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The Dead Sea Scrolls

by Elizabeth McNamer

The Dead Sea scrolls first hit the headlines when they were discovered in 1947. A Bedouin boy chasing his lost goat came across the first of these scrolls in a cave by the ancient fort of Kirbet Qumran near the Dead Sea. The scroll was wrapped in goat skin inside a large ceramic urn.

The scholarly world was set on fire with excitement by the announcement that the manuscript was a copy of the Book of Isaiah, written over 2,000 years before. The oldest copy of any Old Testament text found before that time was from the ninth century. Since then 200 scrolls have been found.

In the 1950s, Father Roland de Vaux, a Dominican priest and archaeologist, excavated Kirbet Qumran. He established that a community of men had lived there from 175 B.C. to 70 A.D. It is now generally accepted that these men were the Essenes. Little was known about them. They were mentioned in the first century by the Roman scholar Pliny, by the Jewish historian Philo of Alexandria, and by the Jewish historian Josephus.

The scrolls are still being found and pieced together. Only about half of them have been translated. They are written on goat skins, papyrus, and one is written on copper.

Content and Significance

The scrolls contain all of the books of the Hebrew Bible (except Esther). There are several books that never became part of the Hebrew Scriptures. There are numerous commentaries on the Scriptures. And there are books having to do with community life, rules for living, temple worship and other matters. There are many duplicates: 14 copies of Deuteronomy have been found and at least two of Isaiah.

The scrolls are important first because they testify to the accuracy of the scribes who copied the Scriptures. Despite minor errors, they show us that the Hebrew Bible has not changed since it was compiled.

Second, they throw light on beliefs and customs in Palestine during intertestamental times. There was far more diversity among Palestinian Jews than had been thought.

The biblical scrolls are all written in Hebrew but it is evident that they were translated and transcribed not only from Hebrew but from the Greek Septuagint, from the Samaritan Pentateuch and from Aramaic and Ethiopic texts. Clearly several versions of the Scriptures were in use in Israel at this time.

The Community Scrolls

We know that the Essenes came into existence about 175 B.C., during the Hasmonean dynasty when the Jews were succumbing to Greek influence.

The high priesthood, historically of such significance to the Jews, was a position sought after by unholy men, temple ritual had degenerated and there was generally a great deal of discontent.

Under the leadership of the "Teacher of Righteousness" the Essenes took themselves off to the desert away from the "wicked priest" to prepare a way for the Lord. The community scroll tells us that they modeled their organization on the house of "Aaron and Israel" (Aaron and Israel represent the priests and the people). The community was presided over by a guardian instructor. The head priest (a Levite) fulfilled all the priestly duties, pronounced blessings over meals and presided over assemblies and he was the judge in all moral matters.

A group of twelve made important decisions. The community at Qumran were celibates but they also had a second order for married people. These members lived scattered throughout the country and needed different rules. (Bones of women and children were found in the cemetery not far from the main building at Qumran).

The Temple Scroll

The temple scroll is one of the most important of the nonbiblical scrolls. It was wrapped in a linen cloth on which was a design of the Temple itself.

From this scroll we learn about the celebration of various feasts, the role of Levites, and the calendar that was in use in Qumran. It was not the same calendar as was used by other Jewish groups. The scroll even describes where the public toilets were located.

We learn that lepers and the lame were not allowed on the Temple ground. Yigael Yadin who translated the scroll suggests that Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem, was one of three villages mentioned as one in which Essene lepers and others afflicted with illnesses were allowed to settle since, because of their impurity, these people were not allowed to enter the city.

The position of the Levite (priests) is stressed, leading some scholars to believe that Qumran was a seminary for temple priests.

The scroll gives rules for the behavior of the king (he shall not marry his brother's wife). Some scholars have put forth the idea that because of the great interest it shows in the Temple, this scroll was written at the time of Herod (40-4 B.C.), who was involved in the Temple construction, and that the notorious king was in fact a friend of the Essenes. The question has been posed: Were the Herodians mentioned in Mark's Gospel Essenes?

The Essenes were in favor of crucifixion. This was forbidden in the book of Deuteronomy (21:22). The scrolls make no mention of resurrection although we know that this was an important point of discussion between Pharisees and Sadducees.

Expecting a Messiah

The scrolls show the diversity of beliefs about the Messiah. We know of Messianic expectations among the Jews from the canonical books that were written in the two centuries preceding Jesus.

Apocalyptic literature speaks of the Son of Man as a pre-existent mystical creature who would establish a kingdom of peace and justice.

There is expectation of a political "Son of David" Messiah. The Book of Daniel talks about 490 years elapsing between the Babylonian Exile and the establishment of the messianic kingdom.

In the New Testament, Matthew's Gospel tells us that magi were consulting the stars as to the arrival of a Messiah. Simeon, in Luke's Gospel, was convinced that he wouldn't die before seeing the Messiah. In all four Gospels, we hear that John the Baptist had gone out to the desert to "prepare a way for the Lord." The disciples of Jesus seem to have expected a political leader.

The community at Qumran also looked to the coming of the Messiah, but it is unclear what kind of Messiah they were expecting. The word Messiah means "anointed one." Kings, priests and sometimes prophets were annointed. The scrolls talk of a Messiah of "Aaron and Israel." Scholars interpret this to mean that they were possibly expecting two Messiahs, one priestly and the other royal. In another scroll, the Messiah is referred to as a prophet.

Forces of Light and Darkness

The centuries preceding (and following) Jesus were filled with belief in the end of the world. The Qumran community also expected its imminent end.

The war scroll suggests that the Messianic age would be hailed by battles in which Satan would seem to have the upper hand. There would be "war between forces of light and darkness."

The Messiah would be a Davidic prince who would lead the people to triumph and defeat the Romans (whom they refer to as Kittim). He would "teach righteousness at the end of days" and bring into being the Kingdom of God. Yet the Messiah "would obey the priests." It is obvious that there was no clear understanding of what the Messiah would be.

The forces of light versus the forces of darkness is a prominent theme in many of the scrolls. The war scroll abounds in references to angels, all with theophonic names: MichaEL, GabriEL, RaphaEL, SariEL. It is evident that the Essene community regarded them as more than simply messengers.

In the scroll called the Genesis Apocryphon, which is a commentary on Genesis, a section refers to the miraculous birth of Noah. His father, Lamech, suspects that his wife has consorted with one of the angels who descended from heaven and married the daughter of men, and he takes her to task for this.

A fragment called the "Angelic liturgy" talks about "seven sovereign princes" suggesting that angels were demigods.

One of the most puzzling questions the scrolls present is just how important were angels? Did the Jews regard angels as demigods? The Bible records that the chosen people often had a problem with belief in one God (who was all good) given them by Moses.

The Jews were under Persian control from 520 B.C. until 332 B.C. The religion of Persia was Zoroastrian. This religion suggested the possibility of two gods, one good and one evil (Ahuira Mazda and Shaitan). The theme of the forces of light versus the forces of darkness constantly occurs in Zoroastrian writings. It was a religion that believed in the existence of angels, both good and bad.

The fact that there is no book of Esther, which is regarded as an anti-Persian book, has led some to suggest that there was a connection between the Essenes and the Persians. That some of these ideas seeped into Judaism is evident in that angels appear in biblical books that were compiled at this time, and Satan (from Shaitan) is given a place in the books of Job, Zechariah and 1 Chronicles.

Jesus and the Essenes

A question often asked by Christians is whether there was a relationship between the Essenes and Jesus. The Community Rule tells us that baptism was important to the Essenes; they had a sacred communal meal of bread and wine and a council of twelve for making important decisions. They held property in common. They worshipped as a community and prayed together, singing psalms and listening to the readings and expositions of Scripture. Celibacy was considered preferable to marriage. They considered themselves the new Israel. They believed in the imminent end of the world. Their literature has themes of spirit versus flesh, good versus evil, light versus darkness.

All these show up in the writings of the New Testament. The Acts of the Apostles show us a community very like the community at Qumran. The Gospel of John reflects the themes of light versus darkness.

In the first flurry of excitement when the scrolls first appeared, too many conclusions were reached too quickly. Because of the interest the Essenes showed in baptism, it was thought that John the Baptist was an Essene. Because the Essenes lived in the desert and Jesus spent some time in the desert, it was thought that Jesus was an Essene.

Scholars now suggest that there may have been a connection, that Jesus himself may have come from an Essene background but had abandoned it. Later, however, he may have celebrated the Passover according to the Essene calendar. Bargil Pixner has put forward the idea that Martha, Mary and Lazarus, who lived at Bethany, were Essene.

But the teachings of Jesus are in many cases directly opposed to the teachings of the Essenes. For example, in the manual of discipleship, places at table are designated according to the importance of the person. One moved up a notch as one became more important. Jesus said, "If anyone would be first let him be last," and gave that little speech about going to the lowest place at table. Jesus taught love of enemies, while the Essenes were admonished to hate the enemy.

Jesus taught that men are not made for the Sabbath, but we know that the Sabbath observance was of great importance to Essenes. They could not assist an animal who was giving birth on the Sabbath, or a man who had fallen into a pit. The Essenes shunned the Temple at Jerusalem; Jesus didn't. They were very keen on ritual cleanness to the extent that they bathed before every meal; Jesus did not.

In the war scroll, it is apparent that the handicapped and the ill were unacceptable; yet we know from Luke's Gospel that the mission of Jesus was to free the captive, give sight to the blind and free the downtrodden. Their messiah would be from the line of David and Aaron. He would fight against the sons of darkness and the nations of the world would be destroyed in battle. Jesus saw his death as saving mankind and did not see killing as the final solution.

It is inevitable that there should be some similarities between Christianity and the Essene community, since both drew from the common source of Judaism. Both were sects within Judaism, before Christianity became a religion on its own and the Essene community died in the Roman war. In the long run the Dead Sea scrolls ask more questions than they answer. For all the questions and curiosities, however, they remain a significant discovery.

Elizabeth McNamer, one of the general editors of, and a frequent contributor to Scripture From Scratch, teaches religious studies at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana. She has an M.A. in religious studies from Gonzaga University and a Ph.D. in adult education/religious studies from Montana State University.

Next: Israel vs. Judah: The Chosen People Divided (by Virginia Smith)


Talking About Scriptures  

Many teachings of the Essenes are opposite to the teaching of Jesus. For instance, they taught lack of love and even hatred for the foreigner while Jesus went out of his way to draw all people in. Are we Essene or Christian in our attitude to foreigners and others who are unlike us?



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