Isaiah. This means the Jews of Jesus time were using all the same verses we use in our modern Bible.
So when it comes to understanding Isaiah, next to the Book of Mormon, this may be our best resource.
Here is a sampling of the “FAQs” in Parry and Ricks’ book:
What is the Great Isaiah Scroll?
The Great Isaiah Scroll was one of the initial seven Dead Sea Scrolls discovered, and because of its beauty and completeness, it is perhaps the most famous of the biblical scrolls. It was found wrapped in a linen cloth and concealed in a large clay jar in Cave 1. Containing all sixty-six chapters of the book of Isaiah, the scroll consists of seventeen pieces of sheepskin sewn together to form a scroll measuring 24.5 feet in length and 10.5 inches in height. The scroll was prepared in approximately 150 BC.
The scribe who copied the book of Isaiah onto the scroll was quite careless in his work, erring in numerous places. The first error is located in the first line of text, where the scribe misspelled Isaiah’s name.
He corrected his own errors on a number of occasions by writing the corrections between the lines or in the margins. The scroll contains numerous scribal markings that may mark passages that were important to the Qumran community. The scroll shows much evidence of use, as it was well-worn before it was stored in the jar. This scroll is extremely important to the study of the Bible because it is approximately one thousand years older than other Hebrew copies of Isaiah. Although most of the readings of the scroll l are the same as those of the traditional Hebrew Bible (the Masoretic Text), there are a number of important variant readings that have been included in modern translations of Isaiah.
For example, Isaiah 33:8, as translated in the King James Version of the Bible, reads:
The highways lie waste, the wayfaring man ceaseth: he hath broken the covenant, he hath despised the cities, he regardeth no man.
The Isaiah scroll reads:
The highways lie waste, the wayfaring man ceaseth: he hath broken the covenant, he hath despised the witnesses, he regardeth no man.
The Isaiah scroll reads witnesses rather than cities, thus presenting a more accurate, superior reading.
Does the text of the Great Isaiah Scroll support the Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon that differ from those in the King James Bible?
The Book of Mormon contains lengthy quotations from Isaiah (see, for example, 2 Nephi 12—24). In many instances the wording of corresponding Isaiah passages in the King James Version of the Bible (KJV) and in the Book of Mormon differs. To date, no one has completed a comprehensive study comparing the Isaiah scroll from Cave 1 with the Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon Isaiah. In 1981, however, John Tvedtnes1 conducted a serviceable preliminary study by comparing the Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon with those in the KJV, the Hebrew Bible, the scrolls found at Qumran (notably the Great Isaiah Scroll, which contains all sixty-six chapters of Isaiah), and other ancient versions of Isaiah. Several readings of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon are supported by the Isaiah scroll. The following representative examples of these parallels have been adapted from Tvedtnes’s work.
1. In many cases passages in the Isaiah scroll and in the Book of Mormon contain the conjunction and, which is lacking in the corresponding King James Vession (KJV), text. Compare the following:
KJV, Isaiah 3:9 “and they declare their sin as Sodom, they hide it not” Isaiah scroll, Isaiah 3:9 “and they declare their sin as Sodom, and they hide it not” Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 13:9 “and doth declare their sin to be even as Sodom, and they cannot hide it”
2. Second Nephi 24:32 lacks the word one, which appears in Isaiah 14:32. The Book of Mormon version thus makes messengers the subject of the verb answer. The Hebrew Bible uses a singular verb, but the Isaiah scroll uses the plural, in agreement with the Book of Mormon:
KJV, Isaiah 14:32 What shall one then answer the messengers of the nation?” Isaiah scroll, Isaiah 14:32 “What shall then answer the messengers of the nations?” Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 24:32 “What shall then answer the messengers of the nations?”
3. In the KJV, Isaiah 48:11 reads, “for how should my name be polluted?” while 1 Nephi 20:11 reads, “for I will not suffer my name to be polluted.” The Isaiah scroll supports the Book of Mormon by having the verb in the first person, as follows:
KJV, Isaiah 48:11 “for how should my name be polluted?” Isaiah scroll, Isaiah 14:32 “for I will not suffer my name to be polluted” Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 20:11 “for I will not suffer my name to be polluted”
4. In the KJV, Isaiah 50:2 reads, “their fish stinketh, because there is no water,” and the Isaiah scroll reads, “their fish dry up because there is no water.” Second Nephi 7:2 essentially preserves the verb stinketh from the KJV and the phrasal verb dry up from the Isaiah scroll: “their fish to stink because the waters are dried up.”
5. Often a singular noun in the KJV is represented by a plural noun in the Book of Mormon. One example of this appears in Isaiah 9:9, where the KJV reads “inhabitant” and 2 Nephi 19:9 reads “inhabitants.” The Isaiah scroll supports the reading of the Book of Mormon with its reading of “inhabitants”:
KJV, Isaiah 9:9 “and the inhabitant of Samaria” Isaiah scroll, Isaiah 9:9 “and the inhabitants of Samaria” Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 19:9 “and the inhabitants of Samaria”
These examples of variant readings in which the Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon agree with the Isaiah scroll but not with the KJV could be multiplied.
While these were the only questions in their book that dealt directly with Isaiah, here a few of the other seventy questions and answers in their book:
What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?
The Dead Sea Scrolls comprise hundreds of “texts discovered between the years 1947 and 1956 in eleven caves near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. …Unfortunately, most of the scrolls are fragmentary, having been damaged over the centuries by the natural elements and, as it appears in some cases, by individuals who trampled them underfoot.”
How were the scrolls discovered?
“In 1947 (some accounts say 1945) Muhammad ed-Dhib (“Muhammad the Wolf”), a young Arab boy was walking in the hills northwest of the Dead Sea, possibly in search of a stray goat, when he discovered a small cave opening and tossed small stones inside.” He threw a second stone that broke something, which frightened him a way. “… Regaining his courage and returning with a companion,” they “succeeded in penetrating the tiny opening to the cave now known as Cave 1,” discovering “a cache of clay jars, some of which contained several scrolls in a near-perfect state of preservation. He returned with several scrolls that were eventually passed on, through middlemen, to scholars who identified the scrolls as Jewish and dating to around the time of Christ.”2
Where were the scrolls discovered?
“The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in eleven caves north and south of an ancient site called Qumran… located one kilometer inland from the northwestern side of the Dead Sea.”3 The LDS Bible Dictionary reviews the find and contents succinctly.
What types of texts were discovered among the scrolls?
“The scrolls, most of which are fragmentary, belong to a variety of text types, including parts of our Old Testament: “Genesis, Exodus, 1 and 2 Samuel, Isaiah, and Malachi, to name a few. The fragmentary remains of every book of the Hebrew Bible except the book of Esther have been discovered among the scrolls.”
Why are the scrolls so important?
“The scrolls have been called the most important manuscript find of this century because they have greatly increased our knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Judaism (450 BC—AD 70), the Hebrew language, and various religious texts.” Since their discovery, “more than seven thousand books, articles, dissertations, and other writings, as well as television documentaries and news stories, have focused on them.”
“The scrolls significantly enhance scholarly research in many areas, including the following:
1. Ancient writing and scribal practices
2. How words were spelled anciently
3. Different handwriting styles
4. Old Testament studies, including the history and transmission of the biblical text and variant readings in the text
5. The making of ancient scrolls from leather or papyrus
6. Linguistic studies in the languages of Hebrew and Aramaic
7. Apocryphal and pseudepigraphic studies
8. Religious groups and their ideas within Palestinian Judaism
9. Ancient methods of biblical interpretation
10. The history of Jewish groups from 250 BC to AD 70
11. Background studies of the pre-Christian era
How have the biblical scrolls and fragments influenced the English translation of the Bible?
Many contemporary translation committees of the Bible pay special attention to the Dead Sea Scrolls biblical texts and incorporate many new readings into their translations. …According to Harold Scanlin, a translation adviser for the United Bible Societies, “Every major Bible translation publish ed since 1950 has claimed to have taken into account the textual evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls.“4 …It is anticipated that the translation committees will accept more variant read ings from the biblical scrolls and fragments in the coming years.
If you would like to read all 70 questions and answers click on this: The Dead Sea Scrolls: Questions and Responses for Latter-day Saints and if you want to make a more personal more comprehensive comparison, try purchasing Opening Isaiah—a Harmony, by Anne Madsen and Shon Hopkin.
In their book, Madsen and Hopkin help Mormons in their understanding Isaiah by comparing the King James Version (KJV) alongside the Joseph Smith Translation (JST), The Book of Mormon (when it quotes Isaiah), The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), the The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and the New International Version (NIV). Highlighting differences and similarities in translations side by side.
Here is a sample of their work:
Madsen and Hopkin “make no claims about which version of the text is superior.” They allow us as Mormons “to compare and contrast these different versions and translations” for ourselves, as they explained. “Although the harmony shows numerous changes across the columns, in our view,” they wrote, “the overall consistency of Isaiah’s message is miraculously preserved.”
This Harmony of Isaiah has helped in my understanding Isaiah; I use it often. How will you use the Dead Sea Scrolls in your own quest of understanding Isaiah?
1 John Tvedtnes, “The Isaiah Variants in the Book of Mormon” (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1981).
2 Stephen Pfann mentioned this in a personal conversation with Stephen Ricks, 31 May 1993.
3 Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 3rd ed. (London: Penguin, 1987), xiii.
4 See Harold Scanlin, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Modern Translations of the Old Testament (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1993), 26