On 28 September 2011, Angus McPhee sent an email to me (and others) informing us that “thanks to Google,” we can now better explore the Dead Sea Scrolls, online. I am a fan of Google because it makes available such a wealth of information, but I hadn’t noticed that it now facilitates a line-by-line reading of the famous scrolls discovered between 1947 and 1956, billed as “the greatest archaeological discovery of the twentieth century.” I do not need to describe the scrolls for my readers, since the site identified by Angus McPhee offers a short video that puts this discovery in historical perspective. You may like to visit http:dss.collections.imj.org.il/dss_video for an expert introduction to the scrolls.
However, it is fruitful to ask a number of questions. Angus McPhee is a rather well-known Adventist pastor. (See his website, for instance: angusmcphee.com.) Why would he be so excited about the better availability of the Dead Sea Scrolls for intelligent but non-specialist readers?
First, Pastor McPhee has avidly used the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary during his ministry. (This reference work is ongoing, we anticipate the availability of Volume 13 soon.) The first eight volumes were printed between 1953 and 1960. My late father gave me volume one on 23 February 1955. The publication of the Commentary marks an important transition in Adventism. At last we had a better way of interpreting Scripture in terms of what are sometimes called “the vest-pocket rules of exegesis.” That is, we were challenged to understand the significance of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages in which God gave us His Word. We now had a more effective resource with which to study the context of every verse in the Bible. We now were helped toward understanding the history of each period within which the biblical documents were written, and what the rest of the Bible said on the subject matter of each passage. In short, we began to ask more thoroughly what the Bible meant before asking what the Bible means.
Second, Pastor McPhee’s ministry demonstrates his penchant for a high view of Scripture. Another studious pastor, Mark Pearce, has written a thesis for an Australian University that helps us understand the abiding threat of the Fundamentalism into which we retreated in the turmoil of the earlier twentieth century. The Commentary was one of the factors that called us to realise the problems of both extreme Fundamentalism and extreme Liberalism. It helped us to develop a more viable, Evangelical understanding of Scripture that took fuller account of the wealth of evidence that has more recently become available from the study of biblical languages, ancient history, and many other sources. The results are profound. For instance, I have, since 1970, delighted in exploring the primary sources of the Millerite movement, now conveniently available to everyone in microform. How much William Miller would have been helped in his interpretation of Daniel 8:14 if he had had access to what is now known about the meaning of the word translated “cleansed” in the King James Version.
Back to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Our worldwide church has more than 300 scholars who are members of the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, as well as many others who are members of the Adventist Theological Society. (I offer a context for understanding such groups in my “Recent Tensions in Seventh-day Adventism” article, referenced elsewhere on this website.) These dedicated scholars are able to help us interpret the Dead Sea Scrolls far more effectively than was possible when the Commentary was first published. Most Adventists are convinced about the value of what Ellen White liked to call “present truth.” We must keep aware of the way the Lord has led us in the past if we are to fearlessly pursue our present role on planet earth.
Striking a related note, it is also a source of excitement to me that we can now better appreciate the value of the Septuagint, not least because Dr Bernard Taylor of the Loma Linda University Church is one of the world’s finest scholars in this branch of study. Pastor McPhee’s succinct e-mail can function as a reminder of how much we need each other in the discipline of Adventist Studies if we are to effectively put together all the biblical evidence that relates to our identity and mission.
Arthur Patrick, 30 September 2011, updated 31 January 2013