Q195 : The Suffering Servant in the Dead Sea Scrolls

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Q195 : The Suffering Servant in the Dead Sea Scrolls

[The following response is based on an email follow-up to the comment of a long-time engineering friend at a dinner party we recently attended. The friend was curious to learn that since we had last interacted extensively I had become a Christian, gone on to attend seminary, and now taught the Bible. He expressed puzzlement how someone trained as an engineer in objective science subjects could embrace “faith in religion” which is based only on subjective beliefs.]

A195 : by Tony Garland

I enjoyed the short chat we had about my time in seminary and involvement teaching the Bible. During that conversation, you made mention of something to the effect (if I’m remembering correctly) that it must be a challenge for an engineer (with an analytical mind) to embrace faith—which is so subjective. I think I responded by saying that I would not characterize Christian faith as being without objective evidence. That I would characterize it as reasonable trust in events which have sound historical basis and evidence—although this of course does not deny that the events involve what science would call miracles. And that this trust recognizes historical evidence while allowing for a world view which accepts a God that knows the future before it happens and is allowed to step into His created order to initiate miraculous events should he choose to do so for His own purposes. Therefore, Christian faith is not a faith in things which are without considerable evidence, but an informed faith which is based on various evidences—some of which are historical in nature.

So, if your patience will bear with me, I would like to elaborate a bit on one aspect of historical evidence in favor of the Christian faith which I mentioned last night: the “Dead Sea Scrolls.” It is not my purpose to survey all the historical evidences for Christianity, but to focus on a specific passage from these ancient scrolls and how they point, in advance, to the historic role fulfilled by Jesus Christ.

As you may be aware, the Old Testament is made up of 39 individual books. One of those books was written by a man named Isaiah. Conservative scholars believe the book to have been written no later than 680 B.C. However, prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest copy of Isaiah’s book was from around 900 A.D. – some 1600 years later. The situation was much the same for other portions of the Old Testament. But with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, all this changed. The scrolls were found to contain much earlier copies of biblical texts including a complete copy of Isaiah’s writings known as the “Great Isaiah Scroll.” This scroll has been dated by experts using both radiocarbon and analysis of the writing.

The Isaiah Scroll, designated 1Qlsa and also known as the Great Isaiah Scroll, was found in a cave near the Dead Sea (Qumran Cave 1) with six other scrolls by Bedouin shepherds in 1947, later known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scroll is written in Hebrew and contains the entire Book of Isaiah from beginning to end, apart from a few small damaged portions. It is the oldest complete copy of the Book of Isaiah known, being 1100 years older than the Leningrad Codex, and the most complete scroll out of the 220 found at Qumran. Pieces of the Isaiah Scroll have been carbon-14 dated at least four times, giving calibrated date ranges between 335-324 BC and 202-107 BC; there have also been numerous paleographic and scribal dating studies placing the scroll around 150-100 BC.1

Notice that both carbon-14 and paleographic dating gives this particular copy of the scroll an original date of between 335-100 B.C., no later than about a century prior to the birth of Jesus. This has particular interest because there are many passages from Isaiah which appear to be predictions of a person yet to be born. When the passages are read objectively and the question is raised, “who could this person be—does history record a person who did things which these passages describe?,” they would seem to point strongly to what is known about Jesus.

One such passage is found in the 52nd and 53rd chapters of Isaiah’s scroll (chapters and verses been assigned hundreds of years later as a convenient way to reference locations in the scroll). The paragraph below differs only slightly to what you will find in most modern bible translations and is taken from The Dead Sea Scrolls Biblea. I’ve added my own footnotes in square brackets:

“See, my servant will prosper and he will be exalted and lifted up, and will be very high. Just as many were astonished at you—so was he marred in his appearance, more than any human, and his form beyond that of the sons of humans—so will he startle many nations. Kings will shut their mouths at him; for what had not been told them they will see; and what they had not heard they will understand. Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a tender plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form and he had no majesty that we should look at him, and had no attractiveness that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others, and a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering; and like one from whom people hide their faces and we despised him, and we did not value him. Surely he has born our sufferings, and carried our sorrows; yet we considered him stricken and struck down by God, and afflicted.[1] But he was wounded for our transgressions, and he was crushed for our iniquities, and the punishment that made us whole was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed.[2] All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, each of us, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.[3] He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, as a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.[4] From detention and judgment he was taken away—and who can even think about his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living, he was stricken for the transgression of my people.[5] Then they made his grave with the wicked, and with rich people his tomb[6]—although he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet the Lord was willing to crush him, and he made him suffer. Although you make his soul an offering for sin, [7] and he will see his offspring, and he will prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will triumph in his hand. Out of the suffering of his soul he will see light, and find satisfaction. And through his knowledge his servant, the righteous one, will make many righteous, and he will bear their iniquities.[8] Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong; because he poured out his life to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sins of many, and made intercession for their transgressions.[9]2

Although a great deal could be said about this passage in light of what the New Testament reveals about Jesus, I’ve limited my comments to the following points:

  1. Jesus was considered a criminal by many and was despised by the religious leaders. Many even today consider his death on the cross to be the failure of his movement—although this passage reveals it has quite another purpose.
  2. Notice the substitutionary emphasis of this portion. The individual is punished for the transgressions of others yet in his punishment those who transgressed are healed.
  3. The iniquity (sinful errors) of all men were to be laid upon this individual.
  4. The individual did not attempt to defend himself from the accusations brought against him.
  5. The individual was put to death. His death was associated with the sins of the people.
  6. History records that Jesus was crucified between two common criminals and buried in a rich religious leader’s personal tomb.
  7. His soul (life) was made an offering for sin. His death was required in order to atone for the sins of others.
  8. By his death, the individual will make many righteous. This is what many Christians call “the great exchange,” when the sins of mankind are placed upon Jesus and his perfect righteousness is then accounted to those who accept his work on their behalf. The sins of man lay upon God incarnate and the righteousness of God cover/clothe the sinful ones.
  9. The “intercession” described here relates to the reconciliation of humans, who are sinful by nature and by practice, with a holy God who will not abide with sin.
The questions may be asked: “Who does history record as the likely Jewish individual here described? Was there ever an individual who was truly righteous (without sin)? Was he rejected? Did he die a cruel death and seeming defeat? Was his death purposeful in that he bore the sins of others thereby reconciling them to God?” For me, the answer has come to be Jesus Christ. Notice how closely the above passage in Isaiah dovetails with perhaps the most famous passage from the New Testament which summarizes the essence of the Christian faith;

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.3

This is the promise—based upon an informed faith—which I now shared with other Christians. It is also the reason why I am able to face the last portion of my life with abundant hope and a greatly reduced fear of what we must all eventually face: death. Those who accept the sacrifice of Jesus’ life to atone for their sins are assured of life beyond the grave.

Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?"4

Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed— in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?"5

Thanks for bearing with me . . . if you’ve made it this far! This is but a small example of why the Christian faith is an informed faith based on numerous evidences—such as the predictions of ancient texts—such as the Isaiah Scroll—written before the events which they describe. This explains why rational people can place their trust in what to many, who perhaps have not investigated the same evidence, consider a fantastic fairy tale. Christians see passages such as the one mentioned above as evidence that a supernatural God stepped into history, both to give these predictions and to fulfill them many years later.

In closing, I’ve appended links to some books that I found useful when I was investigating these issues about 20 years ago.


1.Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Sea_Scrolls
2.Ref-0790, 359-360
3.NKJV, John 3:16
4.NKJV, John 11:25-26
5.NKJV, 1 Corinthians 15:51-55


NKJVUnless indicated otherwise, all Scripture references are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Ref-0790Martin Abegg Jr., Peter Flint & Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1999).

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