Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, J.H. Charlesworth, Jesus Within Judaism, Doubleday, NY, 1988.


Pesher Habakkuk

Pesher Habakkuk

The most sensational discovery of ancient manuscripts in modern times occurred in 1947 in Palestine during the last months of the British Mandate. Three cousins, Ta’mireh Bedouin, were leading their flocks of sheep and goats on the plateau just to the west of the Dead Sea. Jum’a Muhammad Khalil found two holes in the sides of a rocky, gently sloping cliff to the west of the plateau. After throwing a rock through the smaller hole, he heard it clatter off apparently large earthen jars inside. A few days later, early in the morning while the others slept, Muhammad Ahmed el-Hamed slipped away from his cousins. He climbed the cliff, raised himself up to the cave opening, and because he was a teenager and smaller than the others slipped through the gaping hole.

According to this Bedouin, who is also called ed-Dîb (“the wolf”), he spied ten large earthen jars. None contained immediately recognizable treasures, like gold, silver, or precious gems. Only one, which was covered, contained something interesting- two cloth bundles and a leather roll. Eventually these three packages were trans¬ported to a place near Bethlehem. They hung for weeks in a bag attached to a tent pole.

These three old and foul-smelling lumps eventually, after much debate, were identified. They are the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered- the Rule of the Community (1QS), the Habakkuk Pesher (Commentary, 1QpHab), and a copy of Isaiah (1QIsa; see Illus. 5) that is over a thousand years older than the one that had been used to establish the critical text of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament.

These three scrolls wound up in Bethlehem in a cobbler’s shop in the vicinity of Manger Square. The cobbler, Kando (Khalil Eskander Shahin), won the confidence of the Bedouin. He promised they would receive the major portion (2/3) of the profits from their sale. Before these were sold, four more scrolls were brought to Kando. They had been found also in the same cave, buried beneath nearly two thousand years of collapsed ceiling rock, desert sand, and accumulated waste. Through avenues of intrigue and danger, Kando and a Syrian Orthodox Christian (Isha‘ya) attempted to have them appraised and to sell them. The age and value of the scrolls were unknown. Those who had seen them could not identify the ancient handwriting, were ignorant of Hebrew, and dismissed them as medieval copies.

Eventually some scrolls were obtained by the famous scholar Eliezer L. Sukenik of the Hebrew University; others were photographed and identified in the American Schools of Oriental Research. Over the next decade more caves and more scrolls were found. The community in which they had been copied was excavated and identified. Father Roland de Vaux proved that a mass of stones belonged to other structures under the sand and that these were not remains of a Roman fort. They were the ruins of a Jewish monastery that was burned and destroyed in 68 C. E. by the Romans on their way to besiege Jerusalem.

The story continues to unfold even up until the present. The years leap into decades. It seems so long ago that I left the United States, as Thayer Fellow of the American Schools of Oriental Research, to study in the École Biblique de Jérusalem with Father Benoit and Father de Vaux. Yet I shall never forget standing with de Vaux, our backs to the east and the ruins; we were looking down on the marl terrace and the craggy opening to Cave IV (see Illus. 4), which once held well over four hundred manuscripts. These were not found by the archaeologists, who were excavating the ruins. They were found by Bedouins, after the archaeologists had commenced the excavations in 1951. The main treasures of the Qumran community were not found by scholars, because they knew “too much”- they judged that the marl cliffs were too brittle to support caves.

Father de Vaux turned to me and said something like the following- We had studied geology and knew that only the rocky cliffs could support caves. We had searched up there on those massive cliffs and to the north; we found really only one cave, Cave III, that rewarded us with a full scroll. The Bedouin had less scientific knowledge and more sense. With the twinkle still in his eye and his ever-present cigarette streaming smoke, he turned and walked away.

And so the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered in the late 1940s in caves just to the west of the Dead Sea. The first photo¬graphs and translations appeared shortly thereafter.
But there was more to come. The largest scroll yet discovered was acquired by Y. Yadin, Sukenik’s son, who changed his name into a Hebrew form, a common practice for his generation. In the mid-1960s he obtained it from Kando, the erstwhile Bethlehem cobbler. It was not translated into English until 1983. A voluminous body of fragments of other writings .has not yet been published.
With the publication of the Leviticus Scroll from Cave XI, all the relatively complete scrolls have been published. As of the present—not including the biblical texts—I count more than ninety published “sectarian” scrolls and portions of documents (see Appendix 4). Only thirteen of these are well known (viz., 1QS, 1QSa, 1QSb, 1QM, 1QH, 1 QapGen, 1 QpHab, CD, 3Q15 [= Copper Scroll], 11QTemple, 11QPsa, 11QpaleoLev, l1QtgJob).

A major international project has been launched to make avail¬able reliable texts and translations of all the Qumran documents already published and in the public domain. Within a decade we will have in three volumes the photographs, texts, translations, and concordances to these numerous documents.

No collection of ancient literature has excited the imagination of our contemporaries so fully as have the Dead Sea Scrolls. And among the new questions raised, none has caught the fancy of the Western world as much as this one- Was Jesus influenced by the unique ideas found in these Qumran scrolls? Now placed before our eyes are leather scrolls once written, held, and read by Jews contemporaneous with Jesus.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have evoked mutually exclusive claims for almost forty years. Some widely read—and too influential—authors have claimed that the Dead Sea “Scrolls are really ‘God’s Gift to the Humanists,’ for every unrolling reveals further indications that Jesus was, as he said, ‘The Son of Man,’ rather than the deity ‘Son of God’ his followers later claimed.” The authors of such statements are untrained and rely basically on secondary sources and even journalists’ articles. Their claims are not merely uninformed; they are preposterous.

Other writers conclude with the opposite contention. U. C. Ewing claims that the Dead Sea Scrolls present sufficient evidence “to ameliorate the position of the Christian religion,” demonstrate that Jesus’ gospel is undeniably historical, and disclose Jesus to be “a symbol of love in its highest and purest state.” It is easy to perceive Christian apologetics practiced by a popularist.

During the battles that resulted from the discovery of the scrolls, self-styled scholars who could not read the scrolls in their original, but were dependent upon frequently inaccurate English translations, picked up the debate between scholars as if it were a fallen mace. Some journalistic writers began to attack the citadels of Christendom, others flayed away in defense of the faith. The Dead Sea Scrolls do not, and cannot, support polemical claims—or counter theological claims—because they do not refer to Jesus either explicitly or implicitly.

The books published by sensationalists are frequently referred to by scholars as examples of crackpot literature. Yet it is precisely such publications, one of which promises to restore the lost years of Jesus’ life, that have won the attention of so many individuals. The public has simply not been reading the careful and erudite publications on the scrolls published by internationally established scholars like D. N. Freedman, J. T. Milik, A. Dupont-Sommer, F. M. Cross, J. A. Sanders, M. Black, R. de Vaux, J. Strugnell, H. Lichtenberger, G. Vermes, J. A. Fitzmyer, K. Stendahl, S. Talmon, and J. Murphy-¬O’Connor.

Unfortunately, I cannot report that the excesses are committed by only non-scholars. John Allegro, an original member of the international Dead Sea Scrolls team, continues to distort the evidence, concluding that Christianity is a fabricated myth. His sensational books are sad polemics against Christianity.

In the 1970s a Spanish papyrologist, José O’Callaghan, claimed that sections of Mark and James had been identified in Greek fragments from Qumran Cave 7. In a recent issue of Biblica (65 [1984], 538-59), C. P. Thiede argues that O’Callaghan’s identification of Mark 6-52-53 is confirmed. Most text critics are not convinced. The Greek on the fragments is simply too brief for any identification.

Only two improper evaluations of the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for Jesus Research will be singled out for discussion now. Each is published by a fine and widely respected scholar.

William S. LaSor is well known for his contributions to the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In his The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1972), he confronts primarily the following question- “What have the Dead Sea Scrolls done to Jesus and the New Testament?” Basically I wish to voice agreement with LaSor- The real importance of the Scrolls is not that they reveal the sources of the New Testament authors; they clarify the complexity of Early Judaism and provide unedited documents, indeed manuscripts themselves, that without any doubt are early Jewish writings.

LaSor is primarily interested in assessing the possible relation between Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls. In pursuing this comparison he makes numerous claims about Jesus that are extreme and, to me, untenable. It is impossible for me to concur that the sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels are usually authentic or unedited.

I agree with him that the scrolls do not support the claim that Jesus was an Essene or even significantly influenced by the Essenes; yet I think he has overreacted against such claims. His concerted attempt to show that Christianity is essentially unique and that Jesus’ deeds and words are unparalleled is reactionary or at least tendentious. His book concludes with sixty-two comparisons between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament. It is informative of his position and method to note that only two parallels are clearly similar.

LaSor’s judgment is basically sound when he claims that both the Essenes and the Early Christians were Jewish “sectarian” move¬ments that emphasized humanity’s sinful state and inability to please God. His conclusion, however, does not seem to follow from this judgment- the Essenes and Christians were “moving in different orbits” (p. 254).

What I find missing in the discussions that lead up to this judgment is a recognition of the complexities and diversities in Early Judaism; the striking similarities—at times—between the Essenes and the Palestinian Jesus Movement; and the recognition that they shared the same old traditions (the Hebrew scriptures, especially Isaiah and the Psalms, and at least some of the Pseudepigrapha), nation, area (Palestine), and time (c. 26-70 C.E.). These shared similarities are impressive, but they are lost by the contention that the Essenes and Jesus’ group were “moving in different orbits.”
LaSor’s attempt to evaluate the possible relation between Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls falters at a fundamental level. He, like some other scholars, fails to appreciate the vast difference between the edited documents in the New Testament and the earlier traditions that lie behind them. Most New Testament specialists today would concur that the failure to comprehend fully this distinction invalidates much New Testament research over the past two hundred years.

Jesus’ death predates the first Gospel by about forty years. The crucial issue is not the comparison of documents, namely the Scrolls, which predate 70 C.E., and the Gospels, which postdate 70. The critical questions concern Jesus and the Essenes and the more than forty years when the Essenes and Jesus and his followers shared the same territory, nationality, and adversaries (namely, the Romans and the Sadducees, and intermittently the Pharisees and the Zealots). Can there be no relationship between the Essenes and Jesus (and his group) when both emphasized the sinfulness of all humanity and need for God’s grace, the two ages and the approaching end of all time, the establishment of the new covenant according to Jeremiah 31-31-34, the presence and power of Satan (or Belial) and the demons, the similar indebtedness to apocalypticism, a cosmic dualism, and the clarion call of Isaiah 40-3? Can all these similarities—many of which are strikingly impressive—be dismissed legitimately as mere coincidences?

Certainly it has become clear that the Essenes and Jesus (and his followers) emphasized essentially the same hermeneutical principle- All scripture and prophecy pointed only to their own time and group. Surely, both were Jewish groups who emphasized (at least in the early decades of the Palestinian Jesus Movement) shared possessions with “brothers.” Obviously, as has become palpable lately both were products—and to a certain extent examples—of Jewish apocalypticism. Clearly, the two Jewish groups shared also an eschatological emphasis, an absolute commitment to their own ideas and beliefs, and were related to a somewhat minor phenomenon in Early Judaism- a messianic theology. Was there no relationship or cross influencing?

These reflections thrust before us one major question- what were the relationships between Jesus (and his followers) and the Essenes? They also awaken in us an appreciation for the proper methodology.

Floyd V. Filson, in an article bearing the same title as LaSor’s book, rightly begins with the following judgment- “For the study of the New Testament background the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is the most significant manuscript find ever made…” Two emphases, however, made by Filson are inaccurate and methodologically imprecise.

He claims that the New Testament writers could not have been influenced by the ideas in the Dead Sea Scrolls, because of the secret character of the essential teaching in them. He correctly stresses that the scrolls reveal that Essene wisdom was reserved for only the fully initiated members. He forgets, however, the following facts- Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, long articles on the Essenes had appeared in major works like Schürer’s Geschichte and The Jewish Encyclopedia. Josephus and other ancient writers described with impressive details the life and thought of the Essenes. The modern but pre-World War II publications and ancient descriptions of the Essenes explain why most scholars rightly judge the Dead Sea Scrolls to belong to the Qumran type of Essenism.

If Josephus knew so much about the Essenes, is it likely that his contemporaries, the authors of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, could not have known something about the theology of the Essenes? Some Essene novitiates rejected, or were rejected by, the Essenes; can we be certain they never divulged what had been learned?

Filson continues his comparison by claiming that Jesus could not have been influenced by the Essenes because they lived in the wilderness of Judea near the Dead Sea and Jesus certainly never visited their monastery. At one point he dismisses Essene influence on Jesus and his followers with a question- “Are we to believe that John the Baptist, Jesus, the author of the Gospel of John, Paul, and the author of Hebrews had all joined the sect and later left it without that fact being recorded?” (p. 149) The implication behind this question is that only Qumran Essenes knew Essene theology and that Jesus and others had to visit the monastery to learn such esoterica.

The implication distorts first-century Palestinian Judaism. According to both Philo and Josephus, four thousand Essenes lived in Palestine. Since no more than approximately three hundred Essenes could have lived at Qumran and nearby, the vast majority, or—if you take four thousand literally—around thirty-seven hundred, dwelt elsewhere. Philo and Josephus also stressed that the Essenes lived in villages and cities, preferring to congregate on the fringes. The reference, by Josephus, to the Essene gate in the walls of Jerusalem is now apparently confirmed by recent archaeological discoveries just to the southwest of the present wall of Jerusalem, and by the Temple Scroll itself. The latter scroll even seems to prove, according to some scholars, that Essenes lived in the southwestern sector of Jerusalem.

These perspectives are significant. Jesus could have met Essenes during his itineraries; maybe he talked with one or more of them. Perhaps they discussed common values and the need for full dedication to God and his covenant. Historical research into pre-70 Palestine convinces me that to ignore these possibilities is to retreat behind some unexamined dogma.

The Essenes are not mentioned in the New Testament. This fact may be because Jesus’ adversaries are the ones who tend to be prominent in the Gospels. Also, we do not know the title or name chosen for self-identification by the group we call “Essene,” a term that itself is a subject of scholarly debate. What do we actually know today about the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The handwriting on the scrolls and the archaeological evidence have enabled critics of widely divergent faiths and perspectives to obtain an impressive consensus. Thanks to decades of tedious and time-consuming research by such scholars, we can now report that the Dead Sea Scrolls are Palestinian, pre-70 compositions, linked with the ruins at Qumran, and related in some way to the Essenes.

The monastery in which the scrolls were written was inhabited by Palestinian Jews from around the middle of the second century B.C.E. until 68 C.E., when the Romans conquered and burned the monastery, leaving behind a layer of black ashes. The handwriting on the sectarian scrolls composed at Qumran is dated from the second century B.C.E., at the earliest (4QS [the earliest copy of the Rule of the Community]), to the first half of the first century C.E., at the latest (the Pesharim; viz. 4QpHosa). The archaeologists found an abundance of coins in the ruins of the monastery; 143 of these are Jewish and were minted during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus, who ruled from 103 to 76 B.C.E. These coins were found in the second stage of occupation; hence the earliest stage must be dated at least as early as the reign of John Hyrcanus I, who ruled from 135 to 104 B.C.E. The coins indicate that some Essenes had begun to live in the Qumran monastery by at least the reign of John Hyrcanus I.

Roman coins from 67/68 C.E. above and Jewish coins to 68 C.E. below a layer of iron arrowheads and black ashes is palpable proof of the successful march toward Jerusalem by the Roman Tenth Legion. We learn from Josephus that in June 68 C.E. the Tenth Legion occupied Jericho, a city only a little to the north of the Qumran monastery (Illus. 2).

Thus, the handwriting of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the date of occupation of Qumran, and the striking evidence of the Roman conquest of the monastery in 68 C.E. cumulatively show that Jews lived in the monastery from the second half of the second century B.C.E. until 68 C.E. Only for a few years during this interval was the monastery abandoned; and that was from about 31 B.C.E. until about 1 B.C.E. It is necessary to emphasize that Jews were living in the monastery and even composing new writings during the youth and public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Unfortunately, several studies on the relationship between Jesus and the Qumran Scrolls imply that the comparison is between Jesus and Essenes of a previous century.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are linked with the ruins at Qumran. The caves in which the scrolls were found are close to the ruins, and Caves 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 are extremely near, a mere few minutes’ walk away (see Map I). Pottery found in the caves and that found in the ruins are virtually identical, and a pottery workshop was unearthed in the ruins. The handwriting on the scrolls is similar to the handwriting on pottery fragments found in the ruins; the differences can be explained by alterations demanded by writing on pottery rather than on leather and by the distinguishable personal habits in writing attested in the scrolls, especially in the two hands of the Thanksgiving Hymns. Finally, the caves and the ruins were occupied during precisely the same periods in history, including the exodus in the latter part of the first century B.C.E.

The scrolls are widely and wisely linked with a monastic and exiled type of Essenes, the most pious and strict group within Early Judaism. Ancient authors, notably Philo, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder, describe at some length the life and thought of the Essenes. The latter historian even places one group of them precisely where Qumran and the eleven caves that housed the scrolls are situated. The similarities between the thoughts attributed to the Essenes by these ancient authors and the ideas contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls are unmistakable and so striking that some relationship must exist between the Essenes and the scrolls. Hence, despite some recent arguments that the scrolls should not be identified with the Essenes, I follow the scholarly arguments, especially those by Dupont-Sommer and Cross, that the scrolls are to be identified with some type of Essenism.

There are differences, however, between the descriptions of the ancient authors and the contents of the twentieth-century discoveries. We now must acknowledge that we are confronted with numerous phenomena related to the Essenes- 1) the Proto-Essenes, probably the group that produced the early books of Enoch that date from circa 250 to 150 B.C.E., and the community behind Jubilees (perhaps the most conservative document in the Pseudepigrapha), since fragments from each of these have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (and some fragments of 1En antedate 200 B.C.E.); 2) the Qumran Essenes, the group of priests who left the Temple cult for the Judean desert under the leadership of the Righteous Teacher (Môrēh has-Sedek) sometime around 150 B.C.E.; 3) non-Qumran Essenes, the groups of Essenes living in communities in Palestine other than at Qumran; and 4) not necessarily Essene, but related, groups of Jews who would have produced such writings as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and perhaps the later books attributed to Enoch. Our concern now is primarily with the Qumran Essenes, the monastic group of Essenes that preserved, compiled, edited, or wrote the numerous “sectarian” documents called the Dead Sea Scrolls.

With these historical, geographical, and ideological issues clarified, we can proceed with the main issue before us. What relation¬ship, if any, was there between the Essene groups and Jesus of Nazareth?

It should now be abundantly clear that Jesus and the Essenes were contemporaries, and that there are numerous possibilities for Jesus to have heard about Essene doctrines, practices, interpretations of the Bible, and social habits. He could well have been influ¬enced by them without having to visit the Qumran monastery; and it is likely he had observed some practices of the non-Qumran Essenes.

We are now ready to examine the evidence that Jesus may have been influenced by the Essenes. We can be relatively certain that he was influenced by them if two main criteria are met by the facts. First, we must be confident that the saying of Jesus being examined is free from the theological tendencies of the evangelists and was not created by the post-Easter believers who equated sayings of the risen Christ with the earthly Jesus. We need to limit our focus to reliable Jesus tradition.
Second, we must be relatively certain that the Essene idea under examination is peculiar to the Essenes and not an idea shared by numerous other Jews at that time. This task is extremely complicated, because we must eliminate from consideration all of Jesus’ sayings and all of the Essene passages that contain ideas borrowed from the Old Testament. To do otherwise would be to ignore the fact that both Jesus and the Essenes were independently influenced from one main source, the Old Testament. We must also remove from consideration sayings and passages that could be examples of how Jesus and the Essenes were independently influenced by non-Essene contemporary Jewish documents. This task of reduction is exceedingly complex for two reasons. As we have already seen, the quantity of material from Jesus’ time has increased phenomenally. For possible Essene influence upon Jesus, we must be careful to ensure that the idea under consideration is a peculiar characteristic of Essene theology.

The preceding process of reduction leaves us only with the sayings attributed to Jesus that faithfully preserve what he most probably said—not necessarily his perfectly preserved, unedited sayings (ipsissima verba Jesu) —and from this reservoir of reputed sayings, only those quotations that are linked with ideas, images, or symbols that were unique to the Essenes. Obviously, the flow of thought would be seriously impaired if we were forced to pause and exhaustively demonstrate why the criteria are met. Suffice it to state that the examples now to be explored are ones that have met rigorous examination.


Scholars have argued habitually either for or against only positive influence upon Jesus by the Essenes. Jesus may have known about the Essenes and been disturbed about an aspect of their life or thought; hence, he could well have been influenced in a negative way by them. An example of negative influence from the Essenes upon Jesus may be one of Jesus’ teachings about the Sabbath. Jesus’ saying that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2-27) appears to go back to him.

It is difficult to attribute this saying of Jesus to the early Christian communities. They were apparently embarrassed by this teaching and the obvious potential for misinterpreting it. For example, an agraphon (a saying of Jesus not recorded in the accepted text of the canonical Gospels) records that Jesus sees a man breaking the Sabbath and tells him that he is blessed if he knows what he is doing but cursed if he does not. Here is the agraphon, which is found in place of Luke 6-5 in Codex D (a Greek manuscript of the fifth or sixth century now in Cambridge)-

On the same day, he (Jesus) saw a man performing a work on the Sabbath. Then he said unto him,

“Man, if you know what you do,

you are blessed.

But if you do not know,

you are accursed and a transgressor of the Law.”

It is possible that the man thought he was following Jesus’ teaching but failed to perceive that Jesus was not speaking against the observance of the Sabbath but against distortions of its original meaning.

It is significant that the saying “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” is found only in Mark. Matthew and Luke refused to adopt this logion from their main source, Mark.
If the Marcan saying ultimately derives from Jesus, then he may well have been directing it against the strict Pharisaic School of Shammai (m.Shab 1.8, 3.1) or against the Essenes, who were apparently more extreme than other Jewish contemporaries of Jesus.

Devout first-century Jews took seriously the commandment to observe the Sabbath as a day of rest (Deut 5-12). The rabbis debated what was permissible on the Sabbath, with the School of Shammai almost always advocating a more severe ruling than the School of Hillel (m.Shab 1.8, 3.1). The rabbis permitted some deeds on the Sabbath, like covering up hot food with clothes (m.Shab 4.1), or tossing something from one balcony to another (m.Shab 11.2), or from one ship to another (m.Shab 11.5). And they advocated provisions to absolve guilt for unintentional (m.Shab 7.1) and intentional but perhaps necessary violations (m.Shab 7.1, 7.3). The penance was mild, merely the presentation in the Temple of a sin-offering (m.Shab 7.3, 11.6). Allowances are also provided for the deliberate profanation of the Sabbath, as when a woman who has given birth needs treatment (m.Shab 18.3), or when a son requires circumcision (m.Shab 18.3, 19.2).

The tone of these rules is serious, but it is categorically different from the tone of a document revered by the members of the Qumran community. In the Damascus Document, a large portion of two columns (10.14-11.18) concerns ordinances for the proper observance of the Sabbath. The ordinances are occasionally shockingly strict; it is forbidden on the Sabbath to lend anything to a friend or to lift a pebble or brush away dust in your home. These strictures are more rigid than those which may be traceable back to other pious Jews, like the Pharisees, who prohibited certain work on the Sabbath (m.Shab 7.2).

Matthew attributes to Jesus another statement regarding the Sabbath that it is important for us also to consider- “What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out” (Mt 12- 11; italics mine)? The core of this saying in Matthew may also be traceable back to Jesus. It is quoted in different words by Luke in another passage unique to him (14-5, cf. 13-15), and it well suits Jesus’ liberal attitude toward the Sabbath as revealed in his actions, which are too well known to need reporting.

In the Damascus Document, we find sufficient evidence that an Essene might have replied to Jesus’ question with the words, “I would leave the sheep in the pit.” The Damascus Document warns the Essene not to help a beast out of a “cistern” or ‘‘pit’’ “on the Sabbath” (CD 11.13-14; italics mine). The striking similarity between Matthew 12-11 and the Damascus Document 11- 13-14 raises an intriguing question- Was Jesus directing his words against an Essene Sabbath rule that he had observed was cruel to animals, and even broke God’s injunction to Adam to have dominion over them and be responsible for them as recorded in Genesis 1-28?

Extreme caution is necessary if we are going to be relatively certain that we are working with justifiable probabilities. Jesus may not be rejecting Essene thoughts and practices. There were numerous Jews, besides the Essenes, who held extremely strict rules for the Sabbath. Many of these were Pharisees, as Mark 2-24 shows, and other groups as well may be indicated by the traditions in the Mishnah, under the tractate called Shabbath. We cannot be certain that Jesus’ remarks about the Sabbath were directed against the Essenes; but this possibility must be allowed since the reference to the sheep (or a beast) in the pit on the Sabbath is remarkable in a saying of Jesus and in an Essene scroll and since Josephus reports that the Essenes observed the Sabbath “more rigorously than any other Jews” (War 2.8.147).

It is evident that there is at least one example of probable (or at least possible) negative influence upon Jesus from the Essenes. This evidence is significant, because it precludes the possibility that all possible Essene influence must come only after Jesus and from members of the early Christian communities who had formerly been Essenes. It is highly improbable that gentile Christians would have created an anti-Essene polemic and placed it in Jesus’ mouth, or that converted Essenes would have created a saying antithetical to an Essene tradition and put it in the mouth of the one they now considered their Lord.


Some passages suggest that Jesus may have been influenced in a positive fashion by the Essenes. The very first beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount is “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5-3) This saying cannot have originated with Matthew and his community, because Luke records it also, and in an impressively different way- “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (6-20b) The blessing of the “poor in spirit” or “poor” is very Jewish, fits well within Jesus’ own lifetime, appears to be early in the transmission of Jesus’ sayings, and may very well derive ultimately from him.

It is inconceivable that Jesus wished to praise those who had poor spirits; it is also improbable that Jesus meant this blessing to be interpreted literally. He did not tell his disciples to become financially poor, or to make people poor; he exhorted them to give possessions and money to the poor. The intent was to help the penniless rise out of their poverty. Certainly, Jesus and the Essenes emphasized the reversal of fortunes in the New Age for the faithful ones- The “poor” will be blessed fully; but this shared apocalyptic emphasis on redefinition only prompts the need for further probes to discern the possible background of Jesus’ Beatitudes. If these insights are correct, then we must ask about the historical setting and metaphorical meaning of the terms “poor in spirit” and “poor.”

Philo (Apologia pro Judaeis 11) and Josephus (War 2.8.122) both report that the Essenes lived frugally and rejected every form of luxury and riches. Their comments are helpful; but they do not supply us with a metaphorical meaning for “poor in spirit” or “poor.”

This meaning is now supplied in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Both of these terms, “poor in spirit” and “poor,” are technical terms used only by the Essenes to describe themselves. In 1 Enoch 97-8-10 the rich with many possessions are condemned, but the malediction does not come from “the Poor.” In the Psalms of Solomon “the poor” are indeed the faithful ones, but they do not refer to them¬selves, as do the Qumran Essenes, as “the Poor.”

In the War Scroll the Poor (’ebhyōn) is a self-designation by the Essenes as they foresee the glorious victory over “our enemies,” who will be delivered “into the hand of the Poor (whom) you have redeemed” (IQM 11.9, cf. 11.13). A few columns later in the War Scroll the Essenes are so certain that they will win the battle that they rejoice before it begins; again they refer to themselves with a technical term, “the Poor”- “But we in the lot of your truth shall rejoice because of your mighty hand…. Truly, your mighty hand is with the Poor” (1QM 13.12-14)!

The Essenes also conceived of themselves as “the Poor in spirit.” In the War Scroll “the Poor of (or in) spirit” are identified as “the perfect of the Way” (another technical term in the Dead Sea Scrolls), and it is by this group, the Essenes, that the wicked nations shall be conquered.

Why did the Essenes use the term “the Poor” to identify themselves? The answer is found in the Thanksgiving Hymns. In these hymns we find the term “the Poor” (‘anāw and ‘ānî) employed seven times, and six of these are in passages that have been wisely attributed by Gert Jeremias, in his monograph on the founder of the Qumran community, to the Righteous Teacher.

The Righteous Teacher suffered physical and emotional torture from the “Wicked Priest,” who had exiled him from the Temple priesthood. True to his religious heritage and brilliant theological sensitivities, the Righteous Teacher, who had led his followers to the monastery in the desert before he had finished composing some hymns, looks back on his tortures with thanksgiving praises to God, who had redeemed his servant, “the life of the Poor One.” How poignant is the Righteous Teacher’s self-understanding of being “the Poor One”-

And you (0 God) have delivered the life of the Poor One


(who had been) in the den of lions,

who had sharpened their tongue(s) like a sword.

And you, O my God, have shut up their teeth

lest they tear out the life of the Poor One (‘ānî)

and the Beggar (wārāsh).

And you have forced backwards their tongue(s) like a sword

into its sheath,

lest the life of your Servant be slain.

The author, the Righteous Teacher, continues by affirming he has been tried and tested so that God’s power would be manifest to others through him, “the Poor One.” (bā’ebhyōn 1QH 5.16; cf. 5.18, 5.21f., 2.32-34) He was “the Poor One” because of his loss of wealth, prestige, power, and most of all, his rightful place of leadership and honor in the Temple cult. Later the Qumran community referred to itself as “the Poor,” at times referring to itself as “all the Poor of Grace” (kol ’ebhyōney hāsedh 1QH 5.22).

It is apparent that the Essenes referred to themselves as “the Poor in spirit” and “the Poor.” The terms signified that they had renounced all worldly possessions and dreams so that they might be members of God’s lot, and the remnant of God’s chosen elect. The Qumran community—and no other group, according to our extant sources—used “the Poor” as a technical term to refer to itself.
For our present purposes it is not necessary to discern whether Jesus uttered a blessing upon “the poor in spirit,” as in Matthew, or upon “the poor,” as in Luke. Studies of these passages suggest that the traditions arise ultimately from Jesus. We are confronted, thence, with an intriguing possibility- Was Jesus referring to the Essenes, “the Poor,” and praising their absolute allegiance to God and desire to be purified and holy?

The first beatitude would be in harmony, then, with many of Jesus’ sayings regarding the cost of discipleship; for example, Mark 10-21, “go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Like the Essene, such a follower would have become poor for the sake of God’s Kingdom. It is conceivable, therefore, that Jesus could have been positively influenced by the Essenes’ dedication. Perhaps the first beatitude originally meant something like the following- “Blessed are you Poor—who like the Essenes live only for God—for you already possess God’s Kingdom.”

The attempts to compare Jesus with the Dead Sea Scrolls—as we have seen—have foundered on numerous fallacies, misconceptions, improper methodologies, secondhand, even insufficient understanding of Jesus and the Essenes, and misguided apologetics. To be specific, the most prominent, pervasive, and significant faults are the following- the desire to prove Jesus is totally unique and the incarnate Son of God; the tendency to read red-letter New Testaments as if one has been given Jesus’ unedited authentic words; the opinion that the Qumran Essenes over three centuries espoused the same theology and that those who went to Qumran in the middle of the second century D.C.E. were the ones living there in the first century C.E.; the confusion of a search for a relationship with evidence of borrowing; and the tendency to miscast the role of historian, who works only at best with probabilities, so that only what is a certainty is to be judged reliable.


What is significant and new about the Dead Sea Scrolls for research on the Jesus of history? Our reflections are organized under similar¬ities, differences, and the milieu shared. Four similarities may be briefly sketched.

First, Jesus shared with the Essenes a theology that was thoroughly monotheistic (there is only one God) and eschatological (the present is the end of all time and history). Some sectors of Early Judaism tended to undermine the emphatic monotheism that derived from the Old Testament. They seem to have been preoccupied with speculations about angelology and hypostatic beings. Yet, a basic common denominator in Early Judaism is monotheism (cf. 1QS 3). This similarity between Jesus and the Essenes was shared with most other early Jews in Palestine.

It is misrepresentative to claim that the Essenes “thought of the present as the end-time, but they did not match Jesus’ note of realized eschatology.” The best scholars, including C. H. Dodd (who erroneously coined the term “realized eschatology” in reaction to A. Schweitzer), have abandoned such descriptions of Jesus’ eschatology. Like the Essenes, Jesus’ theology was categorically eschatological. He preached a somewhat more imminent eschatology, but one should talk about the difference between the Essenes and Jesus in such a way that Jesus’ eschatology was more realizing in terms of degree, not kind (contrast Mk 1-14-15 and 9-1 with 1QS 6). Furthermore, Jesus differed from the Essenes regarding the nature of the future, the understanding of the approaching Kingdom of God, and most significantly on how one must prepare for its coming.

Second, Jesus shared with the Essenes an utter dedication to God and Torah. Perhaps he was referring to the Essenes, the only celibate group known in Early Judaism, when he praised the men who were eunuchs for God’s Kingdom. (Mt 19-10-12)

Third, Mark reports that Jesus proclaimed that divorce is forbidden. This apodictic statement was difficult to comprehend, and so Matthew relaxed it and made it casuistic. (Mt 5-31-32, 19-9) Jesus’ view on divorce, according to Mark, was long considered unparalleled in the history of Jewish thought. For years, New Testament scholars were confused by Jesus’ proclamation. Now a prohibition of divorce is apparently found in the longest and most recently published of the Dead Sea Scrolls, namely the Temple Scroll. Ac¬cording to this document, the king must remain married to only one woman- “And he (the king) must not select in addition to her an¬other woman because she, herself alone, will remain with him all the days of her life” (11QTemple 57.17-18). What is demanded of the king is even more stringently required of others. In early Jewish and Christian sources only Jesus, according to Mark, and the author of this scroll denied the possibility of divorce. Since the Temple Scroll, according to some scholars, appears to be the quintessential Torah for the Essenes, the relationships that may have existed between Jesus and the Essenes should be reexamined.

Any comparisons between Jesus and the Essenes must ultimately be grounded in a recognition of vast differences. Unlike the Essenes, Jesus rejected a rigid observance of the Sabbath. And he involved himself with all ranks of humanity, including prostitutes and tax collectors. He and they held very different attitudes to the Jewish laws developing during his time regarding purification.
The vast difference between Jesus’ liberal attitude toward purity and the Essenes’ virtual paranoia about becoming unclean is now brought into sharp focus. No person was any more unclean and feared than a leper. Today, thanks to the Temple Scroll, we know there was a leper colony to the east of Jerusalem. The author (or compiler) of the Temple Scroll states that “in every city you shall allot places for those afflicted with leprosy… who may not enter your cities and defile them” (l1QTemple 48.14-15). The lepers are to be isolated “east of the city” Jerusalem (l1QTemple 46.16-17). As Yadin states, “we learn for the first time that there were special places of isolation for lepers east of the city.”

As is well known, on his way to Jerusalem Jesus rested at Beth¬any, residing “in the home of Simon the leper” (Mk 14-3). Jesus deliberately disobeyed the Jewish laws regarding purity; he visited a leper. Bethany is a well-known village just to the east of Jerusalem. Yadin is surely correct when he concludes that “Jesus had not happened by chance to find himself in the house of a leper, but had deliberately chosen to spend the night before entering Jerusalem in this leper colony, which was anathema both to the Essenes and the Pharisees” (p. 177).

The central importance of purity in Early Judaism is clarified by the focused work of J. Strugnell and E. Qimron on fragments of a Qumran letter. In “An Unpublished Halakhic Letter from Qumran” (The Israel Museum Journal 4 [1985] 9-12), they announced the existence and importance of this letter.
Qimron contends that the letter was written by the Righteous Teacher around the year 150 B.C.E. It was directed against the Wicked Priest, the high priest who controlled the Temple cult. Qimron and Strugnell, on the basis of the letter, presented a significant and learned opinion (p. 10)-

During the Second Commonwealth, the observance of ritual purity was of such significance that defiling was considered a more severe transgression than bloodshed (Tosefta Yoma 1-12). Thus, the laws concerning purity, and those on the Temple cult, occupied a central place (quantitatively) in the earliest halakha. Indeed, most of the controversies between the Pharisees and the Sadducees concerned matters of ritual purity. Marital status was, of course, a central feature too. Any controversy on each one of these topics could create serious obstacles to communal religious life.

Let me now suggest some implications of these insights for research on the historical Jesus. His life and teachings were often in sharp contrast to the religious life of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. E. P. Sanders, in his important Jesus and Judaism, underestimates the sheer magnitude of the social crises caused by Jesus’ rejection of the Jewish, especially Essene, rules of purification. Jesus’ examples were perhaps polemics directed against groups of Jews who, like the Essenes, stressed separation from anything or anyone impure. Perhaps the Parable of the Good Samaritan does not in its present form derive from Jesus, but it symbolizes Jesus’ exhortation- be willing to be defiled in the attempt to help or save another, even Jews of questionable beliefs and ancestry. On this principle Jesus and the Essenes stand at opposite ends of the spec¬trum.

Most important, Jesus emphasized the need to love others, an attitude illustrated in Luke by the Parable of the Good Samaritan and developed into a new commandment in the Johannine writings. It is conceivable that Jesus may have been thinking about and rejecting the exhortation to hate “the sons of darkness,” when he stated, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’” (Mt 5-43). The best, and possibly only real, parallel to the injunction to hate others is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In fact, according to the Rule of the Community (1QS), at the time of the yearly renewal Qumran Essenes chanted curses on all the sons of darkness, specifically those who are not Essenes, including Jews who masquerade as Essenes.

Without a doubt the most significant and uncontroversial importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for Jesus Research is the light they shine on a previously dark period. To enter into the world of the Dead Sea Scrolls is to become immersed in Jesus’ time and ideological environment. The Scrolls do more than provide the ideological landscape of Jesus’ life or disclose the spirit of the time (Zeitgeist) he knew. They and the realia of the Qumran monastery reflect dimly also the social and economic settings of pre-70 Palestinian Jews.

In addition to these brief comments, the Dead Sea Scrolls—along with the Pseudepigrapha and the Mishnah—enable us to begin to appreciate the distinctive features of Jesus’ own theology. These early Jewish texts supply the framework from which to evaluate the “uniqueness” of Jesus of Nazareth. The contours of the historical Jesus begin to appear, and it is startling to discern how true it is that the genesis and genius of earliest Christianity, and the one reason it was distinguishable from Judaism, is found essentially in one life and one person.

In summation, we can report that Renan’s oft-quoted dictum, that Christianity is Essenism that succeeded, is simplistic and distorted. Christianity did not evolve out of one “sect” on the fringes of a normative Judaism. Christianity developed out of many Jewish currents; there was no one source or trajectory. The founder of Christianity is Jesus. He, of course, was not an Essene; but he may have shared with the Essenes more than the same nation, time, and place.

Pages 54-75

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