Christianity’s Origin and the Dead Sea Scrolls
IN THE spring of 1947 three Bedouins were going about in the town of Bethlehem trying to sell seven ancient manuscripts. These were in the form of leather scrolls, some containing Biblical and some containing sectarian writings, that the Bedouins had found in stone jars in a cave. The cave being situated in the wilderness of Judah not far from the Dead Sea, the scrolls came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It took months for the Bedouins finally to dispose of their scrolls, four of them to St. Mark’s Monastery and three to the Hebrew University at Jerusalem. Seven years later the University purchased the other four scrolls, which, in the meantime, had been vainly offered for sale in the United States, for the sum of $250,000. These four included the most prized of them all, a scroll in archaic Hebrew of the complete book of Isaiah, all sixty-six chapters.
Not without good reason these scrolls have been described as the “greatest manuscript discovery of modern times.” They have been definitely dated as of the second century B.C. by experts in the fields of archaeology, paleography (the science of deciphering ancient writing) and the carbon-14 process. Previously the oldest-known Hebrew witness to God’s Word had been the Nash papyrus, which goes back not quite as far and consists of only one small page, in four fragments, and which never was a part of a scroll. Incidentally, it contains the Ten Commandments and two verses of the Shemá or Jewish declaration of faith as found at Deuteronomy 6:5, 6.
Since the year 1951 many other similar discoveries have been made, including tens of thousands of fragments of ancient Bible manuscripts. All these having been found in the same general region, they also are referred to as Dead Sea Scrolls.
Rounding out the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls was the uncovering of the Khirbet (”ruins”) Qumran, located only a mile from the cave where the first scrolls were found. These ruins have been identified as those of a monastery, the headquarters of the sect that had produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, at least those first found. As to the identity of this sect, the “foremost authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls today” tells us that “there is now sufficient evidence . . . to identify the people of the scrolls definitively,” that is, finally and permanently, “with the Essenes,” a Jewish monastic sect that carried on from about the second century B.C. to the destruction of Jerusalem A.D. 70.
Great has been and is the interest manifested throughout the world in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Why? Chiefly because of the claims of some that the Dead Sea Scrolls spell out the human origin of Christianity.
What are the facts? Are, indeed, “the rites and precepts of the Gospels and the Epistles both to be found on every other page of the sect” that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls? Is the Qumran monastery, “perhaps more than Bethlehem or Nazareth, the cradle of Christianity”? Did we have to wait until these scrolls were discovered in order, at long last, to “get some sense to the drama that culminated in Christianity”?
First of all, let it be noted that when scholars fail to differentiate between Christendom today and Biblical Christianity as taught and practiced in Jesus’ day they are bound to err. And secondly, the similarities that appear between what the Bible says about Christianity and what Josephus, Pliny and Philo and the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls have to say about Essenism are wholly superficial. Basically there is as great a difference between the two as between day and night.
One of the claimed similarities is the holding of all goods in common. When a man became a member of the Dead Sea Scroll sect he had to surrender all his belongings to the order, to his very last cent. This has been compared to what took place in the early Christian congregation right after Pentecost, with the emphasis on what happened to Ananias and Sapphira for holding back part of the purchase price. What about this?—Acts 4:32 to 5:11.
The similarity is only superficial. In view of the fact that this matter of having “all things in common” is not mentioned again, either in the book of Acts or in the rest of the Christian Greek Scriptures, it obviously was but a temporary arrangement because of unusual conditions. Further, Christians were not required to surrender their belongings and there was no penalty for failure to do so as there was with the Essenes. Ananias and his wife were not punished for holding anything back but because of playing the role of hypocrites, claiming to have turned over the entire proceeds from the sale of their property when they had actually held back part of it. They thought they could lie to God’s spokesman and get away with it. That was their sin. The having of “all things in common” in the early Christian congregation was temporary and wholly voluntary; the Dead Sea sect’s sharing was permanent and mandatory and failure was severely penalized—all the difference in the world!
A similarity is also claimed in that both Christians and Essenes made use of symbolic ablutions or baptisms. Here again the similarity is only superficial. As instituted by Christ for himself and his followers baptism does not symbolize or result in remission of sins, for he had none. It is a symbol of one’s having dedicated oneself to do God’s will, is administered but once in the life of a Christian and that by another Christian. Among the Essenes it was performed daily, by oneself, and concerned itself with ritual purity. Could there be any greater contrast?—Matt. 3:13-15.
Similar arguments apply to the claim that the Lord’s supper was patterned after the Essenes’ communal meal. The Lord’s supper is properly celebrated but once a year, on Nisan 14, to memorialize the death of Christ and is of purely symbolic significance—the apostle Paul reproving those who viewed the Lord’s supper as an occasion to satisfy one’s hunger. On the other hand, the Essene communal meal was a daily affair and was for the purpose of satisfying one’s hunger.—1 Cor. 11:20-22.
Another similarity is claimed between Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls sect as regards eschatological teachings, those relating to the end of a system of things and the day of judgment. No question about it, the Essenes were expecting the judgment day and the end of the world in their day; indeed, it is because of this belief that they withdrew from all the rest of mankind, so as to be the better able to perfect themselves, much as certain sects in the United States have withdrawn to some mountainous region in expectation of the end of the world. As for the early Christians, while it appears that some endeavored to unduly ‘hasten the day of Jehovah,’ it is also clear that Jesus and Paul in particular gave them to understand that the end of this system of things was a long way off. Did not Jesus say that the good news of the Kingdom would first be preached throughout the whole world before the end came? And did not the apostle Paul in his second letter to the Thessalonians tell them that they were not to think that the day of Jehovah was imminent, for it would not come until first there had been a falling away and the man of sin, the son of perdition, had been revealed? Yes.—Matt. 24:14; 2 Thess. 2:1-12.
Then again, certain scholars have tabulated five hundred ostensible parallels between the Christian Greek Scriptures (New Testament) and the first Dead Sea Scrolls that deal with the Essenes. However, it may well be asked, How many of these would remain if all those found also in the Hebrew Scriptures were eliminated? Since Christianity was foreshadowed in the old Law covenant and the Essenes claimed to live up to Law requirements, it follows that there would be many expressions common to both. As one authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls well expressed it: “It may be questioned, indeed, whether the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of the Qumran community have anything in common which cannot be found in other Jewish sources also.”
STRIKING CONTRASTS IN TEACHINGS
Stressed more than any other fact in the Hebrew Scriptures is the importance of Jehovah’s name. Pharaoh, Goliath, Sennacherib and other proud men were made to know that the one true God is Jehovah. And Jehovah repeatedly delivered his people for the same reason. (2 Sam. 7:23; Isa. 43:10-12; Ezek. 36:21-23) The importance of Jehovah’s name is also stressed in the Christian Greek Scriptures. (Matt. 6:9; John 12:28; 17:6; Acts 15:14) But no such emphasis do we find in the beliefs of the Qumran community. The thing of paramount importance to them was, not God’s name, but their own salvation.
The need of a sin-atoning sacrifice is highlighted throughout the Scriptures, from Genesis through Revelation; and the one furnishing it is identified as Jesus Christ. (John 1:29; Matt. 20:28; 1 Tim. 2:5, 6) But we look in vain among the writings of the Qumran community for any reference to salvation because of such a sacrifice, whether by Jesus or another. They strove to gain salvation by ritual cleansings and moral efforts.
Further, the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls that set out Essene beliefs show they believed in the immortality of the human soul and in eternal torment for the punishment of the wicked. Both of these teachings are in striking contrast to the plain Scriptural teachings that the soul of man is mortal and that extinction, death, is the penalty for sin. (Ezek. 18:4; Rom. 6:23) Then too, this sect believed in the predestination of individuals, whereas the Scriptures tell of God foreordaining only certain requirements and classes of individuals. If the destiny of individuals were predestinated, there would be no point in preaching to them, nor in urging them to endure.—Col. 1:23; Matt. 24:13.
Nor to be overlooked is the fact that the Dead Sea Scrolls sect borrowed from Persian Zoroastrianism. This can be seen from its worship of angels and of the sun and by its emphasis on mysteries. True Christianity has absolutely nothing in common with any pagan religion.—2 Cor. 6:15-17.
STRIKING CONTRASTS IN PRACTICES
Also underscoring how untenable is the theory that the sect of the Dead Sea Scrolls gave birth to Christianity is the striking contrast between the practices of the two. The Essenes proudly separated themselves from their Jewish people. As far as they were concerned, all the rest of the world was going to the Devil. All that mattered was saving their own souls.
How different Scriptural Christianity! Far from secluding himself, Jesus went from city to city and village to village preaching the good news of God’s kingdom. More than that, he sent out twelve and then seventy of his followers to do the same. And just before he left them he commanded them to make disciples of people of all nations and to witness to the most distant part of the earth.—Luke 8:1; Matt. 28:19; Acts 1:8.
In striking contrast to Scriptural Christianity also was the sect’s asceticism. The apostle Paul condemns asceticism as “an appearance of wisdom in a self-imposed form of worship and mock humility, a severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in combating the satisfying of the flesh.” The clergy of Jesus’ day complained because his disciples did not fast, and they accused him of being “a man gluttonous and given to drinking wine.” Certainly Jesus was far from being an ascetic!—Col. 2:23; Matt. 11:19; 9:14.
Note also the unchristian exclusiveness of this monastic sect. Its members were not allowed to eat any food prepared by outsiders, and it rejected all persons in any way marred physically. It had finely graded distinctions that were continually and rigidly enforced; so much so that if one of high rank, a senior, was touched by a junior he had to bathe himself to be pure again. Also, they shrouded their teachings in great secrecy.
In striking contrast to all this we find that Jesus ate and drank with the despised sinners and tax collectors. He was continually ministering to those suffering from physical handicaps. He taught his followers that they had but one Master and that all of them were to be brothers. And far from shrouding his teachings in secrecy, he published them far and wide and commanded his followers to proclaim them from the housetops!—Matt. 10:27; 15:31; 23:8.
Further, the sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls breathe out bitter hatred against all those not belonging to their sect. What a contrast to the course Jesus commanded his followers to take: “Continue to love your enemies and to pray for those persecuting you; that you may prove yourselves sons of your Father who is in the heavens, since he makes his sun rise upon wicked people and good and makes it rain upon righteous people and unrighteous.”—Matt. 5:44, 45.
NEW WINE IN NEW WINESKINS
Skeptics, such as Unitarians and agnostics, accuse Christians of not being objective in considering the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls and of being afraid of it. The foregoing presentation refutes this charge. Just the opposite is the case. Those who would use the Dead Sea Scrolls to prove the human origin of Christianity resort to sensational claims and dogmatic assertions and have justly been censured for making “dubious inferences from obscure texts.” More than that, they have repeatedly made contradictory statements, all of which betrays their own lack of objectivity and that they are even more emotionally involved in proving the Bible wrong than Bible lovers are in proving the Bible right. Of interest in this regard is the typical statement of a Jewish scholar: “I deny the special relationship claimed for the Dead Sea Scrolls and Christianity not because it offends any theology, but because the claims are an affront to sober, prudent scholarship.”
While most serious scholars reject the extreme position that the Dead Sea Scroll community accounted for the origin of Christianity, they feel obligated to find all manner of traces of Essenism in the ministry and teachings of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. But if that is so, how can we account for the total silence regarding the sect of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Scriptures? The Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians and Zealots are mentioned but never the Essenes nor their Qumran monastery. Why?
Had Jesus come in touch with them, no doubt he would have castigated them in even stronger terms than he did the Pharisees, for they excelled the Pharisees in straining out gnats and gulping down camels. If a creature fell into a pit on the sabbath a Pharisee could pull it out but not an Essene. An Essene nurse could not even carry a baby on the sabbath. More than that, an Essene dared eat only such fish as had been ripped open while still alive to drain the blood.—Matt. 23:23, 24; Luke 14:3-6.
John the Baptist did not copy baptism from the Essenes. He himself tells us that it was God who authorized him to baptize. (John 1:33) Jesus brought a new message, likened in the Bible to new wine, entirely different from the “old wine” of Jewish sectarianism, be it Essene or Pharisaic. And he knew better than to try to put this “new wine” into the dried-up old wineskins of sectarian organizations and methods. This “wine” he received from his Father as he confessed: “Most truly I say to you, The Son cannot do a single thing of his own initiative, but only what he beholds the Father doing.” We accept his testimony as true. So we can rest assured that regardless of all the theories of men Christianity originated with God and owes no debt whatever to the Dead Sea Scrolls and their sect.—Luke 5:37-39; John 5:19.
In sharp contrast with the scrolls that contain the philosophy of the Essenes, the Bible manuscripts that have been found in such abundance near the Dead Sea contain God’s Word and stand as an amazing confirmation of the fact that it has not changed, for “the word spoken by Jehovah endures forever.”—1 Pet. 1:25.