Dead Sea Scrolls on Early Christianity

Qumran literature poses two major challenges to the official position of the Church. The first is doctrinal, and the second historical. But the two are not so easily disentangled. To the lay person, and even the Biblical scholar, Christian religion and Biblical history are all but inseparable; to the believing Christian they are indistinguishable. This is further complicated by the fact that most scholars working with the Scrolls happen to come from a Catholic background. The Ecole Biblique is a Dominican institution controlled by the Pontifical Biblical Commission - a Vatican office; its members have a strong vested interest in preserving the 'truth' of Christianity as both religion and history. As a result, whenever there has been a conflict between faith and scholarship, scholarship has invariably lost. That is to say, doctrine has dictated the agenda of Father de Vaux and his colleagues.

The Scrolls themselves do not necessarily give us different versions of the books of the Old Testament or invalidate existing ones. What they do provide however is a new historical setting that relates early Christianity to the Jewish Wars; they also shed new light on the origins of Christianity that have been suppressed by Church fathers to protect their own official version about the origins. Their impact on the New Testament, and therefore on Christianity is far greater than on Judaism or the Old Testament. Of course, part of the reason for this is that the Jews have not indulged in forgery and fabrication of their texts the way the Christians have. Greeks and other pagans called the Christians the kings of forgers, and Rome the home of forgeries. We shall be taking a look them in the next chapter.

This happens to be one of the major problems facing the Church today: thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls, most of the claims of Christianity are shown to be later fabrications. The Scrolls virtually overthrow the Church version of early Christianity as derived from the Gospels. By and large, they support the picture of early Christianity that one can dimly perceive in the writings of early historians like Tacitus, Suetonius and Josephus, as opposed to the 'orthodox' version propagated by the Church. The Gospels in particular are seen to be little more than fairy tale fabrications that owe everything to the Scrolls. Allegro, for one, saw the Gospels as little more than fictional accounts describing the attributes and the acts of the expected Messiah.

Upon studying the Scrolls one can see that the authors of the Gospels have borrowed heavily from Qumran texts in arriving at their picturesque imagery and language. It is not just the literary borrowings that we find in the Gospels; a whole messianic Jewish tradition has been appropriated and presented as the unique and original gift of Christianity. Many of the practices that we think of as Christian innovations - like the Lord's Supper and the Lord's Prayer - can now be traced to Qumran texts going back at least a hundred years before the birth of Christ. These seriously undermine any claim for originality on behalf of Christianity. As we shall see later, this extends even to the personality of Jesus Christ and his teachings. Even the so-called Doctrine of the Faith - the bedrock of Christianity - was lifted by Paul from a Qumran text known as the Habakkuk Commentary .

This, of course, is something the Church can never afford to concede. To protect the orthodox position, Father de Vaux and his team evolved what has been called the consensus position - a position on the contents of the Scrolls that was seen to be least damaging to the Christian doctrine as laid down by the Catholic Church. Part of this involved dismissing the Qumran people as recluses having no influence on the evolution of Christianity. But this position could not be maintained for long. When some early scroll material became available, Biblical scholars noted that they described a man known as the 'Teacher of Righteousness'. He was the leader of a sect calling itself the Sect of New Covenant, which is also the term used by the early Christians to describe themselves (Acts of the Apostles).

What were these people like? How did the Qumranians view themselves? Geza Vermes of Oxford, one of the world's best known authors on the Dead Sea Scrolls gives us the following picture:

In their own eyes they constituted the one and true Israel, the Church of God's elect. The revelation of all truth had been granted to their Teacher, finally and definitively, and they themselves were the minority chosen by God to inherit the Covenant, the Promise, and ultimate Salvation... they believed that they would, during their lifetime, participate in the great battles of Light against Darkness, and that they would see and share with the triumphant Messiah the fruits of his victory . (Vermes, 1973, p.16)

In other words, the Qumranians were a people of apocalyptic vision and messianic expectations. A Biblical scholar of note, Andre Dupont-Sommer of the Sorbonne, remarked that in some Qumran texts, the Teacher of Righteousness was regarded as a Messiah who was persecuted and martyred. His conclusion was that this Teacher of Righteousness must be seen as a precursor to Jesus Christ. This at once challenged the position of the Church, suggesting that there was probably nothing unique about Jesus; there were other orthodox Jewish teachers who were similarly regarded. More seriously, it raised questions about the existence of Jesus as a historical person. Unwittingly, Dupont-Sommer had opened a Pandora's Box.

The reaction from the Church was predictably furious though Dupont-Sommer seems to have been taken by surprise by its intensity. This was in 1950, when only a small portion of the Scrolls material had trickled out and made its way into scholarly circles. For the International Team at the Ecole Biblique, and their superiors at the Vatican, the whole episode had been a traumatic experience. It had shown them how potentially explosive was the material they held in their hands. They slammed the lid shut and for the next forty years did everything possible to keep probing eyes away from the Scrolls.

Before long many observers began to notice a concerted effort on the part of Father de Vaux and his Catholic colleagues to separate the Qumran finds from both Judaism and Christianity of the first century AD. American critic Edmund Wilson gave public expression to what some others had been privately saying - that there was a conflict of interest between doctrine and scholarship as far as de Vaux and his colleagues were concerned. Wilson saw great similarities between the Scrolls and orthodox Judaism and its connection with early Christianity. In an article that appeared in the magazine New Yorker, he wrote:45

One would like to see these problems discussed; and in the meantime, one cannot but ask oneself whether the scholars who have been working on the scrolls - so many of whom have taken Christian orders or have been trained in the rabbinical tradition may not have been inhibited in dealing with such questions as these by their various religious commitments...

If, in any case, we now look at Jesus in the perspective supplied by the scrolls, we can trace a new community and, at last get some sense of the drama that culminated in Christianity...

Father de Vaux reportedly tried to reassure Wilson, telling him: My faith has nothing to fear from my scholarship." This was being disingenuous; the real question was whether his scholarship had anything to fear from his faith. (Baigent and Leigh, ibid.)

To return to Wilson, he went on to observe that the cradle of Christianity should be placed in Qumran rather than Nazareth or Bethlehem. This was a remarkably astute observation, though, to the lay person, or even the average Christian, it matters little whether the cradle of Christianity was Bethlehem or Qumran. Church authorities however saw it differently; to them it was only a matter of time before their whole position would be undermined. They felt the ground disappearing from under them. But the genie was out of the bottle, there was little they could do about it. In any event Wilson was not a Biblical scholar, and his views could be dismissed on the grounds that he was unqualified. The respite thus obtained proved shortlived, for soon the members of the International Team had to contend with a far more formidable adversary than Edmund Wilson. This was John Marco Allegro who fired his first salvo in 1956. He was an Englishman, then still a member of the International Team, but a free-thinking man and an agnostic to boot. Unlike Wilson, Allegro was very much a Biblical scholar - at least as good as any other member of

45 E. Wilson, The Dead Sea Scrolls 1947 - 1969, Revised edition. Glasgow, 1967, pp. 97-98. This was first published in 1955 as Scrolls from the Dead Sea, based in part on an article that had appeared in New Yorker. See also Baigent and Leigh (ibid.), pp. 42-43.

the International Team and better than most. His views therefore were not so easy to dismiss as Wilson's. He gave a series of three radio talks explaining how radically the Scrolls could change the picture of Christianity. The New York Times reported:46

The origins of some Christian rituals and doctrines can be seen in the documents of an extremist Jewish sect that existed for more than 100 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. This is the interpretation placed on the 'fabulous' Dead Sea Scrolls by one of an International Team of Scholars. ... John Allegro said last night in a broadcast that the historical basis of the Lord's Supper and part at least of the Lord's prayer and the New Testament teaching of Jesus were attributable to the Qumranians. (Emphasis added.)

This is a bombshell as anyone with even a superficial knowledge of Christianity will not fail to note. So, what we now call Christianity, as well as its teachings - which generations of faithful have been told to be the sacred word of the Only Son of God -happened to grow out of an extremist Jewish sect that had existed for more than a century before the birth of Jesus Christ. And this extremist Jewish sect, as we already saw goes back at least to Mattathias Maccabaeus and his successors who ruled the Holy Land from 152 BC to 63 BC. In summary, both the message and the actions attributed to Jesus can be traced at least to Mattathias and his followers as part of the whole Zealot tradition.

Allegro later went on to point out that there exists a Qumran text in which the term 'Son of God' has actually been used. (We now know that the phrase occurs at many places as we shall see in the next chapter.) In a letter to Father de Vaux he emphasised that it was used by the Qumran people who also referred to the coming of a Davidic Messiah whom they called 'Son of God'. This shatters the last shred of any claim for the uniqueness of Jesus, who, according to orthodox Christians, is descended from the line of David as the Only Son of God.47 Many more revelations are forthcoming, now that the monopoly of the International Team has been broken.

Allegro was to pay a heavy price for this revelation - that Jesus Christ was not unique; and as a distinguished Biblical scholar with first hand knowledge of the Scrolls, his views were not easy to dismiss. As an agnostic and a rationalist Allegro probably never realized how close he had come to shattering the foundations of the Church. He was expelled from the International Team, hounded by de Vaux who set out to ruin his career. For a man of the Church, Father de Vaux certainly was not distinguished by any forgiving spirit. He was a ruthless and bigoted man with more than a streak of anti-Semitism in him. I will get to the story of the persecution of John Allegro later on in the book. It is a worthy successor to the Inquisition.

This is not the whole story however. As it now seems certain, if the Qumran community was destroyed during the Jewish War of AD 66-74, some of the Qumran texts must come from the time of the life and ministry of Jesus and even later. This, as Robert Eisemnan points out, is what the internal evidence of some of the Scrolls also tell us. More to the point, while the Qumran literature refers to the Teacher of Righteousness, and has also many connections with the New Testament, there is not even a hint of him as being divine. This is supported by several early sources among which we shall only note a few.

Eusebius, who lived in the fourth century tells us that the Ebionites (meaning the 'Poor' as the early Christians called themselves) did not regard Jesus as divine. And

46 'Christian biases seen in scrolls'. The New York Times. February 5, 1956.

47 Many have noted the contradiction inherent in the dual claim of Jesus as the Only Son of God born to a virgin and also being the descendant of David. Also. 'Son of God' appears fairly frequently in the texts translated by Eisenman and Wise as we shall see.

Origen writing in the century before Eusebius also tells us - quoting Josephus as authority - that Jesus was not regarded as divine. The portrayal of the Teacher of Righteousness strongly suggests that it might refer to a Jesus-like figure as Dupont-Sommer and many others have noted. That is to say, if Jesus was a historical person, there is no indication at all that his contemporaries regarded him as divine.

We can see therefore that early Church historians knew that Jesus was not regarded as divine by early Christians. Eusebius, the key figure involved in the conversion of Constantine's mother Helena to Christianity, was an extreme partisan of Pauline Christianity. He was not above tampering texts including passages from Josephus, but even he acknowledges that the Ebionites (early Christians) did not regard Jesus as divine. Origen, (writing in the century before Eusebius) mentions a reference to James in the work of Josephus but is silent about Jesus. Even if it did contain a reference to Jesus, it can only be a fleeting one, as incidental to James who was the more important figure. There was much dispute about the divine nature of the Messiah which was finally resolved only at the Council of Nicea held in AD 325. This was mainly a political decision - a compromise reached between Constantine and Christian leaders. (See Chapter 8.)

The sum total of all this is: if Jesus Christ was a historical person, he was neither unique nor was he regarded as important - let alone divine - by his contemporaries. He was simply one in a line of several leaders and teachers of an extremist Jewish sect dominated by messianic ideas - and not even the most important of them. We shall see later that this is confirmed by classical historians like Tacitus, Suetonius and even Josephus. This may be seen as one of the great dilemmas posed by the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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