October 16, 2021 - Dead Sea Scrolls

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Today we’re going to take a look at the Dead Sea Scrolls. Aside from the Pharisees, the group who gave us these scrolls was the most interesting Jewish group in Jesus’ day. The group was headquartered at Qumran near the Dead Sea, where their writings were first discovered in a cave in 1947. Some call them by the name Essenes (Aramaic for “pious ones”). We can piece together their history from hints in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The group seems to have started with a guy they call the Teacher of Righteousness, who is never named, and who seems to have been a priest. He and his followers get kicked out of the Temple by someone they call the Wicked Priest (probably around 150 BC). They are looking for 2 Messiahs, the Messiahs of Aaron and of Israel. (The so-called Messiah ben-Joseph is NOT in the Dead Sea Scrolls – the earliest we can find a belief in that messiah is in the Talmud, several centuries later than Qumran.) They believed in predestination. They believe the world will end soon in a battle between the forces of light and darkness, and they have left us their own Bible commentaries where they read everything as if it was written about them, their enemies the Romans (Kittim), and the corrupt priesthood.

The people at Qumran believed that they were living in a great period of apostasy that would last until the end of the world. Their community came to an end after the Jewish War when Jerusalem was destroyed. The people at Qumran evacuated and took refuge in the nearby fortress at Masada. They are the 900 Jews who killed themselves when the Romans conquered Masada in 73 AD.

Probably the biggest treasure we have gotten from Qumran is copies of the Bible 1000 years older than any Hebrew manuscripts we had before Qumran was discovered. In the Qumran library, we now have portions of every Hebrew Bible book except Esther, dating anywhere from 150 BC to 70 AD, including 33 copies of Deuteronomy, 24 copies of Genesis, 18 copies of Exodus and Leviticus, 11 copies of Numbers, 22 copies of Isaiah, and 39 copies of Psalms.

The Dead Sea Scrolls include one complete scroll of the entire book of Isaiah, a copy that confirms the accuracy of our standard Hebrew text, which dates from 1000 years later. For example, out of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, there is only one 3-letter word different between the 2 copies after over 1000 years of recopying (the verse reads either “he shall see” or “he shall see light”). In places where our standard Hebrew text disagrees with the Septuagint or Greek OT, often the Dead Sea Scrolls will agree with the Greek version.

Other books are also found in the Qumran library, including the books of Enoch, Sirach, and Jubilees. But as much as Qumran argued with other Jews about other subjects, they firmly agreed with other Jews on what books belonged in the Hebrew canon. So they did not consider these extra books to be God’s word. The Qumran library has also left us retellings of Biblical history, Biblical commentaries, and manuals of operation for their community.

The Essenes were scattered all over Palestine, but were found chiefly in villages. We would call them religious extremists – they believed that they were the only ones in the world who would be saved. A number of the teachings and practices of John the Baptist and Jesus seem to echo those at Qumran, although there are major differences.

Chief among the beliefs of the Essenes was their belief in communal living. One 1st century writer tells us, “There is but 1 purse for them all, and common expenses, common clothes, and common food in common meals.” Another writer says, “Contemptuous of wealth, they are communists to perfection… Novices admitted to the sect must surrender their property to the order, so that among them all, neither humiliating poverty nor excessive wealth is ever seen.” They lived a rigidly simple lifestyle, wearing only white and wearing the same clothes and shoes until they wore out. In their meals, we are told that they “are contented with the same dish day after day, loving sufficiency and rejecting great expense as harmful to mind and body.” Writings at Qumran tell us that Essenes who lived out of town were required to give 2 days’ wages per month to a common fund (CD 14:12-16).

The Essenes had no need to carry luggage or supplies when they went on a trip, since there was always someone around to provide them hospitality. We are told, “When adherents arrive from elsewhere, all local resources are put at their disposal…and men they have never seen before entertain them like old friends. And so when they travel, they carry no baggage at all, but only weapons to keep off bandits.” One will recall that Jesus sent his followers out this way, with nothing but a staff – like the Essenes, Jesus had sympathizers who would take them in.

The Essenes were strict to the extreme in their keeping of the Law of Moses. They were so strict about the Sabbath that we are told they would not even use the restroom on that day. (Qumran tells us that they had restrooms 4500 feet out of town that they had to use, but you could only travel 1500 feet on the Sabbath.) They were so strict about “Thou shall not kill” that they rejected animal sacrifice, they swore an oath of non-violence, and they refused to make any instrument that might injure people. They refused to take part in the worship at the Jerusalem temple (because it was corrupt), although they did send incense to be burned there. They also went through constant ritual baptism to wash away uncleanness. They were so determined to avoid immorality that many of them practiced celibacy – they kept their community going by taking in other people’s children, such as orphans. (John the Baptist may have been raised by them after the death of his aged parents.)

The Essenes were also strict in their teaching about oaths. We are told by a 1st century writer, “Every word they speak is more binding than an oath. Swearing they reject as worse than perjury, for they say a person is already condemned if they cannot be believed without God being named.” And yet, when a person joined their group, they had to swear fearful oaths of loyalty to the community. Those who were kicked out of the community had to either eat grass and live off the land, or starve, because they had sworn not to eat the food of unbelievers. This may explain why John the Baptist lived on locusts and honey, and would not even eat bread or drink Passover wine (according to Josephus) – perhaps John had taken the same oath in the past, and could eat only by living off the land.

Here are some of the regulations at Qumran, taking straight from the Dead Sea Scrolls. If someone wants to join, the group tests him for an unspecified trial period, then votes to let him in. When he gets in, we are told, “he must not touch the pure food of the Many…until he has completed a full year, neither shall he share in the possession of the Many.” And if they vote to approve him, “his possessions and his earnings will also be joined at the hand of the Overseer [bishop] of the earnings of the Many. And they shall credit it to his account, but they shall not use it for the Many.” Only after 1 more year does he get full rights to share possessions and share in judgment and group decisions. But, “If one is found among them who has lied knowingly concerning possessions [like Ananias and Sapphira did], he shall be excluded from the pure food of the Many for a year and they shall withhold a quarter of his bread.”

Whoever falls asleep in a meeting is punished for 30 days. “Whoever walks naked in front of his brother without needing to shall be punished for 6 months.” (Indecent exposure called for only 30 days’ punishment.) “Whoever goes round defaming his fellow shall be excluded for 1 year from the pure food of the Many and shall be punished; however, whoever goes round defaming the Many shall be expelled from their midst and will never return.” If a member backslides and leaves, if he comes back, he is penalized for 2 years before he is allowed to rejoin, but if he backslides after 10 years, he is never allowed to return.

Qumran had highly organized leadership, including overseers or what we would call “bishops.” No one over 60 is allowed to serve as a judge. A man must be at least 20 to become a voting member and to get married.

Qumran’s rules about the Sabbath are tougher than the Pharisees’ rules. The Sabbath begins when the sun is 1 diameter away from setting. “No one should say a foolish or empty word. He is not to lend anything to his fellow. He is not to take decisions with regard to riches or gain. He is not to speak about matters of work or of the task to be carried out on the following day… No one is to eat on the Sabbath day except what has been prepared…. On the road, if he goes down to bathe, he should drink where he stands, but he is not to draw with any vessel. He is not to send a foreigner to do what he wishes on the Sabbath day… No one should go after an animal to pasture it outside his city, except for 3000 feet…He is not to open a sealed vessel…No one should wear perfumes… In his dwelling no one should lift a stone or dust. The wet nurse should not lift the baby to go out or come in… No one should help an animal give birth on the Sabbath day. And if it falls into a well or a pit, he should not take it out… No one should stay in a place close to Gentiles on the Sabbath…And any living man who falls into a place of water or into a reservoir, no one should take him out with a ladder or a rope or a utensil.” Yet the punishment for disobedience is lenient: 7 years’ probation.

No one should rob a Gentile, they taught, lest the Gentiles should blaspheme their God. “No one shall sell clean animals or birds to Gentiles, lest they sacrifice them. And he should not sell them anything from his granary or his press, at any price. Neither should he sell his servant and his maidservant to them, for they entered the covenant of Abraham with him.” They shall not eat even fish unless they have been opened alive and the blood poured out.

Like many at Qumran, both Jesus and John the Baptist practiced celibacy. Qumran did so because they were so determined to avoid immorality. But their writings indicate that some of them were married, particularly those who lived away from Qumran scattered around Israel. The issue was ritual purity: the Law of Moses says that even married sex causes defilement until evening. Therefore, Qumran had a rule: “No one should sleep with a woman in the city of the temple,” which would make married life impractical at Qumran itself. Qumran also had a strange rule: “Whoever fornicates with his wife contrary to the command shall depart and return no more.” This rule may have meant sex during a woman’s period or during pregnancy. Surprisingly, no infants are found in the cemetery at Qumran, and very few women.

Jesus speaks critically of wealth, and advocates giving up one’s private possessions. (Luke 12:33: “Sell your possessions and give alms.” Luke 14:33: “Whoever does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” Even the early church put this idea of communal living into practice.) Like the people at Qumran, Jesus forbids swearing. His sending out of the 12 on their missions seems to presuppose that he’s got a network of hospitality to rely on (possibly followers of John the Baptist).

But unlike Qumran, whose salvation was open only to a few, who excluded the handicapped, and who separated themselves from the unbelieving world, Jesus and John opened their movements to all, even tax collectors and hookers, and Jesus freely associated with sinners instead of withdrawing from them. Jesus had very different attitudes toward purity. While Jesus and the Pharisees yelled at each other, they did so because they took each other seriously. Qumran took neither of them seriously. But you can bet that people who got tired of Qumran would turn to Jesus, if they dared to leave.

Leaving or getting kicked out of Qumran was a scary proposition, particularly in light of the vows they reportedly took to abstain from the bread of unbelievers. It took courage to leave. For those from Qumran, the cost of following Jesus was particularly high. But the treasure of knowing Jesus would have been worth the cost. Only Jesus could take their sin away. Only Jesus could give them the assurance of everlasting life and peace with God.

Qumran promised its members salvation because it told them they were part of God’s chosen remnant on earth. Like John the Baptist, they took their motto from Isaiah 40; they proclaimed that they were the voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” But Qumran had little else to offer its members but a never-ending pile of do’s and don’ts. And what happens if you can’t do it all? Jesus offers a far better way. He is the Messiah promised in Isaiah 53, where we read, “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to their own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Since the rediscovery of the Qumran community, there have been rumors that Qumran actually practiced a lost form of Christian faith, a form that has since been restored to the earth. The people at Qumran themselves talk about a great apostasy. It is claimed that they believed in the preexistence, and in temples and priesthood.

But the rumors do not prove what they claim to prove. The great apostasy talked about at Qumran started more than a century before Christ founded his Church. The community itself died in 73 AD. The Qumran group seems to have been composed of priests who were kicked out of the priesthood when the Maccabees took away the high priesthood from the tribe of Levi. But the people of Qumran had no temple but Jerusalem, yet they rejected the priesthood who ran that temple. Qumran had little room for marriage of any kind. They were not led by a prophet or apostles. There is no evidence that they believed in any preexistence. And although they refused to take oaths and practiced a radical simple lifestyle and radical sharing among their members, there is virtually no trace of any Christian theology or any knowledge of the existence of Jesus in the writings at Qumran. If they knew Jesus, they ignored him as false. There is only 1 line in 1 scroll where the writer speaks of someone who would be called the son of God, and it is unclear what that meant to them or who that was supposed to be. And we have no grounds for connecting this statement to Jesus.

Qumran’s way to God was a dead-end street. All that was good about the Essenes, we already have in Jesus. But we owe a great debt to Qumran for preserving copies of God’s word for us that help prove the amazing accuracy of the copies preserved by scribes over the next 1000 years. Qumran’s copies are not necessarily more accurate than the standard Hebrew text; they simply help demonstrate what little has changed either way over ages of recopying. God has not only given us our complete Hebrew texts of the 10th century AD, but the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Greek translation, and even the Samaritan version (for the Pentateuch) to ensure that nothing has been lost in the transmission of God’s word.

Looking ahead to our next broadcast, the people at Qumran had a rigid concept of holiness. As we saw last week, the Pharisees had their own beliefs about holiness. The Bible does teach us to be holy. But what exactly does holiness mean? Holiness basically means being different. So how are we supposed to be different from the world around us? Are we supposed to be different by being weird or unusual? Or is there a way we can and should be different from the world in an attractive way? We’ll talk about a new approach to holiness next time on Biblical Words and World.

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