The Dead Sea Scrolls

Judith Otterburn

On the western shore of the Dead Sea, about eight miles south of Jericho, is Khirbet Qumran. It lies in one of the lowest parts of the earth, on the fringe of the hot arid wastes of the wilderness of Judea, and is today silent, empty and in ruins. From this place, members of an ancient Jewish sect left their precious writings in nearby caves. Two thousand years later they remained until an Arab shepherd accidentally found the first lot of scrolls in the spring of 1947.

These documents became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. They consist of several biblical and non-Biblical writings. Between February 1952 and January 1956, ten more caves were located. Finally in 1967, the giant Temple Scroll emerged from clandestiny and joined the other documents in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.

As archaeologists unfolded the puzzle more they recognized the connection between the Scrolls and the nearby ruins of the Qumran community. When this was recognized scholars argued if the Scrolls were form two separate communities or if the Essenes were part of the Qumran Community. Joseph Tyson states, "the Scrolls belonged to a group of Jews called the Essenes" (Tyson 68). But, "In addition there are several scrolls produced especially for the Qumran Community" (Tyson 71). G. Vermes assumes that most scholars believe "that the ancient Jewish sect of the Essenes and the Qumran Community were probably one and the same" (Vermes 15). Even though these theories have not been proven, the community which produced the Scrolls existed from about the middle to the second century BCE to CE 68 or 69. Also, the contents of the Scrolls are indisputable. Several of the Scrolls entailed information on the beliefs and practices of the community. But the majority of the writings were manuscripts of the Old Testament books. Every Old Testament book is represented except for the book of Esther.

These Scrolls are the most recent set of pre-Christian Jewish writings. They are said to be the greatest archaeological find of the millennium. So why are these documents so important? Are they damaging or precious to faith? Many scholars realized that "in this newly discovered material lied clues, which. if correctly observed and related to known facts, might give the answers to problems formerly regarded as insoluble and unyielding" (Mowry 1). Controversy heightened when scholars like Edmund Wilson and Dupont-Summer wrote theories connecting the Scrolls to Christian origins. Other scholars like Millar Burrows, Krister Stendahl, and T.H. Gaster took different paths in interpreting the meaning of the Scrolls. Still to this day, no theory has been proven, no argument has been won, and no scholar has been believed to be right. But this has not discouraged scholars. Many have devoted their lives to writing and searching for answers concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Some scholar's works have been more controversial than others, and Edmund Wilson is one these perverse scholars. He concluded that "the cradle of Christianity is not Bethlehem but the monastic settlement of the men who produced the Scrolls" (Mowry 2). Wilson's ideas derived from Dupont-Summer's belief that the Qumran founder was a prototype of Jesus Christ. "The Qumran founder had begun his career as a prophet and was martyred by official religious leaders of Jerusalem for reasons comparable to those causing Jesus' crucifixion" (Mowry 2).

Unsurprisingly these theories startled many Christian scholars and in retaliation Wilson stated that they must be afraid to work on the Scrolls because such investigations would force them to conclude that Christianity is merely "an episode of human history" (Mowry 3). Christian scholars felt that Wilson's argument was not valid. They could accept Dupont-Summor's interpretation of the Qumran founder, but they could not follow Wilson's conclusion. "The removal of the Christian "cradle" from Bethlehem to the Sectaries' monastery does not make the origins of Christianity a mere episode of human history but leaves it an episode of the history of a particular people, the Jews, whose tradition was also "propagated as dogma and divine revelation"." (Mowry 3).

Contrary to Dupont-Sommer and Edmund Wilson, Millar Burrows represents an opposite view. He studies the scrolls for seven years and this convinced him that the meaning of the New Testament has not been changed or significally clarified by the discovery. He sees parallels between the Scrolls and the writings of the New Testament, but he does not regard these parallels sufficient proof that the Qumran influenced the New Testament writers. He states that the Qumran and Christian ideals and practices are more dissimilar than similar.

Another point of view can been seen in a collection of essays edited by Krister Stendahl. These essays discuss coincidences between the Scrolls and the New Testament. He deals with the use of terms, such as spirit and flesh, and the celebration of the sacred meal. "Stendahl believes that the Scrolls do furnish evidence for a religious outlook whose study will be important for a clearer understanding of early Christianity" (Mowry 4). Stendahl's view is more middle of the road that compared to Wilson's radical conclusions and Burrows conservative views.

T.H. Gaster, author of The Dead sea Scriptures agrees with Stendahl's view. He uses two metaphors to reject Wilson's idea of the cradle, he states "What may be best described as the backdrop of the stage on which the first act of the Christian dream was performed...and as...the seedbed of the New Testament" (Gaster 12).

Many other scholars disagree with similarities and differences of the two communities. For example, Karl Kuln associates the sacred meal of the Qumran Community to the Last Supper, which Gaster does not. Sherman Johnson sees the organization of the twelve disciples as a replication of the Qumran's fifteen leaders of the Qumran council, while Bo Reicke disagrees. Philip Hyatt feels that research into the Scrolls is no were near finished, "New Testament scholars and specialists in early church history...have not made the most of the opportunities presented by the Dead Sea discoveries" (Hyatt 7).

In retrospect, it is not as important to understand the similarities and dissimilarities of specific details of the life of the two communities, but rather to obtain a common outlook for both groups. When this is found the basic nature and purpose of the two communities may be studied and compared. At this point scholars will be able to understand the scrolls better, and use them as an asset to one's faith, instead of using them as a destructive tool.

Work Cited

Hyatt, Philip. "The Dead Sea Discoveries: Retrospect and Challenge", New York: Journal of Biblical Literature, 1957.

Mowry, Lucetta. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Early Church, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Tyson, Joseph B. The New Testament and Early Christianity. London: Penguin Books, 1987.

Vermes, G. The Dead Sea Scrolls, New York: Macmillan, 1984.


February 27, 1996

prepared for Intro. to the New Testament
by Judith Otterburn