Review, “Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” John Bergsma (8th and final part)

Part Six: The Church and the Scrolls

“Did St Paul write anything about the Church?”, Bergsma asks in chapter 14. It begins with some notes about the assumptions modern biblical scholars, and their debt to Baur, and through him to Hegel (191-195). As he concludes, the deep reason most scholars reject Pauline authorship of the Epistle to the Ephesians, is that it is concerned with the church, and that is believed to be impossible during the lifetime of Paul (195). But a comparison with the Dead Sea Scrolls shows that the ideas found in Ephesians do have a place, during and even before Paul’s lifetimes, e.g. the linking of predestination to God’s blessing and the holiness of life, and hence with wisdom (I would paraphrase this by saying that God lays out a plan – that is what is predestined – and if we have wisdom to keep to that plan we enjoy His blessing and are sanctified) (195-197).

I find fascinating the community in St Paul and in the DSS of the members (whether of the church or of Qumran’s yahad) with the angels (197-198). This community of men and spirits is particularly true of worship; it seems that the Essenes “believed they (at least the celibate men) were transformed spiritually, through their worship, into angelic priests in God’s heavenly Temple” (199).

St Paul’s idea, expressed in Ephesians 2:11-14 and 19-22, that the hostility between Jews and Gentiles has been reconciled by the Lord, who establishes a new Adam, and the church as a new Temple, is not so distant from that of the Essenes that their community is a “Temple of Adam” (200-201, a similarity which extends even to some of the supporting imagery). Both the yahad and the church are spoken of as a mystery, in the respective sources; and their members are referred to as fragrant offerings and sacrifices to God, and as children of light (Ephesians 5:1-2 and 5, Bergsma cites the DSS). He concludes:

“The members of the Qumran yahad and the early Christians both understood their communities to be predestined to holiness of life by the plan of God, who also revealed to them divine wisdom and raised them to heavenly realms where they participate in worship with the angels. Both communities composed a new, holy, mysterious, and Spirit-infused Temple of human beings, a mystical “new Adam,” replacing the defiled old Temple in Jerusalem, and replacing its ineffective sacrifices with spiritual sacrifices and atonement for all God’s people, the “children of light” (201-202)”

The nineteenth century idea, formed before the finding of the DSS, was that neither the Lord nor St Paul could have imagined a church. Clearly, this was naïve, for one hundred years before the birth of the Lord, the Essenes had such a concept (202-203). As we have seen, the Lord and His Apostles were conversant with Essene ideas: the evidence is that they were well known in contemporary Jewish circles (see the mentions by Philo and Josephus, above).

In fact, a very important lesson from all this is that scholars had assumed that ideas in the New Testament had to have been Greek and later than the time of the Lord (if not even later), but it is now known that they were Palestinian and fully contemporary in His day (203-204). I have long suspected that the Semitic environment of the New Testament world has been underplayed in favour of the Greco-Roman. Bergsma well concludes:

“… the fact that many of Jesus’ followers were familiar with, or had been part of, “new covenant communities” at Qumran or elsewhere made possible the very rapid formation of the external structures and practices of the early Church that we see reflected in Acts, the Epistles, and the Apostolic Fathers (204).”

Chapter 15 is titled: “The Scrolls, The Reformation, and Church Unity.” Bergsma commences with some interesting comments on the Reformation and the “salvation by faith alone,” teachings, for that concept is interpreted in several different ways (206-208). Luther believed that St Paul taught “faith alone,” however, as Bergsma points out, St Paul contrasts “faith” with “works of the Law,” which Luther thought to be the moral law. Luther overlooked that in Romans 2:6-8, St Paul says that the Lord will repay each of us according to our works, and in Romans 2:13 he says that “doers of the Law” will be justified (208-209). The solution to the paradox lies, as St Thomas Aquinas saw, in distinguishing ceremonial and ritual elements of the Mosaic Law from its moral side (209-210). But who is correct, Luther or St Thomas?

The DSS, in particular a document called “4QMMT,” point to St Thomas as having been correct. This text shows that in Judaism of the first century there was a controversy about whether works of the Law were reckoned to the doer as righteousness (210-211). Most importantly, the sixteen “works of Law” discussed there were each and every one of them matters of “ritual cleanliness or liturgical regulation” (211-213). Bergsma contends that the real issue St Paul was addressing was not the one Luther thought he was (whether good works are necessary for salvation once one confides in Christ), but rather whether it is this faith in Christ or performing works of the Law by which the Holy Spirit is received (213).

In a particularly telling passage, Bergsma points to how often St Paul “attacks the practice of circumcision as if it were a salvific ritual,” and that: “If Paul were arguing against the need for “good works” in the life of the Christian, then he would object to people doing acts of love or mercy in order to try to be saved – something he never does (214).”

Bergsma then establishes that what has been overlooked is that any change in our behaviour and growth in holiness is due to the operation of the Holy Spirit within us, and this is prepared by faith not the ritual law of the Old Testament (214-216), a teaching echoed in several passages from the DSS (216-219).

The final chapter, the sixteenth, asks: “The Essenes and the Early Church: What Is the Relationship?” Bergsma reiterates that the Essene community which had kept and produced the DSS, “had, in many ways, a greater similarity to the early Church than to other forms of Judaism” (222). He debunks the idea that the early Church could have been a product of the Essene movement (222-223), after all, all other likenesses are less significant than the sign of contradiction, and difference, which is the Lord Himself (223-224). Just as importantly, Bergsma points out that: “… 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 … 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. … the similarities of the two communities would be a confirmation of the Church’s claim to be rooted in the Israelite Scriptures (225-226).”

Bergsma’s final note is quite generous: if, as seems likely, many Essenes or people influenced by them became Christians, then more than they had anticipated, and in quite a different way, they did “prepare the way of the Lord in the desert” (226).


This is much the longest review of a book I have ever written. I have felt it necessary to summarise Bergsma’s arguments and findings because of their importance. But lengthy as it has been, it is no substitute for the book itself and the texts it cites in one convenient place.

This volume is an important contribution for anyone interested in Jesus – full stop. There are limitations, chiefly the lack of any indices (there should have been subject, name and scripture indices), and one unified bibliography. It is also a shame that all the notes are at the end of the volume, especially as sometimes some very important material is in them. My own view is that if the footnotes are not at the bottom of the page they refer to, they should not contain important narrative comments.

What this book does contain make it most worthwhile, because it shows that by understanding what the Dead Sea Scrolls teach us about the Essenes, we have a larger and fuller view of the world of the Gospels, with the result that we better understand Jesus and His world, and the accuracy and reliability of the Gospels. Conversely, this has the effect of showing how wrong contemporary theories and reconstructions have been. In particular, the hubris of the “higher criticism” is, to some extent, unmasked. It is not that modern scholarship has nothing to offer – after all, this is a volume of modern scholarship. But it does show that critics and commentators, from Luther to Bultmann, overestimated their knowledge and the completeness of their understanding. In the end, it vindicates the Catholic take on its own history.

Joseph Azize, 31 December 2019

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