At this time of year, Jesus’ birth is celebrated around the world by Christians. His birth is part of the legacy which would result in a new religion – Christianity – spreading over the world. But his birth is not the beginning. Christianity leans heavily on the Jewish scriptures and the world view and politics of Judea around the time of Jesus’ birth.
Many have taken the Dead Sea Scrolls, found in the caves above Qumran in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, to be foundational texts for Christianity or suggested that the community living in Qumran and their scrolls were manifestations of an early Christian community. Even the state of Israel intimates this idea in the movie shown at the National Park of Qumran, with an offhand suggestion that John the Baptist was one of the novices in Qumran during the 1st century CE.
A closer look at the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, shows many differences between the ideology presented therein and what would become the doctrine of Christianity.
In the Community Rule text, the precepts and daily life of the Qumran community were described. One of the rites observed in Qumran are initiation rites. There was a complex system for accepting members of the community, and a general distrust of outsiders. Years of service to the community and acceptance of their worldview were necessary before one could become a full member. This is in direct opposition to Christian doctrine which presented an open acceptance.
Acts 10:47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
Specifically, the purity laws as detailed in Judaism of the Second Temple Period are not espoused by Christianity. This point is repeated in the Christian texts by the focus on lepers and others who would not be accepted as pure according to Jewish law.
Even the issue of who is qualified to interpret Biblical texts differs between the 2 groups. The Qumran sect believes that prophecies were relayed to the prophets, but the leader of the community was the only one qualified to interpret them. In contrast to this, in Christianity interpretation is open to all believers. When Jesus returns to his disciples after his resurrection according to Christian belief, he bestows the ability to interpret text on them.
Luke 24:45 “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”
Another point of departure between the Dead Sea Scrolls and Christianity is the attitude towards the Temple. In the Temple Scroll, the Qumran sect paints a picture of the Temple being a strong, everlasting institution.
Temple Scroll column 29: “They will be my people, and I will be theirs forever; and I will dwell with them forever and ever. And I will consecrate my Temple through my glory, the Temple on which I will settle my glory until the day of blessing, on which I will create my Temple in order to establish it for myself for all times.”
This is in contrast to Jesus’ criticism of the Temple and his prediction of its destruction to be replaced with a spiritual temple.
Mark 13:1-2 “As he came out of the Temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.””
John 2:19-21 “Jesus answered them, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This Temple has been under construction for 46 years, and will you raise it up in 3 days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body.”
Despite being a popular marketing point, Christian beliefs and the ideology of the Qumran community are quite different. (There are some similarities as well. The emphasis on mikvah/baptism, the ideology of an impending messianic age, communal property, and views on celibacy, to name a few.) What can be said is that the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other writings and attitudes from the late Second Temple period helped to form the background of both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism of today. Understanding the birth of Christianity means understanding the realities of all of the different voices of the Second Temple period, including the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran.
Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy New Year.
(Based on a talk by Lawrence Schiffman, NYU.