JESUS AND THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS
Edited by James H. Charlesworth
Doubleday, 1992, xxviii + 370 pages.
After all the media hype that still surrounds the subject even some forty years after their discovery, this new contribution to the Anchor Bible Reference Library comes across as the authoritative word on what the Dead Sea Scrolls really have to say about the life and times of Jesus. The editor, who is professor of New Testament Language and Literature, as well as director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at Princeton Theological Seminary, has gathered twelve critical essays by Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish scholars from around the world. Two of these essays, plus the Forward and another contribution in conjuction with Joe Zeis, an anthropologist from the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, are by Charlesworth himself.
As Charlesworth makes clear from the outset in his short but well documented forward, which has its own set of footnotes, the emphasis is on this volume being a scholarly consensus. No fly-by-night theories (like Allegro's wild claim to have found evidence of Christian origins in a sacred mushroom cult!) need apply. And as Charlesworth spells it out again in length (forty pages of text plus thirty-three pages of notes) in the first essay on "The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Historical Jesus", the consensus makes it very clear that while there is a great deal that the scrolls can tell us about the religious and social climate of the time, there can be no question that both Jesus and the movement that he started were an independent religious current totally distinct from what took place at Qumran.
Indeed, one of the first, but in many ways, the most recent controversies (as witnessed by a special program on public television just last year) has centered on the identity of these ruins overlooking the northwest corner of the Dead Sea. Were they an Essene "monastery" or (as they were for a long time considered before they were excavated) the remains of a Roman fort, or even of a winter resort as now some claim? The scholarly consensus is that they are the remains of an Essene community, indeed, the central headquarters of the whole sect. How else explain the secret caches of documents hidden for so long in caves surrounding the area?
But just who were these "Essenes"? We find them mentioned a couple of times by Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, but as far as the New Testament goes, we draw a complete blank. Everything else that we know about them comes from their own documents, many of which are still untranslated because what remains are mostly fingernail size fragments of parchment, and from whatever other evidence the archaeologists have been able to uncover. It appears now that the core of the organization was a group of dissident priests who had formed a rather apocalyptic- minded brotherhood awaiting the last times. However, it appears that most of them, but not all (for they appear to have had followers in many Jewish towns, including Jerusalem) were unmarried -- a point that Josephus remarked about as well. They also laid particular emphasis on God's redemptive justice, strongly condemned divorce, urged the sharing of wealth, encouraged constant prayer, employed the symbolic use of water, and even developed a distinct devotion to God's "Holy Spirit". All of these seem to find an echo in the early followers of Jesus, and if not directly linked, at least the similarities with the activities of John the Baptist are more than striking.
Yet, the differences between the Essenes and the preaching of Jesus are even more telling. Unlike the followers of Jesus, they constituted an enclosed and highly regulated group. They appear to have been obsessed with rules regarding legal purity and Sabbath-keeping, and contrary to Jesus' warnings, they put great emphasis on swearing oaths and other ritualistic behavior. Most of all, while they urged love of one's brethren, they equally stressed hatred of enemies and seem to have almost developed ritual cursing into a liturgical art form. (It could be that Jesus' own recalling that "You have heard that `you shall love your neighbor but hate your enemy'" in Matthew 5:44 is a clear gospel reference to Essene teaching, as there is no command to "hate one's enemies" any place in the Old Testament.)
Other articles in the collection explore a variety of related topics. Howard Kee of Boston College takes a more detailed look at "Membership in the Covenant People at Qumran and in the Teaching of Jesus" while Paolo Sacchi of the University of Turin writes on "Recovering Jesus' Formative Background" in light of the Dead Sea Scrolls. David Flusser of Hebrew University, the most renowned of Jewish experts on the New Testament, interprets "The Parable of the Unjust Steward: [as] Jesus' Criticism of the Essenes". Rainer Riesner from Tubingen University in Germany gives us an archeologist's insight in "Jesus, the Primitive Community, and the Essene Quarter of Jerusalem" (there are maps and pictures in this volume as well), while Craig Evans from Trinity Western University (British Columbia) details some further parallels and differences in his article "Opposition to the Temple: Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls". James Dunn of University of Durham (England) examines the topic of "Jesus, Table-Fellowship, and Qumran".
Two final articles, by Morton Smith (Columbia University) and Alan F. Segal (Barnard College) deal with eschatological themes such as the "ascension" and mediational function of the risen Christ in the light of the Qumran literature, though one might wonder if Smith is not taking some of his texts comparing Jesus with the author of one of the Qumran documents, who supposedly claimed to have ascended to heaven for his enlightenment and then returned to write it all down, as being just a bit too literal.
All in all, this is a very valuable book for anyone who takes the gospels and the origins of Christianity seriously. Its scholarly format should not be allowed to scare any devoted reader away. The point of all the footnotes is, after all, that what is presented here is well-researched and credible, and not just some journalist's ploy to make the front page. One can always ignore the notes, or scan them later for interesting tid-bits.
Yet, more important to me from reading all this is the realization that although the scholarly consensus can point up the strong differences between the Essene teachings and those of Jesus and his followers, that at the same time some parallels between the Essene movement, especially as it was lived at Qumran and the early Christianity communities, as they struggled to retain their identity in the Jewish and later, the pagan gentile world, should also serve as a warning to us, namely, that it is all too possible to end up, while seeking to preserve a tradition or to cultivate an ideal, to so hedge oneself off from the world at large as to become irrelevant and out of touch. Today, the Essenes are but a vanished sect, and Qumran an archaeological ruin.
By the grace of God, Jesus' message escaped this fate, but can an institution that isolates itself from or tries to oppose the currents of history, expect to survive?
Richard W. Kropf
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