A Most Amazing Discovery

Back when I was in college, I took part in a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Having grown up in a Christian home that mostly only read the Gospels and Paul, I was puzzled by the haunting lyrics of one chorus. It sounded like it was straight out of the New Testament, but I had never heard it before. I was moved to tears by each line:

Surely, surely, He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.
He was wounded was for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.

These lines obviously describe Christ’s suffering and atonement of our sins, but where did they come from? Puzzled, I searched my Bible. Even now I remember my shock when I learned that these lines were not the work of a New Testament writer, but were from the book of Isaiah, chapter 53:

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light [of life] and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:3-11, NIV 1984) 

Reading this passage, we can hear its clear and obvious message about Christ. It is so detailed and pointed in its description of Jesus’ death and resurrection that it seems to be a restatement of the basic tenets of the gospel message for the early church.

In fact, it was written almost 700 years before the birth of Christ! I found this a most amazing discovery — that the prophecy about Jesus’ mission on earth could be so clearly laid out, so many centuries before he was born. The New Testament writers refer to it many times, seeing that it so clearly foretold Jesus’ mission on earth.

Yet a More Amazing Discovery

For many years, I was quite thrilled at my Bible study discovery. If I had known my Old Testament better, maybe it would not have been that special. Then I began to learn more about archeology and the discovery of the the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1948, many ancient scrolls and fragments were uncovered in the Essene community of Qumran, in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea in Israel.

Before that discovery of the Qumran scrolls, the oldest known manuscripts of the Old Testament were from about 900 AD. Skeptics had charged that modern Bibles were full of legends inserted by pious believers. They were silenced by the finding of the Dead Sea documents, which were a thousand years older than any other manuscript they had found, from about 100 BC.

Of all the momentous discoveries at Qumran, that one that made scholars’ jaws drop was the “Great Isaiah Scroll,” which contained a complete manuscript of the book of Isaiah. Copies of almost all of the books of the Old Testament had been found, but they were in fragments that needed to be pieced back together. Just a few scrolls were found intact, including two copies of the book of Isaiah. Both the original text of Isaiah and the copy on this scroll predate the birth of Jesus.

The text of Isaiah 53 in this scroll was virtually identical to manuscripts of over a thousand years later, even though it had been hand-copied over and over again. The words I quoted above are actually in the text found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The only difference between that text and later copies is the small insertion in brackets, [of life].  The fact that so little change was seen over thousands of years shows the enormous reverence the scribes had for the text.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was tremendously affirming to Christians and Jews who wondered if the biblical text had been accurately preserved. But finding the Isaiah Scroll, and even a copy of Isaiah’s powerful prophecy in chapter 53 that existed a hundred years before Christ is to me the most amazing discovery of all.


Photos: Mark Kamin [CC BY-SA 2.5], Ken and Nyetta [CC BY 2.0]

The Mountain of the Lord

by Lois Tverberg

Now it will come about that in the last days, the mountain of the house of the LORD will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations (or, Gentiles) will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us concerning His ways and that we may walk in His paths.’ For the law will go forth from Zion and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. – Isaiah 2:2-3

The words above are from a prophecy of what would happen in the last days, in the Messianic age. Because the Messiah has come, we are in that age, and it is fascinating to see how these words are finally coming true right before our eyes.

Specifically, it says that the nations (goyim, also Gentiles) will come to the land God has given his people, in order to study, to learn more about the Lord and how to follow him. In the past 50 years since the nation of Israel has been established, an enormous wealth of information has been uncovered to enrich our study of the Bible. Most of us are hardly aware of how important that has been for Christianity.


This welcoming sign greets everyone arriving at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered the year Israel was established, have been some of the most important finds. They have shown the reliability and antiquity of the Scriptures, because they are over 1000 years older than other manuscripts. They date from Jesus’ time and give us much insight into the Essenes, an important part of the culture that Jesus was addressing. Every new discovery in archaeology gives another piece of the puzzle, making the text a little clearer. Some of the most important finds in Israel have been made in just the past 10 years! We can be optimistic about what is just around the corner.

Few may also know of a remarkable wave of scholarship that is developing as Christians and Jews are studying Jesus together in Israel. In former times, Christians have tended to miss the importance of Jesus’ Jewish context for understanding his message. But as they have traveled to Israel to study the land and manuscripts, the Jews there have worked together with them to yield great insights on Jesus’ life in its context. A pioneering group of scholars called the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research is part of this development, and has had fascinating insights on Jesus’ words in the light of his Jewish culture (1).

While Christians may not know of some of the amazing things that are going on in the land of Israel, they are starting to discover how powerful it is to personally experience the Promised Land. Many find that the text takes on brilliant color and new depth once they’ve walked the land.

It has taken thousands of years for a window to open, to enable the Gentiles to come from the ends of the earth to the mountain of the Lord. And only now have we had the tools to uncover evidence that God preserved below the surface of the land. How amazing of God, that he allows even us to be a part of the Scriptures, because we now are the fulfillment of his words in Isaiah 2 long ago.

En-Gedi Hiking

A Lost Psalm of Qumran

by Lois Tverberg

“O Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise. ” – Psa. 51:15
Surely a maggot cannot praise thee,
nor a grave worm recount thy loving-kindness.
But the living can praise thee,
even those who stumble can laud thee.
In revealing thy kindness to them
and by thy righteousness thou dost enlighten them.
For in thy hand is the soul of every living thing;
the breath of all flesh hast thou given.

Deal with us, O LORD, according to thy goodness,
according to thy great mercy,
and according to thy many righteous deeds.
The LORD has heeded the voice of those who love his name
and has not deprived them of his loving-kindness.
Blessed be the LORD, who executes righteous deeds,
crowning his saints with loving-kindness and mercy.

My soul cries out to praise thy name,
to sing high praises for thy loving deeds,
to proclaim thy faithfulness– of praise of thee there is no end.
Near death was I for my sins,
and my iniquities have sold me to the grave;
but thou didst save me, O LORD, according to thy great mercy,
and according to thy many righteous deeds.

Indeed have I loved thy name,
and in thy protection have I found refuge.
When I remember thy might my heart is brave,
and upon thy mercies do I lean.

Forgive my sin, O LORD, and purify me from my iniquity.
Vouchsafe me a spirit of faith and knowledge,
and let me not be dishonored in ruin.

Let not Satan rule over me, nor an unclean spirit;
neither let pain nor the evil inclination take possession of my bones.
For thou, O LORD, art my praise, and in thee do I hope all the day.
Let my brothers rejoice with me and the house of my father,
who are astonished by your graciousness.

Forever I will rejoice in thee.

The psalm above was found in Cave 11 of Qumran as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is not in our Bible, but is part of what is called “Psalm 151.” Earlier in the psalm, it says that it is a psalm of David. Is this a lost psalm that David wrote, or is it beautiful poetry of a later time? It has style elements that sound like they are from closer to Jesus’ time, like speaking of the “evil inclination,” a rabbinic phrase about our tendency to sin.

Whether or not it is canonical, we can be blessed by the writings of an ancient psalmist whose praises were buried at Qumran.

Keepers of the Word

by Lois Tverberg

Now go, write it on a tablet before them, and inscribe it on a scroll,
That it may serve in the time to come, as a witness forever. –  Isaiah 30:8

Judaism from ancient times until today contains many practices that display great reverence for the written text of the Bible. The centerpiece of every synagogue is the “Torah Ark” – the cabinet that contains handwritten Torah scrolls covered in embroidered cloths, with a silver “crown” decorating each scroll. A silver pointer called a “yad” is used to keep place during the reading to avoid touching the text on the scroll with one’s hands.

The name of God is especially sacred, and never uttered allowed. Any paper that it is written on must not be destroyed, but must respectfully buried in a receptacle called a genizah (gen-nee-ZAH). As a result, all Jewish Torah scrolls and other scriptures are carefully buried and not simply thrown away with other waste, even if they are very warn out and need to be replaced.

CaveAll this extreme care may strike us as excessive. We may wonder how pen marks and paper can be so holy. But interestingly, it is this very practice that preserved the most important copies of the Bible ever found.

In the 1940s, many copies of the text of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) were found near the Essene settlement at Qumran, near the Dead Sea. The scrolls had been carefully buried in caves used as “genizahs” around the time of Christ, and were over 1000 years older than the oldest known text of the Bible. Archaeologists were amazed at the fact that the biblical text had been preserved nearly flawlessly over 1000 years.

Though the ancient people did these things simply to revere God’s word, they were actually insuring that people could know its truth and reliability over two millennia later. Their dedication to the Lord even in the way they treated the manuscripts of the Bible had a wonderful outcome that they never could have foreseen. We should also know that what we do to bring honor to God, even if we don’t know why, can be used by God at a time and place later that we never would have dreamed.