Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls

November 12, 2000



Thanks for inviting me again. Jack thought you would like to hear about the Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls. We've been hearing about the discovery of these ancient texts since the early fifties, and controversy has swirled around for years.Recently, there have been solid disclosures about what they are and what they mean to us today.


Four broad questions come to mind.


1.What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?When were they written and who wrote them?

2.What happened?Why haven't we learned more since the first discovery in 1947?

3.What is the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls?Do they threaten or support our belief in the authenticity of the Bible?

4.What do the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal to us about Jesus and the foundations of Christianity?What do they teach us for our faith today?


Thatís a lot for a half-hour.But I will be brief and point you to more reading for your real study later.


What are the Scrolls?


First, what are these Dead Sea scrolls?They are preserved leather books found inside pottery jars hidden in a series of caves in the cliffs bordering the northeastern shore of the Dead Sea, just a few miles from Jerusalem.The first were found in 1947 by an Arab boy who threw a stone into a cave and heard a clay jar break.Better than breaking a window.The first of these caves was Qumran, hence this name is often used for the scrolls.Over the next twenty years, searchers found more hidden in other caves along the Dead Sea cliffs.These are collectively called the Dead Sea scrolls.Several years went by before the importance of these rolled and sewn pages written in ancient Hebrew was understood.


This material was suppressed for years, and not until the 1990ís was it all released from tight parochial control.Why?A very human story.The caves where they were found were in the West Bank, controlled then by Jordan.The Arabs kept tight control of these Jewish documents, and with few exceptions, they were kept away from Jewish scholars.The texts were kept in Amman, and no Jews were permitted to view them.An ďinternationalĒ, (read Arab-friendly) team was permitted to piece together the fragments for translation.They operated in secrecy.Slowly, ever so slowly, parts were released.But there was no holistic view.Publication was as jigsaw puzzle-like as the torn and decayed scrolls themselves.Finally, in 1984, a previously undisclosed keystone letter was presented at an international conference.Worldwide outrage at the secrecy broke out which caused release to all scholars, including the experts on Jewish texts, the Jews.Was this all a conspiracy?Probably not.Just the usual run of human pride, ego, jealousy, and scholarly greed for foundation funding, personal publication, prestige and grabbing the best graduate students.It all worked together to keep tight control over the translation and release of the scrolls.So only in the last few years has there been time to analyze these documents and what they mean.There is still disagreement and confusion, but enough is known that we can begin to talk about the scrolls with some confidence.


Iíve relied mainly on the work of Lawrence H. Schiffman, who dedicated his career to studying the documents, first as released by the original team, then with direct access to the scrolls themselves.His approach seems balanced and scholarly.


What is the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls?


First, factually, whatís in the scrolls?The documents belonged to a community of Jews who withdrew from Jerusalem society somewhere around 134 years before the birth of Christ.Some of the documents were older, and were brought to the community as treasured library books.Other documents were written during the life of the community, which came to a close around 70 AD, maybe 200 years after the community was founded.


So far parts of almost 1,000 scrolls have been uncovered.There are four types.The first is copies of the books of what we now call the Bible.The most frequently found Bible manuscripts were Psalms, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus.Every book of the Old Testament but Esther was found at Qumran at least in part.


The second type of scroll are apocryphal books, some of which are what we now call the Apocrypha, regarded as scripture by some denominations and not scriptural by others.The Qumran community read them as books of wisdom for study and learning.There were scrolls such as Tobit, The Wisdom of Ben Sirach, Judith and others, which are conventionally included in the Apocrypha.Other wisdom scrolls are ďre-writtenĒ Bible accounts, such as the book of Enoch.


Here is a brief example from the Book of Giants, part of Enoch.This is a fuller account of how rebellious angels came to earth and had intercourse with human females as they pleased, defiled them and taught them sorcery.Their sons were called the Anakim, or giants.These half humans were wicked, and led God to destroy the wicked world.The angel Michael is sent to destroy these wicked angels and the giants.Noah is instructed to build the ark.In Enoch, evil in the world was caused not by humankind, but by fallen angels.Itís a heck of a story.


The third type of scroll is more mysterious.These are books, such as The War Scroll and The Temple Scroll, which deal with angelology, with multiple Messiahs who are to come into the world, and with the nature of the last days.These scrolls seem quite mystical to us.


The fourth type of scroll dealt with the day to day responsibilities of the community, leadership, the role of the Priesthood, dealing with outsiders, and so on.Village statutes and ordinances, but with a spiritual significance that I will touch on later.


So what do the scrolls tell us about the Bible?These scrolls and fragments are the oldest manuscripts of the Bible yet discovered, over 500 years older than the next oldest copies.And there is good news!They are almost identical to the Hebrew Bible in use today.These ancient Jewish texts map very closely with the Old Testament we Christians use.Thus, the Dead Sea Scrolls confirm and affirm the authentic transmission of the Old Testament scriptures down through time to us today.


Now, what do we learn about these people at Qumran?What do we learn about Christianity?


The Jews of Qumran were a vibrant community exactly at the time of Christís coming.Their writings show us the thinking, arguments and beliefs of the Judaism into which Jesus was born.I must oversimplify the complexity of these times since we only have a few moments.


An oversimplified description is that the people of Qumran were a splinter group of the Sadducees.They were not Essenes, as many think.I believe they were the descendents of the Temple Priests from the time of King Solomon, 1,000 years earlier.The line of Temple Priests was unbroken from Zadok, one of the priests of Solomonís original temple, until just before the Maccabee rebellion in the second century B.C.


Alexander the Great had conquered the entire Mediterranean region, including Israel.The Zadokite priests, ancestors of the Sadducees, managed to stay in authority in the Temple while Greek culture dominated the region.Greek culture was modern, smart, intellectual and attractive.But under Antiochus Epiphanes, Greek occupation became increasingly intrusive and blasphemous and an illegitimate, non-hereditary high priest was installed.


In 165 BC, Judah Maccabee and his brothers rebelled.In a nasty war, the family drove out the Greeks.Instead of returning to the hereditary line of Sadducee priests, they set up their own Maccabee kinsmen as priests.The Sadducees left town.The Maccabees succeeded in creating a dynasty that remained in power right up until the birth of Christ.You remember the name of that King in the Maccabee line.His name was Herod.His high priest was Caiaphas.These were the Jews in power at the time of Jesus.


What do the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal to us about Jesus and the foundations of Christianity?


Based on the Qumran writings, I believe the inhabitants of Qumran were descendents of the Sadducees. . We do know they were in opposition to the Pharisees.The Pharisees were the party that believed in interpreting the Torah Laws by deducing law from law, adding rule to rule and creating the system of legalism which exists today.It was precisely this legalism that Jesus railed against when he accused the Pharisees of binding up heavy packs for the people and not lifting a finger to help them carry them.


I think the Sadducees get a bum rap.We are told they didnít believe in an after-life and that they were elitists, patricians from the Jewish upper class.That may have been true of some; but it may have been the bad rap spread by the Pharisees.I think the Qumran Sadducees were believers in the old traditions of the Temple.I think they believed that the tent of Assembly in the desert built by Moses and the mystery of the Temple sacrifice were precursors of the transformation of this world into the heavenly world to come.I think these Sadducees, took themselves out of the Jerusalem of the pretenders and moved to Qumran to create a model community.Here they could purify themselves and create a community following Godís heavenly pattern.


When we pray the familiar Lordís Prayer, we pray that the Kingdom of Heaven and the Will of God be done here on earth according to the pattern the Father laid down.In the Scrolls, the Zadokite Fragments, the Temple Scrolls, the Rule of the Community all prescribed a rigorous pattern of living designed to purify each member of the community through faith and practice.Their faith was expressed in the simple belief of the sufficiency of holy living according to the pattern God laid down in Torah.They believed in the correspondence as well as nearness of Heaven and Earth.They believed their personal purification and righteousness would help bridge the gap.They believed in the reality and immanence of the coming Kingdom of Heaven.All the community rules were designed to increase each person's personal purification to this end.


They were calling on God to send the Messiah speedily and in their day.God answered them.


So there were at least two Jewish traditions at the time of Jesus.The first tradition was fervent expectation that through personal purification, through holy living and thought, the Kingdom of God would come here on earth.This was represented in the Qumran Sadducees.


The second Jewish tradition was in ascendancy in Jerusalem adding rule upon rule, law upon law, leaning on the reasoning of men instead of the mystery of God to bring deliverance.Until mid-way through the 2nd Century, all Christians were regarded as Jews. At that time the Pharisees, realizing that most of the new Christians were gentiles, not born Jews declared that Christianity was no longer Jewish. I think they were wrong. But, the religions parted company.Todayís Rabbinic Judaism traces back to the Pharisees.


I believe that it was the other Jewish tradition, that of the Qumran Scrolls, that evolved into Messianic Judaism, or Christianity.I believe we Christians today are spiritual descendents of the faithful, expectant Sadducees who lived at Qumran.


So the Dead Sea scrolls affirm and confirm our Bible belief.The scrolls also give us a view of the faithful Qumran Sadducees as our spiritual forefathers.Certainly Christianity recalls and fulfills the meaning of the Temple Sacrifice in the mystery of the Eucharist.Our tradition may come from the Sadducees through Jesus.As for this Jew, I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.


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