History, Archeology and Theology
By Rev. Gaetano Salomone
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 was one of the most exciting archeological finds of all time. Hidden in the hills of the Judean desert for 2,000 years, the writings contain some of the most important documentary evidence for a lost and forgotten group of Jewish monks who were in existence during the time of Jesus. Known as the Essenes, this enigmatic sect was originally a separatist faction of priests from the Jerusalem Temple seekingto exemplify the new Israel in the wilderness. Led by a mysterious figure known as The Teacher of Righteousness, they flourished for two centuries before being destroyed by the Roman army in 70 CE.
After more than a generation of Scrolls studies, there are still many questions regarding the nature of the group that created them. What is becoming increasingly clear is that the Essene writings represent a genuine contact point between Judaism and Christianity before the latter became a world religion. The Scrolls use themes and language surprisingly similar to the New Testament, including expectations for the coming Messiah and references to righteousness by faith. These parallels have led some scholars to postulate a direct influence on both Jesus and the earliest church.
While a direct link between Jesus and the Essenes cannot be established with certainty, some evidence points to at least a cursory connection. It is extremely relevant that John the Baptist was operating only a few miles from Khirbet Qumran, where the Scrolls were later found. John may have been either a leader in the Essene movement or a breakaway sympathizer who preached an apocalyptic message of judgement, repentance and water cleansing through ritual immersion, that overlaps well with most Essene teachings.
The theology of the Scrolls is ultra-separatist and legalistic in the interpretation of Torah, condemning the rest of Judaism as idolatrous. The message of Jesus was more compassionate towards the sick, poor and oppressed and may have been a reaction to the stricter teachings of John and the Essenes. It is not inconceivable that many of the original converts to the Jesus movement were Essenes living in villages throughout Palestine who lived outside the monastery and were allowed to marry, as mentioned by the famous Jewish historian of the time, Flavius Josephus.
The Qumran writings have intrigued scholars and given rise to much debate. The Damascus Document and Manual of Discipline contain the rules for those entering the sect, where individual property was surrendered to the community. These documents also teach how to behave in the midst of the congregation, setting the protocols for ritual washings and sacred meals. The War Scroll anticipates a cataclysmic fight with the Romans and the Temple Scroll describes a new Temple of gigantic dimensions that would replace the corrupt institution. A Copper Scroll was also found written on metal, describing treasures hidden at various sites, but which have never been found.
The Essenes apparently had been expecting two Messiahs — a Kingly and Priestly figure. Seeing itself as the elect of Israel, the Qumran sect expected to do battle for the Lord in the Last Days. They spoke of a sharp division between the Sons of Light and Sons of Darkness, anticipating ideas found in the New Testament letters of Paul and the Gospel of John. It is possible that Jesus’ Last Supper was modeled on the Essene practice of breaking bread in the company of Twelve priestly representatives of Israel.
In all, the fragmentary remains of about eight-hundred documents have been recovered, including biblical and extra-biblical writings. Copies of Isaiah and Jeremiah turn out to be the earliest versions of these texts known, demonstrating the accuracy of the Qumran scribes. Scholars sometimes work with parchment pieces the size of postage stamps that are extremely brittle and faded. New methods for preserving these scroll fragments have developed and infrared imaging used to decipher writing where the ink has flaked off.
What actually transpired in the arid desert as the Romans came bearing down on
the ascetic sect is lost to the mists of history. Thankfully, some of the monks
succeeded in hiding their precious writings for future generations before they
themselves perished. After nearly two-thousand years of silence, the legacy of
the Scrolls is revealed today as a witness to the undying spirit of Jewish
spirituality that seeks to obey God even in the face of death. Perhaps this is
the biggest lesson of the Scrolls — that the forces of evil can never silence
the cry of those seeking justice with all their heart, mind and soul.
For Further Study:
Hodge, Stephen. The Dead Sea Scrolls Rediscovered: An Updated Look at One of Archeology’s Greatest Mysteries. Ulysses Press, 2003; Shanks, Herchel, ed. The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Random House, 1998; Wise, Michael, Martin Abegg, Jr. and Edward Cook. The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation. Harper/Collins, 1996.
Rev. Gaetano Salomone is an independent, Old-Catholic priest. He conducts lectures and workshops on the Historical Jesus and the Gnostic Gospels at the Learning Light in Anaheim.
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