The Dead Sea Scrolls — what Christian isn’t curious to know more? Who were the Essenes, the Jewish monks responsible for producing them? My New Testament instructor back at Duchesne High School was adamant that John the Baptist was one of their number and that Jesus and the Holy Family were lay members of the larger Essene movement. He noted some interesting parallels, but I was uneasy with his conclusions. At age fifteen, however, I had no idea how to go about critically evaluating and responding to his claims.
As the years passed and my study of the faith deepened, I saw the scrolls referenced in various books and understood how they could assist Christians. For example, the Protestant Reformers set St. Paul’s statement in Romans 3:28 that we are “justified by faith apart from works of law” in juxtaposition to the Church’s historic belief that final justification was a result of faith and good works – works that resulted from obeying the moral law. When the Church read Paul’s statement about being justified apart from “works of the law,” it understood him to mean “apart from works of the [ceremonial] law,” i.e. circumcision, dietary restrictions, animal sacrifice, etc. Well, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, exegetes and theologians finally had an historical witness to what “works of the law” meant in first century Judaism: In agreement with the Church, the scrolls use the phrase in reference to ceremonial matters. The scrolls’ impartial testimony is wonderful news for all Christians committed to ecumenism. I saw this to also be true in regard to Catholicism and Protestantism’s different Old Testament canons, but I’ve already gone into detail about that elsewhere.
What I want to share with you today is a fantastic new resource I have discovered regarding the scrolls: Dr. John Bergsma’s Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Revealing the Jewish Roots of Christianity. While I have gleaned important points about the scrolls in my reading on other subjects, Dr. Bergsma has written a work that simultaneously introduces readers to the to the scrolls and zeroes in on the first century Jewish context they provide for gaining greater clarity on the words and actions of Christ and the apostles. Once I started reading I didn’t want to stop; before I made it to the final chapter, my yellow highlighter had bit the dust.
Doctor Bergsma provides such a wealth of information. I had never heard, for example, that the Essenes’ main compound at Qumran was constructed along the desert road the Messiah was expected to travel toward Jerusalem, with Qumran acting as a literal fulfilment of Isaiah 40:3 (“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”). I had also never read that the Essenes believed there were active prophets among them. Bergsma describes their messianic expectations: a priestly Messiah of Aaron and a royal Messiah of Israel. He also discusses a competing idea found in the scrolls – the return of the ancient king-priest Melchizedek with godlike powers to free Israel from sin and Satan. Doctor Bergsma makes a convincing case for John the Baptist’s involvement with the Qumran community at an early point in his life and for connections between the dualistic imagery prevalent in the scrolls and that found in the Gospel of John. There are chapters focusing upon baptism, the Eucharist, priesthood, celibacy, the indissolubility of marriage, and the structure of the Church. I may not agree with every individual conclusion – and Bergsma is upfront that many must remain provisional – but I gleaned insight after insight.
In my opinion, one of the strongest features of Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls is the numerous quotations from the scrolls themselves, especially the Community Rule and the Damascus Document, which outlines the history, aims, and rules of the movement. The one that stays with me the most, though, come from a scrap discovered in Cave 4:
Great will he be called and he will be designated by his name. He will be called son of God, and they will call him Son of the Most High…His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom.
One is immediately struck at the similarity to Gabriel’s announcement to Mary in Luke 1:31-33. The correct interpretation and meaning of the text is of course debated, but it is fascinating to say the least. In Luke’s Gospel we read of the private revelation given to the elderly Simeon regarding the Messiah’s nearness (2:25-27); might another private revelation have been given to a holy soul at Qumran?
If you have always wanted to know more about the Dead Sea Scrolls but didn’t know where to begin, I think this is the perfect book to start with. Not only will you grow in knowledge of these important documents, you will also stoke the flames of love for your Catholic Faith.