from jesus to christ - the first christians

The Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls

What does the discovery of these scrolls reveal about first century Judaism and the roots of Christianity?


L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


As you leave Jerusalem and go to the south and to the east, toward the Dead Sea, the terrain changes rapidly and starkly. You move off gradually from [the] ... rolling hillside, through the ravines, and it becomes stark and desolate. It's dry. It's arid. It's rocky, and it's rough. And all of a sudden, within a span of only about thirteen miles, the entire terrain drops out in front of you as you go from roughly 3400 feet above sea level at Jerusalem, to nearly 1400 feet below sea level at the surface of the Dead Sea. It is in that rugged cliff face, on the banks of the Dead Sea, in this arid, desolate climate, that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered at the site known as Khirbet Qumran. The Scrolls were discovered, according to the story that, now, many people know, of a shepherd boy wandering along with his flocks and, as boys tend to do, throwing rocks in a cave. So the story goes that he heard a crack in one, went in to investigate and found a ceramic pot with what appeared to be pages inside. Those were then taken out and eventually found their way onto the market, and were only later rediscovered and deciphered as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Subsequent to that first discovery, eleven different caves have been found at Qumran. And new discoveries are expected even now. Among the caves were found, then, thousand of fragments of manuscripts and quite a number of whole, or mostly complete, manuscripts in scrolls stored in these jars. Among the cache of scrolls that we now call the Dead Sea Scrolls, are three distinct types of material. First, we have a collection of copies of the actual books of the Hebrew Scriptures. These people were copyists. They were preserving the texts of the Bible itself. Secondly, there were commentaries on these biblical texts. But these commentaries also show their own interpretation of what would happen. This is where we begin to get some of the insights into the way the Essenes at Qumran believed, because of the way they interpret the prophecies of Isaiah, or the prophesies of Habakkuk as well as the way they read the Torah, itself. So among the scrolls, then, we have a complete set of almost all the biblical books, and commentaries on many of them. "The Isaiah Scroll" is one of the most famous of the biblical manuscripts. And the commentaries on Isaiah is also very important for our understanding of Jewish interpretation of Scripture in this period.

The third major type of material found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, though, in some ways is the most interesting insight into the life of the community that lived there, because this material includes their own sectarian writings, that is, their rules of life ... their prayer book. Included then, is the book of the rule of the community or sometimes called "The Manual of Discipline", which talks about how one goes about getting into the community. The rules for someone who wants to be pure and a part of the elect community. We also have something called "The War Scroll" and the War Scroll seems to be their own battle plan for the war that will occur at the end of the present evil age. And so this is something that really is real in their mind ... that this coming end of the age will be a cataclysmic event in their view. Also was found something called "The Copper Scroll". Quite literally, with the letters incised, in Hebrew, into soft, burnished copper. And the contents of the Copper Scroll are still a source of great interest among many people, because people think it may be a treasure map of their own holdings.

Who were the Essenes?

The Dead Sea Scrolls are usually thought to have been produced by a group known as the Essenes. And the Essenes are a group that literally abandoned Jerusalem, it seems, in protest... against the way the Temple was being run. So here's a group that went out in the desert to prepare the way of the Lord, following the commands, as they saw it, of the prophet Isaiah. And they go to the desert to get away from what they see to be the worldliness of Jerusalem and the worldliness of the Temple. Now the Essenes aren't a new group in Jesus' day. They too, had been around for a hundred years at that point in time. But it would appear that the reign of Herod, and probably even more so, the reign of his sons and the Roman Procurators, probably stimulated a new phase of life of the Essene community, rising as a growing protest against Roman rule and worldliness.

You said they were preparing the way for the Lord. What exactly were the Essenes preparing for in their mind?

The Essenes are what we might best call an apocalyptic sect of Judaism. An apocalyptic sect is one that thinks of itself as, first of all, the true form of their religion. In fact, that's part of their terminology. Again, using the prophet Isaiah, they think of themselves as the righteous remnant ... the chosen ones ... the elect. But they're also standing over against the mainstream ... most of Jewish life, and especially everything going on at Jerusalem. So they're sectarian. They're separatists. They're people who move away.

The basis for that understanding is their reading of Scripture. They interpret Scripture, especially the prophets, Isaiah, the Torah itself, to suggest that the course of Judaism is going through a profound change. "Far too many people are becoming worldly," they would have said. The end, as they understood it, of the present evil age is moving upon them inexorably. And they want to be on the right side when it comes. In their understanding, there will come a day when the Lord revisits the Earth with power. And in the process establishes a new kingdom for Judaism. It will be like the kingdom of David and Solomon. A return to the golden age mentality. And this is part of that apocalyptic mind set.

...The Dead Sea Scrolls show us a lot about the beliefs of the Essenes. Now, we typically think of this language of the coming kingdom as reflecting a belief in the end of the world ... as somehow coming upon them or us soon. But in fact, that's not exactly what they thought. They use language like "the end" or "the last things" or "the last days", but what they mean is the present evil age is coming to an end. Now this "end time" language is what we typically call "the eschaton" or "eschatology" ... thinking about the end. But in Jewish eschatology of this period, what they usually seem to be talking about is an end of a present evil age and a coming new glorious age ... a new kingdom.

The Essenes had an apocalyptic point of view, and they believed in a new kingdom of some kind coming; would this necessarily bring a new Messiah with it?

The idea that the coming kingdom is always to be accompanied by a Messianic figure is not entirely accurate for Judaism in this period. We hear of some groups, for example, who expect the coming change, but never mention a Messiah, or a Messianic figure at all, either as a deliverer figure, or as some sort of heavenly agent. So some forms of Judaism in this period don't ever talk about a Messiah. At Qumran, on the other hand, among the Dead Sea Scrolls, we hear not of just one Messiah, but at least two Messiahs. Some of their writings talk about a Messiah of David that is a kind of kingly figure who will come to lead the war. But there's also a Messiah of Aaron, a priestly figure, who will come to restore the Temple at Jerusalem to its proper purity and worship of God. In addition to these two major Messianic figures, we also hear of a prophet figure.

And in terms of the quest for the historical Jesus, what does the story of the Essenes tell us? What light does it cast on his life and times?

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and our growing knowledge of the Essene community that produced them, gives us one of the most important pieces of evidence for the diversity of Jewish life and thought in the time of Jesus. Now, it has sometimes been suggested that Jesus, himself, or maybe even John the Baptist, were members of this group. And that can't be proven at all. But what the Essenes and the Qumran scrolls do show us is the kind of challenges that could be brought against some of the traditional lines of Jewish thought, and even the operation of the Temple itself. So if one of our perspectives is that there is this growing tension in Jerusalem, the Essenes are probably the best example of how radical that questioning of Temple life might become.

Shaye I.D. Cohen:

Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University

Who were the Essenes?

A good example of a group which separated itself from society at large and defined itself against the Temple in Jerusalem are the Essenes, or perhaps you might say, the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Dead Sea community, whom most scholars regard as Essenes. Here is a group of people who left Jerusalem, went to live in the wilderness, to live by themselves, totally isolated from other Jews, from the rest of the community, and as their Scrolls reveal, saw themselves as the new sacred community, waiting for the time, when ... they imagine that the Temple would be reconstituted and reconstructed and rebuilt.... and a new and better priestly group would take over the Temple in Jerusalem. And, in the meantime, while the wicked priests are still off in Jerusalem, following the wrong calendar, following the wrong purity rules and officiating improperly before the Lord, in the meantime, pure purity and true holiness resided only among themselves, in their own community, off near the Dead Sea.... The community itself was a surrogate temple....

The manuscripts that we call the Dead Sea Scrolls are a wide variety of texts. Some of these texts are hardly sectarian texts. These are texts that all Jews would have had, all Jews would have read. For example, the largest single category of Dead Sea text or Qumran Scrolls are text you and I call Biblical. No one is going to say the Book of Genesis was a Qumran document because fragments of the Book of Genesis were found in the Qumran scrolls.... We have to realize then that the Qumran scrolls contain a wide variety of text and we are not always able to distinguish clearly those texts which they simply read from those texts, which they actually wrote.


What was their expectation of what would happen?

The Qumran Scrolls reveal a variety of scenarios for the end of days. The most conspicuous one or the best known one perhaps, is the scroll called the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness. Where the Sons of Light, of course, is short-[hand]... for themselves. The group itself clearly consists of the Sons of Light... the Sons of Darkness are everybody else, apparently - Jews, gentiles, priests, plain people, all alike, lumped together, under the category of the Sons of Darkness, and at some point there will be a major battle, a cataclysmic struggle, not just between people, not just between the bad guys and the good guys, as we would say in America, but also between cosmic forces, the cosmic forces of evil and the cosmic forces of good. And, in this gigantic struggle, the angels will fight along side the Sons of Light, against the Sons of Darkness and the forces of evil. And, needless to say, this will end with a victory for the Sons of Light.... What will happen after the victory, the Scroll does not clearly spell out as carefully as or clearly as we might have liked. Other scrolls have different scenarios or different pictures, which downplay or minimize this battle aspect and play up instead other aspects.


What does the book or scroll of Community Rules tell us about the way that people of this community actually lived their lives?

The Manual of Discipline is a text that envisions a community living in almost total isolation, a community that is self-contained, that is governed very strictly by a Board of Governors, or a series of overlapping authorities, governing community in which everybody owes obedience to their superiors. There's an oath of entry; it is a very much monastic community, for want of the better word, a community with little or no private property. That point is debated in the text but it seems at least that you surrendered if not all, then at least some of your property to the kind of community pot; in turn, then, the community would look out for you and look after you. So, it is very much a community where the individual has somehow been merged into a communal group.... Like a monastic community, there is no private property and, most striking of all, there are no women, and as a result, there are few children. It is a group almost exclusively consisting of adult males, who are to spend their life following the rules of the group and acting out the theological principles and beliefs of the group....


[What is the significance of the Qumran Scrolls?]

Even before the Qumran Scrolls were discovered, we knew that Judaism in the time of Jesus was a very diverse phenomena. After all, the Jewish historian Josephus gives us the names of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. We know from the New Testament of a group called Herodians - what they are exactly, we don't know, but there they are. Rabbinic texts add the names of yet other groups and then once the war comes around, in the year 66, we have the names of a whole slew of other groups.... Plus, we have a very wide ranging rich literature from this period which is impossible to imagine all coming from a single source, or all coming from a single school or a single class. The result was, even before the Qumran Scrolls were discovered, we knew or sensed that Judaism in the 1st century of our era was a very rich and varied phenomena. What the Qumran Scrolls do is to demonstrate clearly and unambiguously the truth of that which we always somehow felt or intuited....

The Qumran Scrolls show us the existence of a sect, a group that has separated itself from society at large, a group that defines itself against the Temple, the single central institution of Judaism..., and sees itself as the repository of everything that is sacred and true and sees all other Jews out there, including the priests, as wrong at best and at worst, irredeemably wicked. That is something which we had never previously seen....

The Qumran Scrolls also reveal a whole range of new books which we previously had not known, or had known about only in fragments or only in quotations, or perhaps in corrupted versions. We now have the original text. We have now a rich library of text showing that diversity was even greater than we had ever imagined and the range of possibilities for 1st century Judaism was far bigger than any of us had ever suspected.

More about the Dead Sea Scrolls: an excerpt from Hershel Shanks' forthcoming book The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls; translations of the Community Rule and the War Scroll, with commentary by Michael Wise; and Scrolls from the Dead Sea, an on-line exibit of the scrolls from the Library of Congress.

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published april 1998

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