from jesus to christ - the first christians

The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls

This is the introduction from noted scholar Hershel Shanks' book (Random House April 1998), an illuminating and readable background summary on the scrolls.


Half a century has now passed since a bedouin shepherd discovered a long-hidden cache of scrolls in a cave in cliffs above the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. The details of that initial discovery will probably never be known with certainty. Who found the scrolls, how, under precisely what conditions - such questions are by this time shrouded in mystery. Even the date is uncertain; the 1930s, 1942, and 1945 have all been suggested as alternatives to the generally accepted date of 1947, probably February of that year. What is not in doubt, however, is the age of the scrolls themselves. They date to the time of Jesus and shortly before.

Between the early I950's and 1956, archaeologists and bedouin vied with one another to find more scrolls, and eventually a library of over eight hundred different manuscripts was recovered. The bedouin were the clear victors in this quest. In one case, the bedouin explored the richest cave, now known as Cave 4, right under the noses of archaeologists who were excavating the nearby ruins of a site called Qumran, hoping to learn more about the scrolls from this ancient settlement as it emerged from the sand.

Of the eight hundred manuscripts, fewer than a dozen were in any sense intact. The rest were mere fragments--about twenty-five thousand of them--many no bigger than a fingernail. Acquiring these fragments from the bedouin turned out to be more complicated than acquiring the intact scrolls from the initial cache. Yet it was critical that all these fragments end up in the same place to assure that each manuscript could be maximally reconstructed. An arrangement was worked out between the authorities and a Bethlehem antiquities dealer nicknamed Kando, who had become the middleman for the bedouin, to purchase their finds. In this way, all the fragments were eventually acquired by what was then the Palestine Archaeological Museum in Jordanian-controlled east Jerusalem.

Beginning in 1953, an international team of young scholars was assembled in Jerusalem under Jordanian auspices to sort out these thousands of fragments. Most of the seven-man team, which included no Jews, were Catholic priests. In retrospect their accomplishments were remarkable. While the task of identifying fragments will never be completed (even today new pieces are being fit into the puzzles), by 1960 this team of scholars had not only identified the pieces of the eight hundred documents and arranged them as well as they could, they had also deciphered and transcribed them so that they could be easily read.

Meanwhile, by 1958 Israeli and American scholars had published the seven intact scrolls from the initial cache.

Most of the intact scrolls were easily readable by anyone who knew Hebrew or, in one case, Aramaic. The fragmentary scrolls, however, presented a more difficult problem. These too were mostly Hebrew, though some 25 percent were in Aramaic, a closely related Semitic language that was the vernacular in Palestine at the time of Jesus. But, on average, about 90 percent of each of these documents was missing and there were few obvious fragment joins. Letters were frequently dim and uncertain. That the scroll team was able to produce transcripts of these fragments, with some reconstructions of missing parts, in so short a time is an enormous scholarly accomplishment.

By 1960 the contents of the collection were reasonably clear. More than two hundred Dead Sea documents were books of the Hebrew Bible. These varied in size from a tiny scrap to a complete book of the prophet Isaiah. Other manuscripts were nonbiblical books, known from later medieval copies, such as Jubilees and Enoch. In the case of such texts, the Dead Sea Scroll fragments could be reconstructed relatively easily since the later copy formed a template into which the fragments could be fit.

But hundreds of Dead Sea documents were completely unknown. It is these that proved most fascinating, both to scholars and to the public. Most of the documents were written on either goatskin or sheepskin. A few were on papyrus. One especially intriguing intact scroll engraved on copper sheeting identified over sixty sites of buried treasure. The various texts were bewildering--previously unknown psalms, Bible commentaries, calendrical texts, mystical texts, apocalyptic texts, liturgical texts, purity laws, Rabbinic-like expansions of biblical stories, and on and on. How to make sense of it all?

From the outset it seemed clear that some of the scrolls reflected the views of a distinct Jewish sect, which scholars soon identified as the Essenes, an obscure Jewish movement described in some detail by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. In recent years, however, the Essene hypothesis has been increasingly questioned, as we shall see.

Another aspect of the scrolls proved more sensational: In many respects the published scrolls seemed to mimic Christian doctrine--though most of them dated to a time before the Christian era. Was Jesus to be found in the scrolls? Was Christian doctrine, long thought to be unique, foreshadowed by the scrolls?

It was such questions as these that aroused--and continue to arouse--wide public interest in the scrolls. The French scholar Andre Dupont-Sommer, who was not a member of the scroll publication team, sought to draw a direct line between the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran and Christianity, arguing that Jesus was prefigured by a character in the scrolls known as the Teacher of Righteousness. In a now-famous passage, Dupont-Sommer wrote:

The Galilean Master . . . appears in many respects as an astonishing reincarnation of [the Teacher of Righteotlsness in the scrolls]. Like the latter, He preached penitence, poverty, humility, love of one's neighbor, chastity. Like him, He prescribed the observance of the law of Moses, the whole Law, but the Law finished and perfected, thanks to His own revelations. Like him, He was the Elect and Messiah of God, the Messiah redeemer of the world. Like him, He was the object of the hostility of the priests.... Like him He was condemned and put to death. Like him He pronounced judgment on Jerusalem, which was taken and destroyed by the Romans for having put Him to death. Like him, at the end of time, He will be the supreme judge. Like him, He founded a Church whose adherents fervently awaited his glorious return.

Dupont-Sommer greatly influenced the prominent American literary critic Edmund Wilson, who wrote a best-selling book on the scrolls, reprinted from a series of articles that appeared in The New Yorker from 1951 to 1954. Wilson, following Dupont-Sommer, claimed that the Qumran sect and early Christianity were "successive phases of a [single] movement." Wilson drew out the implications of Dupont-Sommer's position:

The monastery [at Qumran], this structure of stone that endures, between the waters and precipitous cliffs, with its oven and its inkwells, its mill and its cesspool, its constellations of sacred fonts and the unadorned graves of its dead, is perhaps, more than Bethlehem or Nazareth, the cradle of Christianity.

This position was given credibility by factors entirely unrelated to the content of the scrolls themselves. The publication team, was largely Catholic, indeed largely Catholic priests, and, foolishly, they refused to release the texts of the unpublished fragmentary scrolls. This decision, understandably, led to accusations that the unpublished scrolls were being withheld because they undermined Christian faith. Ultimately the refusal to release the scrolls resulted, in the words of Geza Vermes, a distinguished commentator on the scrolls, in "the academic scandal par excellence of the twentieth century. "

In 1991, after considerable struggle, as we shall see, the hitherto secret texts finally became available to all scholars. Since then scroll scholarsllip has burgeoned. It is now possible to attempt an assessment, which provides the occasion for this book: What do the scrolls tell us about the period from which both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism emerged?

It is clear that the scrolls have not fulfilled the extravagant expectations that their discovery first aroused. Dupont-Sommer was wrong. Jesus is not in the scrolls. Nor is the uniqueness of Christianity in doubt. But the scrolls do tell us a great deal that we had not previously known about the situation of Judaism at the dawn of Christianity.

The scrolls also tell us much about Judaism at the time the Temple still stood in Jerusalem and about the roots of Rabbinic Judaism, the direct ancestor of all major Jewish denominations today, which emerged after the Romans destroyed the Temple.

Finally, the scrolls tell us about the Bible before the authoritative canon was established in the second century A.D., at a time when different versions of the biblical books circulated within the Jewish world.

The scrolls thus provide a unique insight into a religious culture at a time of unparalleled religious as well as social ferment. The earliest of the scrolls dates to about 250 B.C.; the latest to 68 A.D., when the conquering Romans destroyed Qumran on their way to Jerusalem, which they burned a bare two years later, effectively ending the First Jewish Revolt against Rome.

In 332 B.C. Alexander the Great defeated Persia and conquered Judea. Thus began a process of Hellenization that would profoundly affect all aspects ofJewish culture. Greek cities were established in Palestine (Jerusalem itself became a pollis in 175 B.C.); Greek temples were built and dedicated to non-Jewish deities; Greek was soon spoken througllout the Jewish world, along with the vernacular Aramaic and the increasingly less frequent Hebrew.

Upon the death of Alexander in 323 B.C., his empire split into two major parts: the Seleucids in Syria to the north and the Ptolemies in Egypt to the south. During the third century B.C. the Seleucids and the Ptolemies fought no fewer than five major wars, with Judea as a battleground and a prize.

During this period in Judea, social tensions heightened--between the Hellenizers, who introduced Greek ideas and customs, and those traditionally inclined Jews who opposed Greek influence, between the sophisticated cities and the conservative villages, between urban aristocrats and rural farmers, and between rich and poor. Many Jews found their faith and the continuity of their world threatened by these Greek intrusions. The book of Ecclesiastes, with its theological skepticism and occasional praise of reckless hedonism, is an example of the profound effect this new culture had on traditional religious commitment.

In about 175 B.C. Jason--who had Hellenized his Hebrew name, Joshua--bribed the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV to depose his brother and in his place appoint Jason to the office of high priest in Jerusalem. In gratitude, Jason briefly changed the name of Jerusalem to Antiochia and erected a gymnasium in the capital, where Greek sports were played and Greek philosophy was taught. Josephus reports that Jason "at once shifted his countrymen over to the Greek way of life."

Later Antiochus issued a decree banning circumcision, religious study, and observance of festivals and the Sabbath, and forced Jews to worship his gods and to eat forbidden foods.

Such radical Hellenization inevitably brought on the Maccabean revolt, giving birth to the Hasmonean dynasty of Jewish kings and high priests (142-37 B.C.). What began as an anti-Hellenistic revolt, however, soon turned into a pro-Hellenistic dynasty. Political intrigue was rife among the Hasmoneans and the highest political authority (the king) was soon combined with the highest religious authority (the high priest). Religious schisms widened and antagonistic religious parties vied with one another. On the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), which is celebrated with palm branches and a lemon-like fruit called etrog the populace threw their etrogim at the high priest. In a civil war during the early years of the first century B.C., dissident ]ews joined the Syrian king Demetrius III in an attack on Jerusalem, while the Jewish king Alexander Yannai (Jannaeus) hired Syrian mercenaries to defend the city. Yannai crucified eight hundred of his subjects for supporting his enimies.

For the elite, whose elaborate tombs and elegant mansions have been discovered in Jerusalem, this was nevertheless a prosperous time. In the prime residential section of Jerusalem, Nahman Avigad of Hebrew University has recovered not only their opulent residences, including beautifully paved ritual baths, but also their hncy dinnerware and costly furniture.

In the mid-second century B.C., however, a small group of Jews, perhaps offended by the rampant materialism they saw all about them, perhaps distressed by the degradation of the priestly class, which had merged with the Jerusalem aristocracy, moved into the Judean desert to live in isolation. They settled at a place now called Qumran. Who these people were will be a major subject of this book. If in fact they were the keepers of the scrolls that were later found in this area, their leader held the title Teacher of Righteousness. It is clear that they rejected the Jerusalem Temple or at least its priesthood.

At about the same time, other Jewish religious groups or sects were emerging. Of these, the Pharisees are the best known. To them are attributed the sources of the Oral Law--the Talmud of the later sages--that formed the basis of Rabbinic Judaism, the post-Exilic Judaism that spread throughout the diaspora after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the later expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem.

The second major grouping, the Sadducees (Tsadukim), claimed to be descended from Zadok (Tsadok), the original Solomonic high priest. On this descent rested much of their claim to power; although they objected to the usurpation of the high priesthood by non-Zadokites, they nevertheless often aligned themselves with Hellenistic Hasmoneans.

A third, much smaller, group was the Essenes. They too objected to the non-Zadokite usurpation of the priesthood, but they were far more rigid in their adherence to and strict interpretation of religious law and less willing to adjust to the political realities of Hasmonean rule than were the Sadducees. Even the Essenes, however, could not entirely escape Hellenistic influences--for example, in the dualism (characterized by contrasting forces, such as good and evil, that control the world) that often permeates their religious writings.

While these were the major groupings, there were many others about whom we know far less and doubtless still others who have left no trace in the historical record.

In the mid-sixties B.C., two royal Hasmonean sons engaged in a fratricidal war for the throne. One of these sons sought Roman help, and in 63 B.C. the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem, effectively ending Jewish sovereignty, although Hasmonean rulers continued at least nominally to sit on the throne of a truncated kingdom for another quarter century.

Then, in 40 B.C., Parthians from the east invaded Judea, wresting it from the Romans and appointing the last Hasmonean ruler (Mattathias Antigonus). At the time of the Parthian invasion, Herod, a Jew of Idumean and Nabatean lineage, subsequently known as Herod the Great, was serving as a Roman procurator. He promptly went to Rome to convince the Roman senate that only he could restore Roman rule. In 37 B.C. Herod led an army against the Parthians and after a bitter fight reconquered Jerusalem.

For thirty-three years he ruled Judea, as a Roman vassal. That he was hated by his Jewish subjects is well known. The Jewish historian Josephus tells of Herod's plan to have the leading men of Judea murdered at the time of his own death because he feared that otherwise his funeral might be an occasion for general rejoicing. Without question, Herod exercised his power through terror and brutality, but a further reason for his unpopularity was his violation of traditional Jewish law. He built numerous pagan temples and even staged gladiatorial contests in Jerusalem. However, he also rebuilt the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem on so grand a scale that it far eclipsed the original building constructed a millennium earlier by King Solomon.

After Herod's death, in 4 B.C., social unrest became more open. Although Jewish client-kings of the Herodian dynasty pretended to govern a truncated Judea, brigands often ruled the countryside, and the Romans assumed more and more direct power. Riots were not uncommon, leading eventually to the outbreak of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, which began in 66 A.D. and effectively ended in 70 A.D., when the Romans burned Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.

Judaism during this period has been described as "remarkably variegated." Some scholars have gone so far as to talk about Judaisms, rather than one Judaism. In those insecure times the traditional Judaism, centered in Temple sacrifice, was widely considered by Jews themselves inadequate to the stormy present. So, along with institutions like the synagogue, which would replace the Temple and become the focus of Jewish life thereafter, we also see the development of expectations of the end of time, of heavenly visions, of life after death, of resurrection of the dead, of apocalypses (revelations) where good and evil were to face each other in a final cosmic battle, and of messianic deliverers.

This, in brief, was the world implicitly addressed by the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Use of this excerpt from The Meaning and Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Hershel Shanks may be made only for the purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright: Copyright 1998 by Hershel Shanks.

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
teachers' guide . viewers' guide . press reaction .  tapes, transcripts & events

published april 1998

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation