The Dead Sea Scrolls’ Australian Connection

In the year 2000, Australia played host to the Dead Sea Scrolls, arguably the most precious archaeological discovery in Western civilisation, now celebrating seventy-five years. First found in 1946-47 in caves on the western shore of the Dead Sea, scrolls of parchment containing almost all the books of the Hebrew scriptures predated by one thousand years the oldest extant manuscripts, such as the tenth-century Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex. Excavations of the eleven caves around Qumran, where a settlement was uncovered, have continued to yield new fragments, as recently as 2021, adding to the more than 900 manuscripts and 100,000 fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

That the Art Gallery of New South Wales, under the directorship of Edmund Capon, chose the Dead Sea Scrolls to herald the new millennium, in a superb and extensive exhibition involving the Israel Antiquities Authority and an array of international scholars, was a recognition of the foundational importance of the biblical tradition to Australians. I was involved in public events with international Dead Sea Scrolls scholars, such as Laurence Schiffman, George Brooke and Philip Davies, and drawing on my MA and PhD studies at McMaster University, Canada, I co-produced and presented two one-hour documentaries featuring the leading international Dead Sea Scrolls scholars on the religious and scholarly significance of the Scrolls for ABC television’s Compass program.

This essay appears in a recent Quadrant.
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Important as the Scrolls are for Christians and Jews, for whom the discovery gave unprecedented confirmation of their bedrock tradition, which shaped Western civilisation, the public interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls was especially aroused by the original writings of a radical community, the Yahad (“unity”), which supposedly dwelled at Qumran, on the north-western plateau of the Dead Sea, the archaeological site closest to the caves.[1] The Community Rule, outlining the Yahad’s practices, and the Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness (also known as the War Scroll), as well as the Habakkuk Commentary, reflect a sectarian outlook that set itself apart from and in opposition to the rabbis and priests of the Jewish tradition. They looked forward to an imminent final showdown in the “End of Days” when only the Yahad would emerge triumphant.

With the carbon dating of the Scrolls establishing a window from approximately the third century BC to first century AD, the question on everyone’s mind was “Could this sectarian group be the origins of the Jesus movement?” After all, the urgency of the coming Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven) was a key message of Jesus in the three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Yet it is also true that the Roman presence in Judea with its brutal suppression of peasant anti-taxation revolts (in 6 AD) and its desecration and plundering of the Jerusalem Temple coffers, caused a great deal of social unrest, apocalyptic writing and messianic fervour. Politically, these culminated in the Great Revolt of 66–73 AD, the Kitos rebellion in 115 (fought largely outside Judea) and the Bar Kochba (“Son of the Star”) war from 132 to 136 AD.

Jesus was executed long before these major Jewish wars against the Romans were mounted and failed, but his legacy would be forever associated with the reverse strategy, to avoid war with the enemy: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 20:21, Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25).

This proverbial saying has become a symbol of compromise, and even pacifism, but its actual meaning remains ambiguous: is Jesus comparing the temple taxes, which were paid in Jewish shekels that were decorated with animal and vegetable motifs and never human representations, to the imperial taxes, which were paid with Roman coins that bore images of Caesar? Or was Jesus waxing more profound on the limited temporal authority of Caesar compared to the eternal authority of God? Sean Freyne, a scholar of early Christianity, suggests the conundrum remains unanswered.[2]

What is clear, however, is that God and Caesar, or religion and politics, turn on the question of authority, and Jesus’s deft handling of them suggests that they should be kept apart as two distinct realms. It is a position consistent with the classic Jewish view, which had become seriously eroded in Jesus’s time by the Hellenistic Jewish priests of the Temple. In stark contrast to a modus vivendi approach to the turbulent politics of the day, the community at Qumran possessed the War Scroll, which anticipates a cosmic battle between itself, the Sons of Light, under the protection of angels, against everyone else, the Sons of Darkness, led by the evil influence of Belial (the devil).

The extreme position of the Qumran community prompted many scholars to identify it with the Essenes, a Jewish sect among several that were described by the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in Jewish War, in Jewish Antiquities and in Life, and also by the Jewish philosopher Philo Judeaus a half-century earlier, as well as Pliny the Elder. Although the term Essene never appears in the texts, and some scholars rejected the connection on various grounds, including that Josephus described the Essenes as an urban sect found in many towns, the Yahad’s Community Rule, also known as the Manual of Discipline, nonetheless had many similarities with the Essenes, including its exclusively male membership, celibacy, strict purity laws, a focus on healing and property in common.[3] All these characteristics suggested a link with Jesus and his disciples.

Much ink has been spilt on the possible association between Jesus, the Essenes and Qumran, but most serious scholars conclude nothing more substantive than the fact that the Essenes and the Qumran community were among the many Jewish sects, schools of thought, and priestly lineages (Zadokite in respect to Qumran) that vied for legitimacy during Jesus’s lifetime. Whether Jesus was personally a member of the Qumran community has been largely dismissed as unfounded.

But far-fetched speculations are among the most tenacious in the popular mind, because they rely on persuasive arguments that catch the spirit of the times. Such was the case with the publication of Jesus the Man: New Interpretations from the Dead Sea Scrolls (1992), by the Australian scholar Barbara Thiering.

Using the pesher technique of interpretation in Dead Sea Scrolls documents, which alleges that there is a plain meaning and a hidden meaning in scripture, Thiering believed that the New Testament contained a secret biography of Jesus. Having “cracked the code”, she revealed that Jesus was born out of wedlock among the Essenes in Qumran, was crucified there alongside Judas Iscariot and Simon Magus, was revived by snake venom (the Essenes were keen practitioners of medical concoctions), escaped and married Mary Magdalene and later Lydia of Philippi, and died in Rome in obscurity. Today, it would qualify as a Netflix series.  

While Jesus the Man received a consistently negative response by scholars, what was not in doubt was how readily the Dead Sea Scrolls became subject to outlandish theories that reflected the current zeitgeist. Thiering, who received her PhD from the University of Sydney and lectured on the “pesher technique” in the late 1980s and early 1990s, reflected the then popular feminist theories about Jesus’s female companions, especially Mary Magdalene to whom he first appeared after his crucifixion. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons turned these theories into full-blown conspiracy best-sellers.

Thiering’s was not the first nor the most daring use of the Dead Sea Scrolls to overturn the received view of Christianity. She was influenced by the eccentric work of John Allegro, a lecturer in Comparative Semitic Philology at the University of Manchester, who was the first to translate the unique Copper Scroll in the mid-1950s. Allegro, who was invited into the original inner circle of translators due to his specialisation in Hebrew dialects, popularised the Dead Sea Scrolls in his BBC radio broadcasts, in which he put forth the idea that the leader of the Qumran Community, known as the Teacher of Righteousness, had been crucified. His Discoveries in the Judean Desert of Jordan in 1968 was severely criticised by most of the scholars working on the Scrolls, and this tendency would be magnified when he published The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (1970) and The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Myth (1979).

The popular drug culture of the 1970s had come full circle in Allegro’s works in which he claimed that Christianity was none other than a shamanistic fertility cult that emerged within the Essenes, who used psychedelic mushrooms in their rituals. Jesus, according to Allegro, did not exist, but was a code word for Aminita muscaria, the mushroom which is the basis of LSD.

No wonder his works were hugely popular among a generation keen to remake Christianity into their own image. (It was reminiscent of the rising interest in indigenous shamanism and the ingesting of “magic mushrooms”, popularised in the 1968 best-seller by Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan, which falsely claimed to be an academic work, and is now accepted as a work of fiction.)

The Dead Sea Scrolls became a magnet for those, like Edmund Wilson, with an axe to grind, most specifically as confirmation of the “end of Christianity”. Fortunately, the Dead Sea Scrolls community of scholars today is by and large extremely cautious in their conclusions and respectful of the historical consensus based on painstaking research of ancient texts in several languages, including classical Hebrew, Aramaic, Nabatean and Greek. More than most scholars of early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism, they know how richly complex was the period in which their respective traditions took shape, together and in opposition, influenced by and reacting to a host of ideas circulating among the radical movements and sects which did not ultimately survive. Neither did the eccentric theories of Allegro and Thiering.

Rachael Kohn is a broadcaster and writer on religion and spirituality.

[1] Some scholars, notably Norman Golb (d 2021), at the University of Chicago Divinity School, whom I interviewed, argued against that the Scrolls were a library, assembled from libraries in Jerusalem including the Temple, for safe keeping.

[2] Sean Freyne, The Jesus Movement and Its Expansion: Meaning and Mission (Grand Rapids Mich: Wm B Eerdmans Publishing) 2014: 60.

[3] Leading Scrolls scholar and first to provide a full English translation of the them, Geza Vermes argues in favour of the Essene connection, An Introduction to the Complete Dead Sea Scrolls, London: SCM Press, 1977:126.

19 thoughts on “The Dead Sea Scrolls’ Australian Connection

  • STD says:

    “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”.
    Wisdom is a key player.
    The conglomeration – on one level, we have the mind, which is the way of the world; at the level of objective truth, this is where the heart brings the mind to that which is just – proper order of truth- balance- the whole person- recognisable truth, the complete truth, if you will.
    The best example of this is Jesus’ betrayal by Peter- what Jesus said – Wise – and what Peter said and did in his initial betrayal of that wisdom.
    “Following the arrest of Jesus, Peter denied knowing him Three times (3),but after the third denial, he heard the rooster crow, and recalled the prediction as Jesus ‘turned’ to look at him. Peter began to cry bitterly”.
    This final instance is known as the repentance of Peter “, (mercy is granted in death from the world).
    Dr Peter Kreeft explained this, i think it was in his YouTube piece on “How to win the culture war”.Paraphrased -Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar -in other words ,reject the way of the world , give Caesar back his coin with his ugly face on it, and render to God what belongs to God-your beautiful heart and soul with his name engraved on it.
    I wrote a reply to a friend ,on a piece she had written on abstinence, from one’s worldly self in regard to just and pure Love.
    Peters wisdom in context, “Denial allows the heart to bloom”. Peter and Christ are living proof of this.
    If God is in deed the source of all truth, he can never be wrong or at fault , surely this is what lays at the very heart of what should be understood as infinite wisdom for truth-Jesus as Christ proves this beyond measure – the road to the Father is paved with/to mercy.
    Seek and ye shall find the truth.

  • STD says:

    “Denial switches the heart on and allows it to bloom”
    Don’t let Caesar( world) rule the heart.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Thank you for this story.
    I continue to wonder what I am lacking because I see little eignificance from these old writings to people in the modern world who have the choice to believe what is real and to reject what is fantasy. Stories about angels are not real. Geoff S

    • STD says:

      Could be wrong as I have no material proof.But aren’t stories about Angels spiritual stories by there (their)nature-wonderfully unreal perhaps…… for thought. Geoff could furnish your proofs…….. that way I can turn back on God and worship you….I know I’m being awfully arrogant.
      Question: do you have belief in your own ability?
      And is proof required?

    • STD says:

      Here’s Dr Peter Kreeft on the existence of God, in negative proof too.

      • lbloveday says:

        Paul Charles William Davies when at Adelaide University wrote a weekly opinion column in The Advertiser in which he stated that he did not know even one Natural Physicist who denied the existence of God.
        Einstein (so famous for his genius that I don’t need to use his first name) said “I am not an atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds”.
        If it’s too much for Einstein’s brain, it’s far too much for the brains of me and 99.99999% of others, so I think anyone who denies the possibility of God, generally by proclaiming him/herself an atheist, and so often by ridiculing those who profess a belief, does not know the meaning of “atheist”, or, and, is deluded as to their knowledge and analytical ability.
        Even the self-promoting “famous atheist”, Richard Dawkins, in his book “The God Delusion” has a chapter “Why there is almost certainly no God”, thus leaving open the possibility of there being a God, and in his computation of the probability of God’s existence, assigned it a probability of 14% (1 in 7). Horses win at 7.0 every day, the MC winner was 20/1 and, in my opinion, Dawkins outed himself as an agnostic.

  • rosross says:

    Ancient Palestine has a rich history and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was one of the most important gifts offered. However, like all archaeology there were, are and will be, varying interpretations on the material.

  • wdr says:

    What do the eccentric writers on Jesus have to say about St. Peter and the Disciples and about St. Paul? Were they drug dealers of some kind? If so, they would be stopped at Sydney Airport and never let into Australia.

    • STD says:

      In the minority. No I do not think they were drug dealers, or no more or no less than the ways of the world being the opiate of the masses(pile).

    • rosross says:

      Given the fact that Jesus was not mentioned by anyone in his times, not the Romans, Herodians or historians there has been an argument from some that such a figure never existed but was a compilation of other saviour/redeemers. The historian Josephus does mention Jesus but he was born 30 years after Jesus is said to have died so he is hardly a contemporary source.

      The fact that the attributes for Jesus are shared by the Roman God, Mithras, adds weight to this theory and that most of the attributes claimed for his mother, Mary, have been translated from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, as has the Lord’s Prayer.

      I suspect that all religious writings, and the Bible particularly, should be read as metaphor and not as something literal. That way they make sense and draw upon all ancient spiritual teachings.

      And since the Jesus stories were not written down

  • rosross says:

    And since the Jesus stories were not written down until centuries after his death, it would be more likely than not to see other writings, teachings, stories, thoughts, interwoven with the material.

    • David Palmer says:

      You would need to quote your source for a claim that “the Jesus stories were not written down until centuries after his death”

      The general consensus amongst those who study these matters is that the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – were written by the end of the first century, Matthew’s Gospel as early as AD 37, Mark’s possibly as early as AD 40, Luke and John AD 50 and AD 65 respectively.

  • wdr says:

    The point is that if “Jesus” was some kind of LSD mushroom, there would be no moral message or claim that he was the Messiah or his message spread far and wide shortly after he died. He mus have been a religious leader of immense charisma.

  • rod.stuart says:

    I find it somewhat strange that there is no mention of the Book of Enoch.

  • rachaelkohn says:

    The first footnote re: Norman Golb should read that he argued that the Dead Sea Scrolls were a library compiled from various places and placed in the caves at Qumran for safe keeping.

  • HD says:

    rosross — Jesus is generally believed to have died c. 33 AD and Josephus was born c. 37 AD.

    • rosross says:

      Then perhaps I should have said, Josephus was writing 30 years after Jesus supposedly died. That is more than a generation and a long time for a story to last intact. Particularly in that age. Perhaps most critical is that Jesus was not mentioned by any contemporary historian, and Josephus is certainly not contemporary, and neither did the Romans or Herodians make a note about him which is very odd. The Romans were consummate scribes.

      Much religious writing was confected. Anomalies abound. In the same way the brilliant scribes of Egypt never mentioned the Hebrews/Jews being slaves which is also odd. And, the Biblical time-frame for the Jews fleeing Egypt and heading for freedom toward Palestine/Canaan was when Palestine/Canaan was an Egyptian colony.

      If religious teachings were read as metaphor the world would be a better place.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    Nobody seems to have been able to prove, or for that matter disprove, the existence of God, though countless attempts have been made both ways, as shown in the comments above.
    For my money, the most perceptive assessment was made by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, when he said that what is really going on in any religious ritual is that the group involved is worshipping itself.
    This sheds new light on the old Methodist (?) saying, ‘the family that prays together, stays together.’ The group’s religion is its social glue. Believing is the means to belonging.
    As Richard Dawkins says, they can’t all be right. Never mind other religions. If Catholicism is right, all other religions and brands of Christianity have to be wrong, and their heretical congregations are all bound either for Hell, or for a long stretch in Purgatory: or at least would have been before the Pope abolished said Purgatory, as per Matt 16, 18-19 KJV.
    “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
    “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
    It is in the nature of things for each religion to claim infallibilty and to be the One True Faith. That is the only hope each of them has to remain in business.
    As for me, I’m a Polytheist. So that means that Dawkins is wrong, and they are all right; except where they clash and contradict. But there is neither time nor space here to go into that.

  • Adelagado says:

    The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail was the book that Dan Brown totally plagiarized to come up with The DaVinci code. THBTHG was mostly BS but nevertheless perfectly illustrated that almost nothing we read today about what happened 2000 years ago can be accepted as true and factual. History is written by victors, charlatans, and fabulists. None of whom can be trusted.

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