01 September 2012

Qumran, Isaiah, and the NJPS


A great question was raised by one of the members of my Torah Study group: how, if at all, have the Dead Sea (Qumran) Scrolls influenced the URJ (Plaut/Stein) Torah we use?

Cover of the URJ (Plaut/Stein) Torah

My attempt to answer this question has led me down a lot of interesting paths.

I don't attempt to answer that question here, but I will answer a smaller, related question. That question is, how, if at all, have the Qumran Scrolls influenced the NJPS English translation of the book of Isaiah? ("NJPS" stands for "new JPS", i.e. the (relatively) new version of the Jewish Publication Society's English translation.)

Cover of the NJPS Tanakh

So, here I won't be talking about any of the five books of the Torah, I'll just be talking about the book of Isaiah. As a reminder, the book of Isaiah is in the section of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) called Nevi'im (Prophets).

Since a complete scroll of the book of Isaiah was discovered at Qumran, translations of Isaiah are a good place to look for influences from Qumran. In fact it is the only book of the Tanakh for which a complete scroll was discovered at Qumran. This scroll is referred to as the Great Isaiah Scroll, or, less dramatically, as 1QIsaa.

Here is a quick notational detour. 1QIsaa breaks down to mean the following.

  • 1Q means that this manuscript was found at Cave 1 at Qumran.
  • Isa means that this manuscript is of the book of Isaiah.
  • a (superscript 'a') distinguishes this manuscript from other Isaiahs found in Cave 1, e.g. 1QIsab. From here on, we'll use a dash instead of a superscript, e.g. we'll use 1QIsa-a instead of 1QIsaa.

Several other, incomplete scrolls of Isaiah were discovered at Qumran, too, e.g. 1QIsa-b, 4QIsa-a, 4QIsa-b, etc.

The Great Isaiah Scroll of Qumran
Some detail from the Great Isaiah Scroll of Qumran

Executive summary

So, how, if at all, have the Qumran Scrolls influenced the NJPS English translation of the book of Isaiah?

A short answer is: Qumran is mentioned 16 footnotes. In all 16, only manuscript 1QIsa-a is mentioned. (The NJPS footnotes refer to it as 1QIs-a, i.e. Isaiah is abbreviated to "Is" not "Isa".)

In only 4 of those places does the footnote correspond to an actual influence on the body text. In the other 12 places, Qumran is only mentioned in the footnote.

The Details

It is possible that the Qumran influenced the NJPS Isaiah in ways that were not noted, but that is more difficult or even impossible to know.

So, we'll confine ourselves to influences that can be seen in the body text and footnotes. In particular, let's start with the four influences on the body text.

Below, we use italics to indicate which span of text the footnote is commenting on. (The NJPS uses superscripted lowercase letters and dashes to do this.)

Below, the column label "c.v (p)" means "chapter.verse (page number)". An additional chapter and verse in curly braces sometimes follows. This is to provide the chapter and verse used by Christian Bibles. E.g. the first selection below, Isaiah 8.23, is identified as Isaiah 9.1 in Christian Bibles.

Body text influences of Qumran on the NJPS
body text footnote
For if there were to be any break of day for that [land] which is in straits, only the former [king] would have brought abasement to the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali—while the later one would have brought honor to the Way of the Sea, the other side of the Jordan, and Galilee of the Nations. So 1QIs-a; the others have “there is not.”
you shall recite this song of scorn over the king of Babylon:

How is the taskmaster vanished,
How is oppression ended!
Reading marhebah with 1QIs-a (cf. Septuagint). The traditional reading madhebah is of unknown meaning.
Their inhabitants are helpless,
Dismayed and shamed.
They were but grass of the field
And green herbage,
Grass of the roofs that is blasted
Before the east wind.
So ms. 1QIs-a; cf. 2 Kings 19.26. The usual reading in our passage means, literally, “and a field [?] before standing grain.”
No longer shall you need the sun
For light by day,
Nor the shining of the moon
For radiance [by night];
For the LORD shall be your light everlasting,
Your God shall be your glory.
So 1QIs-a, Septuagint, and Targum.

Here are the 12 influences that are only seen in a footnote.

Footnote-only mentions of Qumran in the NJPS
body text footnote
And then—
Instead of perfume, there shall be rot;
And instead of an apron, a rope;
Instead of a diadem of beaten-work,
A shorn head;
Instead of a rich robe,
A girding of sackcloth;
A burn instead of beauty.
The complete Isaiah scroll from Qumran, hereafter 1QIs-a, reads “For shame shall take the place of beauty”; cf. note k.
But all the people noted
Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria—
In arrogance and haughtiness:
1QIs-a reads “shouted.”
That is why my Lord
Will not spare their youths,
Nor show compassion
To their orphans and widows;
For all are ungodly and wicked,
And every mouth speaks impiety.
Cf. Arabic samuḥa. 1QIs-a reads yḥmw.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard lie down with the kid;
The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together,
With a little boy to herd them.
1QIs-a reads: “The calf and the beast of prey shall feed”; so too the Septuagint.
[like] a lion he called out:
“On my Lord’s lookout I stand
Ever by day,
And at my post I watch
Every night."
1QIs-a reads “The watcher.”
“And like fine dust shall be
The multitude of your strangers;
And like flying chaff,
The multitude of tyrants.”
And suddenly, in an instant,
Manuscript 1QIs-a reads “haughty men.”
Highways are desolate,
Wayfarers have ceased.
A covenant has been renounced,
Cities rejected
Mortal man despised.
1QIs-a reads “A pact.”
All the host of heaven shall molder.
The heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll,
And all their host shall wither
Like a leaf withering on the vine,
Or shriveled fruit on a fig tree.
1QIs-a reads “And the valleys shall be cleft,/And all the host of heaven shall wither.”
For My sword shall be drunk in the sky;
Lo, it shall come down upon Edom,
Upon the people I have doomed,
To wreak judgment.
1QIs-a reads “be seen”; cf. Targum.
A voice rings out: “Proclaim!”
Another asks, “What shall I proclaim?”
“All flesh is grass,
All its goodness like flowers of the field"
1QIs-a and Septuagint read “And I asked.”
I am about to do something new;
Even now it shall come to pass,
Suddenly you shall perceive it:
I will make a road through the wilderness
And rivers in the desert.
1QIs-a reads “paths”; cf. v. 16.
Look! These are coming from afar,
These from the north and the west,
And these from the land of Sinim.
1QIs-a reads “the Syenians”; cf. Ezek. 30.6.


Influences of 1QIsa-a are apparent in the NJPS Isaiah. But, these influences are far from dramatic. Some might even call them minuscule. This is true of Qumran influences on most modern biblical translations. This comes from the fact that most Qumran manuscripts do not differ dramatically from the previous main sources for biblical translations, namely Masoretic and Septuagint manuscripts. Perhaps it is this agreement that is the most dramatic thing about the Qumran manuscripts!

Before I knew much about the Qumran scrolls, I expected they would have a larger influence on modern biblical translations. In particular, I naively thought to myself, "well if these are the oldest available original language (Hebrew) texts, they will be considered authoritative and thus resolve all difficulties."

This thought was naive in many different ways.

These are indeed the oldest available original language (Hebrew) texts. But it is far from clear that they should be considered authoritative. All they are (though this is a lot) is great additional witnesses, to be considered along with the Masoretic Hebrew texts as well as ancient translations, most notably the Targum (in Aramaic) and the Septuagint (in Greek). The Qumran scrolls add to, rather than "trump" these other witnesses.

For example, though they are old, they're not older than the Septuagint.

Also, though age is one factor to consider when weighing a witnesses' authority, it is hardly the only factor. What's to say an older manuscript might not have been made by a scribe who was more error-prone, or more willing to impose his own views?

Finally, and this one was the biggest revelation to me, the Qumran scribes were not necessarily more fluent in ancient Hebrew than a modern scholar! I didn't realize that Hebrew ceased to be an everyday language as a result of the Babylonian exile, 500 some-odd years BCE. The Great Isaiah Scroll was transcribed about 400 years later!

Perhaps the analogy is strained, but this is something like me transcribing Shakespeare, which certainly contains many words I am unfamiliar with.

In this light, let's imagine that the scribe of the Great Isaiah Scroll came across the word madhebah in his source for 14:4. He might have been at as great a loss as a modern scholar in understanding this word, and thus may have chosen to emend the dalet to a resh, making it marhebah (oppression).

This decision seems like a good one. But it does not render the Masoretic's madhebah wrong beyond a reasonable doubt. Admittedly, this is not a criminal court case, and thus the standard of reasonable doubt may be inappropriate. On the other hand, to some people, these texts are in some sense a matter of life or death, or even of the spiritual domain beyond life and death. So some circumspection is called for.

To me, the NJPS has the proper level of circumspection. It takes the dalet-to-resh emendation of 1QIsa-a and the Septuagint, but notes it. By the way, an interesting question is whether the NJPS would have taken the dalet-to-resh emendation of the Septuagint without Qumran support.

To digress for a moment, a related question I'm interested in is whether the Septuagint was under-appraised by Jewish scholars until evidence from Qumran "legitimized" some of the Septuagint's divergences from the Masoretic. It is possible that the Septuagint was under-appraised because it was in Greek or because in many ways it came to be used by Christians as the Old Testament that "went with" the New. Perhaps comparing the attitude towards the Targums would help here, since they are ancient translations in a more persistently Jewish-associated language.

To digress upon my digression: Before I learned about the Septuagint and the large contingent of Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria, I thought it was "un-Jewish" to refer to the books of the Torah by their English names, since these are directly derived from their Greek names. I thought, in my sophomoric smarty-pants way, that this smacked of Christian influence. Now I (think I) know better. Greek is a perfectly "legitimate" Jewish language, historically speaking.

Okay I better stop writing about things that some people have devoted their lives to, whereas I have only recently begun to dabble in.

In that fleeting spirit of humility, let me conclude by listing some sources I found helpful on these topics.


Reference 1 of 3. Harold Scanlin, The Dead Sea Scrolls & Modern Translations of the Old Testament.

Cover of Scanlin's The DSS & Modern Translations of the OT

Among other things, Scanlin's book does what I did above, but for the whole Old Testament, and for many translations. The NJPS is one of the translations he covers, though he abbreviates it NJV. He misses, or chooses not to mention, some of the NJPS influences I list above. Thus I contribute some small thing on top of his huge work.

Reference 2 of 3. Lawrence H. Schiffman, The Modern Scholar: The Dead Sea Scrolls: The Truth Behind the Mystique.

Graphic for Schiffman's The DSS: Truth Behind the Mystique

This is a recording of 14 great lectures of about 35 minutes each, for a total of 8 hours.

Reference 3 of 3. Harvey Minkoff, "Searching for the Better Text: How errors crept into the Bible and what can be done to correct them," Bible History Daily. (http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/bible-interpretation/searching-for-the-better-text-2/.)


  1. I appreciate that you seek out reliable scholars (such as Harold Scanlin and Lawrence Schiffman). And that you then think things through for yourself, laying out the considerations clearly, while evincing caution in coming to conclusions. Clearly you are enjoying learning new stuff about old things.

    Given the original question posed by your study group, a possible next step for you might be to check the URJ chumash for those passages in Isaiah that happen to appear in a haftarah, and which NJPS had flagged in its footnotes as the place of a distinctive reading in the main Qumran scroll of Isaiah. Was Chaim Stern (the URJ translator of haftarot) likewise influenced by that scroll?

  2. Great question, Rabbi Stein. I must admit I have only thought of the haftarot in the URJ chumash as "that annoying stuff that makes it hard to find the Torah passage you're looking for!"

    Clearly it is much more than that including a whole lot of Isaiah.

    I've mended my ways (attitude) and put an answer to your question as a new post,