Skip to content

6.6 The Scrolls and Christianity

Both W.F. Albright and Dupont-Sommer said that the discovery of the scrolls has enlarged our knowledge regarding the beliefs and practices of some Jewish sects of the first and second centuries BC, and clarified our understanding of the beginning of Christianity. The New Testament Scholars first agree that the scrolls improved their knowledge of the background of the New Testament writings but they soon added that these same scrolls did not affect much their understanding of the New Testament, even if the Jewish background became clearer and better understood.

The common belief that the New Testament gives us a consistent story of the life of Jesus, and of the Church he founded, is not true. We only have a partial record of the story of Jesus’ life and, moreover, it is full of contradictions. This is true too for what we know of the beginning of his church. It is not even certain that Jesus wanted to found a church as it is explained clearly in the well-known book, “Peake’s Commentary on the Bible”. What most of us have been told is a consensus on which most scholars and religious leaders have agreed, and that has been affirmed by Theology as the equivalent of history. The new evidences brought by the scrolls are not easily accepted because they oblige the Church to change the official truth as decreed by Theology, even if the base for this truth is not backed by solid evidence. When the known facts are analysed one can say that the Official Truth could have been different. The truth chosen was the more persuasive that also satisfied the scholars and the Church.

For the life of Jesus and the story of the early Christian Church we have no testimony from secular history. At the best we have only a mention of Jesus in Josephus, but it could be fraudulent. We only have the Gospels, and some scriptures that were not included in the New Testament, even if they were written at the same period. It is obvious that parts of the Gospels are historical and parts are legends, traditions, or even written to please. The problem is that we do not know what is true history and what is not. As an example let us take the question of the birthplace of Jesus. There is no way to prove that it was in Bethlehem. But if we accept Bethlehem, we still do not know if it was Bethlehem in Judea or the town with the same name in Galilee. We have the same problem with most of the events described in the New Testament. We could as well conclude that these stories have been written, or invented, to fulfil the prophecies of the Old Testament. The fact that the same stories are told differently in the various Gospels could be explained this way.

The traditional view of the founding of Christianity is that Jesus preached its Gospel, died as Messiah and Redeemer, arose from the dead, and founded the Christian Church that the Apostles spread through the world. We could also say that the Apostles, moved by the spirit of Jesus, founded the Church upon his Gospel. One must admit that Jesus was a Jew who followed the Jewish tradition, that the Apostles received Jesus’ Gospel, expanded his doctrine and accepted Him as the Saviour, the Lord of Mankind and the Son of God. The originality of the Christian doctrine is also assumed. The thought that some of it could have existed before, even if it does not appear in the Bible, is rejected. The non-scholars do not know that many Pagan deities existed at the time of Jesus, and even later, for whom similar claims were made, and in whose names similar doctrines were preached. Mithras, Tammuz, Adonis and Osiris were Redeemers of mankind. The view that Jesus was a Redeemer came from these Pagan deities and not from the Jewish faith. It was not even a concept held by the first Christians in Palestine who, like the Jews, thought that the expected Messiah was not the Son of God but a Messenger from God, not one who saved Mankind by his own death, but one whose salvation would come from his rule of the earth in a Messianic Kingdom. The Judaic Christians were not thinking of a salvation that would admit them to heaven, but of a salvation that would establish a new order on the earth, even if they believed in immortality. Jesus appeared as a Saviour-God when Christianity spread into the Pagan world. This was what Mithras preached. We must also remember that Mithras’ birthday was on the 25 of December, the winter solstice, and that this date was chosen by the Pagan Christians to be the official birthday of Jesus. Even the Sabbath, the Jewish seventh day or resting day as prescribed in the Mosaic Law, was abandoned in favour of the Mithraic first day, the day of the Conquering Sun. The cave, associated later with the birth of Jesus, was earlier the birthplace of Horus, the future Osiris, who must die for the salvation of his people. The Christian sacraments have also some earlier origins. The Last supper, or Eucharist, was also taken from the Mithraist cult as well as the concept of the “Blood of the Lamb”. Ethical teaching was also taken from some previous cults who converged into Christianity. In conclusion, most of the early Christian doctrine was taken from earlier Pagan religions and, after his death, very little was said of Jesus the Teacher. It was Christ the Saviour who was the Lord of the Christians as it was decided at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.

For a long time the Bible was considered too dangerous to be read directly by the laity. Not only the Church thought that they would not understand, but it was thought that it could be an incitement to heresy. The Church, for many centuries, was only interested in the Christ of the Creeds and the Sacraments, and in the Saviour, whereas Jesus of Galilee was not mentioned. Christianity, as we know it to-day, is the result of the work of St Paul. He combined the teaching of Jesus with that of Apollos, Mithras and Osiris (saviourhood, blood redemption) to make a world religion out of the local Palestinian Jewish Christianity that had no possibility to expand.

The scholars have known for a long time that, from a historical point of view, Christianity is not the religion founded by Jesus and spread in the world by his Apostles. The layman was not aware of it until the content of the scrolls was published and now he wants to know the truth about the origins of Christianity. (29)

The first battle of the scrolls was about their date, as many scholars were hoping that they would not be from before Christianity. Unfortunately for them they are older. The second battle deals with their significance for Christian origins. They tend to show that Christianity evolved from a Jewish sect, or sects, with many of the same doctrines, similar sacraments, and more or less the same organisation. If this is true, then Christianity was not established through unique events as the one true church of God founded by his son who came on earth to do it. In the same line its Gospels and sacraments are nothing new. Instead of a supernatural intervention what is left is a social evolution.

The religious leaders disagree. For them the matter has been settled, not on historical facts that do not exist, but by theology. The ordinary people of to-day, however, are not happy with a “Christ of faith”; they also want to know as much as possible of the historical Jesus. The Theologians have only the Bible as history and we know that the books included in it are the result of a choice made at the Nicea Council in 325 AD. Moreover these books, very often, contradict themselves. The Bible based theology does not stand on its own, it needs faith to be complete.

The second battle of the scrolls will probably be lost by the Theologians. It may even be a decisive battle between history and theology for a simple reason: the scrolls exist. To ignore them requires also to ignore the caves, the monastery ruins, the baptisteries, the scriptorium of Qumrân, and the Dead Sea region. Through the scrolls, the dead Essene sect speaks loud and clear, and this cannot be ignored.

There are some similarities between the Essene Teacher of Righteousness and Jesus of Nazareth, but there are still more in common between the Essenes and the primitive Christian communities. The similarity is better seen in the organisation:
– When the communities met in congregation they were called “the Many” in both cases.

– From “the Many”, “the Twelve” were chosen to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus called them his Disciples, his Apostles or his “Inner Circle”.

– In the early Church, as in the Qumrân sect and the Essenes in general, an overseer was chosen. In the early Christian Church, James the Just, Jesus’ brother, was the first head of the church of Jerusalem.

– In both communities, wealth and wages were put in a general treasury managed by a steward who pay all the expenses out of this common fund. Jesus, as the Essenes, asked the rich people to join their community and put their wealth in the common treasury. In both cases, penalties were imposed for fraud in the management of the fund.

– Both groups required that an accusation made against a brother must first be dealt in private, then submitted to two or three witnesses, and finally, if necessary, to the full congregation of “the Many” that had the final say. Excommunication was the responsibility of “the Many”.

– Baptism was practised by both groups, even if the rules were different. The aim was “repentance unto remission of sins” and the resolve “to fulfil Righteousness”. This was also what John the Baptist preached.

– Both communities expected the coming of a Messiah with whom they were already “in communion” through a sacrament. For the Christians the “Anointed One” was Jesus, but it is not certain that it was the Teacher of Righteousness for the Essenes.

– The Essenic sects and the Christians considered themselves as the people of a “New Covenant”, a term that also means “New Testament”.For the Essenes and the early Christians, it was a return to the Mosaic Law. In order to accommodate the Gentiles Paul dispensed of the Mosaic requirements.

– The sacred meal of the Qumrân sects was very similar to the Christian Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

– They both believed that the world was coming to its end after what the “Anointed One” would inaugurate the Kingdom of God, of which the Christians and the Essenes would be privileged participants.

– The scriptures of the Essenes (the scrolls and other documents) and the Christians are so similar that it must be assumed that they belong to the same system of Messianic doctrine, the same sectarian religious movement, the same development within Judaism which in one case remained Judaic Essene and Christian, and in the other expanded in Gentile Christianity.

In front of this similarity between the two movements we can wonder if they were related or identical. Did the Christians borrow from this sect or were they a sect of the Essenes?

One of the result of the Qumrân discoveries has been the need to review the dating of some documents though to belong to the Christian era. The manuscripts, or fragments of manuscripts, found in the caves are, of course, at least as old as the time when they were deposited in it. Through other evidence one can date them with more accuracy with the result that some documents, thought to be of the Christian era, are in fact Jewish. For example the “Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs”, although used by the early Christians, was left out of the Bible. Scholars thought that it was Jewish with many Christian corrections, editing and modifications. Fragments of it were found in the caves and this allowed the experts to date it with accuracy. It was written before the Christian era and the word Christ did not relate necessarily to Jesus, but to the “Anointed One” that would be present at the “ending of the days” to judge the world and establish a new order. The scholars’ mistake of thinking that the word Christ mentioned in the “Testament of the Twelve Apostles” means Jesus was due to the Christian appearance of the book’s teaching. Before the discovery of the scrolls they did not think that such writings could have originated in the first century BC. The Christ of the “Testament of the Twelve Apostles” could have been the Teacher of Righteousness, but we do not know for certain. Moreover the Testament, and many of the Letters of the Apostle Paul, have many points in common. This only means that the Testament of the first century BC inspired the Christians of the first century AD. The Gospels too have been influenced by this important document that also anticipates the Sermon on the Mount. The “Testament of the Twelve Apostles” has a higher level ethical content than the Scrolls. This means that some Essene sects were very close to the Christians’ way of thinking and provided the later with a good draft for the Gospels and to St Paul’s writings. This connects very closely the Jewish and Christian teaching and, once more, we must ask ourselves if Christianity was indebted to Judaism or if it was part of it at least until the Gentile Church was founded. Other documents such as the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” or “The Shepherd of Hermas” would lead us to the same conclusion. All these books were thought to be Christians for a long time. They were first part of the canon before being removed. Now it is clear that they were Judaic. These books show that both the New Covenanters called Essenes and the similar New Covenanters known as Christians have the same origin. Once again we must wonder if there were two groups following parallel roads or if they were one and the same at least until the founding of the Gentile Christian Church? (29)

We will now review the consensus reached by the scholars concerning the New Testament and, more precisely, The Gospel of John that very often contradict the other three. The first three Gospels, known also as Synoptic, are telling more or less the same story. As a result if John is right then the other three are wrong or the opposite.

According to John, Jesus is a different teacher from what the Synoptic Gospels tell us, its public life is much longer (three years instead of less than a year for the other authors), Jesus’ work is done mainly in Judea and not in Galilee, Jesus is the Messiah from the beginning, and Jesus resuscitated Lazarus from the death (this is not even mentioned in the synoptic Gospels). In summary John’s Gospel gives a new and different view of Jesus that is incompatible with what is described in the Synoptic Gospels.

A verse of a scroll is more or less copied in John’s Gospel; this led the scholars to believe that it was written later on, let us say between 90 and 110 AD, when the Jewish and Greek culture had mixed. But as the scrolls were hidden before, therefore John wrote his Gospel much earlier in Palestine. The Jewish and Greek cultures had only mingled, at that earlier time, in the Essenic sect that wrote the scrolls. As there is also some Zoroastrian influence in the Gospel we can believe that John’s Gospel was written by a Essene, or somebody of a similar sect. But where did he get all the information about Jesus’ teaching? Moreover the style of Jesus’ preaching is different in John’s Gospel and more appropriate to the Teacher of Righteousness, the exalted priest and prophet, who suffered martyrdom and expected to come back as the Messiah. If this assumption is true then we must conclude that the writer of John’s Gospel has combined part of the Teacher of Righteousness’ doctrine with a reconstructed life of Jesus.

John’s Gospel is the book of the New testament that is the closest in style, content, and way of thinking to the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumrân. It could be that John’s Gospel is an Essenic theological book dealing with the biography of Jesus and incorporating some of the doctrines taught by the Teacher of Righteousness who preceded Jesus. If this is true, then the source of John’s Gospel has finally been discovered. However until now it is only a conjecture.

The scrolls of Qumrân have changed our understanding of events and circumstances mentioned in the New Testament. For instance, it is now difficult to believe that John the Baptist wandered alone in the desert to come out with a doctrine similar to that of the Essenes. Even if he was not an Essene he obviously had some contact with them, and this is also true for his followers. Jesus was baptised by John and some of his disciples were previously John’ s followers. It is therefore probable that Jesus too was connected with the Essenes before adopting John’s teaching as his own for a time, and going his own way later on. If we assume that Jesus was brought up as an Essene when he was young, as many children were at that time, this would explain why he argued in the Temple with the Pharisaic scholars when he was only twelve years old. >From his teaching we can assume that he was not brought up as a Pharisee or a Sadducee. The only other possibility is that Jesus, well versed in the scriptures, was educated by the Essenes. This would also explain how he survived “his forty days in the wilderness” as he could always find refuge and help in the Essenic communities, or at Qumrân even if later on, he detached himself from the Essenes and went his own way. After Jesus’ death, his brother, James, was chosen to be the head, or bishop, of the church of Jerusalem. He was called James the Just or the “Righteous” and this seems to link him to the Essenes and their Teacher of Righteousness. He was a Jew and well respected by them. This could lead us to believe that he was the High Priest of the Essenes as well as the head of the early Christians of Palestine (the Messianic Jews). This would mean that he was the head of all the sects that belonged to the New Covenant. (29)

We have always assumed the centrality of the New Testament tradition, and we have analised the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls upon the view of the early Christian history that it represents. We have not assumed that the Christians and Essenes were independent communities since this would have been straining too much the evidence. Neither the Essenes nor the Christians were known by that names in their time. Both groups were known by the same names such as “the Saints”, “the Brethren”, “the Elects”, “they that believe”, “they that are in Messiah”, “they that are of the Lord”, “the sons of light”, “the disciples”, “the poor”, “they that are of the Way”, … The word “Christian” only appears three time in the New Testament; they were mainly known as Jews, and sometime as “Nazarene”, even if it is not certain that a town, or a region, called Nazareth existed then. Some scholars say that Galilee and Nazareth are one and the same thing. It could also be the name of an Essenic sect of “believers in a Messiah” (that is also the meaning of “Christianos”) or a place, encampment, tower or monastery where Jesus and James went as blood brothers or as brothers of the same sect. James is known and respected as an ascetic and he became the leader of all the New Covenanters, Galilean, Judean and, perhaps, Samaritan. Jesus, who was not an ascetic, became the prophet of the Nazarenes and, after his crucifixion, was accepted as such by most of the New Covenanters.

Heretical Christian sects such as the Gnostics existed before the first century AD, that is before Christianity. They believed in a Saviour, or Redeemer, like the Jews and the Christians. During the first three centuries of the Christian era there were many religious movements such as the Essenes, the Gnostics, and the Christians in the Mediterranean area. There was an intense theological struggle, both inside and between these movements, that lasted until Christianity emerged in the third century as it is known to-day.

Christianity, as we see it even more clearly now, did not emerge from nothing. On the opposite, it must be viewed as the development of a branch of Judaism into a religion that became universal after it mingled with other religions and was open to the Gentile world. The other main branch of Judaism, the Pharisaic, followed the rabbinical tradition of the Torah and was also affected, although at a lesser degree, by the Gentile world until it evolved into the present day Judaism composed of orthodox, conservative and reformed. (29)

It is much feared by many people that the information contained in the scrolls will affect our view and portrait of Jesus, even if a true biography will still be impossible to write. The Gospels do not allow us to paint Jesus as a Universal Saviour and Lord without recourse to Theology. The scholars are still hoping, as a minimum, to portrait Him as a prophet and teacher with a timeless significance. Albert Schweitzer in 1910 suggested that Jesus proclaimed himself to be the Jewish Messiah that brought death on himself on the expectation that he would be, later on, recognised as the “Anointed one” of Israel. This thesis rested firmly on the Synoptic Gospels, but it was not well accepted by the liberal scholars who thought that subjective considerations influenced too much this thesis. They could not believe that Jesus accepted the Messianic doctrines in the form in which he found them since, in their views, it was not in line with his subsequent teaching.

There is no reference in the Synoptic Gospel that Jesus regarded himself as the Messiah but, of course, this does not mean that he didn’t. However Jesus is known to have sent his disciples to proclaim the coming of the Israelic Kingdom of God to the Jews only, and that this would come before their mission was completed. As we know this event did not happen. Later on, he was “transfigured” and decided to go to Jerusalem where he expected suffering and death as this was the way the old prophets said that the divine Kingdom would appear. Most New Covenanters, and John the Baptist, thought that Jesus was a prophet, the reincarnation of Elijah who would precede the Messiah. He knew that he was the Messiah and John the Baptist his predecessor. Soon enough the Twelve knew about it, and Judas sold the information to the Jerusalem priests. On this base the priests decided that Jesus had to die as they considered that assertion a blasphemy against the Jewish religion. The Romans, on the other hand, would identify the “Anointed One” with a pretender to the throne of the Jewish Kingdom, in other words an insurrectionist who wanted to be King. For both parties, this behaviour deserved to be punished by death.

It is hard to believe that Judas betrayed Jesus for so little money. More probably he thought that in doing so he was helping Jesus to realise his aim. When, after Jesus’ death, he did not see any manifestation that Jesus was the Messiah, he hanged himself in disillusionment, not in remorse. It is a fact that Jesus sought to die by the simple fact of going to Jerusalem and preaching, as he did, in the Jewish Orthodox High Priest’s Temple. His death did not bring the Messianic Kingdom that he expected, even if his followers did not admit that he had been mistaken. They felt that he was still alive and that his manifestation would come later in their own life. They were wrong too, but the movement grew to become the Judaic Christian Church.

This church led by Jesus’ disciples was centred on Jerusalem. After the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple in 70 AD this church migrated to Pella in Jordan were it declined in importance. However, through the work of St Paul, the Apostle, a Gentile Church grew up, even if Jesus did not anticipate it. Rome replaced Jerusalem as its centre and it spread to the world forgetting the Messianic Kingdom. (29)

Even if Jesus was a man of his time with views very different from our own, and if he believed that he was the Messiah, his importance to us cannot be denied. At that time most sect members, for instance the Essenes, were ascetic. Jesus was not, he accepted hospitality, was the friend of publicans, sinners, tax collectors and their women. He also spent part of his time taking care of the sick. He is told to have been a monk at one time of his life, but the Gospels do not describe him as such. He taught to everybody who was willing to listen to him; he was an independent and impressive character with a strong personality able, in some occasion, to supersede the Mosaic Law, even if he was a believer in the Torah. He was not even respecting strictly the Sabbath. This did no go very well with the image of the Israelic Messiah, or with the Qumrân community, or asceticism. If he was an Essene, as we believe, probably he broke away of their strict rule at one point. Jesus was not a sombre person, he could be humorous, and whimsical. He enjoyed debating with anybody and, especially, he liked to win the argument. Although he was compassionate he could also be harsh on his opponents, as was the case with the Pharisees. His method of teaching using fables and parables was very engaging. On the base of what has just been told about Jesus it is difficult to believe that such a teacher sought death as the Israelic Messiah.

The new knowledge brought to life by the scrolls will create problems to many people who believed that all was settled in the Christian doctrine, and Jesus as a historical person. In fact the search for new evidence had started before the discovery of the scrolls but they brought more evidence to the scholars. Jesus, as a person, remains an unknown as before, even if his spirit, his teaching, and his example are still valid to-day as they have been for about twenty centuries. In this case theology does not have to force history into the desired pattern, the plain facts are obvious as they are, Jesus does speak to our time and he still has an enormous ascendancy on the souls of million of men. He is still teaching us, we are subdued by his eternal love, and we still admire his faith and courage.

Part of the clergy believes that the new discoveries must be met with hostility and, if possible, destroyed. This seems to be a short sighted approach. The Christian religion does not loose any of its importance without a surnatural origin, miracles, or uniqueness. All the more important world religions have grown and evolved in time with history. In many ways they are all based on the same principles, love and brotherhood. Surely the same God, the same Spirit is behind all of them and He does not need miraculous or supernatural bases to show His Greatness. The creed and the barriers that divide us are more man-made that God-made. After all God is where man is.