The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which was initially made in 1947, represents one of the most important archeological discoveries made in the twentieth century. In the caves of the cliffs overhanging the northwestern end of the Dead Sea, in an area now known as Khirbet Qumran, a number of large clay jars containing more than six hundred ancient Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts were discovered by some travelling Bedouins. These manuscripts were attributed to the members of a previously unknown Jewish brotherhood, and were written approximately between the years of 100BCE and 68CE. While these scrolls provide scientists and historians with a window into a previously undiscovered community, the Dead Sea Scrolls are of particular interest to biblical scholars in that they shed light on the intertestamental period, and the religious atmosphere prior to, during and, immediately following the lifetime of Jesus. It is most likely that these manuscripts can be connected with the Jewish sect known as the Essenes; this particular group withdrew from the Jewish community in Jerusalem, and went to live by the Dead Sea, forming a monastic community. The most striking feature of the Dead Sea Scrolls is the parallels these manuscripts share with the early Christian religion, and more specifically, the likelihood that Jesus and John the Baptist crossed paths with the Qumran Essene sect. Both the forms of organization and the religious rituals observed by the Qumran Essenes bear a striking resemblance to their early Christian counterparts. While absolute, historical statements are difficult to make, because of the overlap and contradictions between religious and historical documentation in both the Bible and in the Dead Sea Scrolls, one cannot deny the many striking similarities between primitive Christianity and the Judaism of the Essenian sect. The finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls greatly aids the biblical scholar in his understanding of the formative period in Christian history.
One of the most exciting discoveries made in the Qumran manuscripts was of a priest character that, at least seemingly, resembles Jesus Christ. The Dead Sea Scrolls revealed the existence of a great religious figure known as the Teacher of Righteousness. This figure bears many striking resemblances to Jesus of Nazareth, though the dates of each figure eliminate any possibility of them being the same person. It has been established that the Teacher of Righteousness lived at least half a century before Jesus, and like Jesus and his disciples, led his followers into a new Mosaic covenant, a return to a strict obedience of the laws of Moses. The facts surrounding the case of the Teacher of Righteousness are few; saysYigael Yadin in his book, The Message of the Scrolls, “we must…be satisfied with the facts about him in the Habakkuk Commentary and the Damascus Covenant. We know he was a priest endowed with the ability to interpret prophecies and to foretell the future events of his people. He was persecuted by his foes from inside and outside, and was compelled to flee and live in ‘the house of exile.’”However, from what we do know, the Teacher of Righteousness seems to fulfill a role as pre-cursor to Jesus. Other interpretations of the scrolls see this Teacher persecuted, and even crucified by pagan soldiers, which further parallels his experience with that of Jesus. “Some have asserted that he had been crucified by pagan soldiers… that he had appeared in the Temple after his death, and that his disciples awaited his return in the ‘last days’ for the last Judgement.”This rendition of the Teacher of Righteousness’ ill treatment is almost identical to that of Jesus. Concludes the author, Jean Danilou, “all this would constitute an ‘Essenian myth’ which later was supposed to have been applied to Jesus.”Whatever the exact meaning the Essenes put in the Teacher of Righteousness’ life and teachings, his presence is undeniable, and it puts into question the individuality and originality of Christianity into question.
While the comparison of the Teacher of Righteousness to Jesus Christ is somewhat superficial in that it relies heavily on the common Judaism and the presence of prophets at the time, the methods of organization in the Qumran community and in primitive Christian communities can be even more closely paralleled. The entire community formed a congregation, from which, in the Essene community, the Twelve were chosen as representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel. Likewise, “Jesus tells the twelve ‘disciples’ whom he appointed to be his inner circle that they were to be enthroned as judges over ‘the twelve tribes of Israel.’”Beyond this structural parallelism, the Essenian and Christian societies were also based on a fundamental value of communal living, sharing all things in common. “It is known, as a matter of fact, that the Act of the Apostles tell us that the first Christians held everything in common. Now this holding of good in common and this renunciation of individual property is one of the most characteristic features of Qumran.” The communist lifestyle shared by these two communities shows that even at the most fundamental level, the Christian and Essene brotherhoods functioned in a very similar way.Both societies considered themselves peoples of a New Covenant, or of a New Testament, returning to the laws of Moses. Beyond these principles of organization, the Essenes of Qumran and the primitive Christians also shared specific religious rituals. Two examples of this are the sacred meal and purification by baptism. Both sects shared a meal where a Messiah is represented by sacred food and through prayer. Davies says of these sacred meal, “That the two were organically related, it is scarcely reasonable to question. The early Christian sacrament was the Essenic sacrament with, perhaps, some Christian adaptations.”As was the case for the early Christians, the Essenes had a custom of baptism: “Baptism and lustrations played an important part in their purificatory ceremonials, accompanied by liturgies emphasising the need for spiritual cleanliness.”While the Essenes of Qumran performed daily rituals of purification in their baths, the Christian tradition involved only one baptismal ceremony. However, what must be noted here is that both sects used baptism for initiating members into a brotherhood awaiting the coming Messiah: this underlying principle is identical in both groups.
As we have seen the Qumran Essenes and primitive Christians shared a similar leader-figure, as well as many organizational and ceremonial likenesses. A further parallel may be drawn between the two groups through an examination of their central religious and eschatological leanings. As was mentioned earlier, both groups shared a belief that made them radically different from the other Jewish followings at the time – both awaited the coming of a Messiah as they lived in the “last days” before the “last Judgement.” The Essenes were “certain of the imminence of the victory of the Sons of Light over the Sons of Darkness. It will occur on the day pre-ordained by God.”The Christians similarly believed that the cosmic discord of their time would soon culminate in a decision, or the Judgement of God. According to Davies, “they the Essenian and Christian sects believed they were hastening towards a cataclysmic consummation, after which would come the realm of God, inaugurated by the ‘Anointed One’…of Jehovah.”Both groups lived a life of preparation, for the end of the world order they knew, for the coming of a Messiah, and for the Judgement of God. Believing that their salvation depended entirely on the forgiveness and grace of God, these two religious groups were devoted to pious living, and to preparing the way of God. We have now seen many similarities between the Essene tribe at Qumran and the primitive Christians, from structural and organizational parallels to similar religious beliefs. We must now approach the question of how these analogies help our understanding and interpretation of early Christianity.
As we saw earlier, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls revealed a previously unknown sect of Jews, whose discordance from other Jews in many ways situates it closer to Christianity that to Judaism. This discovery is important to the biblical scholar in that it provides some insight into the formative, intertestamental period in Christian history. While the existence of the Qumran brotherhood may put into question the originality of Christianity, the manuscripts of this sect contribute a great deal to our understanding of Christianity in that they bring to light previously unknown connections between the early Christians and a peculiar group of Jews. We know that there was indeed contact between the two groups through the figure of John the Baptist. Jean Danilou stresses that, “the discovery of the manuscripts has in an undeniable way confirmed the Baptist’s contacts with the monks of Qumran.”He goes on to suggest that, “it is possible that he may have been an Essene. But it is more probable that he was only deeply influenced by Essenism.”It is this connection that highlights the importance of the similarities shared by these two groups. Despite their many differences, shared rituals and beliefs indicate that these two groups did not evolve independently. The influences of Essenism were of considerable importance in the development of a new religion, and can still be seen in Christianity.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, nearly two millennia after their creation, has given biblical scholars a great deal of insight into a mysterious period in Christian history – its conception. The manuscripts of the Qumran monks give us a greater understanding of the historical context at the origin of Christianity. The many parallels that can be drawn between these two groups help to explain what religious environment brought forth this new messianic movement. Though these numerous similarities might invite a direct relationship to be drawn between the two, it seems more likely that while the Essene religion certainly influenced early Christians, the two always remained distinctly different religions. However, they shared fundamental beliefs and practiced similar forms of organization and of ritual. We may, therefore, conclude that the Essene sect at Qumran was an influential force in the crystallization of the Christian religion.
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