If you don’t know it already, I’m fascinated by seven books of the Old Testament called the Deuterocanon. These books are part of Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, but they are omitted in Jewish and most Protestant Bibles.
When researching for my latest book, The Case for the Deuterocanon: Evidence and Arguments, I searched for the best arguments against these books’ inspiration. I quickly noticed that several dozen non-Catholic websites make a very strange claim, namely that the Dead Sea Scrolls had a special format reserved only for biblical books and the two deuterocanonical books found at Qumran were not in this format. What’s odd is that if such an obvious demarcation did exist, it seems that the best scholars in the field missed it. I was intrigued.
After a little digging, I traced this claim back to a Protestant apologist named Norman Geisler, who claimed that biblical books were written on special parchment and in a special script. But what was this special parchment and script?
The Dead Sea Scrolls were written on papyrus, parchment (leather), and copper. Because the Copper Scroll was non-biblical, the only two types left that qualify for this special format would be papyrus and parchment. However, there are deuterocanonical fragments on these materials, so there doesn’t seem to be any special “biblical” parchment used here.
What about a special “biblical” script? Fragments come in two different scripts: square and Paleo-Hebrew. Most fragments (including deuterocanonical fragments) were in square script. Only 15 fragments were in Paleo-Hebrew. The 15 fragments contain biblical texts and an apocryphon of Joshua. Again, I came out empty. What was this special “biblical” parchment and script?
I decided to take a closer look at Geisler’s comments to see if he gives a source. He never cites a work for his claim, but he usually includes a quote from Millar Burrows’ book, “More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls.” I ordered the book in hopes that I can find a reference to this special format.
Upon receiving the book I immediately noticed a big problem. The book was written in 1957. The Scrolls were discovered in 1947 and the last excavations ended in 1956. Burrows’ book was only a survey of the current state of Scroll research — back in 1957!
I flipped to Burrows’ section on the deuterocanonical fragments only to find that these fragments had not yet been published, so he gives only the most general
information about them. There is no mention of anything that would disqualify them as sacred texts.
Frustrated, I read the previous chapter, and there it was: the issue of the special format. However, Burrows wasn’t talking about the Deuterocanon, but the book of Daniel. Apparently, some scholars (again back in 1956) thought that biblical texts may have been copied with columns twice the height of their width, and because fragments of Daniel were not in this format (and also on papyrus) they thought that the Jews at Qumran may not have considered Daniel as Scripture. Could this be Geisler’s special biblical format?
If so, he neglected to note that other scholars, even back then, knew that this theory was tenuous at best and admitted exceptions. Eventually this theory about Daniel, like many other early theories, was discarded and forgotten.
The funny thing is that while trying to hunt down the special parchment, I did stumble across another possible demarcation for biblical texts. According to the Jewish scholar Immanuel Tov, there does seem to be a special scribal format that is very often applied to biblical poetry. Tov points out that two fragments from the deuterocanonical book of Sirach (one at Qumran and the other at Massada) has this format. This suggests that both areas may have considered Sirach sacred Scripture before and during the time of Christ.
In the end, my adventure to identify the special format mentioned on these non-Catholic sites turned out to be a discovery in the other direction, a positive clue that Sirach was considered sacred by at least some Jews prior to its rejection at the beginning of the second century AD.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com. He is also the author of “Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger: The Untold Story of the Lost Books of the Protestant Bible.”