Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Revealing the Jewish Roots of Christianity

Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Revealing the Jewish Roots of Christianity

by John Bergsma

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A major new work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest sacred documents of Judaism, which reveals their surprising connections to early Christianity.
“A luminous treatment of a fascinating subject! Highly recommended!”—Scott Hahn, author of The Fourth Cup

From award-winning scholar John Bergsma comes an intriguing book that reveals new insights on the Essenes, a radical Jewish community predating Christianity, whose existence, beliefs, and practices are often overlooked in the annuls of history. Bergsma reveals how this Jewish sect directly influenced the beliefs, sacraments, and practices of early Christianity and offers new information on how Christians lived their lives, worshipped, and eventually went on to influence the Roman Empire and Western civilization. Looking to Hebrew scripture and Jewish tradition, Bergsma helps to further explain how a simple Jewish peasant could go on to inspire a religion and a philosophy that still resonates 2,000 years later.
In this enriching and exciting exploration, Bergsma demonstrates how the Dead Sea Scrolls—the world's greatest modern archaeological discovery—can shed light on the Church as a sacred society that offered hope, redemption, and salvation to its member. Ultimately, these mysterious writings are a time machine that can transport us back to the ancient world, deepen our appreciation of Scripture, and strengthen our understanding of the Christian faith.

“An accessible introduction . . . This is a handy entry point for readers unfamiliar with Essenes or those interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls.”—Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984823137
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/10/2019
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 107,013
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

John Bergsma, PhD, is a professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Twice voted Faculty of the Year by graduating classes at Franciscan University, Bergsma holds three degrees in ancient languages and theology from Calvin College and Seminary and a doctorate in ancient Christianity and Judaism from the University of Notre Dame. A specialist in the Old Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Bergsma has published several popular and educational books on Scripture and the Christian faith, as well as dozens of articles in peer-reviewed journals and essay collections. He and his wife, Dawn, live with their children in Steubenville, Ohio.

Read an Excerpt


The Archeological Find of the Twentieth Century

For good reason, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been called “the greatest archeological find of the twentieth century.” It began in the winter of 1946–47, when Bedouin shepherds were searching for hidden treasure in a cave on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. They were hoping to find gold, and were disappointed with the three old scrolls they found in a jar. They couldn’t realize, of course, that one of the scrolls they found was a complete and nearly pristine copy of the Book of Isaiah in Hebrew, dating to around 125 b.c., or about a thousand years older than any complete biblical book in Hebrew previously known to scholars! Far more valuable than gold, the scrolls the Bedouin discovered would eventually prompt the State of Israel to spend tens of millions of dollars building a bunker-like museum to house them in a carefully climate-controlled environment. The Bedouin ended up selling the first several scrolls they found to an antiquities trader for twenty-four British pounds (about a hundred dollars at the time), but when these ancient writings came to the attention of professional scholars, the true value of the find quickly became apparent, and the rush was on to search the northwest coast of the Dead Sea for additional scrolls. In the years 1949 to 1956, dozens of exploratory missions by both native Bedouin and Western scholars located a total of eleven scroll-bearing caves in the limestone cliffs surrounding the ruins of an ancient dwelling called Qumran. Years of archeological excavations at Qumran revealed a complex of buildings inhabited by a religious community of men in the last centuries b.c. and first century a.d.—in other words, in the centuries just before and during the life of Jesus. The scrolls in the caves were the remains of their library, which once consisted of about a thousand handwritten manuscripts on parchment (leather) and papyrus (reed paper). About a quarter of these documents were copies of books found in the Bibles of modern Jews and Christian Old Testaments, like Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, and the Psalms. But three-quarters of the scrolls were nonbiblical religious writings composed or treasured by the community of Jews that lived at Qumran. It didn’t take scholars long to identify this community with one of the three sects that dominated first-century Jewish culture according to our ancient classical (Greek and Latin) sources. Two of these sects, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, are well known even to modern readers because they appear frequently in the Gospels and other New Testament writings. However, it was to the third and least-known of the sects, the Essenes (ESS-seenz), that the Qumran community belonged. Although Essene characters can be found in the Gospels, they are never called by that name, and the group was largely forgotten by Jewish and Christian culture until the discovery of the Scrolls brought them into public consciousness once more.

One of the most important sources on the Essenes is the Roman military commander and geographer Pliny the Elder (a.d. 23–79), who attempted to describe the known world in an encyclopedic work he called Natural History. In the section of the work devoted to Israel, he describes Galilee and moves south down the Jordan River, eventually getting to the north end of the Dead Sea, about which he says this:

On the west side of the Dead Sea, but out of range of the noxious exhalations of the coast, is the solitary tribe of the Essenes which is remarkable beyond all the other tribes of the whole world as it has no women and has renounced all sexual desire, has no money, and has only palm trees for company. Day by day the throng of refugees is recruited to an equal number by numerous accessions of persons tired of life and driven there by the waves of fortune to adopt their manners. Thus, through thousands of ages (incredible to relate) a race in which no one is born lives on forever—so prolific for their advantage is other men’s weariness of life!

Lying below the Essenes was formerly the town of Engedi, second only to Jerusalem in the fertility of its land and in its groves of palm trees, but now like Jerusalem a heap of ashes.

Much has been written about this passage because it fits very well with the caves and buildings found at Qumran, which is located just where Pliny places his “tribe of the Essenes”: on the western shore of the Dead Sea, south of Jericho and north of Ein Gedi. The rest of the coast has been scoured by archeologists without turning up the remains of any settlement that could rival Qumran as the Essene city that Pliny describes. Pliny’s description of an all-male community also fits the archeology of the site, as the ancient cemetery adjacent to it consisted almost exclusively of individual graves with male skeletons, and almost no female-gendered artifacts were discovered within the buildings or caves.

Pliny is the only ancient author who describes an Essene settlement specifically on the shores of the Dead Sea, but other authors tell us much more about the Essenes in general. In fact, one such author, Flavius Josephus (a.d. 37–100), usually known simply as Josephus, is such an important source on the Essenes that it would be good to say a little bit about him before going further.

Josephus was born Joseph son of Matthias around a.d. 37 in the region of Jerusalem. His father was a priest and his mother a descendant of the royal house of Israel. His family was part of the Jewish elite, and when war broke out between Rome and Judea in a.d. 66, he was appointed the military governor of Galilee. Josephus was an able commander but was eventually defeated and captured by Vespasian, the Roman general. After his capture, Josephus threw in his lot completely with the Roman victors, and later served as advisor and translator for Vespasian’s son Titus, who commanded the Roman armies during the fateful siege that ended in the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. When Vespasian later became Roman emperor, he heaped honors on Josephus and granted him a pension. Josephus took the name of the imperial family (Flavian), styling himself Flavius Josephus in Roman society. He lived out his days in Rome, writing two massive works, The Jewish War, an account of the disastrous revolt of the Jews from a.d. 66 to 70 and the events leading up to it, and The Antiquities of the Jews, a history of the Jewish people from creation to his own day, much of which is based on the Bible.

Josephus gives not one but three lengthy descriptions of the Essenes in his works, as well as numerous incidental references. He classifies the Essenes along with the Pharisees and Sadducees as one of the three primary Jewish sects or, “philosophical schools,” on the analogy of classical philosophical schools like the Pythagoreans, Stoics, and Epicureans. The Sadducees consisted of the chief priests and other wealthy aristocrats who controlled the Temple and the capital city, Jerusalem. Focused on blessings in this life, they accepted only the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch) as Scripture, and rejected anything not explicit in them, like an afterlife, angels, or spirits. The Pharisees were a more scholarly movement that emphasized the study of Scripture and wanted all Jews to live by high standards of ritual purity. They accepted a larger group of sacred books similar to the modern Jewish Bible or Protestant Old Testament, and Josephus himself ended up identifying with them. Despite that, he seemed more fascinated with the Essenes, as he records far more information about them than about the other two sects.

“Essene” probably derives from the Hebrew word ‘ôssîm, “doers,” meaning “doers of the law,” although other etymologies have been proposed. The Essenes accepted a larger number of inspired books than the Sadducees or Pharisees, including writings which are now considered apocryphal by Jews and most Christians, such as the Book of Jubilees and the various books that make up 1 Enoch. Like the Pharisees, they also accepted angels and demons, heaven and hell, judgment and resurrection, and the authority of oral tradition. But Josephus mentions other peculiarities of this group: They lived a life of poverty and held goods in common, rejecting private property and indulgence in physical pleasures. Most eschewed family life and lived in celibate male community, sharing a common table and living a common life. They devoted themselves to the study of Scripture, and especially to prophecy, having many prophets among them and being renowned for the accuracy of their predictions. They dressed in simple white garments and every day underwent a sacred bath followed by a common meal hosted by a priest who blessed the bread and wine.

Fascinatingly, almost everything that Josephus says about the Essenes can be corroborated or at least correlated with passages from the Scrolls or the archeological remains of the buildings and caves at Qumran.

For example, Josephus describes the Essenes as practicing a daily ritual washing, and more ritual baths were found at Qumran than at any comparable site from the time period—enough to accommodate hundreds of men bathing in a short amount of time.

Table of Contents

Introduction xi

Part 1 Introducing the Dead Sea Scrolls

Chapter 1 The Archeological Find of the Twentieth Century 3

Chapter 2 Waiting for the Messiah 15

Part 2 Baptism and the Scrolls

Chapter 3 The Scrolls, John the Baptist, and Baptism 31

Chapter 4 The Scrolls, John the Apostle, and Baptism 44

Chapter 5 Baptism Today 68

Part 3 The Eucharist and the Scrolls

Chapter 6 Did Qumran Have a "Eucharist"? 81

Chapter 7 When Was the Last Supper? 93

Chapter 8 Putting It All Together: Reading the Last Supper in Light of the Scrolls 110

Part 4 Matrimony, Celibacy, and the Scrolls

Chapter 9 Celibacy in the Scrolls 125

Chapter 10 Marriage in the Scrolls 140

Part 5 Holy Orders and the Scrolls

Chapter 11 Priesthood and the Scrolls 161

Chapter 12 Priesthood in the Gospels 172

Chapter 13 Priesthood in the Early Church 182

Part 6 The Church and the Scrolls

Chapter 14 Did St. Paul Write Anything About the Church? 191

Chapter 15 The Scrolls, the Reformation, and Church Unity 206

Chapter 16 The Essenes and the Early Church: What Is the Relationship? 221

Acknowledgments 229

Notes 231

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