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The Importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for Understanding Jesus: Readers’ Mailbag

A few posts ago I discussed, very briefly, the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I received a number of questions about the post, one in particular with some frequency: how did the discovery of the Scrolls contribute to our understanding of Jesus and early Christianity?  For me as a NT scholar, it is obviously an unusually important question.

Let me stress that the Scrolls are *mainly* important for understanding early Judaism, and only secondarily for understanding early Christianity.  But with that said, they are *really* important for Christianity as well, though not in ways you might suspect (especially if you acquire all your historical knowledge from random searches on the Internet!).

As it turns out, I received virtually this same question seven years ago on the blog, and here is how I addressed it there.



Can you write a post on how the Dead Sea Scrolls advance our understanding of the birth of Christianity?



This is a question that can be answered in one sentence, or in a very long and dense book or … anything in between. I’ll go with the in between, erring on the side of the short, for the sake of the post; but if anyone has follow-up questions, I can try to deal with those as well.

If I were to do the one-sentence version, the shortest iteration I could come up with is: The Dead Sea Scrolls are a set of texts written by Jews living at about that same time and about the same place as Jesus, and so inform us about the milieu out of which his ministry, and the earliest Christian church, emerged.

The first thing to stress is that the Scrolls are thoroughly Jewish in every sense.   There is nothing about Jesus in them.  And nothing about …

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  1. Avatar
    gwayersdds  June 28, 2020

    Bart, An off the wall question. What is the correct pronunciation of Habakkuk? What syllable is accented? I have heard it pronounced different ways and I want to show my intellectual superiority over those who mispronounce it! LoL

    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2020

      I’ve heard it both ways too. I accent the second syllable.

  2. Avatar
    JeffreyFavot  June 28, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,
    It’s been assumed that the accounts of Jesus and others related to Christianity in Josephus’ writings may have been interpolated. The Greek text of Josephus would’ve had to been in the hands of an outcast group (Christians), copied, and disseminated. That is a huge conspiracy theory given the unlikely ability for Christians at the time of his writings to pull off. It would’ve gained very little value and would’ve been a great deal of work. Highly unlikely. We don’t have Greek texts that differ right? Skeptics make it seem like Christians were masterful at obtaining secular writings, reading them, finding out where they could interpolate the text, spending laborious time copying and disseminating them. I have a tin foil hat for you.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2020

      Yes, the manuscripts do differ; most critical scholars think that most of the passage was written by Josephus, but htat Christian scribes (the ones who actually preserved our surviving manuscripts) altered it ina few places so that Josephus would confess that Jesus really was the messiah who was raised from the dead in fulfillment of the Scriptures, something, of coruse, that he never did as a completely non-Christian Jew.

      • Avatar
        JeffreyFavot  June 30, 2020

        Considering that our earliest text to Josephus’ writing “Jesus, called the Christ..”, is in Greek. Most scholars actually think the reason (and most logical explanation) for Josephus referring to Jesus as the Christ is to differentiate between the many people named Jesus during that time. It would be pretty vague to mention the name Jesus and not specify it.
        I am considering enrolling in a program at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor in their history department. Do you think epigraphy is important in regards to studying early Christianity?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 30, 2020

          I don’t think they say that about this passage in book 18, but the one in book 20 where he indicates that the Jesus he is talking about is “the one who was called the messiah.” In book 18 he directly confirms: “He was the messiah.” And also goes on to say that he was raised frmo the dead to fulfill the Scriptures — not something non-Christian Jews were known to have said.

  3. tompicard
    tompicard  June 28, 2020

    I agree with your’s and Schweitzer’s thesis that there was a lot of apocalyptic thought and worldview by Jesus and other jewish communities circulating at that time. But knowing how much symbolism is present in the apocalyptic texts I am not sure how much of these teachings should be understood as literal as opposed to figurative . Jesus was adept at hyperbole and metaphor .

    So I will agree with you that a crucial element of this teaching/ministry was
    >There are earthly, and cosmic, battles between the forces
    >of good and evil. But these battles are to be
    >brought to an end when God intervenes in the
    >course of history and overthrows everything and
    >everyone who is opposed to him, to give his good
    >kingdom to those who are on his side.

    How do you figure this entails supernatural elements, that many fundamentalist christian propound – like resurrection of the long dead, obsolescence sicknesses and of natural disasters such as earthquakes, immortality of those alive on earth, cessation of human births – There is really no clear indication of any of these things in the Old Testament scripture, with the possible exception of Dan 12 ?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2020

      Right — there’s little of that in the OT — mainly Daniel 7-12 and a few other passages (isa 24-27, etc.). Did they mean it literally? I think so — and at least early on the Christians appeared to think they did.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  July 1, 2020

        >mainly Daniel 7-12 and a few other passages (isa 24-27, etc.).
        >Did they mean it literally?
        >I think so — and at least early on the Christians appeared to think they did

        Isaiah 24 : the Lord maketh the earth empty, . . . , and turneth it upside down, . . he who fleeth from the noise of the fear shall fall into the pit . . .the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed;

        Of course it means figuratively a great calamity. it doesn’t mean the world really turns upside down and everyone fleeing is going to fall in some pit ( who is going to dig all those pits?)

        On what basis do you say they, early Christins , or even Jesus, took it literally ?

        plus I don’t see anything in Isaiah where little is even hinted at resurrection of the long dead, obsolescence sicknesses and of natural disasters, immortality of those alive on earth, cessation of human births, as most fundamentalist christians seem to pre-suppose without what I think is much evidence

        • Bart
          Bart  July 1, 2020

          Mainly because they talk about it in their writings as something they are expecting to happen.

    • galah
      galah  June 29, 2020

      “Jesus was adept at hyperbole and metaphor.”

      I believe there’s a lot more metaphor than we realize. Dr. Ehrman points out that, early on, Christians seem to think it was literal. Maybe they had eyes and couldn’t see, ears and couldn’t hear.

  4. Avatar
    janmaru  June 28, 2020

    The Book of Acts says that Paul was on his way from Jerusalem to Syrian Damascus when he had the vision of the risen Christ. When the Damascus Document was found in Qumran many were puzzled by the name and came to wonder why the High Priest would seek a fringe movement so far in Syria when there was a bunch of anti-temple heretics right under his nose.
    Given that religions spread like a disease what would be the probability that Christianity would move more quickly toward Syria instead, for instance, Egypt, Ephesus, or Rome?

    I hope it doesn’t sound much non sequitur as it is.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2020

      yes, it almost certainly went to Syria, or at least Antioch and Damascus, very early.

  5. Avatar
    RiskManager  June 29, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Thank you for sharing interesting data. Every bit of Essenes history you present is always new information to me. Especially because as far as I’ve read the NT, we don’t see anywhere they’re mentioned explicitly. Maybe some passages may contain hidden information about them.

    With that stream of thought I have 2 questions.

    1. Do we have any information (hidden/direct) about Essenes in the New testament? If yes, kindly let us know where and how the author(s) talk about them? If no, can you kindly discuss why you think the authors of NT purposefully did not mention about such an influential community when producing their work?

    2. In another post, I remember you’ve mentioned that the Essenes seem to have copied the Hebrew Bible word for word with only a slight margin of scribal mistakes. But when it comes to the New testament, you’ve argued that the scribes copied copies of the copies of the copies and so it’s very likely that the ones we finally got in full is a whole lot different from the originals. But how is that Essenes managed to get that level of accuracy?

    Please share your thoughts on these questions. Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2020

      1. Nope! 2. No, I’m afraid we don’t know how well the Essenes copied their texts, since we don’t have any of the copies they were copying from to compare them with.

      • Avatar
        RiskManager  June 29, 2020

        Dr. Ehrman,

        I’m sorry in that 2nd question I got the parties in the wrong order. Please bear with me and kindly consider giving your thoughts.

        “….These are extremely valuable because of their age; they are nearly a thousand years older than the oldest copies of the Hebrew Scriptures that we previously had. We can therefore check to see whether Jewish scribes over the intervening centuries reliably copied their texts; the short answer is that, for the most part, they did.”

        This section is taken from your previous post.

        While you often say that the NT authors and the centuries stretching scribes who copied the NT almost certainly made changes including scribal errors, how is that the Hebrew Bible authors, who are primitive than the NT scribes copied the Hebrew books reliably during the preceding centuries?

        Please don’t mistake me. I’m also an agnostic/atheist who follow your writings passionately. I’m not arguing for christianity. In fact I consider missing more than 3 decades of my life living with irrational ideas due to my former christian commitments.

        In this question I’m interested in your thoughts and not in pointing out inconsistencies in your arguments.

        Thank you

        • Bart
          Bart  June 30, 2020

          It’s simple really. Starting around 500 CE, the Hebrew scribes known as the Masoretes developed very strict copying rules to ensure virtually complete accuracy; and scribes followed the rules! Maybe I’ll post on that.

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  June 29, 2020

        From what I’ve read, the Essene texts differ only slightly from the traditional Hebrew. Jewish scribes were carefully trained to regard the scriptures as sacred, especially compared to their early Christian counterparts [as Bart has taught], who were untrained and also didn’t necessarily treat Christian writings as sacred scripture yet.

  6. Avatar
    aarsen  June 29, 2020

    Did Jesus belong to any sect of Jewism? as far as we can know.

  7. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  June 29, 2020

    Attempts have been made to link John the Baptist to the Essenes, partly I think because of his relative proximity to Qumran and his similar views. Do you have any thoughts on this? I guess if John can be successfully linked to Qumran then so too can Jesus by association.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2020

      I think his mission to the lost puts him very much at odds with the Essenes and their concepts (they decidedly did *not* want anything to do with “sinners”)

      • Avatar
        tom.hennell  June 30, 2020

        Very Good point Bart

        Which also distinguishes some of the Dead Sea Scroll teachings form those presented of Jesus in the Gospels; especially Matthew 21:14-16. In several Dead Sea Scrolls – e.g. 1Q Sa II. 3-4 – the blind, lame, deaf, dumb, any with disfiguring skin diseases, and older persons unable to stand still in worship; are all to be excluded from the purified Temple.

  8. Avatar
    fishician  June 29, 2020

    Regarding Jesus as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet: “It has been the majority view among critical scholars (i.e., those who are not driven by a conservative theological agenda) in Europe and North America to this day.” Even conservative scholars acknowledge Jesus as Jewish, and that he had apocalyptic views; it’s just that they think the apocalypse is coming much later, not in Jesus’ own time. Or are you saying that the conservative scholars see Jesus as coming specifically to die for the sins of the world and not so much to preach about the imminent coming of the kingdom of God? Are there critical scholars who see it both ways: apocalyptic prophet who died for the sins of the world? Is it an either-or situation?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 30, 2020

      It completely depends on which scholar you talk to. My sense is that most evangelical scholars who see Jesus as an apocalypticist certainly think that he died for sins, and that was his purpose, and htat he is coming back in judgment, but that he did not predict the end would come in his own generation.

  9. Avatar
    Christian David  June 29, 2020

    Bart, do you think Jesus was intentionally deceiving people, making them believe he was God’s eschatological agent, or did sincerely he think he was? I know there is not a way to know for sure, but I would like to read what you think?

  10. Avatar
    Psymon  June 30, 2020

    Foul Language in the Bible:
    To use cursewords or swear isn´t considered a very Christian thing to do.
    But how exactly did this taboo come about and become tied to Christianity?
    What differs in what is considered explicit language today compared to early christianity?
    I think Jesus himself must have used some pretty strong words sometimes,
    at least he is cited doing so in Matthew 12:34, with the likening of his opponents to a brood of vipers.
    Are there more examples in the Bible of use of explicit language like this?
    Would be fun to hear your views on this topic! Best Regards /Simon

    • Bart
      Bart  June 30, 2020

      It’s a great question. Wish I had a great answer. But there is strong language in teh Bible, as when Paul says that he considers all of his former, pre-belief-in-Jesus religiosity to be SKUBULA (Phil. 3:8), a fairly rare word that means — here I avoid a four-letter version — excrement.

  11. Avatar
    Psymon  June 30, 2020

    Biblical Creatures:
    Are there any good books about otherworldly creatures and entities in the Bible?
    I’m thinking about such things as angels, demons, Leviathan and everything else
    not human in the Christian cosmology.
    Something with pictures or illustrations and not just text would be great!
    Best Regards/Simon

    • Bart
      Bart  June 30, 2020

      OH, yes, many many. YOu might take a look at the books by Susan Garrett (if you’re looking for something scholarly) on angels and on teh Devil, etc.

  12. Avatar
    Steefen  June 30, 2020

    Bart Ehrman
    There is nothing in the Dead Sea Scrolls about John the Baptist.

    Robert Price made some interesting concepts about the Dead Sea Scrolls and John the Baptist. I was watching this 26 minute video last night: https://youtu.be/FHrEs4ImBoY

    Jesus was a composite character of historical fiction, but if I were to address the possibility that Jesus was a unique, biological person, I would look for him being baptized by John the Baptist, if not the Teacher of Righteousness, a teacher of righteousness.

    I put forward not only Dr. Robert M. Price but also Robert Eisenmann for this hold out theory on there being a single, biological person named Jesus. The gospels mention Pontius Pilate but there is no catch to the historical Pontius Pilate since Pilate had a Samaritan Redeemer killed and Jesus, in the gospels says nothing about Pilate using the funds of his father’s house for aqueducts and says nothing about Jews who bared their necks to Pilate.

  13. Avatar
    musicjer  July 2, 2020

    In his book ” James the Brother of Jesus” Dr Robert Eisenman would probably say that John the Baptist, James and by extension Jesus were part of the Essene community. This had to do with how James was described in Hegesippus, the Pseudo-Clementines and other writings of the early Church Fathers. Your thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2020

      I’d say that none of these texts says this or even suggests it.

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