Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Father William Most Collection

Dead Sea Scrolls: Threat to Christianity?

[All of Fr. Most's files on the Dead Sea Scrolls are presented here; some of this may have been published in the article of the same name in Homiletic and Pastoral Review 95 (February 1995) 50-53]

The first scrolls were found in 1947. Other finds followed: in 1952 Cave 3 was found, including the Copper Scroll. The most important Cave for our purposes was Cave 4, discovered in 1954. About 20% of the scrolls were soon published, but the remainder were held out for 35 years. A 6 year campaign by the Biblical Archaeology Review, led by its Editor, Hershel Shanks, finally resulted in the liberation of the balance. Some photos came to Robert Eisenman of the Dept. of Religious Studies at State University of California at Long Beach in 1989, until 1990 when virtually all were released. Two years later, in 1991 the BAR published a two volume Facsimile Edition of all scrolls.

Soon Michael Wise, Assistant Professor of Aramaic in the Dept of Near Eastern Languages at the University of Chicago came into the work. Two teams, at both universities, set to work. In September 1991 the Huntington Library of San Marino CA made available to scholars its photos of all plates.

The result of the work of Eisenman and Wise was a controversial volume, The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, published by Element Inc. in 1992. On p. 6 the authors claim that their volume contains what they consider fifty of the most important documents, reconstructed out of about 150 plates. 33 of the texts were in Hebrew, and 17 in Aramaic. Their volume gives an introduction to each text, a copy in Hebrew or Aramaic of the text itself, followed by some notes.

The volume is controversial. A four day conference on the scrolls was scheduled for the New York Blood Center for Dec. 14-17, 1992, reported in BAR March -April, 1993, pp. 63-68. Less than a week before the conference, 18 prominent scholars released a statement strongly attacking the work of Eisenman and Wise, charging, "unethical appropriation" of the work of others, of using unnamed publications in a "fraudulent manner," hiding from the readers the fact that some things had already been published. The special point of condemnation was the claim that Eisenman and Wise had used a text called MMT, which had been edited previously by Elisha Qimron, who said "they stole my work." The two authors claim they worked with knowledge of the work of Qimron but not depending on it. Now that text, MMT, was put together out of several fragments - resulting in a problem to know in what order to put them - E &W claim they worked independently, and did not depend on the edition by Qimron. But some time back a samizdat (bootleg) copy of MMT was in general circulation. It contained some misjoins of fragments - the same misjoins used by E & W. According to BAR March-April, 1993, p. 65, Wise could not give a satisfactory explanation of how he had the same misjoins as the samizdat copy if he really had worked independently.

Many scholars then boycotted the conference. But a sort of peace was made. The 18 signers of the statement were willing to "retract the statement and all it implies." Wise in turn in a published statement said he regretted the unintended impression on the degree to which some parts of the work were done independently of the work of others. He admitted indebtedness in part. According to the BAR report, on p. 65, Wise said that Eisenman is "an historian and not a paleographer", and was responsible chiefly for the interpretations of the texts.

The previous issue of BAR, Jan- Feb. 1993, on pp. 60-61 carried a review of the same book by Alan Segal, Professor of Religion at Barnard College. Segal pointed out the controversial nature of the chief text, namely 4Q285, the so-called "pierced Messiah text". He said more than one interpretation of the text is possible. Eisenman and Wise explicitly admit that, on p. 29 saying one could read either that the Leader of the Community would put someone to death, or would be put to death. [more on this below]. Segal also said there was only one explicitly messianic passage, 4Q521, in the book, and it spoke of only one Messiah, whereas scholars have thought there were two Messiahs mentioned at Qumran. Segal lists three of these passages. Segal also says that Eisenman had moderated his earlier view in which he said that the early Christian church not only had the same beliefs as the Qumran community, but was identical with it. Later Eisenman said the early church was a successor to Qumran rather than identical with it. Segal adds that many of the texts were written a century or more before Christianity, and so Eisenman cannot easily claim that the Qumran community is the same as the community of James the Just [more on him later: cf. Acts of Apostles 15]. Eisenman and Wise reject palegographic evidence and the results of Carbon 14 on dating (p. p 12-13). Segal also said that what Eisenman said would misrepresent what we know of Christianity and also of Qumran. Eisenman held (p. 10) that Christianity sprang from a Zealot group in Palestine, and was later "Paulinized". Segal said such a view cannot be proved or entirely discounted. Segal also says that Eisenman and Wise never tell us just why they have put together certain fragments - for the texts are in fragments. As a result he concludes the book is, "one opinion among many. Clearly it is not the definitive statement."

A secondary, but important question, implied in some of the above is this: What was the nature of the community at Qumran? Several views were aired at the conference we have described: De Vaux, earliest explorer, had thought it was a sort of monastery of celibate Essenes. Donceels of the Catholic University at Louvain said it was a villa where wealthy people from Jerusalem lived during the winter. Norman Golb of University of Chicago thought it was a fortress, not a villa or monastery. BAR on p. 67 (March -April, 1993) reports that graves of women and children have been found there - at first sight a problem for the monastic interpretation but Josephus, Jewish War, 2. 8. 13 says there was another group of Essenes who agreed with the main group in everything except marriage: they did marry, to continue the views of the Essenes. Also, the Manual of Discipline, 1QS, surely sounds like a monastic rule.

Attacks on Christianity: These began soon after the release of the first scrolls. Among others, W. F. Albright, a rightly esteemed scholar, did not say it openly, but left the impression at a meeting of the American Philological Association in Washington, that the scrolls might damage Christianity.

More recently, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, in The Dead Sea Scroll Deception (Center for Biblical Studies, Pasadena, CA) said the reason for the long suppression of most of the scrolls was the Vatican, which feared grave damage to Christianity. Hershel Shanks, who led the fight to release the scrolls, and who is himself a very prominent Jew and editor of BAR, reviewed the book in BAR of Nov-Dec. 1991, pp. 66-71, even before the book was released in the U. S. He showed how utterly groundless the claim was, and said (p. 68) "the charge is hogwash" and "their central thesis is so badly flawed as to be ludicrous."

John Allegro wrote to John Strugnell, at the time chief editor in charge of the scrolls, who was considering becoming Catholic (p. 69): "By the time I've finished there won't be any Church left for you to join". Allegro had been a member of the scroll team, the only one to publish his work early. But he was an avowed agnostic. His book, The Sacred Mushroom, said Jesus never really existed, he was only an image developed by Christians under the influence of a hallucinating drug, psilocybin. Fourteen prominent British scholars repudiated Allegro's book in the London Times. The publisher then apologized for publishing the book (cf. BAR, Nov-Dec. 1991, p. 68).

Again, Hershel Shanks commented that now the scrolls have been released, with much help from Catholic scholars, it was "without the slightest shake of or shock to the church's foundations."

But much more serious, because it seems to be so scholarly, is the attack made by Eisenman and Wise in The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, of which we spoke above.

In their introduction they claim (p. 10) that probably the scrolls reveal "nothing less than a picture of the movement from which Christianity sprang in Palestine." According to Hershel Shanks, in BAR, Nov-Dec. 1991, p. 69, Eisenman (along with Baigent and Leigh) thought the Teacher of righteousness at Qumran was James, the "brother of the Lord." James, they thought was the leader of a militant Jewish sect, the Zealots, which was in the forefront of the First Jewish revolt against Rome. Shanks reports that Eisenman even thought Paul spent three years at Qumran, and was a secret Jewish agent! (BAR Nov-Dec. 1991, p. 69. Cf. also two other books by Eisenman, Maccabees, Zadokites, Christians and Qumran (Brill, Leiden, 1983) and James the Just in the Habbakuk Pesher (Vatican Tipographia Gregoriana, 1985).

Most basic in the thought of E and W is an alleged sharp contrast between James and Paul, which they often describe as a "mirror image", a complete reversal. On p. 11 they assert that "it is impossible to distinguish ideas and terminology associated with the Jerusalem Community of James the Just from materials found in this corpus." The Palestinian outlook they describe was (p. 10) "Zealot, engagé, xenophobic and apocalyptic". The mirror reversal movement, sparked by Paul was, "cosmopolitan, antinomian, pacifistic."

Their chief support comes from three, only three exhibits -and we note that their book claims to have picked out the fifty most important of the newly released scrolls (p. 6). But Wise, in an article with Tabor in BAR (Nov-Dec. 1992, p. 61) admits "references to any messiah at all are sparse" Here the three:

1) The Messiah of Heaven and Earth : 4Q521 (on pp. 19-23 of E & W): It says that all things will obey God's Messiah. There is constant emphasis, they say, on the themes of the Righteous (Zaddikim), the Pious (Hassidim), and the Meek (Anavim) and the Faithful (Emunim). They compare especially lines 8 & 12 to the NT passage which cites Isaiah 61:1 (RSV): "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted, he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound." In Luke 4:17-21 Jesus read this passage in the synagogue at Nazareth and added: "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." E & W add that parallel allusions confirm the relation of the sons of Zadok with the Zaddikim, and that 'naming' and predestination are major ideas in both the early parts of the Damascus Document and Acts, chapters 2-5.

E & W note there is only one Messiah spoken of in their text, while admitting that in some other places in the Qumran corpus there is mention of two Messiahs. The origin of the two Messiah idea seems to have been that Isaiah does speak of the Messiah as suffering, in chapter 53, while usual Jewish belief held that the Messiah would live forever. Hence later rabbinic literature sometimes speaks of two messiahs: Cf. BAR p. 82, n. 5. Oddly, the Jews overlooked Isaiah 53: 11-12 which speaks of a resurrection for the Messiah after he has died to atone for the sins of the rabbim.

COMMENTS: Yes, there are similarities between 4Q521 and the Gospel. But what of it? Both draw on a common source, namely Isaiah 61:1. The fact that both draw on it does not prove any connection whatsoever between the Qumran text and Christianity. (Cf. also BAR Nov-Dec. 1992, pp. 60-65).

2) The Pierced Messiah text: 4Q285 (E & W pp. 24-29): This text does not use the word Messiah at all, but E & W assume that the word nasi, leader, means the same. Perhaps so. This text is the one on which many commentators, including E & W, place most weight for a connection to Christianity. But the trouble is that the text is very ambiguous, as all admit (E & W pp. 24-27).

The translation is a problem for two reasons: a) Does the fragment 7 in which it comes belong after fragment 6? (cf. comments on misjoins above). If so probably the nasi is put to death. But if the fragment 6 really belongs after fragment 7, then the nasi would be putting someone else to death. E & W admit both possibilities: p. 24. b)The key verb is in Hebrew hmytw. A problem is what vowels to add? It could be read as hemitu (hiphil perfect third plural), and would then indicate that they executed the nasi. But it could be read as hemito (third singular) - then the nasi would kill another male person. [Some scholars claim the vowels should be hamito not hemito: BAR Nov-Dec. 1992, p. 58, note **. Cf. also the report on a seminar by G. Vermes on this text, reported in BAR, July-Aug, 1992, pp. 80-82, and BAR, Nov-Dec. 1992, p. 58].

COMMENTS: No matter which way one reads the text, piercing or pierced, there is no problem for Christianity. A belief that a leader, probably the messiah, was killed or killed another - neither one - would not be so significant. We wonder what scholarship it is to rest a case against Christianity on so slender a reed. Geza Vermes (BAR Nov. Dec. 1992, p. 59) comments that the view of E & W along with Tabor, "would lead to an interpretation otherwise unparalleled at Qumran" We comment: What of it in any case? No problem at all for the origin of Christianity.

3) Works-Righteousness Texts, E & W pp. 180-200, 212-220: 4A394-98, 397-99, 266: These three texts speak of justification by works - which E & W claim is the mirror image of what Paul teaches. Really, Paul only seems opposite - he is not really opposite to James, if properly understood. Cf. Romans 2:6-13: "He will repay each on according to his works... not the hearers of the law will be just, but the doers of the law will be just."[Cf. next paragraph below] - Nor is there real support for the claim of E & W that the Qumran community is the same as that of James the Just, or at least, that the latter sprang from Qumran, and so Christianity is not at all original, and Jesus is no different!

But it is time to come to the essential flaw in the work on E & W: The basic trouble is that they have bought the tragic mistake of Martin Luther, who thought Paul meant we can violate the law freely with impunity. So E & W call Paul's thought "antinomian" (p. 10).

Luther really was antinomian; Paul was not: Cf. Luther's Epistle of August 1 1521 (Luther's Works, American Edition 48. 282: "Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly... . No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day."

This is really contrary to Paul as well as to James. In 1 Cor 6:9-10 Paul enumerates the chief great sins and sinners: "No fornicators, idolaters, or adulterers, no sodomites, or those who lie with males, no thieves, misers or drunkards, no slanderers or robbers will inherit God's kingdom." After a similar list in Galatians 5:19-22 Paul says, "those who does such things will not inherit the kingdom of God." Luther of course wanted to say that if we once have faith, and so take Christ as our personal Savior, then these lines of Paul do not apply. The trouble is that Luther did not study to see what S. Paul meant by the word faith , he merely jumped to the conclusion that it meant confidence the merits of Christ apply to him. But even the Protestant Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Supplement, p. 333) knows Paul demands obedience in Rom 1:5, which the IDB explains as "the obedience that is faith". Similarly the standard reference, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, in the article on saved, salvation, does not even mention the foolish error of "infallible salvation." It has no intellectual support at all! We italicized the word inherit. We are children of the Father. Children as such have a claim to inherit. They do not think they have earned that inheritance, yet know they could instead earn punishment, even disinheritance. This is in accord with the constant words of Jesus saying that God is our Father. And He also said (Mt. 18:3) "Unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." So Paul is fully in accord with Jesus. The Judaizers had said in effect: Jesus is not enough, you need the law too. Paul reacted by saying: "You are free from the law". But he meant only that keeping the law does not earn salvation, even though violations can earn punishment, as Paul said in the texts of 1 Cor and Gal cited above. Cf. also Romans 5:23: "The wages of sin [ what one earns] is death, the free gift of God [unearned] is eternal life." In 1 Cor 9:27 Paul said: "I chastise my body and bring it into subjection, lest after preaching to others, I may be rejected." In context, he was talking not about some extras as a few Protestant commentators claim without evidence, but about eternal life. He had been pleading for some time not to cause the eternal ruin of a weak person by way of scandal. Again, Paul tells his people in 2 Ths 3:14-15 to avoid all who do not live as he lives - and in 1 Cor 5:3-5 he excommunicates the incestuous man. Cf also Paul's great syn Christo theme: we are saved and made holy if and to the extent that we are not only members of Christ, but are like Him, e.g., Rom 8:17,"we are heirs together with Christ, provided that we suffer with Him, so we may also be glorified with Him." (On that theme cf. also Rom 6:3, 6, 8; Col 3:1, 4; Eph 2:5-6.

Luther is not only simplistic, but even antibiblical in his claim that Scripture is obvious in meaning - he had to claim that so he could try to use Scripture against the Church. But Second Peter 3:16, speaking of Paul's Epistles said: "In them there are many things hard to understand, which the unlearned and the unstable twist, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

Interestingly, 1QS6. 1 has the same system of fraternal correction as Mt. 18:16.

And James is not xenophobic, afraid of outsiders, nor as harsh as E & W, if one checks the penalties in 1 QS6. Nor is it true to say with E & W (p. 213) that James "imposed" a "purification" on Paul in Acts 21:20-25. Paul had just come to Jerusalem with a collection on which he had worked hard. James told Paul some said he was speaking against the law. (He had said in effect, they were free from the law - but in the sense explained above, which was as 2 Peter said, "hard to understand"). To quiet them, James merely asked, did not command Paul - for James had no authority over Paul - to go through a ceremony of the Nazirite vow with four others. Paul did that, for it was not wrong in itself. Jesus came to fulfill Judaism. Had not the Jews been so hostile to Christians and excommunicated them so early (cf. the persecution in which Paul joined in 36 AD), they might have retained many Jewish practices. In Acts 21:25 James summarizes the prescriptions of the Council of Jerusalem (from Acts 15) in which he himself had had a large part, and had agreed with Paul, and with Peter that gentile converts need not be circumcised and keep the law in general. As a concession to the feelings of Jews, the letter of the Council asked for 4 things, one of which was merely basic morality, to abstain from loose sex. We gather too that those who "came from James" to Antioch (Gal 2:12-13) after that Council could not have really been sent by James, for James had been a prime mover at the Council in deciding what we have just said. So those mentioned in Gal 2 came from the territory of James, not at his behest.

And how many things do the newly released scrolls have to compare to Christianity? As we noted above, E & W give us 50 scrolls, which they say are the best, the most important. There is precious little that is clearly related to Christianity, chiefly the Messiah of heaven and earth text - and the pierced messiah text, which is as they and all admit very ambiguous.

Conclusions: There is nothing in the scrolls to show Christianity came from Qumran or even is closely identical with it. Rather:

1) The evidence, is, as even E & W said, very sparse.

2) Most basically the claims by E & W, and similar persons, rest on following the tragic And unscholarly error of Luther in misunderstanding Paul, as if Paul were easy (cf. again 2 Peter 3:16).

3) We do get some help from the scrolls, but nothing so dramatic as is claimed. One major help is the far older virtually complete text of Isaiah. But it shows not very many differences from the text we had before, and these are not of great import. Cf. Harold Scanlin, The Dead Sea Scrolls & Modern Translations of the Old Testament (Tyndale, Wheaton, 1993). On pp. 126-32 Scanlin gives us nearly all the variations in Isaiah, 22 in all, none of them of major importance.

Appendix: The November-December, 1994 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review published the full text, in Hebrew and English, of a key, long-awaited scroll, called MMT, which stands for Miqsat Ma'ase Ha-Torah, meaning: Some Works of the Law. It had been held back, unreasonably, by scholars assigned to work on it, for about 35 years. The editor, Hershel Shanks, a prominent Jew, put over the actual text the heading: For This You waited 35 Years. He seemed irritated, and with reason. Qimron, the chief editor of that document sued Shanks in a Jewish court and won, claiming Shanks had previously published part of it without his permission.

How earth-shaking is this scroll? One of two articles published in the same issue was entitled by Shanks, "MMT as the Maltese Falcon," alluding to a famous movie. Shanks at the end of his article hopes future articles may clarify some things and adds if not, "the MMT may yet turn out to be mere bombast." He pointed out earlier in his article that we are not sure the MMT is one document or three. We do not know what literary classification to give to part of it, we do not even know if the fragments used for it have been correctly arranged. He also reports that a major Talmudic scholar, Ya'akov Sussman, in an appendix to the book in which the MMT is now published, said that what made the Qumran sect so different "was not religious doctrines... it was halakha [religious laws].

And what laws! The very essence of pettiness over levitical purity, the same sort of things over which Our Lord often clashed with the Pharisees of His day. In that connection, we should mention that an article in Bible Review (same Editor) of June 1992 by L. Schiffman, "New Light on the Pharisees - Insights from the Dead Sea Scrolls" shows us that the picture of the Pharisees which we had known in the Damascus Document - once thought to be rather late - is really the same as that of Qumran, since we now know that the full Damascus document was used at Qumran in the first century B.C. So the pettiness was there all right. Therefore the claims are false that the Gospels misrepresent Pharisees or that the clashes between them and our Lord did not really happen in His time, but later in the first century when Christians clashed with Jews.

We know this is true in other ways too. We see the great concern of the Pharisees for merits in a large work by A. Marmorstein, - The Doctrine of Merits in Old Rabbinical Literature (KTAV. NY. 1968). And Jewish writings, many of them close to the time of Paul and Jesus, can be read in J. Charlesworth (ed. ), The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Doubleday, NY, 1983), vol I, pp. 539, 543, 544, 618, 619, 626, 638, 641, 878, 889, 890-99. Sussman in the article just mentioned said he was "astonished" by the similarity of the MMT with things in rabbinic literature, so that at one time he was even inclined to date the MMT a couple of centuries later during the rabbinic period. The Palestinian Targum on Dt 32. 4 even claims that God Himself spends three hours per day studying the Law, as if He were a Rabbi, for that was their chief occupation, and it made them holy, they thought.

When the first scrolls were released around 1950, irresponsible claims were made the Jesus was just the same as the Teacher of Righteousness in the scrolls, and so would be not be original. Now in this major text, MMT, we find according to Shanks, that the authors of the work on MMT, Qimron and Strugnell, conclude we do not really know who is speaking or who is being spoken too. So much for the dreadful threat to Christianity!

The other article in the same issue of BAR on the MMT is by Martin Abegg, "Paul, 'Works of the Law' and MMT." He says Paul was really attacking the kind of theology espoused by MMT. But that theology really centers on levitical purity. Now of course Paul did reject the old purity laws. But Abegg adds something significant, he says that Paul was not duelling with mainstream Judaism but with the theology of a sect, "that ultimately defined Christianity." This is shocking. He seems to have in mind the same unfortunate mistake made by Eisenman and Wise, of which we spoke above. But that mistake rests on the wrong notion that Christianity was at first just a works-righteousness community at Jerusalem, under James the "Brother of the Lord". That of course is not true. We have an Epistle of James from that period, which may be by the same James, but it does not deal at all with levitical purity matters, but with solid theological and moral principles. And as we showed above, Paul did not reverse James, unless one adopts the great error of Martin Luther in interpreting Paul.

Bonus: BAR of March-April, 1993, p. 73, tells of "Dead Sea Scroll Predictions for 1993", as published in The Sun. Here they are: 1) A spaceship with voyagers from another planet will crash land "in the bosom of a mighty power", will bring greetings of peace from other universes and meet with lawmakers in U. S. Capitol. 2) Elvis' grave will be found empty. 3) Communication with the dead will be possible by new cellular telephones. 4) A vaccine will be found for the common cold.



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