I stood among strangers at the Gulf Coast Exploreum in Mobile, Ala., and listened through my headphones as the words of the ancient Hebrew text of Psalm 135 were translated into familiar words of the English language. As I listened, I looked at more than three feet of a 2,000-year-old Hebrew scroll written on animal skin.

These words and words like them, written by man but divinely inspired by God, embraced by Jews and Christians alike, are a record of God's revelation of Himself to humankind and are the basis of our understanding of God's relationship to humankind. They are a part of the Holy Bible, a remarkable library of books of different genres written over a span of about 2,000 years. As a pilgrim with an appreciation for history and archeological discovery, I traveled to Mobile for an opportunity to see a sampling of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls, which are really only fragments of scrolls, were discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd who was searching for a lost goat along the cliffs of the Dead Sea. He threw a rock in a hole and heard the rock hit something that sounded like pottery breaking. The next day he and a friend returned and found an entrance to a cave, and in the cave they found earthen jars containing several scrolls.

Over the next nine years, 10 additional caves were found in the hills in the Dead Sea area which contained many more scrolls. These scrolls contained many different religious writings but the most significant writings were the books of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) except the book of Esther. In the case of the scroll of Isaiah, it was found almost in its entirety. What made the discovery of these copies of the Bible so important was their age. Through carbon dating, it was determined that these scriptures were about 1,000 years older than the oldest known copy of any of the scrolls of the Hebrew Bible in existence.

The big question biblical scholars were asking: had the scriptures changed in 1,000 years? There was a very high probability that the scriptures had changed during that time. I explain it this way to my Old and New Testament students.

I want them to get a deep appreciation for the scriptures. Most of the time, students fail to think that before Gutenberg's press was invented in the 15th century, copies of the Bible or any portions of the Bible were all handwritten. So I hand one student a copy of our textbook and tell her that her assignment for the semester is to copy the textbook word for word. Her grade will be determined by how "error free" her work is.

I turn to the next student and tell that student her job is to take the copied text of her classmate and copy it word for word. You get the idea? If I have 10 students, we would end up with 10 generations of a copied textbook. The class then, hypothetically, would get a grade on how closely the finished product ended up matching the original textbook. Then I ask the question, "How likely is it that we would end up with a copied version that was identical to the original?"

I always get the same answer. No one believes the copied versions will be error free. Then I put this into context. I explain to them that the Bible was copied in this fashion, parts of it for thousands of years, from one person to another until the 15th century.

Students generally concede that all that copying over so many years by so many different people, using materials that we would find archaic at best, at the least, made errors in the text a possibility.

There has always been a great debate about the Bible on many fronts. Some have debated whether the Bible is a godly work. If so, how did the words come to those who wrote the text? Others have said the Bible has great literary value but isn't binding on matters of how one should live. Others set up their faith in the Bible like a house of cards and have said that if it can be shown that the Bible has any kind of errors, even one, then we cannot place our trust in any of it to be true.

As a Baptist, I come from a tradition of believers who place a very high standard of belief in the Bible. "The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message" is a statement of beliefs adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention. Part of its statement of beliefs about the Bible, which can be traced through hundreds of years of such confessions, says that the Bible "is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy."

As a Baptist, I can affirm this statement, while at the same time embracing the disciplined study of scholars and refusing to set up my faith as a house of cards, ready to fall when presented with evidence of Biblical scholarship. Faith is not only a matter of the heart. Faith is also a matter of the mind. We are, after all, to worship God with both our hearts and our minds.

As a Baptist, I can hold firm to the conservative and fundamental confession regarding scripture while understanding and affirming contributions made by modern scholastic study, such as that done by those who compared the Hebrew and Aramaic texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls with other ancient manuscripts of the Bible.

Where there are multiple manuscripts of ancient scrolls in existence, obviously there is a problem if ancient scrolls do not all match exactly word for word. Judgements have to be made as to which text is more reliable than the other. Generally, the older the text, the more reliable, as it is considered to be nearer the original.

Whenever manuscripts do not agree with one another, and it is usually with just one word or sometimes with one sentence, these are called "textual variants." You will not find textual variants footnoted in a King James Bible. In most other modern translations such as the New International Version, textual variants are noted.

For example, did Jesus send 70 or 72 people ahead of him into every town and place where he was about to go? (Luke 10:1) The manuscripts differ.

Here's another example from John's Gospel. Did an angel of the Lord go down to the pool of Bethesda and stir up the waters from time to time so the first person into the pool after such a disturbance would be cured of whatever disease he had? (John 5:4 in KJV) The ancient manuscripts differ. This verse is present in the King James Version but is noted as a textual variant in the New International Version, simply letting the reader know that not all the ancient manuscripts are alike on this verse.

Perhaps the most well-known textual variant is the ending of the gospel of Mark. The earliest manuscripts do not have Mark 16:9-19. Without these verses Mark seems to end abruptly.

What does any of this have to do with the Dead Sea Scrolls? The Dead Sea Scrolls had the potential of undermining Hebrew and Christian Scripture. Had the scrolls shown evidence that through two millenniums significant changes had been made in the Biblical texts as we now have them, a lot of explaining would have to be done by Jewish and Christian scholars who still held firm to the authoritative nature of the scriptures.

Instead, just the opposite happened with the discovery of these scrolls. Although the scrolls did reveal some variants among the thousands of fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls when compared with the oldest complete Hebrew Bible (Leningrad Codex) and other important works such as the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), the percentage was relatively low (established at only 10 percent by Dockery, Mathews, and Sloan in their book, "Foundations for Biblical Interpretation").

Even with these recognized variants, the words of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 are powerfully true: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (NIV)

One of my students commented recently that perhaps the variants serve a purpose of showing us that the Bible is not perfect so that we would not end up worshiping the Bible itself but that its role is merely to point us to the one who is perfect, who is without flaw or error in any way. That is what John the apostle claimed to be doing when he wrote his gospel. He wrote: "Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." John 21:30-31 (NIV)

The Holy Bible is a miraculous preservation of God's revelation of Himself to humankind. These words have the breath of God all over them. When applied to our lives, these words leave any field of debate and take on a life of their own. Hebrews 4:12 tells us that "the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." This verse reminds that the most important part of the scripture is what we do with it. How do we interpret it? How do we apply it to our lives? How does it change us?

God inspired those who wrote the scriptures, impassioned those who copied and preserved them over millennia, and perhaps even guided a Bedouin shepherd to find the oldest known copies of the scriptures found to date, just to increase our awe and appreciation for words that have helped us know and understand the God who created us and the universe in which we live.

As I listened to a voice translate the Hebrew text of Psalm 135:1-2, "Praise the LORD. Praise the name of the LORD; praise him, you servants of the LORD, you who minister in the house of the LORD, in the courts of the house of our God," it occurred to me that I stood in a long, long line of faithful Jews and Christians who had found strength, peace, happiness, joy, and hope in these common words of faith. It was a pilgrimage worth taking. Every day, the words of scripture are a pilgrimage worth taking.

The Rev. Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie.

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