Israel Antiquities Authority

Loose canon. The 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls, such as the papyrus fragment from the Book of Samuel shown, demonstrate that the books of the Hebrew Bible underwent revision, at least into the first century C.E. The fragment shown (4QSama) provides text from 1 Samuel 11 not found in any extant Biblical manuscript, though it did appear in the Bible Josephus knew. The new text solves a puzzle in the Biblical story: After the Israelites of Jabesh-Gilead surrender peacefully to the Ammonites, the Ammonite king Nahash orders that the residents’ right eyes be gouged out. Why such excessive cruelty? 4QSama explains that Nahash reserved this particular punishment for men he considered rebels, some of whom had earlier taken shelter in Jabesh-Gilead.

The Hebrew Bible was, to some extent, a fluid document—changing from generation to generation because of scribal errors (the new text in our Samuel fragment was probably inadvertently omitted while the book was being copied) or editorial privilege. For the Biblical minimalists, this suggests that the Bible’s narratives can only be read as literature; their historical testimony about Israel’s distant past is impeached by successive layers of composition.