27 Aug 2021

The Dead Sea Scrolls, Psalms and The Apocrypha

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Bible, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Psalms
The Great Psalm Scroll, 11QPs

The Psalms

Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows Bobby is a Dad nerd, Bible nerd, a craft beer nerd, an Astronomy nerd, a Rock nerd, a Harley nerd, and an outdoor adventure nerd. Probably a few more “nerds” in there too. These have all developed (except for astronomy and rock) in my adult life.

As a younger person I knew very little about the Book of Psalms and had never heard of the Apocrypha. Once I discovered the Apocrypha, I imbibed the prejudices of American Evangelicals towards these books: Catholics “added them;”; full of false doctrine; Jesus and the NT never used them; they were not written in Hebrew; Jews rejected them; the Church Fathers never used them. Over the years I have learned how misinformed I was, and how badly prejudice can distort reality. If you are curious see my article Discovery at the Museum: How I Discovered the Apocrypha through Art.

Jews in Jesus’s day loved the Psalms. They were “awash” in them. Jewish fathers and mothers sang the Psalms to their children. We learn in 4 Maccabees “he [parents] sang to you the songs of the psalmist David” (18.15). Hardly a page goes by in the New Testament that does not contain a quotation and several allusions to the Psalms. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Book of Psalms to New Testament “Christianity.”

At Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), over forty manuscripts, or portions of manuscripts, were discovered, the most of any biblical book. Several of these manuscripts (scrolls or the remains of scrolls) contain significant portions of the whole book of Psalms.

The Book of Psalms in our canonical Masoretic/Septuagint tradition is divided into five smaller books on the analogy of the Books of Moses, the Torah. They are

Book One = Psalms 1-41
Book Two = Psalms 42-72
Book Three = Psalms 73-89
Book Four = Psalms 90-106
Book Five = Psalm 107-150

Dead Sea Scrolls and Psalms

The Great Psalm Scroll (11QPs) and the other remaining Psalm manuscripts discovered at Qumran give us a window into the world of Jesus and the early Way. What happens when we unroll the scroll and investigate the contents of the Book of Psalms that was known to them.

We learn first of all the content and arrangement in the Psalms in the DSS from Pss 1-89 is virtually the same. This covers what we call Books I-III in today’s psalter. However, Psalms 90-150 (Books IV-V) exhibits considerable variation in arrangement and content. That is from Psalms 90 to 150 we find a different order and we find additions that we often do not know in our NIV psalter. For our purposes today, I want to focus on two of those extras in content.

11QPs: The Great Psalm Scroll (and related Manuscripts)

11QPs is the designation for the large psalter discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The number 11 stands for Cave 11 where the scroll was located. The Q stands for Qumran. And Ps stands for Psalms.

The Dead Sea Scrolls psalter contains two works from what Protestants, since Martin Luther, call the “Old Testament” Apocrypha (no the Catholics did not write these). These are the psalm of Sirach and Psalm 151. Both Psalm 151 and Sirach’s psalm are known to us from the Septuagint.

Ben Sira’s Psalm in 11QPs

Ben Sira’s psalm comes from the book of Sirach chapter 51. As the Book of Psalms includes “psalms of David” that are in Samuel or Chronicles, the principle is the same. In 11QPs, Ben Sira’s psalm comes between our Psalm 138 followed by “A Psalm to Zion” and then Psalm 93 and then goes on to the end of the Psalms. What does this Psalm says? It is a wonderful prayer. I will quote from the NRSV version of Sirach 51. Note how Ben Sira address God as “Father” and he refers to the “God Creed” (Exodus 34.6).

I give you thanks, O Lord and King,
    and praise you, O God my Savior.
I give thanks to your name,
     for you have been my protector and helper
and have delivered me from destruction
    and from the trap laid by a slanderous tongue,
    from lips that fabricate lies.
In the face of my adversaries

    you have been my helper and delivered me,
    in the greatness of your mercy and of your name,
from grinding teeth about to devour me,
    from the hand of those seeking my life,
    from the many troubles I endured,
 from choking fire on every side,
    and from the midst of fire that I had not kindled,
 from the deep belly of Hades,
    from an unclean tongue and lying words—
    the slander of an unrighteous tongue to the king.


My soul drew near to death,
    and my life was on the brink of Hades below.
 They surrounded me on every side,
and there was no one to help me;
I looked for human assistance,
    and there was none.


Then I remembered your mercy, O Lord,
    and your kindness from of old,
for you rescue those who wait for you
    and save them from the hand of their enemies.
 And I sent up my prayer from the earth,
    and begged for rescue from death.


 I cried out, “Lord, you are my Father;
    do not forsake me in the days of trouble,
    when there is no help against the proud.
 I will praise your name continually,
    and will sing hymns of thanksgiving.”


My prayer was heard,
     for you saved me from destruction
    and rescued me in time of trouble.
For this reason I thank you and praise you,
    and I bless the name of the Lord.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

Give thanks to the God of praises,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

Give thanks to the guardian of Israel,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

Give thanks to him who formed all things,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

Give thanks to the redeemer of Israel,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

Give thanks to him who gathers the dispersed of Israel,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

Give thanks to him who rebuilt his city and his sanctuary,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

Give thanks to him who makes a horn to sprout for the house of David,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

Give thanks to him who has chosen the sons of Zadok to be priests,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

Give thanks to the shield of Abraham,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

Give thanks to the rock of Isaac,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

Give thanks to the mighty one of Jacob,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

Give thanks to him who has chosen Zion,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

Give thanks to the King of the kings of kings,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

He has raised up a horn for his people,
    praise for all his loyal ones.

For the children of Israel, the people close to him.
    Praise the Lord!

While I was still young, before I went on my travels,
    I sought wisdom openly in my prayer.
Before the temple I asked for her,
    and I will search for her until the end
.

From the first blossom to the ripening grape
    my heart delighted in her;
my foot walked on the straight path;
    from my youth I followed her steps.

I inclined my ear a little and received her,
    and I found for myself much instruction.

I made progress in her;
    to him who gives wisdom I will give glory.

For I resolved to live according to wisdom,
    and I was zealous for the good,
    and I shall never be disappointed.
My soul grappled with wisdom,
    and in my conduct I was strict;

I spread out my hands to the heavens,
    and lamented my ignorance of her.
I directed my soul to her,
    and in purity I found her.

With her I gained understanding from the first;
    therefore I will never be forsaken.
My heart was stirred to seek her;
    therefore I have gained a prize possession.
The Lord gave me my tongue as a reward,
    and I will praise him with it.

Draw near to me, you who are uneducated,
    and lodge in the house of instruction.
Why do you say you are lacking in these things,
    and why do you endure such great thirst?
I opened my mouth and said,
    Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money.

Put your neck under her yoke,
    and let your souls receive instruction;
    it is to be found close by.

See with your own eyes that I have labored but little
    and found for myself much serenity.
Hear but a little of my instruction,
    and through me you will acquire silver and gold.

May your soul rejoice in God’s mercy,
    and may you never be ashamed to praise him.
Do your work in good time,
    and in his own time God will give you your reward.

Translation of all the biblical texts discovered at Qumran

Psalm 151: A Psalm of David

Psalm 151 ends the Qumran Psalter just as it does in the Greek Septuagint. It is preceded by our Pss 140 and 134. Psalm 151 is short compared to Ben Sira’s prayer being similar in length to the Songs of Ascents. Again for ease of checking it out, I will quote the Psalm from the NRSV version. Like many of the Psalms in our received Psalter, Ps 151 has a heading.

This psalm is ascribed to David as his own
composition (though it is outside the number,
after he had fought in
single combat with Goliath.

I was small among my brothers,
and the youngest in my father’s house:
I tended my father’s sheep.

My hands made a harp;
my fingers fashioned a lyre.

And who will tell my Lord?
The Lord himself; it is he who hears.

It was he who sent his messenger
and took me from my father’s sheep,
and anointed me with his anointing oil.

My brothers were handsome and tall,
but the Lord was not pleased with them.

I went out to meet the Philistine,
and he curse me by his idols.

But I drew his own sword;
I beheaded him, and took away
disgrace from the people of Israel.

Dead Sea Scroll, The Psalms and the Apocrypha

The presence of these texts with the DSS Psalms indicates at least two realities.

First, and this is beyond reasonable doubt, that these texts were well known, that they were treasured, that they were used in worship. They sang them, they prayed them. As such they shaped the world that Jesus and the early church/Way lived in and worshiped.

Second, these texts were likely regarded as Scripture by the Essenes at Qumran (the people who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls). This is not proven but it is extremely likely. The editors of the The Dead Scrolls Bible, Martin Abegg, Peter Flint, Eugene Ulrich (all well known Scroll scholars and editors of the scrolls themselves) are of this opinion. The fact that these texts are embedded in the Psalms scrolls, surrounded by recognized scripture, with no distinction made is hard to argue against.

Regardless, both of these texts, Ben Sira’s psalm and Ps 151, continued to be copied, read and sung in the early church. And Ben Sira continued to be used among the Jews themselves as both the many quotations of Sirach in the Mishnah, and the discovery of the Hebrew Sirach at the Cairo Genizah by Solomon Schechter in the late 1890s demonstrate.

I, of course, had no clue that was the case and probably would have denied it had I been told. But today since I love Jesus with all my heart and with all my mind, I too love these texts because they help me see him as the King of the Jews as well as the Lord of the Nations.

Now you know …

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