Monday, November 16, 2009

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament

For previous posts in this series, see here. In this post, I want to boil down and organize what I think are the biggest take-aways from the Dead Sea Scrolls as background to the New Testament. Certainly many have done this sort of thing before, but that's never stopped me before.
Jesus and John the Baptist
1. The Community Rule is striking in its use of Isaiah 40:3--"Prepare in the wilderness the way of the Lord" (e.g., 1QS 8). It then refers to its membership as individuals who have chosen the Way (e.g., 1QS 9; CD 2). The similarity to the way John the Baptist is introduced in the gospels, along with the fact that Acts indicates early Christians saw themselves as followers of the Way is very striking indeed. Apollos, for example, is said to understand the Way of the Lord when Priscilla and Aquila come on him (Acts 18:25), yet only to know the teaching of John the Baptist!

It is very hard for me to read these observations and not conclude that John the Baptist was an Essene and that Essenism stands as the principal background for Jesus' ministry. Luke presents him as someone of priestly descent, which fits the Essenes. He does not seem to be married (although frankly we don't know for sure) and his life as a Nazirite fits as well.

That is not to say, of course, that Jesus was an Essene, quite the contrary. He apparently assented to the call to repentance that was a signature of John the Baptist's message, but his practice of inclusion showed a disregard for boundaries and purity rules that would not only have been massively unacceptable to the Essenes. The gospels depict it as unacceptable to the less "conservative" Pharisees.

2. Messianic expectation is not a regular feature of the books commonly called the Apocrypha. It is, however, noticeable in the scrolls. It may first appear in the Animal Apocalypse around 160BC in terms of literature that has survived. We also find it in the Psalms of Solomon around 50BC. The messiah will be king of the restored Israel. We do not find any good indication that this messiah was thought to be a heavenly figure in the scrolls. His arrival is accompanied in 11QMelch by the archangel Melchizedek who will judge angels and men.

We do know of a few revolutionaries who tried to revolt against Rome. There was Judas the Galilean in AD6. There was Theudas in the early 40s. We know of an anonymous Egyptian from Acts. Simon bar Kochba was thought the messiah in the later 135 revolt. It is hard to know, therefore, how widespread messianic belief was.

3. Dead Sea Scrolls like 4QFlorilegium look to several messianic texts that also appear in the New Testament: Psalm 2; 2 Samuel 7:14; Amos 9:11. It is impossible to know if Jesus used these sorts of texts in reference to messianic expectation during his earthly ministry. But they certainly found their way eventually into the self-understanding of the early church.

4. 11QMelch speaks of Melchizedek bringing good news to captives from Isaiah 61, just as Luke 4 has Jesus say as he commences his ministry. It also quotes Isaiah 52:7 from which arguably come the word "gospel" and the phrase "kingdom of God." It is quite possible that Jesus evoked the image of God's coming salvation using commonly known imagery (drawn from Essene circles?).

5. Language of a new covenant was clearly in play among the Essenes and the Dead Sea Community. It is difficult to know for sure to what extent Jeremiah 31 might have served as a backdrop for Jesus' earthly ministry, but clearly at some point the earliest Christians understood Jesus' death to be the real inauguration of one.

6. The War Scroll looks to a final battle between good and evil, just as Jesus may also have anticipated in the way he framed his mission on earth. The idea that the Dead Sea community was the final generation such as we find in the Habakkuk commentary also seems to have become the understanding of the earliest Christians.

7. Hell fire as a place not only for the Devil and his angels but for the wicked of Israel seems to stand in the background of Jesus' ministry or at the very least early Christian understanding and such imagery is found also to some extent among the scrolls.

Earliest Christians
8. communal living, holding possessions in common
The Community Rule also records a process of a person's property becoming absorbed into the community. Acts 2 also speaks of the early Jerusalem Christian community holding their possessions in common. This would fit a community with strong Essene sympathies. The incident with Ananias and Sapphira reminds us of the penalties for lying about property that pertained to the Qumran community.

9. The literature of 1 Enoch arguably stands in the background of the Dead Sea Scrolls and may in fact have served as Scripture for the Essenes. In this connection, it is noteworthy that Jude 14-15 quote 1 Enoch 1. Similarly, the story of evil angels having sex with human women seems presumed by Jude 6; 2 Peter 2:4; and 1 Peter 3:19-20. By contrast, Paul the ex-Pharisee does not engage any of this Enochic literature. We could argue, however, that some significant Jerusalem Christians did and may even have considered 1 Enoch to be Scripture.

10. Paul goes to Damascus to arrest some Christian Jews. This is peculiar because Damascus was not under the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin. There must surely have been a significant Christian element there of some kind. Similarly, Damascus plays an important at least putative role for the Essenes. The Covenant of Damascus remembers Damascus in one way or another as the place where the fundamental Essene covenant was first made.

11. New Testament interpretation in general fit with the hermeneutics of the day. For example, some of Matthew's interpretations are reminiscent of the pesher commentaries at Qumran in the way they lift segments of words from the Old Testament from their original contexts and apply them to incidents in the life of Jesus.

12. The DSS repeatedly invoke the Holy Spirit as God's presence in the community. Romans 1:3 may repeat an early Christian "creed" of sort using the phrase, "Spirit of holiness," which of course is attested at Qumran.

Paul's Letters
13. 4QMMT remains excellent background to Paul's use of the phrase "works of law." This phrase apparently evoked images of the kinds of debates Jews had over boundary issues and how to keep the purity issues of the Law. The strongly ethnic overtones of the phrase are clear enough in Galatians, where circumcision is primarily at issue.

If much of the early Jerusalem church was Essene, then we can see Paul's use of Qumran categories in part as effective rhetoric. Paul becomes an ex-Pharisee believer arguing with ex-Essene believers or even still Essene believers. The use of the phrase "doers of the Law" (versus mere "hearers of the Law") in Romans 2 and indeed in James becomes intriguing because Paul possibly throws an Essene mantra back in his opponents face.

14. Paul's language of election and his evocation of mystery to explain God's predestination of the Gentiles ironically finds strong precedent in the Qumran hymns and War Scroll. It is ironic because Paul turns language that had been used in relation to a very separatist, conservative Jewish community and applies it to the inclusion of the Gentiles!

15. Although the DSS are not the only background for the phrase the righteousness of God, they support the strong evidence from the Psalms and Isaiah that Paul's use of this phrase primarily referred to God's righteousness, His propensity to save and show mercy on His people. See the Community Rule and the Hymns.

16. The Qumran hymns, while ironically having a strong expectation of moral perfection, also have a strong sense of human depravity. No one can be righteous in their own strength. Justification is by God's grace. Although some will no doubt quibble that the emphasis on holiness cancels out the insight about human depravity, the New Testament also expects a life above sin.

In that sense the Qumran hymns well dispense with the older view of Judaism as a religion of works righteousness. The NT like the scrolls have a pattern of keeping the Law in response to God's grace and works as an element in the equation of final acceptance while strongly affirming human unworthiness. Paul's evocation of such themes are not so much in disagreement over them but he uses them to lead his opponents to different implications for them.

17. Paul's use of flesh as that part of a human that is susceptible to sin, as well as the sense that humans have a guilty inclination are attested at Qumran. Such ideas probably fit better with an Essene background than with Paul's own Pharisaic background perhaps.

18. Paul's sense of the glory of Adam may be invoked in the scrolls. It is this glory that Paul believed we lacked because of our sin and it was hope of this glory that we aspired to through Christ.

19. Paul's early use of the phrase sons of light in 1 Thessalonians is possibly an artifact of early Christian language he has retained which, again, fits very well against an Essene background for many early Christians.

20. Paul's references to meetings of early believers as "churches," "assemblies," fits very well with Essene origins for earliest Christianity.

21. The one artifact in 2 Corinthians where the word Belial is used of Satan reminds us of the name primarily used of him among the scrolls.

22. The Songs of the Sabbath sacrifice may very well provide us with important background to understand an incipient mystical Judaism that Colossians addresses where certain Jews saw their worship as a participation in the worship of angels. The use of tongues in worship may intersect here at some point as well.

23. The idea that God's throne room was a heavenly Holy of Holies in a heavenly temple is certainly attested at Qumran.

24. The importance of santification of the community understood as purification is certainly attested at Qumran.

25. The Qumran sense of Melchizedek as a heavenly archangel may stand somewhere in the background of Hebrews 7, although if so, probably more in terms of the author using some associations on the part of the audience rather than his own. Hebrews does not equate Jesus with Melchizedek.

26. Once again, the idea of a final battle between Israel and the world, with the primary bad guy or image of the primary bad guy based on Rome, stands as an essential part of Revelation and is strongly evoked by the War Scroll.


Anonymous said...

I assume Isaiah 61:3 is a typo for 40:3.
If interested in more discussion of "doers of torah" see

Stephen Goranson

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I think that the way our country allows diverse views is a healthy one. One size does not fit all, and this is obvious in the Jewish Tradition, as well as the Christian one.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks Stephen!

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for doing this.