By August 30, 2015 Read More →

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament, James C. VanderKam, BAR 41:02, Mar/Apr 2015.

Judean DesertWhat do the Dead Sea Scrolls tell us about the New Testament? One possible answer is: Nothing.

The scrolls were associated with a relatively small group, or, rather, with several small groups.aOther Jewish people, like the first Christians, may not even have known about their sectarian writings. In fact, there is no evidence that any author of a New Testament book knew of or used any of the sectarian works found in caves near Qumran that we know as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Moreover, the cast of characters in the scrolls and in the New Testament is entirely different. No person mentioned in the New Testament (other than ones from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) appears in any of the scrolls—not even John the Baptist, who for a time lived in the wilderness and around the Jordan, not too far from the Dead Sea Scroll caves (see Luke 1:80;3:3).

Moreover, the worldview that comes to expression in the two bodies of literature is often starkly at variance. A group that set a goal of spreading its religious message to all peoples to the ends of the earth had a very different understanding of God’s plan than ones who seem to have done no proselytizing and had no interest in bringing the nations into the fold.

There is a divide between the two sets of texts, yet scholars have found it meaningful to compare and contrast them in order to enhance our understanding of the New Testament. One important reason is that, as has become increasingly apparent, the earliest followers of Jesus and the literature they produced were thoroughly Jewish in nature. As a result, the more one knows about Judaism during the time of Christian origins, the stronger basis we have for understanding the New Testament. And the scrolls are the most significant body of Hebrew/Aramaic literature related to a Jewish group or groups from roughly this timeb and thus are potentially invaluable for shedding light on the meaning of New Testament texts. Whenever the parting of the ways between Jews and Christians occurred,c there is a substantial overlap between the people of the scrolls and the earliest Christians in their way of life and their beliefs. The more one knows about Judaism, the more one knows about the beginnings of Christianity.
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It is also true that a goodly amount of the teachings in the scrolls was known and had been applied to New Testament study before 1947, when the first scrolls came to light. Works such as 1 Enoch and Jubilees, both of which are attested in many copies among the scrolls, were available in the form of ancient translations long before the first cave near Qumran yielded its scrolls.d Copies of 1 Enoch in the Ethiopic language were brought to Europe beginning in the late 18th century, and copies of the Book of Jubilees, also in Ethiopic, started arriving in the mid-19th century. Two manuscripts of the Damascus Document were found in the genizah of a Cairo synagogue at the end of the 19th century.e Nevertheless, the texts found since 1947 have greatly enhanced the information available and helpfully contextualized it.

Two general parallels between the scrolls and the New Testament illustrate this point. The first relates to the ongoing nature of divine revelation: The early Christians produced a large body of literature, much of which has survived to modern times. The best contemporaneous Second Temple-period analog of this literature is the scrolls. Both collections show that Jewish writers were busy producing compositions of varied sorts, often texts that responded in some way to the ancient Jewish scriptures. Those scriptures, while they had not yet been defined as a canon in the strict sense of the term,1 attracted constant attention from Jewish readers. In addition, not only did both communities produce a diverse and sizable literature, they also regarded at least some of their texts as divinely inspired. The age of revelation, in their view, had not ended with the last book of the Hebrew Bible but continued into their times. The Teacher of Righteousness in the scrolls, for example, receives from God an explanation of the mysteries found in the prophetic writings of the Hebrew Bible.2 Similarly, the letters of the apostle Paul were already recognized as scripture in New Testament times.3

Second, members of both communities read ancient scriptures eschatologically, that is, as pointing forward to and addressing the times in which they were living (not to the times of the prophets to whom authorship is attributed)—times they regarded as close to the end. Both communities anticipated messianic leadership at the end, although their exact views about a messiah or messiahs differed. The New Testament knows of one messiah who had appeared and would return at the end; the scrolls know of two messiahs who would appear at the end.

Here are some other specific parallels between the scrolls and the New Testament:

Both the scrolls communities and the first followers of Jesus in Jerusalem describe their fellowship in much the same way. The fellowship of the first Christian community in Jerusalem comes to expression in the Book of Acts 1–4 where the Pentecost plays a prominent part. The Festival of Weeks, which goes under its Greek name Pentecost in the New Testament, is the middle of the three pilgrimage festivals mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. It differs from the other two, in that it lasts for just one day and the Law prescribes no precise date for it. The only specifications are that it falls on the 50th day (hence the Greek name Pentecost) after an event (the raising of the sheaf, also undated) associated with Passover/Unleavened Bread (month 1, days 14–21; see Leviticus 23:9–16). As a result, there were differences of opinion about the precise timing of the holiday, but all agreed it had to be in the third month of the year. The third month was also the time when the Lord and Israel entered into a covenant at Mt. Sinai (seeExodus 19:1). It comes as no surprise, then, that the two events—the Festival of Weeks and the covenant/giving of the law at Sinai—were connected with each other. The pseud-epigraphical Book of Jubilees dates both the festival and the Sinai covenant ceremony to the same date—month 3, day 15—and the Qumran calendar texts also specify the 15th of the third month as the date for celebrating the holiday.
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In the Qumran texts, the Festival of Weeks was probably the occasion for the annual covenant ceremony described in the scroll known as the Rule of the Community.4 It was a time when the members of the Qumran group renewed their covenantal vow and new members were welcomed into the group. The group could be described as an ideal society. The same text depicts a fellowship in which there was an extraordinary measure of sharing. It specifically mentions that they ate together, studied and worshiped together, and—most impressively—shared property. Explaining the three nouns heart, soul and might in Deuteronomy 6:5 (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”),5 they devoted themselves to “bring all their knowledge, powers and possessions into the Community of God, that they may purify their knowledge in the truth of God’s precepts and order their powers according to His ways of perfection and all their possessions according to His righteous counsel” (column 1, lines 11–13).6 A few columns later the scroll states that “They shall eat in common and bless in common and deliberate in common” (column 6, lines 2–3).

In their communal study time, they interpreted the scriptures, presumably using their peshermethod; that is, applying the ancient texts to their own times. The property of each member was merged with that of the community so that no one had private possessions; all shared the community’s resources.
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I think a good case can be made that these Essenes were patterning themselves after the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. According to some Rabbinic texts,7 the Israelites who fought and murmured before reaching the mountain suddenly became unified and enjoyed harmonious relations. That was soon to change in the incident of the golden calf, but for a brief time Israel behaved as a society should and as the Essenes later tried to imitate.8

Very similar elements appear in the first chapters of the Book of Acts. There the small band of Jesus’ followers—120 Christians led by 12 apostles (Acts 1:15, 26)—celebrated the Festival of Weeks/Pentecost. On this occasion the disciples who had received the Holy Spirit were miraculously enabled to speak in other languages—preparatory to bringing the message to all peoples. Jews from all over the world had journeyed to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festival, and they heard the gospel in their own languages. On this occasion about 3,000 new members joined the Christian community (Acts 2:41) that is described as an ideal fellowship. Like the Essenes, the Christians of Acts 2–4 practiced a community of goods—the only two Jewish groups known to have done so. As described in Acts: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers … All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the Temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (Acts 2:42, 44–47).

Members of this fellowship devoted themselves to goals similar to those the scrolls prescribe, paraphrasing or interpreting the same text from Deuteronomy: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). Both groups understood the commandment to love the Lord “with all your might” to mean sharing one’s possessions.

One more parallel: In Acts when some bystanders charged that the disciples were speaking as they were because they were drunk, Peter defended them; part of his apology consisted of offering a pesher-like exegesis of a passage from the prophet Joel—a pesher that might have made the scrolls’ Teacher of Righteousness proud: “No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy’” (Acts 2:16–18). As in pesherexegesis, Peter takes a prophetic text and claims it speaks to his time and situation—a time characterized as “in the last days.”

Another parallel area between the scrolls and the New Testament involves legal issues: For example, in the Gospels, Jesus and Pharisees disagree about the proper way to observe the Sabbath. In the scrolls, some of the same questions are discussed. In the Gospels, when Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath, he makes statements that appear to expand the list of permitted kinds of labor on the Sabbath beyond what the Pharisees and other leaders allowed. Thus, he asks rhetorically whether an owner would rescue his only sheep if it fell into a pit on the Sabbath and concludes: “How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12). Similarly in Luke 14:1–6, Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath and asks the lawyers and Pharisees present whether this was permitted; they do not answer. He says to them: “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” (Luke 14:5). The Pharisees, who are portrayed rather unappealingly in these stories, then consider how to do away with Jesus (e.g., Matthew 12:14).

So—did Pharisees forbid healing people or saving them from drowning on the Sabbath? We have no reason to think they did. No Pharisaic writing, if they composed any, has survived, but later Rabbinic literature, which is often thought to reflect and develop Pharisaic views, teaches that saving a life overrides the normal Sabbath prohibitions on labor (e.g., Mishnah Yoma 8:6).

However, the physical ailments from which Jesus healed people on the two occasions mentioned—a withered hand and a case of dropsy—were not life-threatening, so they could have been postponed to the next day. This is the point a synagogue official makes in Luke 13:14 after Jesus performs another Sabbath healing (of a woman bent over with a crippling disease): “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day” (Luke 13:14). There is no Jewish text from the Second Temple period or before that prohibits healing on the Sabbath.9
A number of instances among the scrolls offer relevant comparative material. For example, the Damascus Document (CD), column 11, lines 13–14 reads: “No man shall assist a beast to give birth on the Sabbath day. And if it should fall into a cistern or pit, he shall not lift it out on the Sabbath.” And: “Should any man fall into water … let him not be pulled out with the aid of a ladder or rope or (some such) utensil” (column 11, lines 16–17). The words at the end of the proscription are important (“with a ladder or a rope or a utensil”). This becomes clear from another scroll (4Q265 Miscellaneous Rules): “No man shall lift an animal which has fallen into water on the Sabbath day. But if a man falls into water on the Sabbath, he shall pass to him his garment to lift him out, but he shall not carry an instrument [to lift him out on] the Sabbath.” The principle is that one is not to fetch a tool for rescue and carry it to the spot (a kind of labor), but a person could use his clothing to remove the victim from danger.10

An example like this encourages a different approach to the gospel passage. The point is apparently not to contrast Jesus’ more relaxed approach to Sabbath law with a heartless one espoused by Pharisees. They too believed that a life could be saved on the Sabbath but did not think the healings Jesus performed fell into that category. Jesus challenged the current practice in some respects (he was more lenient about saving animals on the Sabbath) perhaps to make more emphatic his message about the healing power associated with the kingdom of God. At the very least, one can say that both the gospel and scrolls passages show that such issues were discussed at the time.

Legal debates are not the only places in the Gospels for which the scrolls provide a historical context. A scroll called Apocryphon of Daniel (4Q246), written in Aramaic, has received its modern name from the fact that its two preserved columns concern a person like Daniel who interprets a vision. In the course of his interpretation, the Daniel-like character says that a future ruler “will be called [gr]eat … and by his name he will be designated. The son of God he will be proclaimed and the son of the Most High they will call him.”11
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The passage is strongly reminiscent of Luke 1:32, 35, which was written about 100 years after the scroll was copied. In Luke, the angel Gabriel appears to the virgin Mary and informs her that she will conceive a son whom she is to name Jesus. The text goes on: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” Gabriel continues in verse 35: “He will be called Son of God.”
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Both this New Testament passage and Apocryphon of Daniel share the use of “great,” “son of God” and “son of the Most High.” The scroll and the gospel use “will be called” in connection with “son of God” and “son of the Most High.”

“Son of God” is a title attested in the scriptures. For example, the Davidic king is called God’s son (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7). “Son of the Most High” is not found in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, but a plural form of it appears in Psalm 82:6 (“children [= sons] of the Most High”)—but not the singular. This makes it all the more remarkable that the scroll and Luke agree in using the title. In short, the contexts of the scroll and the gospel share several distinctive features.

Scholars debate whether the one who will be called by these names and titles in Apocryphon of Daniel is a positive or negative character. I think that the context in the scroll favors the view that he is a negative leader who rules during an age of suffering before the kingdom of God’s people arises.12 If so, then the character in the scrolls would not deserve the titles people give him, whereas in Luke, Jesus is presented as fully worthy of them.

Another example of scriptural interpretation illustrates how a scrolls writer and a New Testament author drew on a similar exegetical tradition. In Luke 7 Jesus performs several miracles, including raising someone from the dead. After John the Baptist’s disciples tell him about these miracles, John, who rather surprisingly has some doubts about whether Jesus meets the qualifications for the special agent of God that he was expecting, sends messengers to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7:19–20). Luke then offers this response:

Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Luke 7:21–23; see also Matthew 11:2–6)

In face of John’s concerns, Jesus then provides proof of his being “the one who is to come” by listing the kinds of miracles he performs.
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These quotations from Luke show some remarkable similarities to a scroll known as a Messianic Apocalypse (4Q521). This Dead Sea Scroll text was copied approximately 150 years before Luke composed his gospel. It states:
… [the hea]vens and the earth will listen to His Messiah, and none therein will stray from the commandments of the holy ones.

Seekers of the Lord, strengthen yourselves in His service!
All you hopeful in (your) heart, will you not find the Lord in this?
For the Lord will consider the pious (hasidim) and call the righteous by name.
Over the poor His spirit will hover and will renew the faithful with His power.
And He will glorify the pious on the throne of the eternal Kingdom.
He who liberates the captives, restores sight to the blind, straightens the b[ent] …
And f[or] ever I will clea[ve to the h]opeful and in His mercy …
And the fr[uit … ] will not be delayed for anyone
And the Lord will accomplish glorious things which have never been as [He … ]
For He will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor [cf. Isaiah 61:1].
(Fragment 2, column 2, lines 1–12)

Mention of a messiah in the first line has supplied part of the text’s modern name (a Messianic Apocalypse), but the interesting material for comparison with Luke 7 is the list of miracles that parallel the ones Jesus names in his response to John. In speaking about miraculous events of the future, both the scroll and the gospel combine and interpret passages from Isaiah. The first passage is Isaiah 61:1–2, which happens to be the section Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth:

When he came to Nazareth where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:16–19)

This is not an exact quotation from Isaiah 61; it includes an expression from another passage from Isaiah, namely Isaiah 58:6: “to let the oppressed go free.” Isaiah 61 thus accounts for one of the items that Jesus enumerates in Luke 7 (bringing good news to the poor); the others are taken from Isaiah 35:5–6: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (see chart in sidebar “Parallel Miracles”).

There may be nothing very remarkable in the appearance of similar lists of miracles in the two texts. But in other respects the two are more surprising. Both 4Q521 and Luke 7:22 add to their list of miracles a statement about raising the dead, and both place it right before mention of good news for the poor. Isaiah does not refer to raising the dead. Moreover, both 4Q521 andLuke 7:22 form their lists from the same two passages in Isaiah and also supplement them in the same place with a reference to resurrection of the dead.

The two texts are certainly not the same. For the scroll, the Lord is the one who will carry out these amazing actions, not the messiah; in Luke 7, Jesus, the messianic one who is to come, performs them. The scroll shows, nevertheless, that the list of miracles in Luke 7, including resurrection, is an attested expansion of the mighty works named in the two passages in Isaiah.

What do the examples presented here, and many others like them, tell us? None of them is evidence that a New Testament writer knew and used any of the scrolls. It is far more likely that these examples reveal a store of shared interpretive and theological traditions on which writers in both communities drew. The parallels we have discussed indicate that the relevant New Testament texts fit into the circumstances and debates of the time. Naturally, the two communities used these shared traditions on which to build their own teachings. Perhaps if more texts were to be discovered, we would learn that some of these traditions were shared even more widely within the Judaism of the time. The scroll passages we have looked at here—and others as well—help one to read the corresponding New Testament sections in a more informed way.

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