Review: “Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” John Bergsma (Pt I)

John Bergsma, Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Revealing the Jewish Roots of Christianity, Image, New York, 2019 (256 pp.)

… the fact that the Essenes, by their prayer and meditation on the Scriptures of Israel, were able to form themselves into a new covenant community bound together by shared rituals of Spirit-infused water washing and a daily sacred meal of bread and wine in anticipation of the Messiah – in other words, something that looks strikingly like early Christianity – suggests that perhaps the seeds of the structures practices, and beliefs of the early Church truly were contained within the writings of the prophets and the other Scriptures. Construed in this way, the similarities of the two communities would be a confirmation of the Church’s claim to be rooted in the Israelite Scriptures. (225-226)

This is but part of the thesis of this very interesting book. I rather think it deserves a fuller conclusion, for the final chapter collapses at rather than breasts the finish line. So let us consider what is in this book, and why I highly recommend it despite its limitations.

Overview of the Book

The book falls into six parts, with sixteen chapters. Part One, “Introducing the Dead Sea Scrolls” comprises two chapters. Part Two, “Baptism and the Scrolls” has three chapters and Part Three, “The Eucharist and the Scrolls” has three chapters; while Part Four, “Matrimony, Celibacy and the Scrolls” has but two. Part Five, perhaps the most important of all, has three chapters. Second in importance only to the preceding Part, is the final three chapter section,  “The Church and the Scrolls.”

From one perspective, the purpose of the volume: “… is to help modern Christians (and other interested persons) understand the light the Scrolls shed on the origins of the Christian faith …” (xiii). It has a secondary and ecumenical purpose: to use a revised and deeper understanding of the ancient origins of the Christian Church as a “common starting point for contemporary Christians to move toward unity in their faith and practice” (xiv). Bergsma does not hammer the apologetic aspect of this theme, but he does hoist it aloft on his epee from time to time. The third purpose gleaned from its pages is that of refreshing and deepening our understanding of the four sacraments mentioned: Baptism, Eucharist, Marriage and Holy Orders.

Part One: Introducing the Dead Sea Scrolls

Let us now go through these in a little more detail. Chapter 1 begins the story with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (“DSS”) from 1946, some providing the most ancient copies of the Old Testament and quasi-Scriptural documents from Judaism. But about three-quarters were non-biblical religious writings which were kept and valued by the Jewish community of Qumran (4). That community was identified as being Essene: those mysterious people referred to by Pliny (4-5) and Josephus (5-9). Bergsma gives sufficient reason for crediting the identification of the Qumran community as an Essene one. The one point I would question is the etymological derivation of the word “Essene” from the Hebrew ‘ôssîm or “doers”, i.e. “doers of the Law” (7). Bergsma is not dogmatic, and neither can I be, but for certain reasons, I think it more likely to mean “healers”. The one important document missing from his overview of the Qumran library (10-13), as it can today be read, is the “Copper Scroll” (3Q15), although it is a controversial document, and might not be from the Qumran community (which may be why Bergsma does not mention it, but I think at least a note would have been appropriate).

Chapter two turns to the Messianic expectation expressed in the DSS. The “Teacher of Righteousness,” who established the community, the movement, or both, is thought to have been the ousted High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple (not named at 16-17); and the Essenes lived in hope of two Messiahs: a priestly Messiah from the line of Aaron, and a royal one from that of David (17-18). Bergsma notes that there was, apparently, a minority view, that Melchizedek would return as both priest and king (18).

We now encounter an area of contact between the Essenes and John the Baptist and Jesus: not only the figure of Melchizedek (see especially Ps 110:4 and Hebrews passim), but also the jubilee prophecy of Isaiah 61:1 (18-22). Bergsma observes that the early chapters of the Gospel of St Luke, with their attention to John the Baptist and his priestly lineage, take on a new life when read in the light of the DSS:

… when we read this Gospel with Essene eyes, John looks very much like the promised “Messiah of Aaron,” a priestly Messiah who “anoints a Holy of Holies,” namely Jesus himself, who is the replacement of the Temple. To Jesus then, falls the role of the Messiah of Israel, and Luke includes Jesus’ Davidic genealogy (Luke 3:23-31; cf. 1:27, 32, 69; 2:4) to drive home the point. (22)

Also significant is that the Essenes saw the Messiah as inheriting the covenant of the Davidic kingdom, a connection also recognised by St Luke when he tells of the Last Supper (22-23).

Bergsma also draws out the surprising parallel between the promise communicated by Gabriel in Luke 1:31-33 and that in the document 4Q246 1.9-2.9 (23), although the latter is neither attributed to Gabriel nor does it name Jesus. Further, that the parents of the Lord and of John the Baptist composed canticles resembling the psalms is a practice attested among the Essenes, but not among other Jews (24). He goes further, stating:

The songs of Mary and Zechariah in Luke 1 would appeal in form and theme to Jews of an Essene background, as would Jesus’ remarkable wisdom (Luke 2:46-47), almost all of John’s actions and teaching (3:1-20 …), and Jesus’ reception of the Holy Spirit in the water (3:21-22) (24).

Our Lord’s first sermon in Nazareth suggests other parallels to the Essenes, who would have interpreted the Lord as meaning that he was the Melchizedek to come (25), a message supported by the exorcism of Luke 4:31-37, for the Essenes had believed that: “In that day he will deliver them from the power of Belial, and from the power of all the spirits predestined to (Belial)” (11QMelch 2.13). This is reinforced by the Lord’s forgiveness of the paralytic man’s sins (Luke 5:17-26), an attribute of Melchizedek, as understood by the Essenes: “He will proclaim to them the jubilee, thereby releasing them from the debt of all their sins” (11QMelch 2.6) (26).”

Joseph Azize, 18 October 2019

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