What about the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Ever since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran nearly sixty years ago, scholars have argued about the link (if any) between them and the early Christian Church. With the release of the Scrolls from the tight grip of the 'International Team' in the early 1990s, the controversy raged with increased intensity as ever more researchers claimed to have found answers to such questions as:

~**Are there any books from the New Testament among the scrolls? *~

~*Did John the Baptist live at Qumran?*~

~*Was Jesus a member of the community that wrote the scrolls - even, perhaps, its leader?**~

The wrangling continues up to the present time, with allegations of 'cover-ups' and political/religious bias being made against highly respected international scholars. Two of the most published authors in this debate are Robert Eisenman and Barbara Thiering, both holding extreme views which are rejected by the majority of other Scrolls scholars. Thiering claims, among other things, that Jesus was crucified at Qumran, just a few hundred yards from the caves where many of the scrolls were found. Eisenman, on the other hand, claims to have proved from the scrolls that James, the brother of Jesus, was the leader of the Scrolls Community. We must not forget, of course, the huge success of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which also claims that the Dead Sea Scrolls contain the earliest known records of the Christian Church - and thus convincingly demonstrates that the most outrageous assertions sell best of all!

In the light of these and other claims, what genuine evidence can be found within the scrolls of a possible connection between the Community of the Scrolls and the early Christian Church?

The history of the Early Church is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, coming immediately after accounts of the earthly ministry of Jesus (in the four Gospels) and immediately before a series of letters written to scattered groups of followers, or churches, by leaders of the movement. It would seem logical, therefore, that any clues to a possible connection between the Early Church and the Community of the Dead Sea Scrolls will be found in this particular part of the Bible. Most scholars do agree that the two movements were concurrent, but there is considerable debate about what influence (if any) was exerted by either one on the other. Theories abound but, since none of the persons named in the New Testament is actually named in the scrolls, it is difficult to identify linkages with absolute certainty. However, several remarkable similarities can be found between a number of statements in the New Testament and some of the teaching in the Scrolls.

One of the most important of the Dead Sea Scrolls, known as the 'Rules of the Community' Scroll or the 'Manual of Discipline' Scroll, includes terms that appear to identify the organisation for which the scroll was written. By far the most frequently occurring title is 'Yahad'. The word in isolation simply means 'unity' but this could suggest an enclosed 'community' in a particular place or a 'common unity' of believers scattered across Israel, much like the Early Church itself. Some scholars do, indeed, translate the word as 'Church', thus underlining the suggested similarity with the first Christian Community.

A number of words and phrases in the scrolls do have a familiar feel about them for anyone familiar with the New Testament. It is clear, for example, that members of the community saw themselves as 'children of light' and followers of 'The Way'. Peter's speech on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 also included many elements which have close parallels in the Scrolls, including repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, the presence of the Holy Spirit and being saved from punishment in the Last Days. The account in Acts describes how the believers 'were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need'. This communal living is also clearly outlined in the 'Rules of the Community' Scroll.

Acts then goes on to describe how the Church was persecuted and all the followers (except the apostles) were scattered 'throughout Judea and Samaria'. The number of followers had already been stated as 'over 3000', and since Judea was the area associated with the 'Yahad' it is surely reasonable to expect that there would be at least some contact between the communities.

Acts 9 describes how Saul went to Damascus to arrest any there 'who belonged to the Way'. As shown earlier, the members of the 'Yahad' are described in the Dead Sea Scrolls as 'followers of The Way'. Later (Acts 22:4), after Saul had been converted and been given the new name of Paul, he declared to a crowd: 'I persecuted the followers of this Way'. He went on to describe how he was blinded on the road to Damascus and met a man called Ananias who, having restored Paul's sight, told him that he would 'see the Righteous One and hear the words from his mouth'. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, the leader of the Community is called 'The Righteous One' or 'The Teacher of Righteousness'.

In Acts 24:14 Paul made his defence against accusations of troublemaking before the Roman Governor Felix in Caesarea, stating: 'I admit that I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect'. Felix, 'who was well acquainted with the Way, adjourned the proceedings' (Acts 24:22). It would appear, therefore, that the believers in Jesus were called (and called themselves) 'followers of the Way' before they were called 'Christians'. It is rather a remarkable coincidence that this title is exactly the same as that of another, contemporaneous, religious community!

Much of the teaching in Paul's letters to the members of the scattered church communities is identical to that found in a number of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example: 'Do not repay evil for evil' and 'Be devoted to one another in brotherly love' (Romans 12). In 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 the affinity with the 'Yahad' is particularly striking. Paul uses the term 'Belial' here for the only time in the New Testament, and 'Belial' is used exclusively for the Devil in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Indeed, many scholars contend that this whole section of Paul's letter (6:14 to 7:1) reveals a close familiarity with the writings of the 'Yahad'.

In Ephesians 5:8 Paul urges his readers to 'Live as children of light'. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, the followers of the Way are described as 'Children (or Sons) of Light' who will, at the end of times, fight against the 'Children (or Sons) of Darkness' in the final battle between God and Belial.

A number of other concepts and phrases (for example, 'Works of the Law' which appears to be unique to Paul and the Dead Sea Scrolls) point to some association between the early Christian Church and the 'Yahad', but one of the most significant parallels must surely be the understanding of the Holy Spirit. Although 'Spirit' ('Ruach') occurs numerous times in the Old Testament, its meaning varies according to particular situations. Some Bible scholars argue that the unique term 'The Holy Spirit' as a separate being does not appear in the Old Testament at all (cf. Psalm 51:11 'your Holy Spirit', Isaiah 63:10 'his Holy Spirit' etc). They contend that it is only in the New Testament that the specific term 'The Holy Spirit comes into use, first as a vital component in the promises of Jesus and secondly as a cornerstone tenet of the early Christian Church - the third person of the Trinity. However, in the Dead Sea Scrolls that specific term does occur a number of times, although different translators are still in some disagreement about the correct interpretation of the phrase in particular passages. From the evidence of the Scrolls, it does seem that 'The Holy Spirit' is regarded by the 'Yahad' as a separate being, much as the early Christians also believed, who dwelt with them and within them as soon as they were 'initiated into the Covenant before God' (The 'Rules of the Community' Scroll).

This has been just a glimpse of a few of the many similarities between the New Testament account of the early Christian Church and the 'Yahad' of the Dead Sea Scrolls. At the very least it does illuminate the background of Jesus and the emerging church. However, there are also a number of significant differences between the teachings of the 'Yahad' and those of the Early Church. The most important is the revelation in the New Testament of Jesus as 'Messiah' and, despite all the claims and counter-claims of scholars, there is absolutely no evidence of this revelation in the Dead Sea Scrolls!