The Qumran Revolution in the Study of Biblical and Post-biblical Judaism and Early Christianity

The Dead Sea Scrolls (dating to c. 200 BCE–70 CE) belong to the post-biblical age and their relevance to the Hebrew Bible itself is limited to questions pertaining to the transmission of the text and to the canon of Scripture. As both topics have already been dealt with, only the salient points of the earlier findings will be recapitulated here. Nevertheless, all that the reader will find in the following pages will vindicate the claim made in the opening chapter that the Dead Sea Scrolls have completely ‘revolutionized our approach to the Hebrew Scriptures and to the literature of the age that witnessed the birth of the New Testament’.

1. Judaism

Because no Hebrew biblical manuscripts have survived from pre-Christian times with the possible exception of the Nash papyrus (see chapter VI, p. 96), the contribution of the scriptural Scrolls from Qumran are unparalleled as far as our knowledge of the text of the Old Testament is concerned. What do we learn from them?

The Dead Sea finds partly confirm and partly question the reliability of the wording of the Bible handed down by Jewish tradition. On the one hand, as was shown in chapter VI, the Qumran Scripture is substantially identical with that passed on by the synagogue from the time of Jesus to the present age. On the other hand, the Dead Sea Scrolls furnish documentary proof of what has been surmised before, namely that, prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, unity was not yet achieved and different forms of the Hebrew text coexisted, showing verbal and stylistic variations, additions, omissions and changes in the order of the textual arrangement. Before the Qumran discoveries, we presumed that the Samaritan Bible (restricted to the five books of the Law of Moses), the form of the Hebrew Bible from which the ancient Greek version, known as the Septuagint, was translated, and the type of the text that was to evolve into the traditional (Masoretic) Hebrew Old Testament, existed side by side in different social groups. Qumran has corroborated this theory and has demonstrated that diversity could obtain in one and the same group. This phenomenon implies that the variant readings in the biblical text do not necessarily represent corruptions or deliberate alterations, but can just as well, if not better, echo earlier discrete written traditions. Unity, produced by Jewish religious authority, was usually sought in times of crisis, and was achieved by the selection of one of the existing text forms and the simultaneous rejection of all other competing versions. Such a deliberate unification is assumed to have been part of the general restructuring of Judaism by the rabbis during the years following the catastrophe of 70 CE, which entailed the loss of the Temple and the supreme council of the Sanhedrin as well as the replacement of the aristocratic high priestly leadership of Jewry by rabbis largely of plebeian origin.

The second, less stringent, conclusion that can be drawn from the Dead Sea biblical Scrolls relates to the canon of the Jewish Scriptures. Qumran unfortunately has not provided us with a register listing by name every book of the Bible. All we know is that, with the exception of the Book of Esther (missing also, as has been noted, from the list of the second century CE bishop, Melito of Sardis), some 215 original manuscripts have been retrieved from the eleven Qumran caves. They comprise fragments of more than seventy copies of the Law (the Torah), a dozen specimens of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings), over forty copies of the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) and more than sixty copies of the Writings (among them thirty-six copies of the Psalms). Nothing specifically proves, however, that these texts belonged to a distinctive class of their own. Their privileged position may be deduced only from circumstantial evidence. For example, some of them (Genesis, Isaiah, several Minor Prophets and the Psalms) are furnished with commentaries. There is no evidence of a running interpretation attached to non-biblical documents at Qumran. Also, extracts from various books that tradition considers as Scripture serve as proof texts in the Community Rule, the Damascus Document and in other Qumran writings. However, the cogency of this argument is weakened if one recalls that a work attributed to Levi, son of Jacob (possibly an early version of the Testament of Levi), and the Book of Jubilees are also used in a similar fashion by the writer of the Damascus Document unless we agree with the authors of The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible that these works belonged to the Bible at Qumran (see chapter VI, p. 102). All we can safely deduce is a great likelihood that the writings held to be canonical in rabbinic Judaism enjoyed the same status in the Dead Sea community. This would imply that the list of authoritative books was established while Qumran was in existence, that is to say, before the year 70 CE at the latest, and not in the early decades of the second century CE, as is commonly held.

If so, the debate which gave an opportunity to Rabbi Akiba (martyred under Hadrian in 135 CE) to maintain the canonicity of the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes simply shows that the status quo arrived at probably in the course of the first century BCE, concerning what constituted the Bible, was successfully restated by some rabbis after 100 CE against those other rabbis who sought to remove various disputed items from the traditional register of Scriptures. In this case, the creation of the Palestinian canon must have followed closely the entry into the Bible of the Book of Daniel, finally completed some time around 160 BCE. As Cave 4 fragments of this book, dating to the late second century BCE, prove, the text itself was already firmly fixed within half a century from the canonization of Daniel, and this includes even the switch in it from Hebrew to Aramaic in chapter 2:4 and again back to Hebrew in chapter 8.

In the domain of the Aramaic Bible translation, little novelty is available at Qumran. Two small Aramaic fragments of Leviticus and Job have emerged from Cave 4 with no variants worth mentioning. Cave 11 has yielded larger sections of the Book of Job with stylistic changes. However, the discrepancies should probably be attributed to the difficulties of the Hebrew language the translator of the book had to face rather than to textual variations.

The Aramaic Genesis Apocryphon, of which substantial sections have survived in Cave 1, prefigures the later rabbinic genre of the so-called Palestinian Targums in which the text of the Pentateuch rendered into Aramaic is amalgamated with a free and often extensive supplementary explanation, also in Aramaic. It demonstrates that this type of scriptural interpretation was not the creation of the rabbis in the third to the fifth century CE, as is generally thought, but came into existence probably as early as the second century BCE and consequently existed in New Testament times.

Greek Bible translations from Qumran are also few and far between and stay close to the traditional Septuagint with only minor verbal variations. A notable peculiarity appears in the Greek fragment of Leviticus 4:17 (4Q120) where the sacrosanct divine name ‘YHWH’ is phonetically transliterated as Iao instead of being replaced by the customary term, ‘Lord’ (Kyrios).

Works of Scripture interpretation, other than the so-called ‘rewritten Bible’ – already exemplified by the Book of Jubilees, a paraphrase of Genesis, the Book of Biblical Antiquities falsely attributed to Philo, and Flavius Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, retelling the story of the entire Old Testament – open a new chapter in post-biblical Jewish literature. At Qumran, the Reworked Pentateuch (4Q158, 364–7) represents this genre. There are also thematic collections of exegesis devoted to biblical laws (4Q159, 513–14) and interpretative documents on messianic or apocalyptic themes (4Q174–5). However, the principal fresh contribution of Qumran to post-biblical Jewish literature is furnished by continuous commentaries on Genesis, various prophetic books and the Psalms. Most of them aim at outlining and interpreting prophecy in its relation to the Qumran community’s past, present and future history. They constitute the pesher class of the Dead Sea Scrolls (see chapter VII, pp. 162–4). Extracts from them are also occasionally quoted in Qumran writings of a doctrinal nature such as the Damascus Document (see CD 4:14).

Furthermore, the Dead Sea Scrolls have made a substantial contribution to a better grasp of the history of halakhah, the rabbinic method of regulating Jewish religious conduct and morality. Indeed, the reinterpretation and adaptation of biblical law to evolving historical and social circumstances did not start after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. The Scrolls already contain examples of the formulation of new rules either through applied Bible exegesis, anticipating the literary genre of the rabbinic Midrash, or in the form of direct commands without scriptural support as attested in the Mishnah and the Talmud, works compiled between 200 and 500 CE.

The midrashic type of lawmaking is practised by the author of the Damascus Document (CD 5:1–2). He demonstrates through legal reasoning the compulsory character of the monogamous marriage by applying to every Jewish male person the law of Deuteronomy relative to the king who was forbidden to ‘multiply wives’ (Deut. 17:17), i.e. to have more than one spouse. The mishnaic genre, simple statement unsupported by Bible citation, is illustrated by the precepts included in MMT (4Q394–9) and the Statutes of the Damascus Document (CD 9–16).

The style of a legal document, organized into divisions according to subject matter like the tractates of the Mishnah and the Talmud, is explicitly exemplified in the Damascus Statutes where we find formal divisional headings such as ‘Concerning the oath of a woman’, ‘Concerning the statute for free-will offering’, ‘Concerning purification by water’, ‘Concerning the Sabbath’, etc., and less formally in MMT where, without express divisional titles, the laws are arranged as relating to the liturgical calendar, ritual purity, marriage and sundry decrees governing the entry into the sect.

Qumran’s contribution to the domain of religious and political sociology consists in revealing through literature and archaeology the detailed aspects of the life and structure of a Jewish sect that flourished between the latter part of the second century BCE and the first Jewish war against Rome (66–70 CE). Prior to the Scrolls, our main sources were Josephus, the New Testament, both dating to the first century CE, followed by the Mishnah and other rabbinic works recorded in writing from 200 to 500 CE. All of them mention subgroups within the Jewish body politic in Judaea and Galilee. Josephus, the most detailed of our informants, speaks of the religious parties of the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes, to which he adds ‘the fourth philosophy’ of the Zealots-Sicarii and, if the relevant part (Jewish Antiquities XVIII:64) of the Testimonium Flavianum is accepted as genuine, makes a fleeting reference to the Christians too. In addition to the early followers of Jesus, specially described in the Acts of the Apostles (2:43–7; 4:32; 5:1–11), the New Testament knows of the Pharisees and the Sadducees and includes an allusion to the Zealots, the adherents of Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37). Rabbinic literature, although aware of the existence of the Zealots (Qannaim), representatives after 70 CE of the clandestine resistance to Roman power, is chiefly interested in the two rival groups of teachers, the Pharisees or Sages and the Sadducees, and distinguishes them from the ‘people of the land’, i.e. the bulk of the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine unaffiliated either to Pharisees, Sadducees or any other religious parties.

Of these five groups, three can hardly be designated as sects. The Zealots were essentially a political movement open to anyone opposed to Rome. The Sadducees, lay and priestly aristocracy attached to the high priestly families, formed the traditional ruling classes of Judaea under Roman overlordship, whereas the Pharisees were the self-appointed doctrinal leaders competing with the priesthood, favoured by the urban bourgeoisie and, according to Josephus, by the women. No initiation was required to join the Pharisees or the Sadducees. Only the Essenes and the Jesus movement considered themselves so apart from the ordinary folk that full membership could be attained only after preliminary instruction and formal initiation. The Dead Sea Scrolls provide a remarkably full, rich and illuminating picture of the organization, aims and beliefs of the Qumran sect, and (if the two are identified) of the Essenes when their data are combined with the accounts of Philo, Josephus and Pliny.

The Dead Sea discoveries have also furnished us with a much firmer grasp of the historical dimensions of the Qumran-Essene movement than anything we possessed before 1947. Philo’s description of the Essenes completely lacks historical perspective and Pliny’s quite dreamily refers to them as an ‘eternal race’ that has existed for thousands of centuries. Only Josephus tries to connect the Essenes with Jewish history, first mentioning them under Jonathan Maccabaeus in mid-second century BCE; later reporting on their preferential treatment under the reign of Herod the Great, and finally he refers to them during the first Jewish war as heroically suffering Roman tortures while one of their leaders acted as a rebel general and fell on the battlefield. The Qumran manuscripts, especially the Damascus Document and the biblical commentaries, supply more concrete, though cryptographic, details about the Teacher of Righteousness, the founder of the sect, the Wicked Priest, his chief opponent, and the early history of the community from the Maccabaean age to Pompey’s conquest of Judaea in 63 BCE. Other allusions seem to concern imperial Rome.

In sum, thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the archaeological remains unearthed at Qumran we have gained a substantially refined knowledge of the religious history of the Jews during the last two centuries preceding the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem under Vespasian and Titus in 70 CE.

2. Christianity

Scholarly opinion concerning the impact of the Scrolls on the New Testament and early Christianity falls into two categories. To the first belong some writers, usually media-oriented, who directly associate Qumran with the nascent Church. They attempt to establish the association by seeking to discover a link between the personalities of the Dead Sea Community on the one hand, and on the other, Jesus, John the Baptist, James, the brother of the Lord, and St Paul. We should add to this category of Qumran scholars a few Greek papyrus experts who claim that a smattering of tiny manuscript fragments found in Qumran Cave 7 represent in reality New Testament documents (see pp. 223–5). By contrast, the large majority of scholars prefer to consider the Dead Sea sect and the primitive Church as two separate, independent but contemporaneous and parallel movements with the older Qumran group, possibly influencing here and there the younger Christian Church in matters of belief, doctrine and, most likely, religious organization and practice.

Let me rehearse briefly the theories amalgamating the Scrolls with the New Testament which have been dealt with in chapter VIII. The publication of the Cairo manuscripts of Zadokite Fragments by Solomon Schechter in 1910 already generated an attempt to view the Damascus Document as a Christian writing with specific Sadducean features. The protagonist of this thesis was G. Margoliouth, who argued without much impact, that for the Zadokites John the Baptist was the Messiah and Jesus the Teacher of Righteousness (Expositor, December 1911, pp. 499–517 and March 1912, pp. 212–35). The first Hebraist to renew this trend after the discovery of the Qumran Scrolls was Jacob Teicher of Cambridge in a series of articles between 1950 and 1954 in the then freshly founded Journal of Jewish Studies. He proposed to identify Jesus as the Teacher of Righteousness and St Paul as the Wicked Priest. His ideas were soon forgotten, but the cool reception Teicher’s thesis met within scholarly circles did not discourage Robert Eisenman from reviving a similar theory some thirty years later with James, the brother of the Lord, replacing Jesus in the role of the Teacher of Righteousness, while St Paul maintained his position as the Wicked Priest, and the whole story was given a Zealot colouring (Maccabees, Zadokites, Christians and Qumran and James the Just and the Habakkuk Pesher, Leiden, Brill, 1983, 1986). At about the same time, Barbara Thiering issued a series of books, proclaiming John the Baptist as the Teacher of Righteousness and the married, divorced and remarried Jesus as the Wicked Priest (The Qumran Origins of the Christian Church, Sydney, Australian & New Zealand Studies of Theology and Religion, 1983; Jesus the Man, New York, Doubleday, 1992). As one might expect, these startling publications excited much press and TV interest, but being found short of solid foundation, they failed to affect scholarly attitudes towards the problem of the Dead Sea Scrolls (see chapter VIII, pp. 190–91).

Common sense is the first and foremost argument against identifying the Qumran Scrolls as Christian writings. Even a simple unsophisticated reading of these manuscripts clearly indicates that apart from some general themes, such as the proximity of the end, the final triumph of righteousness brought about by a messianic leader, the Scrolls and the New Testament fundamentally stand apart. The Qumran emphasis on the painstakingly exact observance of the Law of Moses is lacking from the Gospels, let alone from Paul, even though they, like Jesus, insist on the moral value of the adherence to the Torah. The little detail that is available regarding the priestly character of the Teacher of Righteousness does not tally with the portrait of Jesus in the Gospels which presents him instead as a Galilean charismatic healer and exorcist. Qumran, in fact, has no Galilean association whatsoever. Add to this the chronological difficulty: the Qumran texts most frequently cited as having a Christian association – the Damascus Document and the Habakkuk Commentary – are dated by the near-totality of experts to the pre-Christian era. Note that the Carbon-14 test performed on a fragment belonging to the Habakkuk Commentary in 1995 firmly set it before the start of the present era (between 110–15 BCE), although one must concede that such a small difference in the timescale of the radiocarbon evidence can not be judged decisive.

The second link between Qumran and Christianity is seen by a small number of New Testament papyrologists in minute Greek manuscript fragments discovered in Cave 7. The original editors, the French Dominicans, P. Benoit and M. E. Boismard, were able to identify only two of the 18 papyrus scraps and declared them as belonging to the Greek version of the Old Testament book of Exodus (7Q1) and of the Letter of Jeremiah (7Q2). The rest were published as unidentified pieces (DJD, III, 1962, pp. 142–5). Ten years later, the Spanish Jesuit textual critic, José O’Callaghan, caused worldwide sensation by alleging that six of the unclassified bits represented the New Testament: Mark 4:28 (7Q6,1); Mark 6:48 (7Q15); Mark 6:52–3 (7Q5); Mark 12:17 (7Q7); Acts 28:38 (7Q6,2); 1 Tim. 3:16, 4:1–3 (7Q4); James 1:23–4 (7Q8) and 2 Pet. 1:15 (7Q10). Bearing in mind that no one knew the length of the original lines, necessary for any hypothetical filling in of the gaping holes, C. H. Roberts, the greatest twentieth-century expert of New Testament papyri, and I immediately questioned O’Callaghan’s theory in the Letters column of The Times in April 1972 and Roberts renewed his refutation in the Journal of Theological Studies (23 (1972), pp. 446–7). Even the pièce de résistance of O’Callaghan, the alleged Mark 6:52–3, consists of a mere seventeen fully or partly surviving letters, of which only nine are certain. They are distributed on four lines with both the beginning and the end of the lines missing, and with only a single three-letter word preserved complete in the text, the not very illuminating kai (= and). For a while the matter seemed to be settled, but twenty years later, in the 1990s, the New Testament theory was revived by C. P. Thiede and others, but was met with firm rebuttal from the weightiest textual authorities, Kurt Aland, M. E. Boismard, Émile Puech, etc.

By the way, even if miraculously some of the Cave 7 documents turned out to be New Testament passages, it still would not prove that the Qumran Community was Christian. As this cave yielded only Greek texts, quite unusual at Qumran – the only further Greek examples derive from Bible translations (4Q119–22) – it is not inconceivable that the 7Q deposit is separate and independent from the Dead Sea Scrolls proper, and was hidden there by fugitive Christians some time in the second century CE when the Qumran settlement was already abandoned and unoccupied.

Let us now turn to less fanciful matters. Even if we discard the idea that nascent Christianity is identical with, or derives from, the Qumran Community, we are still faced with some significant parallelisms which demand explanation. The issues to consider are the concept of the new Israel with a new ultimate leader, the idea of the new Temple replacing the Jerusalem sanctuary, the eschatological world view envisaging an imminent end or transformation of the ages, the role of the Bible in the life of the new association, similarities regarding the organization and the life of the two communities (ownership of property, government, marriage versus celibacy) and even some striking verbal similarities between the Scrolls and the New Testament.

(a) New Israel and new Temple

Both the Damascus Document and the Community Rule portray the Community as a miniature new Israel of the final age, symbolically divided into twelve tribes and led by twelve tribal chiefs (see chapter VII, pp. 123–3130). They and those who were to join them, would constitute the ‘righteous remnant’ of Isaiah 10:21, and form the true chosen people of God at the time of the arrival of the divine kingdom. The early Church envisaged itself along similar lines. The Gospel saying, put on the lips of Jesus, expresses the same idea:

When the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

(Matt. 19:28)

I assign you, as my Father assigned me, a kingdom, that you may… sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

(Luke 22:30)

Likewise, Paul considers the Church as the new ‘Israel of God’ (Gal. 6:16) and the letter of James is addressed to ‘the twelve tribes of the Dispersion’ (Jas. 1:1).

In short, the budding Church was convinced, as had been the Qumran sect before it, that its members alone formed the elect of God. Also, just as the Dead Sea Community saw itself as the sole legitimate substitute for the Temple of Jerusalem, ‘a sanctuary of men’ where the works of the law were offered to God ‘without the flesh of holocausts and the fat of sacrifices’ as ‘the smoke of incense’ or as ‘a sweet fragrance’ (1QS 8:8–9; 9:4–5; 1QpHab 12:3–4; 4Q174 i. 6–7), the Pauline Church, too, believed that the bodies of the Christians counted as ‘a living sacrifice’ within their ‘spiritual worship’ (Rom. 12:1). This worship was offered in a symbolical Temple ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus being the cornerstone’ (Eph. 2:20).

(b) Eschatological world view

Another characteristic common to the Scrolls and the New Testament is their eschatological world view, that is, the conviction that their respective communities lived on the doorstep of the kingdom of God, that divinely engineered age in which all things would be renewed. In both literatures, the founder – the Teacher of Righteousness or Jesus – was believed to possess and to convey to his disciples all the secrets surrounding the end of times. The Qumran sectaries awaited the final age to be inaugurated by their Teacher of Righteousness and when he died before achieving this aim, they expected the dawn of the messianic era to appear within forty years after his disappearance from among the living. Jesus, too, looked forward to the onset of the kingdom of God in the course of the lifetime of his generation and when the cross removed him from the scene of action, his followers, in the wake of St Paul, were convinced of his impending return still within their own days and enthusiastically longed for the parousia, the Second Coming.

The similarity between the two attitudes culminates in their reaction to the continued postponement of the end. The sectaries were encouraged to confront the delay with a blind, semi-fatalistic trust: ‘All the ages of God reach their appointed end as he determines for them in the mysteries of his wisdom’ (1QpHab 7:13–14). In their turn, mid-second century Christians, mirrored in the late document known as the second letter of Peter, comforted themselves with the thought that God’s way of measuring time differs from that of men and that in any case the extension of the final age has the advantage of providing the faithful with additional opportunities for repentance (2 Pet. 3:3–9).

(c) The Bible

Another major factor, providing a fresh insight into Christian thought, is revealed by the respective stance of the Qumran Community and the early Church towards the Bible. The interpretation of Scripture as a source of behaviour and belief turns out to be of paramount importance in both groups. The Bible serves at Qumran as well as in the early Church to define correct conduct by means of applied interpretation and to explain history in the form of fulfilled prophecy. In regard to the former, the sectarian Scrolls – like later rabbinic literature – seek to derive from the words of the ancient Scripture rules determining the contemporary way of rightful action. This application exists, but is less frequent, in the New Testament too. Its paucity in the teaching attributable to Jesus is particularly noticeable. In fact, Bible quotations are employed by New Testament authors more for poetic, theological or rhetorical illustration than as proof texts.

There are, however, noteworthy examples pointing out the cases where the scriptural arguments used at Qumran and in the Gospels coincide. The most striking of these relates to marriage. Endeavouring to argue from the Bible that the doctrinal opponents of the sect are guilty of fornication when they take a second wife during the lifetime of the first, the author of the Damascus Document (4:20– 21) cites ‘Male and female created he them’ (Gen. 1:17), meaning literally that God created one man and one woman. This is presented as the ‘principle of the creation’, implying that marriage is meant to involve only one husband and one wife. Although all the Bible quotations cited in the Damascus Document passage refer to monogamy, some Qumran interpreters seek also to derive from this same principle the prohibition of divorce, invoking the New Testament where Jesus is said to have used the same quote to outlaw absolutely or, according to Matthew, conditionally, the repudiation of a wife. To objectors who invoked the Bible in support of the right of a husband to dismiss his monogamous wife, Jesus retorted: ‘For your hardness of heart (Moses) wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female’ (Mark 10:5–6; Matt. 19:3–4).

Another, and perhaps the most important, Qumran contribution to the understanding of the New Testament is supplied by the specific Dead Sea Scroll interpretation of prophecy, known as the pesher. The pesher, as has been made clear (see chapter VII, pp. 162–4), expounds a scriptural prediction by indicating its realization in the history of the community. The best preserved of the pesharim, the Habakkuk Commentary, outlines various features of the Teacher of Righteousness and alludes to several episodes of his life, asserting that they constitute the fulfilment of predictions uttered by the prophet Habakkuk many centuries before the time of the Teacher: ‘Write down the vision and make plain upon the tablets that he who reads may read it speedily’ (Hab. 2:1–2). God told Habakkuk to write down that which would happen to the final generation, but he did not make known to him when time would come to an end. And as for the saying, ‘that he who reads may read it speedily’, interpreted it concerns the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God made known all the mysteries of the words of his servants, the prophets (1QpHab 7:1–5).

Later, citing St Paul’s favourite verse of Habakkuk (2:4), ‘The righteous shall live by his faith’, the commentator adds: ‘Interpreted, this (=the righteous) concerns all those who observe the law in the house of Judah, whom God will deliver from the house of judgement because of their suffering and because of their faith in the Teacher of Righteousness’ (1QpHab 8:1–2).

Of all the surviving Jewish writings of the relevant period, the Gospels, especially Matthew, and the letters of Paul recall most closely the Qumran fulfilment interpretation of Old Testament prophecy. Matthew uses specific introductory formulae such as ‘This took place to fulfil what the Lord has spoken by the prophet’ (Matt. 1:22); ‘So it is written by the prophet’ (Matt. 2:5); or ‘This is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah’ (Matt. 3:3). In his turn, Paul, anticipating the rabbis, regularly starts his citations with ‘As it is written’. These expressions correspond to the phrases ‘Interpreted’, ‘The interpretation of this saying concerns’, etc., of the Qumran pesher. Naturally the events and personalities of the Qumran Community and of the Gospels, presented as implementation of biblical prophecy, further signify for the Qumran sectaries and the early followers of Jesus that their respective leaders and their history were predestined and prearranged by God. Although a similar use of the prophetic argument appears also from time to time in rabbinic literature (see chapter VII, p. 162), the massive occurrence of this type of evidence indicates that Qumran and early Christianity shared a common spiritual atmosphere, doctrinal heritage and religious outlook. In consequence, Qumran sheds here a particularly brilliant light on the beliefs and teachings of the primitive Church.

(d) Messianism

In doctrinal matters, the Dead Sea Scrolls display certain subjects in a much more colourful and nuanced manner than does the New Testament. Take, for example, the topic of Messianism. We encounter at Qumran the plain and traditional form of the Davidic Messiah, believed to be the ultimate military commander chosen and commissioned by God, ready to lead the army of the elect to final victory over the armies of Satan and his wicked Jewish and Gentile allies. This Messiah is described as the ‘Branch of David’ (4Q161, 285), the ‘prince of the Congregation’ (1QM 5:1; 4Q285), the ‘Sceptre’ (CD 7:20) or the ‘Messiah of Israel’ (1QSa 2:14, 20). However, in addition to the typical king Messiah, son of David, the Dead Sea Scrolls speak also of ‘the Messiah of Aaron and Israel’ in the singular and of ‘the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel’ (1QS 9:11), that is, an anointed leader descending from Israel and another one from Aaron. The New Testament, in turn, refers to a single royal Messiah. Nevertheless the letter to the Hebrews conceives of Jesus as the heavenly high priest (or priestly Messiah), and the Infancy Gospel of Luke, by describing Mary as the kinswoman of Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah, the priest, tacitly insinuates that Jesus descended from a combined Davidic and priestly ancestral line. Once more, Qumran and the New Testament indirectly testify to a joint ideological background.

(e) Organization

Another important aspect of the relationship between the Qumran sect and the early Church concerns their organization and communal life. After their respective leaders had ceased to be among them, the Qumran sect and the Jesus movement, the latter both in Palestine and in the Diaspora, established their own structure and adopted their peculiar way of life. The Dead Sea sectaries, whether the married or the celibate kind, obeyed single local leaders or Guardians and a superior general, the Guardian of all the units. The single heads were aided by other officers and advisers. The nascent Palestinian Christian sect was also headed by apostles and attended by charity workers or deacons, and the Pauline Churches outside Palestine by individual bishops or overseers like Timothy or Titus. Bishop (episkopos) is the Greek-Christian equivalent of the Qumran Guardian or Overseer (mebaqqer). Such a monarchic regime was unusual among Jews; their communities, both in the Holy Land and in the Diaspora, were governed by democratic councils of elders chaired by a president or archisynagogos. It is reasonable to surmise, therefore, that since the Qumran sect was older than the Christian community, the organizers of the latter could be tempted to imitate in setting up their local congregations the already well-established and tried systems flourishing elsewhere in their society, such as the Qumran-Essene congregations of Judaea.

The religious communism, or more precisely, the sharing of all private property, sanctioned by the apostles in the Jerusalem Church of the earliest period, strongly resembles, and possibly copies, the way of life of the ‘monastic’ Qumran brotherhood, though without being accompanied by compulsory celibacy.

And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.

(Acts 2:44–5)

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.

(Acts 4:32)

Although the handing over to the community of privately owned property and money is nowhere said to be compulsory, as it was among the Qumranites who followed the Community Rule, the moral pressure on Church members to conform seems to have been enormous and could lead to deceitful pretence, as described in the anecdote of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11). After selling a plot of land, this couple let it be known that they had given the totality of the proceeds to the apostles, while secretly they kept part of the sum for themselves. Both husband and wife suddenly died one after the other and the tragedy was held to be heavenly punishment for lying to the Holy Spirit. The penalty inflicted on the guilty in the Christian community was incomparably heavier than that awaiting a sectary who ‘lied in matters of property’: the latter was merely excluded from common life for one year during which he was compelled to live on a reduced food ration (1QS 6:24–5). This is not the only example of greater severity in the Church’s treatment of sinners compared to the practice prevailing at Qumran. Sectaries convicted of the greatest sins (rebellion, apostasy, etc.) were simply excommunicated, whereas St Paul condemned the immoral Corinthian Christian, who scandalized everyone by sharing the bed of his father’s wife, to be delivered to Satan ‘for the destruction of the flesh’ (1 Cor. 5:1–5).

(f) Celibacy

A final comparison will be aimed at the practice of celibacy in the ‘monastic’ branch of the Qumran sect and in the teaching of Jesus and Paul. It is generally agreed that, despite the absence of a positive commandment prohibiting marriage, the internal logic of the Community Rule implies that members of the brotherhood subjected themselves to a compulsory and long-lasting celibate existence. On the other hand, since celibacy is nowhere presented positively as a rule, let alone a universal rule, it is not surprising that the Scrolls furnish no explanation or justification for it. Inspired by the customary Jewish male chauvinism, Philo and Josephus attribute Essene renunciation of marriage to the unsuitability of women for communal life, a form of existence, an old-fashioned club life, cherished only by men. It is more likely, however, that the concept of the Community being a spiritual Temple which demanded a constant state of ritual purity on the part of the members was thought to be irreconcilable with a society of married people. If, furthermore, the ‘monastic’ Qumran Community is held to be identical with the Essenes, a sect particularly famous according to Josephus for its practice of prophecy (the forecasting of the future possibly by means of Bible interpretation), abstinence from sex would have been the condition for permanent receptivity to divine communication. According to a Jewish tradition recorded by Philo of Alexandria, Moses, in order to make himself constantly ready for hearing God’s message, had to purge himself of ‘all calls of mortal nature’, including ‘intercourse with women’ (Life of Moses II: 68–9).

In the context of the New Testament, celibacy is nowhere institutionally imposed. Nor is it associated with ritual purity, a subject never considered as of primary importance by Jesus and the Church. As far as Jesus is concerned, he is nowhere said to have had a wife at any time. His bachelor state may be ascribed to his prophetic vocation as well as to the general view that having a wife and children during the end-time hindered total devotion to the cause of the kingdom of God. In the days of the great ultimate tribulation, it was held to be preferable to be without family responsibilities: ‘Alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days’ (Mark 13:17). St Paul, in his lively expectation of the return of Christ, while not actually condemning marriage, advises single Christians to protect their freedom by remaining unattached, thus following his own example. ‘Do we not’ Paul asks, ‘have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles, and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas (=Peter)?’ (1 Cor. 9:5). Peter’s wife is not actually mentioned, but her existence is revealed by Jesus healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law in Capernaum (Mark 1:30– 31). In his turn, Paul recommends that, if possible, a man should not touch a woman and wishes they all were ‘as I myself am’, clearly implying bachelorhood (1 Cor. 7:1, 7). However, until the start of Christian monasticism in the fourth century, the Church did not advocate formally regulated celibate life. In this respect, the Qumran-Essenes were trailblazers. Apart from them and the Therapeutai, their Jewish imitators in Egypt with separate communities recruited from both sexes (see Philo, Contemplative Life), only hermits pursuing a solitary existence in the desert, like Josephus’ temporary teacher, Bannus, and no doubt John the Baptist, opted for the unmarried way of life among Jews in the days of Qumran and the New Testament.

To end this survey with the billion dollar question, if the older Qumran sect influenced the Palestinian Jesus movement in some way, at what level did this influence penetrate the Church? Through John the Baptist? Through Jesus? Through the later Church?

John the Baptist has often been singled out as the most likely link between the Dead Sea Community and Christianity. His ascetic life in the wilderness and his preaching of a baptism of repentance to prepare for the arrival of God’s kingdom neatly place him between sect and Church. If Luke’s Infancy Gospel can be believed, he, like the members of the leading class of Qumran, was of priestly descent. Moreover, both John and the Dead Sea sect were seen as fulfilling the prediction of Isaiah 40:3. The sectaries read the prophetic words as: ‘A voice cries, In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord’, corresponding to a demand for withdrawal to the desert of Judaea for spiritual renewal. The evangelists, in turn, interpreted it as ‘A voice cries in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord’, by which they portrayed John as the herald of Jesus, preaching in the desert of the Jordan valley the imminence of the kingdom of God.

Nevertheless, to someone familiar with the thought of the Dead Sea sect, the similarity between John and Qumran appears superficial and partial. A sectary, who conformed to the basic rules of the Community, would not have been allowed to proclaim his message indiscriminately to Jewish society at large as John did, and would have been restricted to passing on his teaching to the select few of the chosen. If the Baptist was ever a full member of the Qumran-Essene Community, we must suppose that by the time of his public ministry, reported in the Gospels, he was no longer one of them.

Was, then, Jesus the door through which Qumran influence entered Christianity? Despite a few common doctrinal themes, this seems to be most unlikely. The law-centred religion of Qumran is very far from the paramountly eschatological and ethical turn of mind of Jesus. Besides, the prophet from Nazareth who spent most of his active life in Galilee had few opportunities to encounter members of the Qumran sect whose presence in the northern province is nowhere attested.

John the Baptist and Jesus being discounted, the apostolic Church remains the likeliest candidate for borrowing Qumran ideas and introducing them into evolving Christianity. Logically it would make sense for a budding movement to look around and see how similar societies function, especially when the traditions relating to Jesus do not comprise traits that might account for the given features. Thus, since Jesus did not hand over a blueprint for a future Church – the notion of ‘Church’ (ekklesia) with the exception of two inauthentic passages in Matthew (16:18 and 18:17), is characteristically not to be found anywhere in the sayings attributed to Jesus – the system introduced into the life of the early Jerusalem community may have been inspired by the tried and successful Qumran model. The same can be said about the authoritative single-person leadership, say, for example, James, the brother of Jesus in Jerusalem, Paul and his appointees in the Diaspora Churches, that suited the infant communities better than the more flexible and argumentative councils of elders of the Palestinian Jewish communities and the Diaspora synagogues. On the level of religious thought, the Qumran vision of a small ‘remnant’ led to the final realm of God by the Teacher of Righteousness, himself the intermediary of all necessary revelations, was an excellent pattern for Christianity to be copied by the followers of Jesus. As for the Qumran pesher, it pointed the way towards the type of fulfilment exegesis that we find in the works of the evangelists and Paul.

Back in the late 1940s, scholars enthusiastically prophesied that the newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls would transform beyond all recognition our approach to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, as well as our understanding of both Judaism and Christianity. In the light of six decades of intense research, study and thought, the prophecy seems to have come true. Thanks to the manuscripts discovered at Qumran, the study of ancient Judaism and early Christianity has made a giant step forward and has laid solid foundations for future scholarly work in generations to come. We have advanced a great deal, yet in a sense we are just at the beginning of integrating the contribution of the Scrolls to the general canvas of Judaism and Christianity. In an odd way, our task will be finished only when Qumran ceases to be a separate subject, having lost its distinctness in the process of becoming a recognized integral part of the Judaeo-Christian culture.

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