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

Part Five: Holy Orders and the Scrolls (I)

Chapter 11 is titled “Priesthood and the Scrolls.” It opens by noting how diverse the views of different Christian groups are on priesthood and “church government.” Bergsma wryly mentions a man he met, who led one group, disavowed any titles like “pastor,” since he stated that all Christians were evil, but in fact (exercised very strong authority over the rest of the members of his group, and functioned for all intents and purposes as what other Christians would call a “pastor” or even a “bishop” (161-162). This raises a critical point: what counts is not the name given to a person, no matter how much that person may be attached to it, but rather, the reality of the person’s function. One does not escape from the issues around authority and authority-figures by merely asserting, however loudly, that one is but a humble servant.

Bergsma then goes on to consider the administration at Qumran. The DSS show that the Essenes based themselves on the tripartite clerical hierarchy of Levites, priests and high priest. Priests and high priests were Aaronides, descendants of Aaron of the tribe of Levi. Ezekiel the prophet would restrict the priesthood even more, to Aaronides descended from Zadok (162-163). The Qumran Essenes claimed Zadokite descent for their leaders, which raises the question of their origin. Some believe that they were founded by a Zadokite priest who had been driven out from his rightful place in around 252 B.C. by Jonathan Apphus, a Maccabee (164). At Qumran there were priests, Levites and laity, but expected that a High Priest would appear when the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel appeared (164-165).

In addition to their priests, the Essenes had an “overseer” (Hebrew mebaqqer) over each of their camps, who examined applicants, instructed the community in the proper interpretation of the Law, and had disposal of the common purpose, cared for the needy, gave marriage advice, and so on (165). The Damascus Document describes the overseer as both a “father” and a “shepherd,” leading to comparison with the early Christian bishop (which was literally “overseer” in Greek). Like the Essene overseer, the Christian bishop is a steward with financial responsibilities, and the primary teacher (166-167).

Bergsma notes, as several scholars, including my humble self, that it was only in the generations after the apostles that the terms for “bishop” and “priest” came to be distinguished, for which Ignatius of Antioch provides particularly clear evidence (167-168). There is no need to think that Ignatius was influenced by the Essences: it is more likely that both were basing themselves on the Old Testament system, which was explicitly  paradigmatic for Clement of Rome, about twenty years earlier than Ignatius (168-169). Both Clement and the DSS emphasised that each member of the community should keep to their role and position. That is, for the early Christians, a new priesthood had succeeded to that of the Old Testament (170).

Incidentally, a rather valuable resource for those interested, probably known to although not mentioned by Bergsma, is James Tunstead Burtchaell’s From Synagogue to Church, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992. In chapter 8, “The Officers of the Synagogue,” 228-271, Burtchaell presents an interesting analysis of the synagogue and its hierarchy, evidencing a “typical rather than uniform” pattern of elder, synagogue chief and assistant (271-272).

Bergsma then turns, in chapter 12, to “Priesthood in the Gospels.” Notwithstanding their hierarchy, everyone shared in a “priestly status,” and son was expected to live in priestly purity, celibate and clad in white linen (172-173). Both Essenes and Christians applied OT Temple language to the century (yahad) and Church respectively (174). There was also a special priestly role for certain groups within the century, hence Bergsma quotes Matthew 12:1-6 as evidence that the Lord claimed “a special status – indeed, a ministerial priestly status – for himself and the Twelve Apostles …” (175). He quotes an illuminating comment on this passage by the late Rabbi and Professor Jacob Neusner: “He [Jesus] and the disciples may do on the Sabbath what they do because they stand in the place of the priests in the Temple; the holy place has shifted, now being made up of the master and his disciples.” (Bergsma’s italics, 175)

Bergsma then makes the essential point that the early Christians and the Essenes were both “forming priestly societies meant to replace the Temple” (176). Turning to Matthew 16:13-19, Bergsma states that, in the Greek, it is clear that Jesus speaks of “house building” his assembly (ekklesia) upon the Rock (Peter Simon), picking up both OT prophecies of the end-time Temple being built upon a rock (Isaiah 28:16 and Daniel 2:34, see note 4, p.250) and the description of the Temple as the House of God (see note 5, p.250). In a footnote, he adds that this phrase “House of God,” or, in Greek, kuriakon doma was contracted to “kirk” or “church” in Germanic languages and English respectively, so that “church” means “house of God” (note 8, p.250). Barnhart, writing in Chambers Etymological Dictionary agrees with this. Skeat, more precisely, states that the word “church” almost certainly derives from kuriakon, a Greek word for “church” which itself literally means “belonging to the Lord” (110). I am emphasizing this because, if one does not walk past it too quickly, one will see that this is an important characterisation of early Christianity as a whole.

In a fascinating aside, Bergsma states that the Lord’s declaration that the gates of Hades would never prevail against His Church coheres with this attitude, for there then existed a belief that the Temple was built upon a rock which blocked the shaft leading down to Hades (177). I do not have access to the commentary on Matthew which he relies upon for this. There is no doubt that there was a lot of tradition concerning the foundation rock of the Temple, e.g. that it was the rock on which Jacob slept when he saw the ladder to heaven, and this seems quite feasible. I just have not yet seen evidence.

More securely, when the Lord said to Peter that He would give him the keys to the kingdom, this refers back to Isaiah 22:22 and that the royal steward, the “first officer of the kingdom after the king himself … wore priestly garments, and it seems that the office was usually filled by a priest from the tribe of Levi” (177). Further, that what Peter bounds and loosens of earth will likewise be bound or loosened in heaven “referred to the act of making an authoritative decision about the interpretation of God’s law,” and that to bind was to forbid, and to loosen was to allow (177-178). This was a priestly prerogative which had been in recent times usurped by the Hasmoneans and then by the Pharisees (178). Significantly, the Essenes resented the Pharisees assuming this right, and opposed their interpretations, holding that only Zadokite priests could bind and loosen. Most importantly:

Jesus, on the other hand, bestows this priestly power to “bind and loose” neither on the Pharisees nor on the Levitical priests, but on Peter, his royal steward … and the Apostles with him … This placed Peter and the Apostles de facto in a “priestly” role with respect to the rest of the “assembly” or church that Jesus was forming. (179)

Joseph Azize, 6 December 2019


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