The Dead Sea Scrolls

and the New Testament

by Mark M. Mattison



The Sensational Scrolls

The Man Christ Jesus

Jesus and the Essenes



Everybody loves a good mystery. That's just what the Dead Sea Scrolls are to many people: A good mystery. Think about it: Hidden documents, undiscovered for two thousand years, largely suppressed by scholars for another forty years. Documents dating at least back to the time of Jesus and the early church. What new insights are contained in these mysterious scrolls? What can they tell us about Judaism and the early church? Why were many of them suppressed by scholars for so many years?

These are the questions I intend to consider in this essay. In so doing, I hope to do two things. First, I hope to illustrate the flimsy basis of a number of sensational conspiracy theories about the scrolls. Recently the most basic claims of the Christian Church have been challenged by people, mostly non-scholars, who allege that the Dead Sea Scrolls have been suppressed because they undermine Christian doctrine. The scrolls are said to contain shocking secrets about Jesus and his disciples. A few popular books and at least one television special have been dedicated to this theme. It has been so widely perpetuated that it may be worth our time to answer these critics.

The second thing I would like to do in this essay is more positive in nature. Once we have swept aside some popular and bizarre theories of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we can then turn our attention to the more important matter of seeing what light they really do shed on Jesus and the early church. We will see that there were numerous points of contact between the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls on the one hand, and Jesus and his disciples on the other. When we look into the teaching of the scrolls we will be able to perceive an ongoing dialogue between the writers of the scrolls and the writers of the New Testament. Listening to this dialogue will help to explain some otherwise obscure verses in the New Testament and will throw a flood of light on the world of early Christianity. The world of the first-century Jesus will come a little more to life and we will be better able to appreciate what he said and who he is.


The Sensational Scrolls

But for the moment let us turn our attention to sensationalists like Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. In their book The Dead Sea Scroll Deception, they argue that the Vatican suppressed the scrolls because they contain information harmful to the Church. At first blush some of their claims seem credible. On the western shore of the Dead Sea lies Khirbet Qumran, the site of an ancient community of people who have been described as Jewish monks. In 1947 an Arab shepherd accidentally discovered some scrolls in a cave not far from Qumran. Between 1952 and 1956 ten more caves were located. The scrolls of cave four, which contained over 500 texts, were for decades tightly controlled by an editorial team of mostly Catholic scholars. The team published only about 100 of them over the course of 40 years.

To whom were these Catholic editors accountable? To a Dominican-sponsored school in Jerusalem which had direct ties to the pope himself. From here Baigent and Leigh paint a sinister picture of a ruthless Church suppressing or destroying incriminating documents to protect Church doctrine.

An important strategy created by the editorial team to suppress the truth, the authors argue, was creating a rigid orthodoxy of interpretation of the scrolls. The linchpin of this interpretation was the dating. The team tried to put as much distance as possible between the Dead Sea Scrolls and early Christianity. Thus, the team claimed that the scrolls belonged to a period long before the Christian era. Anyone who might question the early dating or the team's interpretation, or who would fight for the publication of the secret scrolls, would be treated as a heretic.

Baigent and Leigh's book has been effectively answered by an article by Hershel Shanks in the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review. Shanks points out that no such conspiracy could possibly have existed. Several Catholic scholars, like Father Joseph Fitzmyer, a distinguished emeritus professor at Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., were very vocal in criticizing the editorial team for not publishing their texts. Another Catholic, a Spanish Jesuit named Jose O'Callaghan, has argued that fragments of New Testament letters have been found among the texts recovered from one of the caves. O'Callaghan is certainly not trying to place distance between Qumran and the New Testament. Consider also Robert Eisenman, whose dating and interpretation of the scrolls is championed by Baigent and Leigh. Eisenman's second book about the Dead Sea Scrolls and Christianity was published by one of the Vatican's own presses! Apparently the Vatican is doing a very poor job in suppressing alternative interpretations of the scrolls.

Why, then, did the editorial team drag their feet so much in publishing the texts entrusted to them? The answer is a little more boring than Baigent and Leigh's hypothesis but truer to the facts. The bottom line was simply greed. They wanted to be the first to publish the translations and lengthy commentaries on the texts from Cave Four. They were in charge of the manuscripts and they wanted it to stay that way. This is not an isolated problem; many newly-discovered ancient manuscripts have been withheld from the public by greedy scholars over the years. I would add that recently the monopoly on the scrolls has been broken; many more Dead Sea Scrolls are presently available to the general public, and Church doctrine seems to have survived well enough so far.

Let's consider another sensationalist. Barbara Thiering teaches at the University of Sydney in Australia. She is the primary source for a television program called The Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, now a Discovery Channel Collector's Edition Video. She, too, argues that the critical issue is the dating of the scrolls. The program criticizes the traditional dating assigned to the scrolls by paleography, that is, the study of ancient handwriting. Like Baigent and Leigh, Barbara Thiering wants to date most of the scrolls to the first century A.D. The program portrays established Dead Sea Scroll scholars as old fogeys and hails Thiering as "one of the new generation of scholars now challenging the original dating that sets these events before the birth of Christ and finding a whole new significance in the scrolls." The narrater goes on to say that "It's also attracting supporters among the newer generation of scholars." The viewer is given the clear impression that a widespread revolution is taking place in Dead Sea Scroll studies. However, the narrater doesn't support his allegation. Just who comprises this "newer generation of scholars"? The program doesn't say. Two professors are shown criticizing the paleographical dating of the scrolls, and one of them suggests that Thiering's theory is worth discussing, but not one member of this alleged new generation of scholars shows up on the program. A couple of scholars on the program deny the virgin birth of Christ and a few established Dead Sea Scroll scholars admit that there is a degree of uncertainty in the study of the scrolls, but we still never see evidence that the traditional consensus is under serious attack.

In fact the archaeological, historical, and paleographical dating of the scrolls has been confirmed by carbon-14 tests performed in a laboratory in Zurich. This fact simply underscores and confirms what is in fact a strong consensus among scholars all over the world, including not only the older scholars but newer generations of scholars as well. In the forward to his impressive collection of essays called Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, James Charlesworth writes how impressed he has been with the international nature of the consensus. This has been impressed upon him in Australia, Austria, Canada, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, and of course the United States. He specifically mentions the Catholic University of America, University of Chicago, Duke University, Emory University, Harvard University, University of Notre Dame, Oxford University, Princeton Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, Yale University, and a number of other domestic and foreign universities. A broad consensus does exist, and it is a consensus based on open and critical research, not the dictatorship of the Vatican. Naturally there are many debates going on and some scholars are going to question the consensus; that always happens. But the consensus remains and it stands on its own merits.

What is the consensus about the Dead Sea Scrolls and the people who wrote them? Charlesworth outlines several points of consensus, some of which follow. First, the scrolls were all written by Jews; none of them have been edited by later Christians, as is the case with some other Jewish literature. Second, all the scrolls (except a treasure map known as the Copper Scroll) can be dated prior to A.D. 68 or 69, when the Qumran settlement was believed to have been destroyed by the Romans in the Jewish revolt. Third, the oldest of the scrolls probably goes back to the middle of the third century B.C. - about a century before the Qumran community was established. Fourth, the Qumran community was established in the middle of the second century B.C. by a group of priests who had been expelled from the Jerusalem temple, led by the man known as The Teacher of Righteousness. Fifth, the archenemy of the Qumran community was the ruling high priest and one of the Maccabean revolutionaries of the second century, probably Jonathan or Simon. They called him the Wicked Priest and the Liar. Sixth, the people of Qumran believed that the Holy Spirit had left the Jerusalem temple and now dwelt with them. Seventh, the people of Qumran belonged to a Jewish religious group known as the Essenes.

The evidence for this last point is overwhelming. What we know about the Essenes from ancient writers like Josephus and Philo is remarkably similar to what we know about the Qumran community from their archaeological remains and their literature. Pliny the Elder, who died during the volcanic destruction of Pompeii in the year 79 A.D., described a community of Essenes living on the western shore of the Dead Sea, close to where Khirbet Qumran is situated. If the Qumran community was not made up of Essenes, then they were completely ignored by every ancient writer and historian. That seems very unlikely.

What seems even more unlikely is the theory of Robert Eisenman which is endorsed by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. According to Eisenman, the Teacher of Righteousness was James the brother of Jesus. The people of Qumran were not Essenes but Zealots, violent rebels, and James was their leader. The enemy they called the Liar was Paul the apostle, and the Wicked Priest was Ananias, the high priest of Jerusalem. After Ananias put James to death Judea revolted, the Romans responded by destroying Jerusalem, and Paul won out by inventing Christianity and turning Jesus into a God. In other far-out theories, the Teacher of Righteousness has been identified as Jesus. But the most interesting theory yet was published by an early Dead Sea scholar named John Allegro. In his book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, Allegro contended that Jesus was not a historical person but an image invoked by the use of a hallucinogenic mushroom. I did read a short story based on that theory once, but I don't know of any scholar who has verified that thesis. The book was an embarrassment to the publisher.

Barbara Thiering has another theory. In the television program mentioned earlier, Thiering talks about the Dead Sea Scrolls and a secret method of interpreting the Gospels. She believes that Jesus was born and raised, not in Bethlehem, but in Qumran. Using her secret method of digging beneath the stated meaning of the Biblical text, she argues that Jesus was not really born of a biological virgin but of a woman who could technically be referred to as a virgin because she was betrothed to an Essene. The Holy Spirit which conceived Jesus was actually a code-name for Joseph, Jesus' father. Jesus grew up to be one of the leaders of the Qumran community, alongside John the Baptist. Together they were regarded as the two Messiahs. But in the year 29 A.D. Jesus turned against the community by rejecting baptisms, law observance, and the ascetic lifestyle, and preached the priesthood of all believers. Jesus then became known as the Wicked Priest and the Liar and John the Baptist became known as the Teacher of Righteousness.

Jesus, meanwhile, became part of a group known as the 12 Apostles. The group split into two factions: the Christians, led by Jesus, and the Zealots, led by Judas Iscariot. The temptation stories recorded in the Gospels are really secret accounts of the argument between Judas, represented by the figure of the devil, and Jesus. Judas offered to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if he would subordinate himself to Judas and become his second-in-command, but Jesus refused.

Thiering denies that Jesus worked any real miracles. Again, the miracle stories contain secret historical facts about the political history of the Jesus movement. Lazarus was not literally raised from the dead. He was considered spiritually dead because he had been expelled from the Qumran community, but Jesus symbolically brought him back to life by accepting him into his movement. Jesus did not really die on the cross; he fainted instead and was later revived by friends and taken to Rome. He did not literally ascend into heaven; his ascension figuratively means that he joined an Essene monastery. His appearances to his followers afterward were not post-resurrection appearances, but personal visits. All of these secrets are supposed to be contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible. Needless to say, her theory has been no more accepted than any of the others I have just mentioned.

The only fact more amazing than these theories is that those who propose these theories honestly believe that they pose a serious threat to the Church. John Allegro once wrote to a colleague, "By the time I've finished there won't be any Church left for you to join." Well, Allegro is finished and there are still plenty of churches around.


The Man Christ Jesus

Now that we have considered the messages of the critics and the challenges to the consensus interpretation of the scrolls, we can proceed with the very positive task of seeing what light the Dead Sea Scrolls really do shed on Jesus and early Christianity. This task is very important, not only as a corrective against the sensationalist reinterpretations, but also as a corrective against those at the other end of the spectrum. As one may well imagine, some scholars have reacted so sharply against the sensationalists that they have gone to quite the other extreme. If for the sensationalists Jesus or his disciples were leaders of the Qumran community, for some conservatives Jesus and his disciples never had anything to do with it. Since there is no evidence that Jesus ever visited Qumran, he could not have been influenced by the Qumranites at all. Charlesworth writes:

The contentions that Jesus was not influenced in any way by the Essenes have a nonhistorical, dogmatic, and apologetic ring to them. Jesus must be unique - he is divine and in no way human - appears to be an underlying presupposition of many published statements. He is thereby shorn of his historicity, and the earliest Christian heresy, combated by 2 John 7 and endorsed by the Acts of John, begins to triumph. Docetism, the doctrine that Jesus was not human but a being of celestial substance, is surreptitiously endorsed.Reference1

If we are really to know Jesus the Messiah, the Anointed Son of God, we must get to know him as a fellow human being. The Scriptures frequently remind us of the humanity of "Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God" (Acts 2:22, NRSV). Consider the message of Hebrews chapter 2. In order to be the pioneer of our salvation, Jesus had to be a human being of flesh and blood. But that means far more than just living and walking among us and eating food. Jesus had to be subject to the very same limitations. He did not know everything; Luke tells us about the boy Jesus in the temple learning from human teachers and writes that Jesus "increased in wisdom and in years." Jesus was like us in every way, only without sin. Physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and culturally, he was one of us while he was here on earth.

Specifically, Jesus was an ancient Jew who spoke mainly Aramaic and who frequented the Synagogue. He studied the Scriptures and prayed to God and struggled to do what was right. As he matured he became aware of a special kinship to God, but he was a man who was searching for his full significance, like each and every one of us. Thus it is no surprise that he would leave Galilee to seek the guidance of his cousin John, who at that time was preaching and baptizing along the river Jordan in Judea.

Let's consider this man known as John the Baptist. What was his background? Where did he come from? Why was he baptizing everybody? The Gospels give us a few clues. He was a man of priestly descent who began his ministry in the Judean wilderness. The Judean wilderness is not a very big place, and it would have been incredible if John had not run into some of those Essenes living in and around Qumran. Now here is where the Qumran community and their scrolls can start shedding extra light on the Bible for us by filling in some historical and cultural background.

First, the Bible tells us that John the Baptist was an ascetic. He dressed simply and ate locusts and wild honey. From our literary sources like Josephus and Philo we know that the Essenes were also ascetics. We also know, from literary testimony, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the archaeological remains of Qumran, that the Essenes practiced many water baptisms for ritual purification. Water baptism is believed to have originated in Diaspora Judaism, that is, among Jewish communities outside of Israel. It was used in the initiation of Gentile proselytes. At Qumran, however, all members of the community were baptized with water for ritual purification. The baptism with water, however, was only an outer, ritual cleansing; an inner, spiritual baptism was believed to take place at Qumran. Consider the inner and outer baptisms of the following passage from the Rule of the Community:

For it is through the spirit of true counsel concerning the ways of man that all his sins shall be expiated that he may contemplate the light of life. He shall be cleansed from all his sins by the spirit of holiness uniting him to His truth, and his iniquity shall be expiated by the spirit of uprightness and humility. And when his flesh is sprinkled with purifying water and sanctified by cleansing water, it shall be made clean by the humble submission of his soul to all the precepts of God (Rule of the Community [1QS] III).

In addition to this inner and outer cleansing, the Qumran Essenes also expected a future outpouring of the spirit of truth in which water baptism and spirit baptism would not represent two types of cleansing, but in which a single spiritual baptism would abolish sin entirely. This special baptism is described in the same scroll in relation to a certain man who "shall be plunged into the spirit of purification that he may instruct the upright in the knowledge of the Most High and teach the wisdom of the sons of heaven to the perfect of way. For God has chosen them for an everlasting Covenant and all the glory of Adam shall be theirs" (Ibid.).

There is one other point I would like to make about the Qumran community before we turn our attention once more to John the Baptist. Again in the same Dead Sea Scroll there is a citation of Isaiah 40:3, which says "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God" (NRSV). The verse is interpreted as describing the Qumran way of life; they are to separate themselves from the outside world, retreating into the desert and preparing the way of the LORD by their study of the Law. In all four Gospels Isaiah 40:3 is cited with reference to the ministry of John the Baptist, but with a different interpretation. In John's Gospel the citation of Isaiah 40:3 is attributed directly to the Baptist. Whether John was a member of the Qumran community or heavily influenced by them, when the word of the Lord came to him in the Judean wilderness he realized that Isaiah's prophecy did not describe studying the Law in isolation but proclaiming the arrival of God's chosen Messiah. At that point he began to proclaim the message of the Messiah's coming and of imminent judgment. He administered a water baptism of ritual purification and preached repentance. He anticipated that his baptizing ministry would reveal the identity of the Messiah. In John 1:31 the Baptist says, "I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel" (NRSV). This anticipation accords very well with the passage from the Rule of the Community we cited earlier about the man who would be plunged into the spirit and would instruct the upright, seal the covenant, and restore the glory of Adam.

Indeed when John baptized Jesus the Spirit descended on Jesus and he was proclaimed the Son of God. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we are told that the Spirit descended like a dove on him after he came up out of the water. Scholars have suggested that this may be an allusion to the creation account in Genesis 1:2 which states that the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters. The point that Matthew, Mark, and Luke would then be making is that with the inauguration of Jesus' ministry a new age began. Up until recently, there has been no concrete support for this interpretation of Jesus' baptism; no evidence, that is, that anybody would allude to Genesis 1:2 in describing the future age. A recently released Qumran Scroll from Cave 4 called "the Messianic Apocalypse," however, has filled this gap. In a verbal allusion to Genesis 1:2, this scroll states that "Over the Meek will His Spirit hover." The author of this Scroll described the future redemption of God's people in terms of the original creation account. The Spirit would hover over the Meek in the new creation just as it had hovered over the waters in the original creation. The writers of the first three Gospels alluded to Genesis 1:2 in exactly the same way. Just as the Spirit was involved in the Genesis creation, so it was involved in the inauguration of Jesus' ministry which was the beginning of a new era, a new age. The Messiah had finally arrived.

We know from the preaching of John the Baptist that he expected the Messiah to baptize with Holy Spirit and with fire, ushering in the long-awaited judgment day. But Christ did not immediately send the baptism of the Holy Spirit and he certainly did not immediately bring the fire of judgment. This ran contrary to John's theology; John began to doubt whether Jesus really was the Messiah after all. Matthew writes: "When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, 'Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?' Jesus answered them, 'Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me'" (Matt. 11:2-6, NRSV). Luke records this incident also. Jesus' answer harks back to three passages from the book of the prophet Isaiah: 29:18 and 19; 35:5,6, and 61:1. These Old Testament verses describe the deaf hearing, the blind seeing, the lame walking, and the poor receiving good news. However, none of these three passages mentions the raising of the dead. In fact the doctrine of resurrection is barely mentioned at all in the Old Testament. It is most clearly described in Daniel 12:2 and Isaiah 26:19, but the Old Testament nowhere states that the Messiah would be the one to raise the dead. Nevertheless Jesus portrayed this as one sign of his Messiahship; upon hearing that Jesus was healing people and raising the dead, John would understand that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, fulfilling his expected role. But where, outside of the New Testament, can we find any evidence that people expected the Messiah to raise the dead? In the very same Dead Sea Scroll from Qumran cave 4 which we quoted just a moment ago. That scroll states that when the Messiah comes then "he will heal the sick, resurrect the dead, and to the poor announce glad tidings." Let's consider the significance of all this.

Both Jesus and John shared the expectation that the works of the Messiah would include healing the sick, raising the dead, and proclaiming the gospel to the poor. That is why Jesus could cite his works as proof that he was indeed the Messiah. That expectation was shared not only by John and Jesus but by at least some members of the Qumran community. Of course the early Church shared this belief, as Matthew and Luke independently testify by recording this saying. There is obviously some connection here. Even if John the Baptist was never an Essene and even if there was no direct influence from the expectation of the Scrolls to the belief of the early Christians, at the very least this demonstrates that belief in a Messiah who raises the dead formed part of the religious landscape of first-century Palestinian Judaism. The early Church did not just make this up.

We might note also that the Messianic Apocalypse says: "The heavens and the earth will obey His Messiah, the sea and all that is in them." Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 28:18, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (NRSV). Remember also what Jesus' disciples said after Jesus had calmed the storm on the Lake of Galilee: "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him" (Mark 4:41, NRSV)? The shared Messianic beliefs of the Qumran Essenes, the disciples of Jesus, and the authors of the Gospels cannot escape our notice.

The parallels between Gospels and the Qumran Scrolls on this point, however, are not yet exhausted. The text of Isaiah 61:1 also crops up in Luke chapter 4, where Jesus stands in the synagogue, reads the passage, and proclaims that he fulfills the prophecy. Again, Jesus was not the only person who interpreted Isaiah 61:1 messianically. A Qumran Scroll from Cave 11 applies the passage to the heavenly figure of Melchizedek who is hailed as Messiah and in some sense God. Melchizedek is not said to be Yahoweh, of course, but El and Elohim, a lesser term for God which can be applied to angels and kings as well as the one Lord of Israel. Melchizedek is said to sit in judgment and to forgive sins. Of course in the New Testament all of these things are said to apply not to Melchizedek but to Jesus. But the messianic expectations of the Qumran community and the messianic beliefs of the early Church were obviously very close; they used the same language and even the same Scriptures.

Before we move on and consider in more detail the ministry of Jesus, I would like to make one more observation about the similarities of Qumran's messianic expectations and the beliefs of the early Church. I'm thinking about the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. In the Gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel announces to Mary the upcoming conception of Jesus in fulfillment of 2 Samuel 7. He says "And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Luke 1:31-33, NRSV). Now if we consider the entire passage in 2 Samuel 7, we will see that the immediate and obvious fulfillment of Nathan's prophecy to David was the birth and rule of David's son Solomon. And the most natural meaning of verses 16 and 17 is that David's descendants would always rule in Israel. But there is another meaning of this passage, according to Luke and Gabriel. After all, David's line did cease to rule in Israel in 586 B.C. We are told in the New Testament that this is a prophecy of the Messiah which was fulfilled in Jesus, son of David and Son of God. This messianic interpretation of 2 Samuel 7, not surprisingly, pre-dates the Gospel of Luke. This passage is interpreted messianically in the Qumran Scrolls also. In a commentary on the Last Days, one Qumran Scroll from Cave 4 has this to say. The passage I'm about to read begins with four citations from 2 Samuel 7:11-14 and is followed by an interpretation and a citation of Amos 9:11 which, of course, is also found in the New Testament.

The Lord declares to you that He will build you a House. I will raise up your seed after you. I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father and he shall be my son. He is the Branch of David who shall arise with the Interpreter of the Law to rule in Zion at the end of time. As it is written, I will raise up the tent of David that is fallen. That is to say, the fallen tent of David is he who shall arise to save Israel.

One eminent commentator, Raymond Brown, has this to say about the Scroll just quoted and Luke chapter 1:

We note that the Qumran interpretation takes out select lines from II Sam 7, just as Luke apparently did. It has shifted the focus of Nathan's promise from a continual line of kings to a single Davidic king, the messianic 'shoot' who will arise in the last days, even as Luke has applied the Samuel passage to Jesus. The 'forever' of both Qumran and Luke is, then, not an endless series of reigns by different kings, but an eschatological redemption. And so there is nothing distinctively Christian in Gabriel's words in vss. 32-33 of Luke, except that the expected Davidic Messiah has been identified with Jesus.Reference2

What this commentator is saying, in other words, is that the Christian identification of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah promised in 2 Samuel 7 is in full accord with Jewish messianic expectation. And that, of course, is just the type of thing the New Testament tells us about the Old Testament prophecies which point to Jesus.

This is doubly important, in 2 Samuel 7:14 God promised to be a father to this Davidic descendent, and this descendent would be a son to Him. This means, in other words, that the Messiah would be regarded as the Son of God. Some scholars used to think that prior to Christianity, no one would have thought of the Hebrew Messiah as the Son of God. They regarded that designation as a Christian invention. But this opinion, which has been revised in the last few years, is negated by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Another recently-published fragment from Qumran Cave 4 clearly calls the Messiah Son of God and Son of the Most High who will judge the earth in righteousness. Again, the early Christian interpretation of Old Testament prophecy was not unique and it was not just made up. It legitimately grew out of the Jewish soil of first-century Palestine. The more we look at these Dead Sea Scrolls, the more we can appreciate the message of the New Testament.


Jesus and the Essenes

Now let's consider the ministry of Jesus himself. We want to do more in this essay than note some parallels between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament. We also want to appreciate the humanity of Jesus and how the human Jesus related to his cultural and religious environment. First, and most obviously, Jesus was heavily influenced by the ministry of his cousin John the Baptist. He sought John's counsel in the Judean wilderness and was baptized by John. Like John, the first recorded words of Jesus in public were "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (NRSV). Compare Matthew 3:2 with Matthew 4:17. In addition, Jesus' first recorded sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, accords very well with the ethical teachings of John the Baptist as recorded in Matthew and Luke. The ties between John the Baptist and Jesus are strongly emphasized in the Gospels. According to the Gospel of John, some of the Baptist's disciples followed Jesus and became his disciples. Think about that for a minute. Could some of Jesus' disciples have been Essenes? The New Testament tells us about Pharisees who believed in Jesus and became Christians. But what about Essenes? Philo tells us that there were more than four thousand Essenes in Palestine and Syria. There were around two hundred of them at Qumran alone. Josephus tells us that they were to be found in every city. Jesus would have encountered Essenes on many occasions as he travelled through Israel; it would be difficult to imagine that Jesus never had anything to do with them.

I would like to describe five points of similarity between Jesus and the Essenes, possibly indicating that he was influenced by them in his own ministry. Then I would like to describe five points of disagreement with the Essenes, and we will be able to see how some of Jesus' teachings become more understandable against the background of the teaching and practice of the Essenes.

The first point of similarity is personal piety. The Essenes were famous for their religious devotion. Philo believed the word "Essene" meant "holy." Josephus writes, "And as for their piety towards God, it is very extraordinary; for before sunrising they speak not a word about profane matters, but put up certain prayers which they have received from their forefathers, as if they made a supplication for its rising" (Wars, 2.8.5). This testimony accords well with what we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Consider this passage from the Rule of the Community:

With the coming of day and night
I will enter the Covenant of God,

and when evening and morning depart
I will recite His decrees....

Before I move my hands and feet
I will bless His Name.

I will praise Him before I go out or enter,
or sit or rise,
and whilst I lie on the couch of my bed.

I will bless Him with the offering
of that which proceeds from my lips
from the midst of the ranks of men,

and before I lift my hands to eat
of the pleasant fruits of the earth.

I will bless Him for His exceeding wonderful deeds
at the beginning of fear and dread
and in the abode of distress and desolation (1QS X).

Jesus would have been very impressed with this degree of piety and devotion. We know that on more than one occasion Jesus spent all night in prayer. It has even been suggested that Jesus was familiar with the Hymns of the Dead Sea Scrolls because of similarities in style and content. For example, consider the following statements from the latter. Hymn 9: "I thank Thee, O Lord, for Thou has not abandoned the fatherless or despised the poor." Hymn 18: "Blessed art Thou, O my Lord, who hast given to Thy servant the knowledge of wisdom that he may comprehend Thy wonders in Thy abundant grace!" Matthew 11:25: "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will" (NRSV). Prayer and humility was one thing that the Essenes and Jesus had in common. In addition to what we have mentioned so far, the Dead Sea Scrolls frequently use the term "the poor" to describe the Qumranites. Jesus said to his disciples, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20, NRSV).

The second point of similarity is the teaching about the New Covenant. The Dead Sea Scroll known as the Damascus Document talks about "the men who enter the New Covenant in the land of Damascus." The Qumranites believed that entering their Community meant entering into the New Covenant which God had made with them. In both 2 Corinthians and Hebrews we find the concept of the New Covenant, and this understanding went back to Jesus himself. When Jesus poured the cup of wine at the Last Supper, he said, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood."

The third point of similarity concerns teaching about the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament talks about God's Spirit, but the technical term "the Holy Spirit" does not appear in the Old Testament. It occurs only three times in the apocrypha and is very rare in the rabbinic literature. However, there are two places where we find this term used in abundance. One is the New Testament and the other is the Dead Sea Scrolls. The New Testament's teaching on the Holy Spirit of course goes back to Jesus himself. He promised to impart the Spirit to all his disciples in the creation of the new community which would be the Church. Similarly, the Qumranites believed that every member of their community was endowed with the Holy Spirit. One liturgical fragment from Qumran states: "For Thou hast shed Thy Holy Spirit upon us, bringing upon us Thy blessings" (Heavenly Lights V).

A word of clarification: I'm not trying to say that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is not true because somebody else made it up. I really do believe that Jesus imparts the gift of the Holy Spirit and that it resides in every member of the Christian community. What I am trying to say is that Jesus may have been influenced by his contemporaries in the way he conceived and described this reality. Again, Jesus spoke the language of his contemporaries, thought in the same way, was very much part of the same culture as other first-century Jews. If he was not influenced by the vocabularies and beliefs and modes of expression of his contemporaries, he would not have been human. Demonstrating the relationship between Jesus and his religious contemporaries shows not only his humanness, but also his genuineness. In other words, what Jesus said and did makes sense in his cultural context and is not to be explained by the popular notion that the Gentile Church made up a lot of its beliefs and attributed them to Jesus. From this standpoint it is important to note how well Jesus' teachings as described in the Gospels cohere with Jewish ideas. On the other hand, conducting these very same studies allows us to appreciate the genius and originality of Jesus. Jesus was profoundly influenced by friends and acquaintances and teachers and dialogue partners, but he treated the Hebrew Bible as authoritative and made full use of his unique relationship with his Father to set himself up as an authority in spiritual matters. Jesus agreed with his many of his contemporaries on many points but sharply disagreed with them on others. We will get to that shortly, but for now let's consider the fourth point of similarity between Jesus and the Essenes.

I would like to draw our attention to a particular phrase which Jesus used on at least two occasions. In John chapter 4, Jesus told the woman at the well that he could give her "living water." This is how he described this living water: "Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life" (v. 14, NRSV). A few chapters later, we read of Jesus in Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles. This feast coincides with the coming of the rainy season in Israel. During this week-long celebration the priests would carry water from the pool of Siloam to the temple area to symbolize the coming of the rain, to remember the water from the rock in the wilderness, and to express their messianic hopes. Consider these verses from John chapter 7: "On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, 'Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water'" (vv. 37,38, NRSV). If you have cross-references and footnotes in your Bible, you'll notice that Jesus is not actually quoting an Old Testament verse here. He presents the statement as Scriptural truth and as supported by the Scriptures. He likely had several passages in mind. But consider this important parallel from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The following excerpt comes from one of the hymns that was written by the so-called Teacher of Righteousness:

But Thou, O my God, hast put into my mouth
as it were rain for all those who thirst
and a fount of living waters which shall not fail.

When they are opened they shall not run dry (1QH8; Hymn 14).

This parallel is closer to Jesus' words than any Old Testament verse. In fact the entire hymn is filled with the symbolism of water. Again this is evidence that in his teaching and way of expressing himself Jesus was likely influenced, even if only indirectly, by the Qumran Essenes.

The last point of contact between Jesus and the Essenes which I would like to mention involves the Last Supper. This point comes from one of the essays in Charlesworth's book on Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The essay is by Rainer Riesner and it describes in painstaking detail the archaeological and literary evidence for locating the upper room in Jerusalem where the Last Supper was eaten and where the Spirit was first given on Pentecost. Riesner discusses the evidence that the upper room was located on the southwest hill of Jerusalem. If we will recall the Gospel accounts, Jesus gave his disciples specific directions on how to find the place where they were to eat the Last Supper. These arrangements for their passover meal required careful planning since the climate in Jerusalem was growing increasingly hostile towards Jesus. Our Lord advised his disciples to enter the city, and as soon as they entered the city they were to meet a man carrying a pitcher of water. They were to follow him to a house and advise the owner of the house that they were there to eat the passover with their teacher. They would then be taken to an upper room which would already be prepared.

The description of the man carrying the pitcher of water strongly suggests that they would meet him near the pool of Siloam near the southeast gate of the city, where water would be drawn for the festival. Riesner describes a graded street which runs from Siloam up to the southwest part of Jerusalem. Now the southwest gate of the city was named "The Essene Gate" after the Essenes. This and several other archaeological and literary clues suggests that this was the Essene quarter. The conclusion of the matter is that Jesus ate the Last Supper in the Essene part of town, an important point of contact. For that matter, thinking about the specific day on which they celebrated their passover meal, there is some evidence that Jesus and his disciples followed the solar calendar observed by the Essenes, not the lunar calendar observed by the Pharisees. This issue has been hotly debated by scholars and I'm not about to make a dogmatic stand on this one, but I do want to mention that the possibility is there and that if true it would establish yet another point of contact with the Essenes.

But we've thought enough about how Jesus and the early Church were influenced by the Essene community. Let's now consider how Jesus and his disciples radically disagreed with the Essenes. At this time I'd like to cover five points of dissimilarity which set Jesus and his followers apart from the people of Qumran.

Let's start with Jesus' most basic teaching: That of love. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:43-45a, NRSV). Now the statement, 'You shall love your neighbor,' is a citation of Leviticus 19:18. But where had Jesus' followers heard that they were to hate their enemies? That statement is not found in the Old Testament. But it is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Qumran Essenes were extremely sectarian and they believed that only they among all the Jews were truly God's people. They were to love one another and hate outsiders. The Rule of the Community states that those who follow its teachings are to "love all the sons of light, each according to his lot in God's design, and hate all the sons of darkness, each according to his guilt in God's vengeance" (1QS I). Just a little later in the same scroll are some blessings for the people of the community and a long list of curses which the people are to recite against their enemies. Similarly, Josephus tells us that the Essenes had to take oaths to hate the wicked. Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount indicate that his disciples were apparently familiar with these teachings. Jesus radically disagreed with them and informed his disciples that if they were truly to be children of God, they had to love their enemies, not hate them.

A second point of disagreement concerns the taking of oaths. Josephus tells us that the Essenes avoided swearing, but he contradicts himself just a few sentences later. In describing how someone may become an Essene, Josephus tells us that after a year of testing he is baptized, and after two more years of testing, he may join the sect. He must then take a number of oaths. He must swear to exercise piety and justice and not to do anyone harm. He must swear to hate the wicked and assist the righteous. He must swear to observe authority, to love the truth, to reprimand liars, to keep from stealing, and so on. This testimony is in perfect accord with the teachings of the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially the Rule of the Community. Again in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cites Old Testament passages about not swearing falsely but keeping vows made to the Lord. These passages were doubtless cited as the Biblical basis for making all of these types of oaths. But Jesus said, "Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one" (Matt. 5:34-37, NRSV).

A third point of disagreement concerns secrecy. In the passage from Josephus cited above, Josephus describes an oath which the Essene was to take "that he will neither conceal anything from those of his own sect, nor discover any of their doctrines to others, no, not though any one should compel him to do so at the hazard of his life" (Wars, 2.8.7). Again this is in accord with the Rule of the Community. In that scroll we read the following about those who become part of the Council of the Community: "When they have been confirmed for two years in perfection of way by the authority of the Community, they shall be set apart as holy within the Council of the men of the Community. And the Interpreter shall not conceal from them, out of fear of apostasy, any of those things hidden from Israel which have been discovered by him" (IQS VIII).

It almost goes without saying that Jesus' teachings were exactly the opposite. Whereas the Essenes were a closed community, Jesus' circle was an open one. Jesus said, "Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops" (Matt. 10:26,27; cp. Mark 4:22; Luke 8:17, NRSV). Jesus was not afraid of his doctrines being made public. On the contrary, his gospel was for the public.

A fourth point of disagreement concerns ritual purity. We have already seen at many points how concerned the Qumran Essenes were with ritual purity. Everything had to be kept in its proper place; the profane and the holy had to be clearly distinguished, as well as the different grades of holiness. There was a very strict and orderly hierarchy at Qumran. In the Dead Sea Scrolls we frequently run across the phrase "each man according to his rank." Josephus describes four ranks of the Essenes:

Now after the time of their preparatory trial is over, they are parted into four classes; and so far are the juniors inferior to the seniors, that if the seniors should be touched by the juniors, they must wash themselves, as if they had intermixed themselves with the company of a foreigner.

Not only were some men more holy and superior to others; all men were considered holier and superior to women, who were believed not to "make the grade" at all.

Jesus disagreed sharply with all of these attitudes. Unlike the Qumran community, the community of Rabbi Jesus was open. There was no hierarchy among the disciples; no exercise of worldly political authority. Jesus taught that all men and all women stand equally before God. Jesus welcomed women into his circle. He associated with them and even taught them from the Scriptures. He transgressed every known Jewish barrier of holiness, consorting with tax collectors and prostitutes and anyone under the sun. Matthew and Mark tell us that he visited the house of Simon the leper. The people of Qumran were afraid of lepers.

Consider the following chronology from Luke chapter 8. We read there of a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. Knowing that Jesus could heal her, she touched the fringe of his clothes and was healed. Jesus turned around and asked who had touched him. Note her reaction in verse 47:

When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed (NRSV).

Why was she so scared? If we'll go back and look at the fifteenth chapter of Leviticus we'll see why. A bleeding woman was declared unclean by the Law of Moses, and anything she touched was considered unclean. Anyone touching anything that she had touched was also considered unclean. Just by touching the fringe of his clothing, the hemorrhaging woman had made Jesus ritually unclean by the standards of the Mosaic law. Now Jesus would be expected to wash his clothes and he would be unclean until evening. That is why the poor woman cowered before this holy rabbi whom she had defiled; she waited for his sharp rebuke.

But Jesus didn't rebuke her, did he? What did he say? "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace." What a surprise! And what's even more surprising is what he did afterward. He didn't go and wash his clothes after that encounter. On the contrary, he went straight to the home of Jairus, leader of the synagogue. Jesus intentionally crossed over the boundaries between the profane and the holy. He went straight from the unclean sinner into the house of a synagogue leader, spreading uncleanness everywhere. The reason, of course, is that Jesus rewrote the rules about purity and impurity. In Mark chapter 7 Jesus clearly teaches that no external object can render a person unclean; rather, "It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come." Jesus' attitude toward ritual purity was exactly the opposite of many of his contemporaries, particularly the Qumran Essenes who were more strict than even the Pharisees. For example, in Matthew 12:11 Jesus says, "Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out" (NRSV)? The Pharisees would have said yes, but the Qumran Essenes would have said no. The Damascus Document says: "Let no man help a beast to give birth on the Sabbath day; and if it fall into a cistern or into a pit, let it not be lifted out on the Sabbath."

A fifth point of disagreement between Jesus and the Essenes is apparent in the sixteenth chapter of Luke. There he tells the parable of the dishonest steward. While not necessarily praising the steward's dishonesty, he presents the steward's shrewdness as exemplary. We might remember Jesus' statement in Matthew 10:16 that his followers should be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (NRSV). In the parable of Luke 16, however, Jesus states that "the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the sons of light" (v. 8, NRSV). Now the term "sons of light" does not appear often in the New Testament. It is used once in the Gospel of John to describe Christians, and Paul uses the term twice. But was Jesus thinking of Christians in Luke 16:8? We cannot be sure, since Jesus was not in the habit of calling his followers 'sons of light' and whoever these "sons of the light" are in this passage, Jesus does not describe them in very positive terms. He describes them as being more foolish than worldly people. When Jesus originally spoke this parable, who did his followers believe he was talking about?

The term "sons of light" may not appear frequently in the New Testament, but it occurs very frequently in the Dead Sea Scrolls. We have even seen the term a time or two in previous quotations in this essay. The Essenes of Qumran were fond of calling themselves "sons of light." Perhaps Jesus was talking about them.

This possibility becomes even more likely when we consider the second phrase in this parable which is a technical term of the Dead Sea Scrolls. That term is "the wealth of unrighteousness" which appears in verses 9 and 11. In the Dead Sea Scrolls that term was used to describe the money of unbelievers and outsiders. The members of the Qumran community were explicitly forbidden to do business with outsiders; they were not to take money from unbelievers. Jesus in this parable is saying that it is foolish not to make friends from the wealth of unrighteousness. David Flusser writes:

Jesus claimed in the parable that the 'sons of light' did not behave cleverly when they practiced an economic separatism and did not make friends for themselves from the 'wealth of unrighteousness.' This is his criticism of the extreme Essene attitude. He asks his followers to remain trustworthy with the 'wealth of unrighteousness' which belongs to others. Only in this way will they be able to gain friends among nonbelievers.Reference3

All of this highlights one of the sharp differences between the Qumran Essenes and the Jesus movement. The former was a closed community, the latter was an open community. The former tried to escape the world entirely; the latter continued to live in the world, seeking the lost. It is noteworthy that the former movement did not survive the Roman suppression of the Jewish revolt. The latter movement not only survived the Roman invasion but outlived the Roman Empire and continues to thrive to this day. Jesus said, "I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (NRSV).

The Christian Church is still around, but the Qumran community died a long time ago. What are we to make of this ancient Essene movement? The more we study these Essenes and their writings in conjunction with ancient Jewish and Christian writings, the more our understanding of Jesus' cultural and religious world begins to emerge. We can better appreciate who the human Jesus was and what he said and did. Furthermore, we can glimpse a number of first-century Jews beginning to understand the Old Testament in such a way as to expect the type of Messiah that Jesus is. The baptizing ministry of a former Essene revealed the Messiah, and the Messiah's subsequent ministry to the poor and the afflicted, as well as his raising the dead, authenticated his Messiahship. It is very likely that Messiah Jesus attracted many of his followers from among the Essenes who were prepared to hear his life-giving message and forsake their sectarian ways. As such Jesus reinforced Essene piety while denouncing Essene sectarianism. Jesus tore down the exclusiveness of his contemporaries and created an inclusive religion with love at its core. This teaching was so radical that it led him to a cross, paving the way to eternal life for millions of faithful followers.



1James H. Charlesworth, ed. Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York, NY: Doubleday), 1992, paperback ed. 1995, p. 5.

2Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City, New York: Image Books), 1977, p. 311.

3David Flusser, "The Parable of the Unjust Steward: Jesus' Criticism of the Essenes," in Charlesworth, pp. 185-186.

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