Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls

It’s impossible to deny the allure the Dead Sea scrolls have for scholars trying to better understand early Christianity. The corpus of scrolls found near Qumran represents a tantalizing glimpse into (a type of) Jewish life at the time and just before the life of Jesus. Many elements, which we might identify as part of Christian theology, are evident in the scrolls themselves. This includes a reliance on a charismatic teacher, a penchant for messianism of several sorts, and an increased almost-dualist emphasis on the works of “Satan” as they lay in contrast to God’s. But although it’s easy to see the echoes of what Christianity would become in these scrolls, these echoes represent patterns of thought rather than predecessors to Christian belief.

(This short essay is part of a collection that I wrote while working on a research project about the Dead Sea Scrolls a few years ago. It presupposes some understanding of the Scrolls and their narrative context, but should still be understandable for the lay reader.) 

One of the connections that the Qumran scrolls and earliest Christianity share is the emphasis on a “teacher” who has come to share a new message about the old religion. The New Testament itself has two of these figures: Jesus and John the Baptist. There are no connections, of course, between the Teacher of Righteousness in the Qumran theology and these later figures: this teacher passed away at least a century before the New Testament. All three of these teachers instructed groups on the application of law and theology. The Qumran community’s Teacher of Righteousness “knew all the mysterious revelations of … the prophets (Commentary on Habbakuk, Col. 7:3),” while Jesus was called the “teacher who has come from God (John 3:2)” Even John the Baptist was called a “teacher” in Luke 3:12. In addition to this shared terminology, all three taught in opposition to (or in addition to) the teachings at Jerusalem. This is perhaps understandable as teachers who taught the mainstream may not have come down to us as prominent figures, but the presence of these individuals during this period demonstrates a pattern in the culture where some groups were eager to look to new charismatic leaders for guidance. 

A second connection between Qumran and the early Christian figures is the emergence of one or more messiah figures. While the details of these beliefs are different, that the concept of a messiah was present in the common theology of the period is unmistakable. At Qumran, the belief was in two, not one, messiahs: one from the line of David and one from the priestly class. The belief in these “Messiahs of Aaron and Israel” were even laid out in the foundation document of the community, the Community Rule (9:11). In the views of early Christianity, it is clear that Jesus is presented as the messiah, but the New Testament depicts that there may have been Jews of the period actively looking for one. For example, John 1:19 begins a scene where John the Baptist is asked whether he is the messiah, to which he replies “no”. The notion that fringe groups may have been looking for a messiah is not new– we still have them today– but we can at least surmise that the imminent arrival of a messiah was a prominent element in some Jewish beliefs of the period.

A third, but by no means final pattern-connection between the scrolls found at Qumran and the later Christian beliefs is the centrality of Satan. In the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not a prominent figure. While some Christians may argue that Satan appears in Genesis (as the snake), Satan only unambiguously appears a few times, most prominently in Job. (And even then, he is depicted as being a servant of God, rather than an opposition figure.) In contrast, an opposition figure (usually named Belial, though with other names) appears regularly in the corpus at Qumran. Like later Christianity, this individual was perceived as being responsible for demons on earth and similar evil spirits (Songs to Disperse Demons Col 5:2) and even was associated with Hell/Hades (5:9)!

There are many connections between the theology of the documents that we have found at Qumran and later Christian belief. While these connections do not make up the lion’s share of the belief system, it is clear that some aspects of these two systems “rhyme”.  While it is possible to draw conclusions from these repeats – perhaps that Christianity adopted elements that had been part of Judaism and subsequently rejected (perhaps because of Christianity’s adoption!) – these conclusions are difficult to warrant based only on the data that we have. What is clear is that key elements of Qumranite and Christian beliefs were similar: their reliance on teacher figures, their belief in an imminent (or recent) messiah, and their focus on a new opposition figure to God in the “monotheistic” pantheon. As Andre Dupont-Sommer has stated, there are all the appearances of Christianity “borrowing” from Qumran, but the interaction between these faith groups cannot be so easily measured.

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