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Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
Next: Israel vs. Judah: The Chosen People Divided
(by Virginia Smith)