First, the newly discovered pieces show a special treatment for the four letters of God’s name, the Tetragrammaton (see Exodus 3:14–15). Instead of rendering the name in typical fashion with the Greek word Kyrios, the name of God is represented in Hebrew letters written right to left. It would be similar to us using the Hebrew letters יהוה (YHWH) or possibly the Latin DOMINUS in the middle of an English sentence.
This representation is significant because using specialized characters for the divine name has carried through to our modern Bibles. Most English Bibles represent the name as “the LORD” with small capital letters, rather than representing its supposed pronunciation Yahweh, as many scholars suggest. This substitution follows the ancient tradition of reading Adonai, a Hebrew word meaning “Lord,” or even HaShem “The Name,” in place of representing God’s name according to its sound.
Moreover, the lettering for God’s name is not typical of most of the other Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew manuscripts. It is an even older script, sometimes called paleo-Hebrew, which was mostly abandoned in everyday writing during the second temple period. Think of it as the difference between our modern Latin lettering and the calligraphic Fraktur or Gothic script, or possibly even like Greek letters. Putting these representations into a translated text provides both a foreignness to the writing and a type of reverence for the name’s uniqueness.
The second correlation we find in the new fragments is evidence of changing words to try to improve a new translation. The Minor Prophets scroll represents a revision of an older Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. The original version was used widely by Greek-speaking Jews in the first century throughout the Mediterranean world, but at some point, a new translation became warranted.
For Zechariah 8:17, the Old Greek translated the first word in the Hebrew text (אִישׁ) as a distributive term meaning “each other, another,” which put at the end, similar to every major English version. For example, the NIV reads, “Do not plot evil against each other.”
In the new fragment, the same term is translated by a different Greek word at the beginning. Using an interlinear approach—finding a corresponding word without accounting for the context of its use—the verse starts by representing the same Hebrew word as “man.” It forms an overliteral translation: “As for a man, do not plot evil against his neighbor in your heart.”
It would seem that the efforts to render the Bible accurately into common languages date back to our earliest textual evidence of the Scriptures. Yet this difference anticipates the various modern opinions about how best to represent God’s word in our vernaculars.
These texts will undoubtably launch an array of research in years to come, with other features possibly revealed through multispectral imaging and digital magnification. As a biblical scholar, I can imagine these ancient readers striving to translate the Hebrew Scriptures that we read today and then carrying these meaningful texts into the darkest moments of their history to help them better understand God and their world.
Our connection to these people through this ancient text—now brought forward in tiny pieces, bit by bit—demonstrates the profound human desire to seek God especially in our moments of greatest trial and uncertainty.
Chip Hardy is associate professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Exegetical Gems from Biblical Hebrew: A Refreshing Guide to Grammar and Interpretation.