Dead Sea Scrolls: Light on Jesus?
Did you ever want to go off somewhere just to live your faith? Then you have something in common with authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls — and likely with residents of Khirbet Qumran near where the scrolls were found.
You can see some of the these famous parchment and papyrus bits at the Science Museum of Minnesota from March 12 to October 24 (www.smm.org/scrolls/) — and hear context at free public lectures in St. Paul at Concordia University’s Graebner Memorial Chapel (www.csp.edu).
The scrolls, says Concordia University theologian Thomas Trapp, scheduled to lecture in February, describe the “thought world of a community that was very zealous for the restoration of God’s kingdom.” Concordia theologian Mark Schuler will speak at 7:30 p.m. March 18 on whether the scrolls are indeed connected with the Khirbet Qumran excavation near where they were found, as most scholars believe.
If true, another scholar writes separately, “Qumran provides a unique opportunity to use archaeological evidence combined with the information from ancient historical sources and scrolls to reconstruct and understand the life of a community.” The scholar, Jodi Magness, teaches Judaism at the University of North Carolina and authored The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (2002).
The context of the scrolls includes Christians. In the April 15 final lecture at Concordia, the Rev. Schuler will outline the scrolls’ indirect bearing on Christianity as “evidence of the Jewish religious world — not all of it, but a significant part of it, at the time when Jesus walked among us.”
Who wrote the scrolls?
Qumran is about 10 miles south of Jericho — a day’s walk or donkey ride from Jerusalem, perhaps two days. Many made such a trip. The first chapter of Mark says people came from Jerusalem and all Judea to see John the Baptist, who probably preached and baptized a few miles beyond Jericho.
Indeed, might members of the scrolls community have heard John’s preaching? The traditional site of Jesus’ baptism on the lower Jordan River is tantalizingly near Qumran, less than 10 miles.
Many scholars believe authors of the scrolls and the Qumran community were Essenes — like early Christians, members of a breakaway Jewish sect. Trapp, who also serves as pastor at Emmaus Lutheran Church, an LCMS congregation in St. Paul, says scroll authors “were seeking to be holy and righteous” and “saw the world around them as wicked and going astray.”
Controversy follows the scrolls. Scholars still debate their meaning and long chafed at limited availability for study. The state of Israel protects the scrolls carefully. In January, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan filed a complaint with the United Nations claiming that Israel wrongly took the scrolls in the Six-Day War of 1967. Jordan has even asked Canada, the United States, and Italy to seize scrolls in the present tour. Canada demurred, as is likely with the United States and Italy.
A shepherd boy found the first of the scrolls in 1947 in a cave overlooking the Dead Sea. In subsequent years, excavators found 900 documents all told — parchment and papyrus with religious texts in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, including the earliest known Old Testament. The documents date from the third century B.C. to A.D. 70, the year Roman troops destroyed the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
The scrolls include a book of rules for a community that set itself aside to prepare for the last day. Parallels with Christianity are instructive. Those who joined this group surrendered their property to the community, as did early Christians. On the other hand, the author of the scrolls’ book of rules was obsessed with ritual purity. Jesus and his followers weren’t.
The scrolls in scripture
Did Jesus know the scrolls’ theology? “‘While ye have the light, believe on the light, that ye may become sons of light.’ These things spake Jesus, and he departed and hid himself from them,” says John 12:36. This is after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, part of John’s long buildup to the passion. The reference recurs with St. Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:5: “For ye are all sons of light, and sons of the day: We are not of the night, nor of darkness.”
Sons of light? We were long in the dark on that reference — until scholars read the scrolls, which distinguish between sons of darkness and of light.
What the scrolls mean for your faith may make you glad to be Lutheran. The scrolls community wanted to be off by itself — in order to follow its myriad ritual-purity rules. Requirements of the community, says Trapp, were “harsh and confining instead of merciful and gracious.”
Still, the scrolls provide remarkable insight into our faith, by contrast if nothing else. Scrolls devotees, says Pastor Trapp, were diligently preparing to help God fight a final battle against evil. Lutherans, on the other hand, believe that the victory over sin and death is won already — in Christ.