Capturing the spirit of first-century Judaism through the window of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament writings.
The Dead Sea Scrolls give an important look into first-century Jewish life from a mainly Jewish-Hebrew perspective; a genre lacking until their advent. Most of our extra-biblical knowledge of Israel during the first-century was previously drawn from Jewish Greek and Aramaic writers.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of manuscripts generally published from 200 BC to 100 AD.1 The majority were found in caves around the Dead Sea and the West Bank region.
The manuscripts were originally the property of a community previously called the Qumran community but today goes by the title of Yaḥad (literally it means together, oneness, or more generally, unity). There is debate over whether this a correct term, or whether Qumran would be a better fit. Yaḥad is used here simply because it has a more common usage in modern Dead Sea Scroll discussions and its uniqueness to the English language denotes a foreign, mysterious entity that has yet to be completely unravelled—a case that exists for these people.
It is unknown how widespread this movement was. Perhaps it had satellite communities from Damascus, Syria, all the way to Alexandria, Egypt. Maybe there was only one group in Qumran, or they were ideologically similar groups with loose connections between each other. Since they are not noted by the New Testament texts or the Talmud, they were likely a small movement with little political, social, or religious influence on the greater Jewish community. Their importance rests in the fact they are one of the few bodies from the first-century to leave behind any written evidence.
As one reads the entire collation of Dead Sea Scroll texts as found in the book, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition,2 a picture emerges of the Yaḥad as an extremist group—perhaps even ascetic. This is a community of people gathered together trying to go back 1200 years to the times of Moses and recreate a similar environment.
A little history of the Dead Sea Scrolls
The collection of writings called the Dead Sea Scrolls is large and diverse. The assemblage contains bible texts, hymns, psalms (biblical ones and new ones created by them), apocryphal literature, and rules for community life. They were written mostly in Hebrew, fewer in Aramaic, and lesser in Greek, Latin, and Nabatean. The community life texts contain small snippets about who they were, their liturgy and religious devotion.
The texts referring to the Yaḥad community way of life and religion are the ones looked at here.
Whether the communities were as old as the manuscripts themselves or only a brief generational thing, I don’t know.
Due to Rome’s military occupation and subsequent destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, and Masada by Vespasian and Titus in 70 AD, the Yaḥad communities put their scrolls in caves for safekeeping. This was a good idea because their communities were physically located in the same region as Masada.
The high mountain fortress of Masada, originally built by Herod the Great as an escape option against the powerful and scheming Egyptian leader, Cleopatra, and to a lesser degree, any possible Jewish revolt, was a last major place of resistance against Rome.3 And if you read Josephus’ Wars of the Jews, the ending went badly for the resistance fighters. After the Romans had breached the wall and entered, they found carcasses strewn about. The results of a mass suicide.
Due to the severity of the war, and Rome’s desire to vanquish the conquered foes through death, slavery, or exile, the people of the Yaḥad never reclaimed the scrolls. Even if this theory does not hold true, one can look 65 years later. The human memory of the cave scrolls was surely erased. The Emporer Hadrian’s virtual annihilation of the Jewish population after the Bar Kochba revolt guaranteed such a state.
Luck was on our side that these manuscripts were put into these remote locations—a place with low humidity, few or no bugs, or animals. The caves are situated high—some are visible as a hole in the middle of a sheer cliff. They are hard to access and the inhospitably hot climate did not attract human activity around this area for over 1800 years.
All we know about the Yaḥad is by their own writings left behind in the caves. The texts of the New Testament, nor do the Talmud, directly refer to them.
Are Essenes or Therapeutae Greek terms for the Yaḥad movement?
Were they the Essenes described by Josephus?4 Josephus was a first-century Jewish historian. He was part of the revolt against Rome, captured, and initially made a slave. Aside from the New Testament writings, his works are the most detailed and complete about this era. Within his narratives he describes a curious sect called the Essenes. Lively debates exist over whether the Essenes are the Greek equivalent of the Yaḥad. Regardless, the parallels are very close.
Or were they the Therapeutae described by Philo of Alexandria?5 Philo was a Jewish philosopher and writer in the first-century who lived in Roman-controlled Egypt. There are matching practices between the Therapeutae and the Yaḥad but there is a problem. Philo may be guilty of trying too hard to ameliorate his narrow world-view Greek-reading audience with the Jewish world. If the Yaḥad is a related group, his coverage avoids the problems of their rigorous adherence to purification, social order, and isolationism in order to achieve his aims. Consequently, he puts them in a utopian light. I think the Therapeutae are the same group, but Philo’s overarching theme of defending Judaism against the backdrop of a powerful international Greek culture and influence thwarts a definitive connection.
The Teacher of Righteousness
The Teacher of Righteousness (מורה צדקה) is one of the most intriguing subjects found within the Dead Sea Scrolls and remains an unsolved mystery. There is not enough information to complete a picture of this person or narrative but its fun to try and make a guess. The Teacher of Righteousness is historically associated with the founding of the Yaḥad and its break from the Temple authority. This supposedly happened because of a serious conflict with a corrupt priest. Who exactly were the Teacher of Righteousness and his adversary, the corrupt priest? Nobody knows. Lawrence H. Schiffman, a leading scholar on the Dead Sea Scrolls, has deeply considered this issue can only conclude that this event probably occurred during the early Hasmonean empire. Probably around 140 BC.6 One DSS text maintained it happened 390 years after falling to Nebuchadnezzar (Col. i (= 4Q266 2 i-ii; 4Q268 1)). This makes it around 197 BC and creates many difficulties.
What we do know is that this unnamed person was the leader of a schism from the Temple with a priestly class called the sons of Zadok. If one takes a Wikipedia page on the sons of Zadok at face value, they had both literal and allegorical meanings. It is hard to distinguish how it is used here.7 8
The followers of the Teachers of Righteousness felt that they were a faithful remnant while the Wicked Priest, who represented the greater Jewish community, had compromised and corrupted the faith.
One DSS text relates the Teacher of Righteousness as a present person.9 The present TOR may relate to the community receiving the passed-down teachings of the teacher, not the teacher himself. The TOR is found in one apocalyptic verse, where he is announced to precede the Messiah.10 Once again, I don’t think it is relating to a future appearance of the TOR but that the establishment of his teachings and practices are a necessary prerequisite to hasten the Messiah’s arrival.
However, these are not as strong a position as the historical figure.
Whether true history, allegory, a self-patronizing myth created by the Yaḥad to give them status, or as some propose, a proto-Christ, will probably never fully be demystified.
A hyper identity sect
The Yaḥad hardly wanted anything to do with the gentile world or the benefits their economies offered. Their idea of purification was radical and protecting the Jewish image from any improper contact with a greater gentile world was an important part of their narrative.
No-one should sell clean animals or birds, to the gentiles lest they sacrifice them. . . . And he should not sell them anything from his granary or his press, at any price.11
They viewed themselves as morally and religiously superior to the rest of the world:
. . . honour him by this: by consecrating yourself to him, in accordance to the fact that he has placed you as a holy of holies [over all] the earth, and among all the [g]o[ds] he has cast your lot.12
Paul too, in his expanding the Jewish faith to a gentile world, was a serious threat to this type of thinking. Their doctrine of racial and religious purity would have immediately judged him as a traitor. This indeed did happen. The Book of Acts recalls Paul being accosted in the Temple for allegedly allowing gentiles in the Temple and a throng of people immediately attempted to beat him to death. Without the intervention of Roman soldiers he probably would have died. Paul later testified that he did not bring in any gentile or violate the Temple. If such purity views were common in the lands of Judah, or even by a vocal, vigilant, and aggressive minority such as the Yaḥad, it is not surprising that Paul needed a Roman escort out of Jerusalem.13
The language of the Yaḥad
A superficial look presents an absence of Greek or Latin loanwords in their texts. They had some Aramaic but not much. This linguistic purity appears very unusual to me.
The Yaḥad and the Temple
There is a premise that the Yaḥad had dismissed the Temple as being too corrupt and had replaced it with their own set of practices. However, I cannot find satisfactory evidence in the writings to prove such a point. There is no statement that outrightly calls for the abandonment of the Temple.
Rather there is some evidence that the Temple is central to their belief system. It is exemplified by the fact that members covenant not to have any sexual activity in the holy city of Jerusalem in respect to its holiness.14 On the other hand, there is a conflict. The Temple Scroll is very similar in wording to the Damascus Document about Temple observance but it is futuristic. Whereas the Damascus Document seems to press for present observance of the Temple, the Temple Scroll writer(s) pushes for a future state. They see themselves preparing for a restorative Judaism that includes a new Temple that is totally pure. The Temple Scroll outlines plans on a new Temple building and how patrons should enter and behave while in the holy city. These similarities make it hard to distinguish whether the Yaḥad were obligated to perform such ascetic rights now or only in the future.
I would suspect that their restorative idea of Judaism and emphatic emphasis on purification in order to bring along the end-times would lead to them being very strict in their conduct of the Herodian Temple and the holy city.
The Damascus Document implies a present rule of conduct with the Temple, while the Temple Scroll emphasizes a future requirement when the Temple is cleansed and rebuilt.
Leadership structure of the Yaḥad
The Yaḥad were rigorous about rank and order. The Inspector of the Many (המבקר הרבים or המקבר היחד) was the top of the order. He was a combination of a mayor, lawyer, philanthropist, and judge. He gave the final interpretation of any matters relating to Judaic Law. This position required the man to be 30 to 50 years of age and multilingual;15 he was responsible for dealing in matters with outside authorities.
Admission to the congregational assembly meetings was restricted to those who were in good health. Those with any skin disorder, age-related walking problems, blind, deaf, etc., were not permitted to sit with the men of renown.16
This community did share all things in common—but that is if you are a qualified member. Any violation of the community covenant could lead to minor or severe penalties.17 Speaking out of order, falling asleep, or even giggling inappropriately could lead to punishments. Acts of disrespect were especially frowned upon.18Also, some food items were defined with a higher sense of purity and privilege. Some qualified for this type of food while others did not.
There is much more about the leadership structure that can be drawn from these texts. For a more thorough look, see Geza Vermes’, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English; especially under the header, Qumran and the New Testament. Pg. 44ff.19 Dr. Vermes was one the earlier scholars to study the Dead Sea Scrolls and his publications on the subject became the standard for many years. I would like to provide one insight that goes along with the flow of thought here—the absolute authority of the Inspector:
But an additional task of the mebaqqer [Inspector] in the towns was to ensure that no friendly contact occurred between his congregation and anyone outside the sect. Whatever exchanges took place had to be paid for; and even these transactions were to be subject to his consent.20
The Yaḥad and miracles
One the key characteristics of the New Testament Gospels and the earlier part of the Book of Acts are the appeals to miracles.
However, it is surprising there is very little reference to mysticism or miracles in the Yaḥad community. There are a few notes about demons but they are not preoccupied by it. Purification by far is their greatest ambition.
The Yaḥad writings and Jesus
In reference to the New Testament texts, there are similarities in thought. This is not surprising because the texts come from the same era. They both draw from the same spirit of the age. Generally speaking, the Judaism presented in the New Testament texts is far more welcoming to the non-Jew, tolerant, and comprehensive, than the rule of life ordered by those communities living in the Judean desert. These desert dwellers lived in a very insulated world.
One has to be careful with such a generality. John the Baptist falls into the description of a Qumran member.
Jesus was likely aware of them and conflicted with their rigorous view of the Sabbath. His assertion that it was OK to violate the Sabbath in order to rescue an animal or son trapped in a watery place on the Sabbath (Luke 14:5) contradicted the Yaḥad. They had a rule that if a person is trapped in a watery place on the Sabbath, he cannot be retrieved by any device. The use of any device such as a rope or ladder would violate the rules of the Sabbath. The rescue must manually occur by the extension of the hands21 and/or the use of personal garments worn by the person.22 Otherwise, the person was left to die. A hand extension or assistance for any animal found in a watery place on the Sabbath was forbidden. The animal was left to die. Jesus contradicted this practice as too extreme. It went beyond the intent of the Law.
It may seem crass for readers today, but the idea of falling into a well was an important discussion during this period. Later Rabbinic leaders went over this problem in great detail.23
Also the beatitudes that Jesus gave which contained the formula blessed are the…24 is also contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls.25 They are not parallel texts. They just contain the same formulaic beginning. However, I would strongly caution against Jesus borrowing from the Qumran community on this. They both borrowed from the spirit of the times.
The Yaḥad shares the same apocalyptic doctrine as the New Testament on the lineage of the Messiah. They also shared that he would come from the tribe of Judah:
Until the messiah of righteousness comes, the branch of David. For to him and to his descendants has been given the covenant of the kingship of his people for everlasting generations. . .26
But then contradicts itself in another place where the Messiah comes from the Aaronic line.27
Although the Yaḥad have many differences from the themes and message of the New Testament writings, there are similarities in writing style and influences. It is clear they are both developed from the same cultural milieu.
It was a great pleasure to read these texts and every Bible reader should add the English translations to their reading list.
There is much more information in these texts than I have mentioned. This is just the beginning.