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Was Jesus Connected with the Dead Sea Scrolls Community?

In my previous post I talked about the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for understanding Jesus and the milieu out of which earliest Christianity grew.  My basic point is that if Jesus was a Jew, then to understand him, you have to understand Jews in his world.  And the Dead Sea Scrolls provide us valuable information to that end.

I am not saying that the Dead Sea Scrolls are representative of what all or even most Jews thought at the time.  They clearly are not.  If the “Essene hypothesis” is right (that is, that the Scrolls were produced by members of a Jewish sect known as the Essenes) – and it is the view held by the vast majority of the experts (I am *not* an expert on the Scrolls) – then the Scrolls were produced by a Jewish sect that had very distinctive views of its own that were not, in many respects, shared by outsiders.  In particular, this was a group of Jews who insisted that the coming apocalyptic judgment, soon to arrive, would bring destruction not only to the hated Romans and the “obvious” enemies of God, but to many Jews as well, including the priests who were in charge of the Temple cult in Jerusalem.

This was not an unprecedented claim, but it was not a wildly popular one either (especially among the priests in charge!).  In terms of not being unprecedented: even a canonical prophet like Jeremiah could rail against the Temple and the sacrifices performed there, predicting that the Temple would be destroyed by God (e.g. Jeremiah 7).  So there was nothing “un-Jewish” about castigating the Temple.  But it was not widely done, because the Temple was the very center of religious life for most Jews.  God himself had ordered its construction and ordained the sacrifices that were to take place there.  And the Hebrew Scriptures see the Temple as the very center and focus of Jewish worship – not an incidental feature in the Jewish religion, but its heart and soul.  Opposing it was serious business.  And not just for religious reasons.  The Temple was also the center of social, political, and economic life in Jerusalem, the capital city of Judea.  Opposing it meant opposing almost everything the Jewish government and people embraced.

In order to express their opposition to the Temple and Jerusalem, the Essenes at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, removed …

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



  1. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  June 30, 2020

    Fascinating…… great read after a 10 mile run!
    Absolutely fascinating

  2. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  June 30, 2020

    Yes, this is a great post as I have a keen interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls and I do like the point made about the 2 degrees of separation between Jesus and the Pharisees/Essenes over ritual purity concerns. My only comment is that the Essenes must have been on Jesus’ radar (excuse the anachronism) if Pliny the Elder and Josephus had heard of them so why aren’t they mentioned in the New Testament? Someone once told me that they could have been the “Scribes” but I don’t think that can be right as my understanding is that the scribes were a sort of ‘go to’ authority on the Jewish law.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2020

      I’m not sure that the Essenes would have been known to a person who spent nearly his entire life in a remote rural village in Galilee…. But no, they aren’t the scribes. They appear not to have been on the radar screens of the Gospel writers either (who were not from Israel).

      • Avatar
        dankoh  July 1, 2020

        I would almost certainly say the evangelists didn’t know about the Qumran community. Some Essenes did live in the cities, but I think any contact between them and the Jesus Movement also seems doubtful; neither side mentions the other. There are coincidental overlaps, such as in their attitude toward sex, but I think that comes perhaps from John the Baptist (see my note below) and even more from Paul’s exposure to the Stoics.

        And who are the “scribes” anyway? There’s no mention of them at this period in Jewish writings that I can think of (which admittedly leaves a lot of open space), but while they were prominent in Ezra’s day, they seem to have faded by the first century. I find it interesting that once Jesus is arrested, they fade from the scene .

  3. Avatar
    rivercrowman  June 30, 2020

    Bart, an off topic question. Do the Greek manuscripts that Erasmus prepared to later supply Luther, Tyndale, and others for their translation work still exist? But more specifically, do they all, in Matthew 6:13, omit that distinctive mention of deliverance from “the evil one?” Deliverance from evil reads more smoothly, I think. … Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2020

      Yes, we have most of the manuscripts used in the early printed editions. The difference between “evil” and “the evil one” is not a textual difference; it is two different ways of rendering the same Greek words.

  4. Avatar
    Matt2239  June 30, 2020

    Bart’s words here seem to run counter to those elsewhere. For example, he says here that Jesus wasn’t concerned about controversies in the Jewish calendars, but he also says there are conflicting reports in the Gospels over when exactly Jesus was crucified. Timeline discrepancies would imply that the calendar debate was very much alive in the background. Bart also says Jesus wasn’t concerned about impurities, associating with tax collectors and sinners, but these sorts aren’t the only sources of impurity. The money-changers in the Temple might also have been contaminators, and Jesus did more than not associate with them. Jesus also gave a higher, more expanded law than Moses, when he said “love your enemies” and declared heart-felt lust to be as sinful as adulterous acts. That one might have topped even the Essenes. Jesus engaged in several acts of ritual purification. First, when his head and feet were anointed, and then when he washed the feet of his disciples. And then of course he stayed up all night praying and even sweating blood before his crucifixion. People don’t want Jesus to be an Essene. He could have been.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2020

      I’m not sure I’m understanding your point. The differences in the Gospels over which day Jesus died is a difference between what the authors of Mark and John say; it’s not a difference that the historical Jesus ever talked about. Jesus never faults or exuses tax collectors and sinners for their ritual impurity. So too the money changers. Jesus is never recorded as going to a mikvah or undertaking other rituals. So I’m not sure where you see that I’m contradicting myself?? I don’t recall ever saying anything different.

  5. Avatar
    Q11Temple  June 30, 2020

    “Even more significant, Jesus was not at *all* interested in preserving ritual purity and in removing himself from possible sources of contamination. In fact, just the precise opposite.”
    Jesus wasn’t an Essene but argued with them and hence knew their beliefs and interacted with them. His disagreement with 1QRule of the Community in Matthew 5:43 “From the viewpoint of the Qumran community, the sons of light are members of the community and their sympathizers. On entry into membership the candidate swears ‘to love all the sons of light,…and to hate the sons of darkness…'” (1qs 1:9–11) https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sons-light Paul similarly argues with the Essene teaching of “works of the law” https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/20/6/5 The Johannine literature shows Essene influence: e.g. “The designation “sons of light” is one of the links between the Qumran texts and the New Testament; in the latter it is found on the lips of Jesus (Luke 16:8, where it is opposed to the “sons of this age”, John 12:36) and in the Pauline writings (Eph. 5:8; I Thess. 5:5).” https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sons-light The implication is that statements like Luke 14:33 which agree with Essene communal life are probably literal and in that same context. Would you agree Bart?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2020

      No, I don’t. The Essenes are never mentioned in connection with Jesus or vice versa. He may well have taken stands that differed, or agreed, with theirs. But that doesn’t mean he was “arguing with them.”

      • Avatar
        Q11Temple  July 2, 2020

        I see your point. I think the fact that similar language like “sons of light” is used would be more helpful to determine a connection than similar ideas engaged with like “love neighbor and hate your enemy” but still that language may not be unique to Essenes. I shouldn’t suggest that Jesus was arguing or interacting directly with Essenes just that their major ideas were present in his milieu. I didn’t mean to sound like I was making such a bold statement. On a similar note about Paul, Martin G. Abegg Jr says:

        ‘Although it would be rather too bold to propose that Paul knew of 4QMMT, or that zealous members of the Qumran community had been the perpetrators of his problems in Galatia, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that Paul consciously reflected the term “works of the law” which was used by the author of 4QMMT and–I would suggest–by Paul’s opponents as recorded in the book of Galatians.
        In, addition, it appears highly likely that Paul was reacting to a position that was espoused in 4QMMT by the Qumran covenanters, namely, that a person was reckoned righteous by keeping “works of the law.”‘
        https://www.jstor.org/stable/4193122 (page 2)

  6. Avatar
    janmaru  June 30, 2020

    Talking about caves and bats, in the Babatha cache were found some letters of the time of the Bar-Kokhba revolt. The first letters were written in Aramaic while the last in Greek since no writing Aramaic scribe was found (stated in one of the letters itself). Bar-Kokhba was enough textual to understand the importance of epistolography but was not writing himself.
    So it seems Babatha (“wrote by the order of…”)

    Since infrared light brought letters out of few empty Dead Sea Scroll fragments and some of the best pieces are not taught to be letters, how likely is that Paul did not know any book?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2020

      Sorry — I don’t understand your question.

      • Avatar
        janmaru  July 1, 2020

        I started with some premises, related to the time or insofar later time when scrolls were used by the Essenes:
        a. Writing letters was due to practical reasons;
        b. The sender was not necessarily the writer;
        c. There were few Aramaic and Hebrew writers and Greek ones substituted them, by the Bar-Kokhba revolt;
        d. Paul wrote letters to correspond with other communities. He was not “creating” a canon.

        Then I threw an analogy: like the empty scrolls that under the infrared light revealed some letters (ambiguous use for both meaning) previously unseen and since storing correspondence was not the ideal canon even for Jews, the previous assumptions could shed light on the matter of epistolography.

        Finally, I asked if we could conclude that Paul was illiterate (he did not know any book).

        • Bart
          Bart  July 3, 2020

          No, if Paul was illiterate he would not have been able to write his letters. Some of them he signs himself.

  7. Lev
    Lev  June 30, 2020

    Do you agree with Joel Marcus that JBap was once an Essene, and that he struck out on his own because he became disillusioned with their approach, but not their macro apocalyptic message?

    Perhaps Jesus was passed this baton, where he also taught a similiar apocalyptic message as the Essenes/JBap did but also continued JBap’s distinctive message that ethical purity trumped ritual purity? That sharing two coats with those who had none was more important than observing lunar calendars, for instance?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2020

      No, I don’t. I think the differences between their missions and visions of what God wanted were too signficant. But it’s a great book anyway.

  8. Robert
    Robert  June 30, 2020

    The pericope of the Cleansing of the Temple–how did it get its name? Whether it is best understood as a ritual purification, ie, a cleansing, or something much more ominous such as a threatening prophetic gesture, a portent predicting its destruction, or something else entirely, is of course endlessly debated among scholars such as yourself. But it has traditionally come to be known as the Cleansing of the Temple even though that word is not used in any of the gospels for this event. Who was the first to interpret this incident or these passages as a mere ‘cleansing’? And why did this interpretation stick?

    No doubt you will say you don’t know, but inquiring minds want to know! Who can answer this question? Who has written the best dissertation on this question?

    While Ezekiel and contemporary literature (1 & 2 Macc, Pss Solomon, 4QFlor, Temple Scroll) would have us believe that a Messiah would cleanse the Temple of gentile corruption, Mark alone follows Isaiah’s vision of the Temple as a house of prayer for all nations and predicts its destruction.

    What say you, Bart Ehrman, was Mark deliberately contradicting contemporary Jewish expectation (and thereby aware of it)? Too many questions for today?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2020

      You’re right, I don’t know who first called it that, when, or why. My guess is that its post-Enlightenment, but it could have been Origen for all I know…. I don’t even recall hearing someone raise the question, though it is indeed an important one!

  9. Avatar
    RiskManager  June 30, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Thank you for the detailed discussion about the Essenes.

    I mean, with all the information, I’m contemplating one other historically reliable information about Jesus. Please share your thoughts on this possibility.

    The reason why Essenes didn’t care to mention about Jesus in particular is because he wasn’t a notable personality among Jews at large while he was alive or even several years after he died.

    So, the Gospel records claiming that a person/god named Jesus was believed and adored by most Jews during the time he lived was a blown up exaggeration?

    New testament is a different animal altogether? Not from Judaism at all?

    I’ve always wondered, even when I was a believer that when Jesus was riding on the donkey, the NT claims a great multitude was shouting and praising. But within the next few minutes they shouted in one accord to have Jesus crucified!? Are all Jews religious leaders who wanted Jesus dead or Jews so wicked and heartless? Who were praising Jesus a while ago?! The Romans?! One guy from that church I was attending started praying putting his hand on my head immediately after I asked this question!

    Question: Why Christians don’t reason at all??

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2020

      I’m not sure what your last question means. Christians reason all the time. It’s kind of like asking, Why aren’t Americans ever monogamous?

  10. Avatar
    Poohbear  June 30, 2020

    I find this essentially factual, but with some subtle caveats.
    God did not “order the construction” of the temple. God PERMITTED the temple to be built. Just as He permitted divorce and dietary laws.
    Jesus didn’t “oppose the Temple.” He opposed what was happening in the Temple. The Temple was symbolic of the inner temple of believer’s bodies. It was prophesied that Jesus would appear in the Temple, but that the Temple would then be taken away (along with Jerusalem and the Jewish nation) because the Jews would not believe in Him.
    And all Jews were “apocalypticists”, that is, as long as they believed in books like Daniel and Zechariah.

  11. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  July 1, 2020

    The lax behavior of Jesus is a real eye-opener. The Essenes and Jesus had similar apocalyptic views but differ on the way of how one should live. Did Jesus adopt this lifestyle behavier from John the Baptist? Because after all the New Testament describes John as a man who ate locusts and wild honey.

  12. Avatar
    Stephen  July 1, 2020

    I have Geza Vermes’ translation of the Qumran documents that he did for Penguin but can you recommend a good critical scholarly tome about what we can know of the Essenes themselves?


    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2020

      I would suggest looking at the books by James Vanderkam for starters.

      • Avatar
        Stephen  July 1, 2020

        Ah, I know Prof Vanderkam’s work on Enoch. I have his translation for Hermeneia with Nickelsburg. I will,inquire further, thanks.

  13. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 1, 2020

    People have compiled lists of people and sects who have produced failed prophecies regarding the “end times”, and it’s a long list. I guess Jesus belongs on that list. It’s no wonder that later Christians had to do a lot of revisionism to salvage their belief system. It began life with at least one failed premise that had to be reinterpreted and revised and blurred over. In the process Christianity gathered a lot more baggage: virgin birth, trinity, immaculate conception, bodily resurrections, and on and on, with variations among sects. Is this the house/houses that Jesus built, or would have built? Or ever intended to build? Seems questionable.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2020

      I would say that Jesus too was building on the foundations others had laid.

  14. Avatar
    Celsus  July 1, 2020

    Will you be writing anything about the connection of the “prophetic Messiah” mentioned in 4Q521 with this tradition being mentioned in Q (Lk.) 7:22 and Mt. 11:2-5? It seems before the Jesus sect there was already an anticipation/expectation of miracles including “raising the dead” connected with a prophetic Messiah figure. This would help explain the origins of the belief in Jesus’ resurrection as well as why he depicted as performing miracles in the gospels.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2020

      As you know, it’s a complicated and debated text, but if it *is* referring to a messiah figure, he appears to be more like the return of miracle-workign prophet Elijah (which was one expectation in early Judaism) more than the return of (the warrior) David.

  15. Avatar
    fishician  July 1, 2020

    Qumran is near Jerusalem, and the Essenes sound like a rather reclusive group.. Jesus grew up in Galilee to the north. Doesn’t that make it unlikely that Jesus was familiar with the Essenes? Any evidence of specific apocalyptic groups in the north, similar to the Essenes in the south? John the Baptist preached in Judea; any thought that he may have been an Essene?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2020

      Yes, I think so. JB *could* have been, but his mission to the outsiders to get them to repent seems to run precisely counter to the mission and goals of the Essenes, who had no time for sinners and wanted nothing more than to avoid them.

  16. Avatar
    dankoh  July 1, 2020

    Charlesworth argues that John the Baptist (he calls him the Baptizer) was a novitiate at Qumran but never formally joined them, perhaps because he disagreed with their separation ideas. However, I do think it likely that he picked up some of their ascetic view, or perhaps it matched one he already had, and so it seems to me that there may be an indirect link between the Qumran community and Jesus through JB, particularly in matters of celibacy and chastity. It’s tenuous, but possible, I had a brief exchange with Prof. Charlesworth a couple of years ago, and he was positive toward the thought.

  17. Avatar
    clerrance2005  July 2, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,
    1. Please during the life and ministry of Jesus, were the highpriests at the time of Maccabeans or Hasmonean descent?

    2. Which of the 12 tribes of Israel do the Maccabeans trace their lineage to?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2020

      1. Sorry, off hand I don’t remember Caiaphas’s lineage; 2. All priests descended from Levi (through Aaron).

  18. Avatar
    Eskil  July 2, 2020

    A study about dead see scroll said there are stunning similarities between Essenes’ Community Rule (1QS) and ideas found in Pauls’ epistles. 2 Cor 6:14–17: “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’ Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you.”

    I think similarities are following: separation from anything impure, identification of Beliar (Belial) as opponent and association of the community of believers metaphorically as the temple of God.

    Didn’t Peter require even stricter rules from his community than Paul? Why didn’t the apostles and their followers follow Jesus’ example on lax interpretation of the law and hanging around sources of contamination? Isn’t that odd knowing they believed Jesus was God?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2020

      1. Probably 2. I’m not sure that view is “lax.” it is prioritizing one aspect of law over another, as of coruse, the opposing view does as well. 3. Sorry — I don’t know what you think is odd or why…

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