Desperate Measures Mar Samuel was desperate. As discussed in the previous part of this series, he had been the head of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem and the initial buyer of four of the first Scrolls to be discovered. He’d then emigrated to America in the early 1950s to assume leadership of the local branch, and he needed to raise funds quickly. He decided to sell these Scrolls and on June 1, 1954, he placed a “For Sale” notice in the Wall Street Journal, inviting expressions of interest in “Four Dead Sea Scrolls … an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution. Box F206”.
The Shrine of the Book Coincidentally, this advertisement came to the notice of Yigael Yadin, the son of Eliezer Sukenik, who had just recently died. Yadin was an ex-Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Forces, who had retired, gained his PhD in archaeology at Hebrew University with a thesis on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and was then in America on a lecture tour. Working through a middleman, Yadin raised $250,000 (about $2.4 million in present value) and bought the four Scrolls, which were then sent back to Israel. Together with the three Scrolls purchased earlier by Yadin’s father, they formed the core of the collection of Scrolls in what is now the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.
Part One of this series can be read here
The Temple Scroll These Scrolls were later joined in dramatic circumstances by the Temple Scroll. This had been kept hidden away by the antiquities dealer Kando, who had become quite wealthy selling Scrolls material he bought from the Bedouin who were ransacking the Qumran region looking for further riches. In the 1960s he began to use a middleman in America to indicate to interested parties that there were valuable Scrolls still available—for a price. Yadin began to negotiate with the middleman and lost a $10,000 deposit on a Scroll purchase that never eventuated. Members of the International Team also became involved but they also got the runaround, while the quoted price kept rising. After several years of this, it became obvious that Kando was playing the prospective purchasers off against each other, seeking a stupendous multi-million-dollar price for the still unidentified Scroll.
The Spoils of War However, June 1967 brought the Six-Day War, in which Israel defeated the combined forces of Jordan, Syria and Egypt. This left Israeli forces in charge of the West Bank, and Yadin arranged for a team of persuasive intelligence officers to visit Kando in Bethlehem, go with him to his shop in Jerusalem, and then arrange a stay for him in a safe house in Tel Aviv. Kando insisted he knew nothing about any Scroll but after several days of “negotiations” he took the officers back to his home where he revealed a specially constructed concrete compartment in the floor, from which he retrieved what was to become famous as the Temple Scroll. It had been discovered years before by the Bedouin who had sold it for a pittance to Kando, who hoarded it while pushing up the price. The Scroll was released to the world ten years later in 1977 along with a long commentary by Yadin. Apparently, Kando was later paid several hundred thousand dollars for his trouble.
Significance At nine metres, the Temple Scroll is the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It reveals a great deal about the utopian worldview of sectarian Second Temple Judaism. Composed in the second century BC in the form of a first-person revelation from God to Moses, it consolidates all the Mosaic Law and carefully describes an idealised version of the first Jerusalem Temple as God would have had it built by Solomon three millennia ago. The vision of the Temple it offers is astounding. If constructed, it would be enormous: 1600 cubits (about 750 metres) square, compared to Solomon’s actual Temple which was only sixty cubits. A Temple this size would have covered about sixty-five hectares—virtually the size of the whole of Jerusalem in the Maccabean period. (Even this would be dwarfed by the “New Jerusalem” prophesied in the New Testament Book of Revelation. This was to be a gargantuan cube, 2400 kilometres on each side!)
Utopian Vision The Scroll also includes divinely-mandated detailed regulations about sacrifices and temple practices, including exceptionally strict and comprehensive purity laws required to preserve the sanctity of the Temple, along with regulations for festivals, vows, oaths, apostasy, crime, the conduct of war, and the proper behaviour for a righteous king of Israel. Overall, the Temple Scroll offers a utopian, theocratic vision of an ideal Jewish state to be implemented in a future Messianic Age, one that was felt to be approaching in Judaea (and echoed in Revelation). It would have served as a powerful ideological blueprint for a radical Jewish movement intent on rebellion—perhaps for the Essenes, but certainly for the Zealots, Sicarii, and the proponents of the mysterious “Fourth Philosophy” as they formulated their plans for the war that would bring their theocratic utopia to fruition.
The War Scroll And this brings us back to the War Scroll, one of the very first Scrolls discovered in Cave 1. Properly called the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, it’s both a theological declaration of cosmic conflict and a detailed manual of military strategy for the conduct of revolutionary warfare. In an apocalyptic scenario, it depicts a cataclysmic war conducted by the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness—that is, war against the Roman Empire and the entire gentile world: Greek traders and settlers, Hellenised merchants and money men, traitorous priests, backsliding Jews, quisling collaborators, and all the other hosts of Belial are to be destroyed.
Apocalyptic Worldview Such a scenario must be seen in the context of what Brad Ehrman, in The Triumph of Christianity (2018), calls:
the apocalyptic worldview that had developed toward the very end of [the Second Temple period]. This maintained that the world was not under direct divine control. For unknown reasons, God had ceded control to cosmic powers aligned against Him, who were responsible for all the pain, misery, and suffering experienced in the present. But God was soon to intervene to destroy these powers of evil and bring in a good kingdom in which his people would live a utopian existence.
Michael & Belial As the Scroll makes clear, the Sons of Light and the angelic armies beside them will be led by the archangel Michael, while the Sons of Darkness will be joined by Belial and his demonic forces. Belial is a Satan-like figure who rules the present world of corruption: “in darkness is his domain, his counsel is to bring about wickedness and guilt. All the spirits of his lot are angels of destruction, they walk in the laws of darkness; towards it goes their only desire.” The proper domain for this “angel of enmity” is the Pit of Hell, just as Satan is to be thrown down into the Pit after the climactic battle in Revelation 20:2–3. Belial is accursed by God and the very existence of him and the minions through whom he rules the world is explicable only as one of God’s great mysteries. He represents the antithesis of the good, divinely ordered world that God intended for his people.
Call to Battle And now the time of reckoning has arrived, and the Sons of Light are called to do battle with Belial in what the Scroll foresees as an utterly horrendous conflict (as N.A. Silberman describes in The Hidden Scrolls, 1994):
God had decreed that there would soon be a Day of Vengeance, and nothing—neither the tortured screams of the dying nor the sickening gore of bloody, hacked bodies—would deter the Sons of Light from fulfilling their God-given destiny.
The war will span forty years, ultimately involving hosts of angels and demons, and will be finally decided in the last moment of crisis by “the great hand of God”, as the Sons of Darkness are hacked down and their bodies left for the vultures while the Children of Light will inherit the earth and live in peace for eternity.
Armageddon This cataclysmic scenario is prophetic of Jewish history between 66 AD and 135 AD, a period of deadly conflict during which Revelation was composed (c. 95 AD). Like the War Scroll, Revelation describes in detail the final battle of Armageddon, which is decided when Jesus Christ appears, “clothed in a robe dipped in blood” leading the heavenly hosts to vanquish Satan and his minions, just as Belial is vanquished in the War Scroll.
Dating These are awesome visions of almost unimaginable conflict (the details of which we won’t go into here). A great deal therefore hinges on the dating of this Scroll. Indeed, its dating could decide the otherwise endless controversy between the Consensus and Dissident theories about the Scrolls and the Qumran Community. Two main time periods have been proposed by scholars for the production of the War Scroll, periods of great violence: the Maccabean period, or the era of Roman domination.
(1) Maccabean Period In the Maccabean era it could relate to several periods of conflict—perhaps the very beginning of the Revolt (c. 165 BC), or perhaps later, during the reign of John Hyrcanus (135–104 BC). This would indicate that the enemy—“the Sons of Darkness”—was the Seleucid empire, with whom Judaea was at war at these times. Such conflict was dreadful, but it didn’t approach the intensity of warfare in the later period. Neither could the Seleucids be characterised as dominating the entire earth, as they are in the War Scroll.
(2) Roman Period So, alternatively, it could have been composed during the Roman era, between the middle of the first century BC and the first half of the first century AD. The latter dating would mean the Scroll was composed immediately before or even during the lifetime of Jesus and the birth of Early Christianity. Overall, this dating seems more likely, as the Scroll depicts the enemy, the Kittim, as the rulers of the entire world, as Rome would have appeared, and whose defeat would require a massive war. It also references their “king” (emperor), which indicates a time in the early first century AD when the Roman republic became the Roman empire. Such a date puts the composition of the War Scroll with its apocalyptic concerns, expectations and hopes squarely around the start of the Early Christian era.
Apocalypse & Shadows And so, overall, it seems these Scrolls present us with a manifesto of an ideal theocratic utopia, a paradise on earth to be won in a cataclysmic war of Light against Darkness/Good against Evil. They also offer a manual of revolutionary warfare to guide the forces of Light in this great Cosmic War. Meanwhile, in the background there are several very significant figures—the Teacher of Righteousness, the Wicked Priest, the Man of Lies—all of whom seem to play a leading role in this apocalyptic scenario. These appear today as mere shadows, but their once titanic presence emerges clearly from the Scrolls. It seems the central role was played by the divinely inspired Teacher, who alone was believed to hold the key to unlocking the prophecies that revealed the future of God’s People. In exploring the Scrolls to illuminate the foundations of Judaism and Christianity, a great deal hinges on who the Teacher was, when he lived, and how he died, all questions that the keepers of historical and theological orthodoxy needed desperately to suppress.
A Scrolls Conspiracy What may be called the “Scrolls Conspiracy” was implemented early on. After all the manoeuvring described in the previous article, by 1954 there were two separate teams working on the Scrolls, with virtually no contact between them. In West Jerusalem (in Israeli territory) there were the Israelis dealing with the Scrolls acquired by Sukenik and Yadin; in East Jerusalem (in Jordanian territory) there was the team operating under the direction of Father de Vaux. Neither group knew clearly what material the other possessed or what they were doing with it; they could only communicate through middlemen; and the only intelligence they could garner about each other’s activities was via the occasional mention of their work in an academic journal. It seemed the ideal arrangement had been created to ensure that the Scrolls sank into academic and bureaucratic inertia and obscurity, along with any dangerous information they might contain.
Edmund Wilson However, while the academics and bureaucrats were monopolising the research and (non-)publication agenda set by de Vaux, the literate public had begun to pay attention to the Dead Sea discoveries, and their apparently revolutionary implications. One of the people this attracted was Edmund Wilson, the most prominent author and literary critic in mid-century America. He read all the available Scrolls and secondary literature, travelled to Israel and Jordan, interviewed all the major players in the unfolding drama, and in 1955 published an extended article about the Scrolls for the New Yorker. This was immediately turned into a best-selling book: The Scrolls from the Dead Sea (1955). Regarded as the most popular and influential book on the Qumran discoveries, it was subsequently doubled in length for the next dozen editions and printings. It became a standard general popular text about the Scrolls until the 1970s and shaped much of the general view of them, especially where this concerned their connection to the origins of Christianity.
“The Cradle of Christianity” Wilson felt no need to corroborate de Vaux’s emerging “Consensus View” about the nature and history of the Scrolls—that they were the product of a harmless second-century and first-century BC Jewish monastic community divorced from the political, cultural and religious chaos surrounding them. Instead, right from the outset, Wilson set the action in the first century AD and he called out de Vaux and the International Team for what he saw as an untenable attempt to distance the Scrolls from any association with Early Christianity, an association he believed was glaringly obvious. Indeed, he felt compelled to announce a revolutionary verdict:
If we look at Jesus in the perspective supplied by the Scrolls we can trace a new continuity and get some sense of the drama that culminated in Christianity. [Qumran] is perhaps, more than Bethlehem or Nazareth, the cradle of Christianity.
By the mid-1950s the public was being told that some ruins in the Judaean desert near the Dead Sea were the “Cradle of Christianity”.
Scholarly Boycott It was not surprising, Wilson observed, that establishment “New Testament scholars have … boycotted the whole subject of the Scrolls”. This boycott was led by “liberal scholars”—historians and theologians committed to the “quest for the historical Jesus”. These scholars had sought to debunk the spiritual status of Jesus and were convinced that his teachings were not original with him but were “really formulated several generations after his death”. The last thing they wanted to hear was that they were in fact derived from Jewish teachings from the century before the Crucifixion. Meanwhile, “the scholars who have been working on the Scrolls—so many of whom have taken Christian orders—may have been inhibited in dealing with such questions by their religious commitments”. Overall, Wilson reported widespread “nervousness [and] a reluctance to take hold of the subject and place it in historical perspective”. He said there was clearly a fear among these scholars that the story emerging from Scrolls would undermine “the uniqueness of Christ”.
First Revolutionaries In addition to alerting the world to the potentially scandalous implications of the Scrolls, Wilson gave the entire controversy a radical political edge, and promoted perhaps the most influential “re-visioning” of Jesus of the twentieth century, casting him as an iconic anti-establishment revolutionary. Wilson had recently written a best-selling history of communism, To the Finland Station, focusing on Marx, Lenin and the Russian Revolution, and he now drew a direct link between the ideology of the Scrolls and the Jesus Movement, and the revolutionary movements of the twentieth century. He portrayed the Qumran community and the Scrolls as “a revolutionary spiritual development”, rebelling against the political and religious oppression imposed by the wicked and greedy Roman imperialists and the “ossified religious establishment in Jerusalem”.
Shadowy Figures Addressing the subject of Jesus, Wilson was complementing other controversial conjectures put forward in the early 1950s. These concerned two shadowy figures we’ve already discussed, both of whom have been at the centre of controversy since the Scrolls were discovered. For example, in a series of articles in the Journal of Jewish Studies the Cambridge scholar Jacob Teicher addressed the identity of the two hitherto unknown figures: “the Teacher of Righteousness” and “the Wicked Priest”. According to Teicher, these were Jesus and St Paul, respectively, and they had been locked in a titanic battle for the future of the nascent Jesus Movement that had emerged in the middle of the first century AD. Similarly, in The Jewish Sect of Qumran and the Essenes (1950), Andre Dupont-Sommer, Professor of Semitic Language and Civilisation at the Sorbonne, discussed the Damascus Document and the Pesher Habakkuk, pointing out references to this “Teacher of Righteousness” that made him sound very familiar. This figure “preached penitence, poverty, humility, chastity, and love of one’s brother; received direct revelations from God; was persecuted and put to death by the priestly establishment; and … was expected to return to earth as a messianic figure at the End of Days”. The implication seemed clear: this was Jesus, a suggestion that provoked vigorous rejection from Church authorities, as we’ll see.
The Teacher of Righteousness In fact, whoever he was, the Teacher is the key figure, both in the Scrolls and in most of the dissident interpretations of them. His supreme status is made clear in the Habakkuk Pesher, the Scroll commentary on the Old Testament prophet: there it was declared that it was to the Teacher alone that “God made known all the mysteries of the words of his servants, the prophets.” This was a revolutionary development in Second Temple Judaism; it had been conventional wisdom that the “Age of Prophecy” in Judaism came to an end with Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi around the sixth century BC, after which “the Shekinah (the presence of God) departed from Israel”. Now it seemed that, for the Qumran Community and others, this presence had returned and the time of prophecy had resumed.
The Rebirth of Prophecy Moreover, the Teacher of Righteousness is credited in the Scrolls with the prophetic gift in an elevated new form: as a unique capacity to reveal the “true” meaning of previous prophecies. As Geza Vermes says in Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30–325: “the Scrolls directly impute to the Teacher a particular God-given insight into the hidden significance of prophecy …The Teacher’s interpretation alone [of these earlier prophecies] offered true enlightenment and guidance.” These were extraordinary powers, which would have cast centuries of prophetic thought and Jewish history in a new light and even threatened the theological foundations of Judaism.
Mortal Challenge This would have represented a mortal challenge to the religious establishment, especially at a time of intense religious factionalism and tension with Rome. Consequently, the apparent execution of the Teacher is hardly inexplicable. Equally, given his divinely ordained status, the death of their charismatic leader must have deeply traumatised his followers, who would have been left to try to comprehend how it fitted in with God’s providential plan.
End of Days It seemed that The Teacher of Righteousness suffered martyrdom through the machinations of the Wicked Priest (possibly the High Priest, who may have also been the “Man of Lies”, another shadowy character from the Scrolls), all of whom were central figures in a mysterious conflict that these early commentators on the Scrolls placed in the first century. The Teacher’s followers believed his death and the conflict around it heralded the end of the world, and that only those with faith in him would be saved. Dupont-Sommer’s conclusion seemed inevitable: the Teacher of Righteousness was “an exact prototype of Jesus”. Indeed, Jesus “appears in many respects as an astonishing reincarnation of the Teacher of Righteousness”.
Reaction Predictably, the Catholic Church in France reacted with horror. Dupont-Sommer was engulfed by criticism, forced to backtrack, and it was made clear to Father de Vaux and his International Team that such views emerging from research on the Scrolls could not be countenanced. They now had even more reason to restrict and control access to the Scrolls.
The Big Guns Meanwhile, two very senior academic experts in Jewish history and philology had become involved. Cecil Roth was Reader in Post-Biblical Jewish Studies at Oxford, a professor at universities in New York and Israel, the general editor of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, and one of the greatest Jewish historians of the twentieth century. G.R. Driver was Professor of Semitic Philology at Oxford, the author of numerous scholarly texts, President of the Society for Old Testament Study, and the editor of the Old Testament section of the New English Bible. Both were far more qualified in their fields than any of the members of the International Team.
Zealots? Roth and Driver developed the argument that the Scrolls were the writings of a radical Zealot faction led by the charismatic Teacher of Righteousness. Moreover, Driver had pointed out as early as 1949 that the pre-Christian dates being ascribed to the few newly published Scrolls couldn’t be relied upon. The external, circumstantial, evidence, based only on archaeology and palaeography, was tentative at best and was inconsistent with what the Scrolls actually said. According to Driver, the Scrolls led unavoidably to the conclusion that the texts dated from the first century AD and were clearly associated with the history of Judaism and Early Christianity in that period.
Days of Roth Professor Roth continued this line of analysis, also insisting that the internal evidence of the Scrolls was much more reliable than any external findings. In 1958 he published The Historical Background of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which argued that the Scrolls and the community to which they belonged were not pre-Christian, as the Consensus View insisted. Rather, they dated from the period leading up to the First Roman-Jewish War, 66 to 70 AD, and were therefore Jewish texts contemporaneous with Early Christianity or were in fact Christian. He argued that the “invaders” (Kittim) condemned in the Scrolls had to be Romans of the imperial age and that the militant nationalism and messianic fervour revealed in the Scrolls had more in common with the militant Zealots described by Josephus than with the quietist Essenes postulated by de Vaux and his allies.
Unsound This argument was further supported by Driver in his book The Judaean Scrolls (1965), which denounced the Team’s methodology outright, declaring that their “arguments to establish a pre-Christian date of the Scrolls are fundamentally unsound”, relying as they did on questionable palaeographical interpretation. He agreed with Roth that the Qumran community were most likely militaristic Zealots, not monastic Essenes, and that the Scrolls were deposited in the caves sometime in the extremely troubled period between 66 AD and the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132–135 AD.
Retreat In response, the International Team, led by de Vaux, continued to hoard crucial Scrolls that may have decided the issue and simply dismissed these arguments without properly addressing them, insisting that their archaeological and palaeographical methods trumped the textual and historical analysis of Driver and Roth. The latter two scholars then retired from the field. Appalled by the lack of scholarly rigour and etiquette displayed by the Team, they had no desire to become further embroiled in an increasingly acrimonious academic scandal, especially when crucial documents that may have resolved the issues concerned were being withheld from inspection by their opponents.
Allegro Non Troppo However, the establishment’s problems were only just beginning; but now the threat came from within the Team. John Allegro was British, the only one of the International Team to have an established academic reputation when he joined, and also the only one without any religious allegiances. He was a navy veteran from the Second World War, older than most of the rest of the Team, and not inclined to keep his views to himself. In the mid-1950s he started to have serious doubts about the way in which the Team was being controlled, noticing that members were apparently being encouraged to “go slow”. He also became convinced that important and controversial material was being withheld or its publication delayed in order to suit some hidden agenda.
Angry Rift Allegro went very much against the Consensus “party line”. He quickly completed his allocated tasks (the only Team member to have done so), while also writing a best-selling book, The Dead Sea Scrolls (1956), in an attempt to reach out to the public.
Obvious Connection? For Allegro, the connection between the Scrolls, the Qumran Community and Early Christianity was too obvious to ignore, a point he stressed in a series of BBC Radio talks in January 1956, attracting much publicity. Seeking to generate popular interest and excitement around the Scrolls, Allegro further developed this dissident, counter-consensus line, arguing that the Teacher of Righteousness had indeed been martyred and crucified, and that his followers believed he would reappear in the End Times as the Messiah. This quickly caught the popular imagination and led to a New York Times article in February: “Christian Basis Seen in Scrolls”, which quoted Allegro as claiming “the historical basis of the Lord’s Supper and a part at least of the Lord’s Prayer and the New Testament teachings of Jesus were attributable to the Qumranites”. At the same time, Time ran an article: “Crucifixion before Christ”. It was becoming apparent that this enormous cache of ancient Scrolls was threatening to undermine fundamental Christian beliefs.
Denunciation Alarmed at the way in which such claims seemed to hijack Jewish history while also relativising Christian claims about the uniqueness of Jesus and his earthly mission, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant leaders in America reacted quickly. They rejected Allegro’s claims and denounced attempts to depict the Essenes as the precursors of Christianity. In turn, this caused de Vaux and the rest of the panic-stricken International Team to dissociate themselves from Allegro in a strongly worded letter to the Times, causing an acrimonious rift that was never healed. As Allegro lamented in a letter to de Vaux, “It’s a pity that you and your friends cannot conceive of anything written about Christianity without trying to grind some ecclesiastical or non-ecclesiastical axe.”
The Copper Scroll To add to their troubles, Allegro arranged for the mysterious Copper Scroll to be unfurled, using a very fine electric saw to cut it into sections. This was another bombshell. Deciphered, this Scroll turned out to be not a religious or literary work, but a “treasure map”. It listed sixty-four places around the Holy Land where various precious religious items of gold and silver from the Temple in Jerusalem were allegedly buried or hidden. This represented a treasure trove of unimaginable value. The Team had another collective nervous breakdown as they imagined thousands of treasure hunters digging and rampaging about, destroying their precious archaeological sites. Moreover, if there actually was treasure, much of it would likely be in Jordan, creating serious political problems. Above all, the Scroll seemed to imply that Qumran was not just a sectarian monastic backwater as de Vaux insisted, but had been closely linked to the Temple, the central institution of Judaism. Consequently, the Team insisted that Allegro delay publishing his translation of the Scroll while they made suitable arrangements to counter its effects, but then double-crossed him and issued a statement dismissing the contents of the Scroll as mere legends. As it turned out, the Team didn’t release their own translation of the Copper Scroll until ten years after it had been discovered.
Attacks Allegro had adopted the policy from the start that the priority was to publish as quickly as possible the essentials of the Scrolls for which he was responsible so that external scholars could at least review them. The Team reacted with outrage and John Strugnell published an unrestrained critique of Allegro, his own colleague. As it turned out, in all the time he was on the Team, Strugnell himself never published any of the material for which he had responsibility. Nevertheless, he converted to Catholicism and was later made the head of the International Team.
Hoarding & Conspiracy Allegro knew he was being marginalised. He complained that “non-Catholic members of the team are being removed as quickly as possible”. And he lamented to a friend, “I am convinced that if something does turn up [in the Scrolls] that affects Roman Catholic dogma, the world will never see it”, and that “the Roman Catholic brethren on the Team, by far the majority, were trying to hide things”, and were “suppressing material”. This pattern of hoarding and concealment continued for decades and fuelled the development of conspiracy theories. As a leading scholar from a later generation of Scroll researchers observed, “the Vatican conspiracy theory continued to circulate in the public arena. Fact and fiction became blurred” (Timothy Lim, The Dead Sea Scrolls, 2005).
Shock Sadly, the situation was made even worse because the suspicions clearly had substance. As Professor Lawrence Schiffman, one of the most prominent scholars in the field recalled years later, “the original team of Dead Sea Scholars … failed to publish the bulk of the Scrolls for nearly forty years and refused to let other scholars see them in the meantime”. One eminently qualified scholar who asked the International Team about a crucial but still withheld text was told simply that he would never see it in his lifetime. Schiffman cited examples where privileged members of the Team would arrive at conferences and present papers referring to vital Scrolls that nobody else had ever even heard of, much less seen: “I will never forget the shock of the audience to learn that a text of great importance had been held back … for so many years. It became obvious that there was much exceedingly significant material in the cache of Scrolls that was off limits to most of us.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls & Christianity This outrageous embargo was finally broken in the early 1990s and a broader group of scholars gained access to most of the Scroll material. Finally, it became possible fully to explore the one single issue that was on everyone’s mind—the relationship of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Christian tradition. A consensus then emerged about the similarities and differences.
Similarities The major similarities include the following: (1) Both the Qumran Community and the Jesus Movement emerged as sects within a highly factionalised Second Temple Judaism. (2) Both had charismatic leaders who were put to death by their enemies. (3) Both applied versions of the “pesher principle”, interpreting ancient prophetic texts as addressing their own time. (4) Both used Habakkuk 2:4 as a key passage in their theology of a single intermediary (the Teacher and Jesus, respectively) through whom faith is to be directed, as opposed to individuals addressing their worship directly to God. (5) The “Sons of Light” was one of the Qumran Community’s self-designations. The same term appears in the New Testament (John 12:38; 1 Thessalonians 5:5). (6) The most cited biblical books among the Qumran manuscripts are Psalms (thirty-four copies), Deuteronomy (twenty-five), and Isaiah (twenty-four), and these are also the most cited books in the New Testament. (7) The Qumran sectarians viewed the Temple Scroll as a work of revealed scripture, which means that they saw revelation continuing in their day; the same holds in the New Testament, where revelation is seen as an ongoing process. (8) Communal life (including communal meals and property) was a strictly enforced feature of both movements. (7) Baptism—ritual immersion as an initiation rite—plays a key role in both movements. (8) Both communities evolved leaders known by terms equivalent to the title “bishop”. No other Jewish group of the time had such officials supervising its activities. (9) While all Jewish groups held to some kind of eschatological view, only in the Dead Sea Scrolls (especially in the War Scroll) and in the New Testament do we see such a view so vividly expressed. And (10) there are clear parallels between the final cataclysmic battles described in both the War Scroll and in Revelation.
Differences On the other hand there are several important differences between the Qumran Community and the Jesus Movement: (1) The latter was much more focused on its Messiah figure (Jesus) than was the Dead Sea Scrolls sect. (2) The Qumran Community was intensely insular and exclusivist, while the Jesus Movement was energetically inclusivist with an active missionary program. (3) The Dead Sea Scrolls sect strictly applied Jewish law, while the mainstream of the Christian movement greatly relaxed or even rejected adherence to the law. (4) Only the Jesus Movement had a “Second Founder”, St Paul, who radically reformulated its theology for the Greco-Roman world.
Parallel Streams Overall, wherever one turns, one finds connections between the Scrolls and the books of the New Testament. It seems the Qumran Community and the Jesus Movement were parallel streams, each propelled forward by its own apocalyptic and eschatological vision, against the backdrop of the Roman empire and the multitude of Judaic sects and factions that had emerged in Second Temple Judaism. The first group was engulfed by conflict and violence and disappeared from history; the other group went through a bewildering series of transformations before eventually becoming the largest religious movement in the history of the world. How this came about and what it meant was explored by a diverse range of scholars, commentators, novelists, religious eccentrics and opportunists, as we will see in the next part of this series.
Mervyn Bendle is the author of Anzac and its Enemies: The History War on Australia’s National Identity. The first part of this series appeared in the March issue, and the third part will appear shortly