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

When the Lord presided at the Last Supper, He was discharging another priestly function, that of offering sacrifice (179). In Bergsma’s consciously literal alternative translation, the Lord says in Luke 22:29-30: “I covenant to you, as my Father covenanted to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (179)

Like the Essenes, the Lord and the early Christians following Him, saw the relationship between God’s covenant and the kingdom of David. As 2 Samuel 9:11 indicates, to eat at the king’s table was a privilege reserved for the king’s sons, who could also judge legal cases. When the Lord referred to the Apostles sitting upon thrones and judging the nations, this was an allusion to the thrones of the House of David set up for judgment (179-180).

In what is a powerful line of enquiry, Bergsma contends that the tradition saw David as a “priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” in Psalm 110:4, for he had inherited Melchizedek’s throne in Jerusalem (Genesis 14:18). Not only was David a priest, so too were his sons: see 2 Samuel 8:18. As Bergsma correctly notes in his footnotes, this is precisely what the Hebrew text says, although some scholars have followed ancient commentators in being unable to concede that non-Levites could be priests. These scholars speak of David as a “cult leader,” but Bergsma is on solid ground in seeing David’s son as sharing in his priesthood, and the Apostles, the covenant sons of the Lord sharing in His priesthood, having the role of mediating forgiveness (180 and 251). It is worth quoting his conclusion:

The Qumran community was a “priesthood within a priesthood,” a priestly society that still had within it men set aside for sacred duties. We see the same pattern in early Christianity. Reading the Gospel through Essene eyes helps us to recognize the priestly overtones of Jesus’ own actions and the responsibilities he gives to the Apostles, the authority to interpret the law (“binding and loosing”), to offer the memorial sacrifice, and to mediate the forgiveness of sin – roles performed by the priesthood under the Mosaic covenant.” (181)

Chapter 13 concerns “Priesthood in the Early Church.” Bergsma traces the conscious of the consecration of men to the service of God with cultic duties, back to the Apostles immediately after the Ascension, when they decided to appoint another to Judas’ office of Apostle, an office named with the Greek word episkopē, the word which was to become, in English, “bishop.” (This supports the thesis which many, myself included, have submitted, that the word “bishop” was, after the death of the last Apostle, used to indicate the top rung of the clerical hierarchy, the one which they had filled, and thus to distinguish it from the next level, that of priest or “presbyter.”) My only differences with Bergsma are: (a) here I am not sure they are referring to the diaconate as opposed to service; and (b) if they are, from its inception the deacon was the third order, not the second, as he says (182). For this reason, I would expand his conclusion: “It’s important to observe the Greek words used to describe the role the Apostles have, because doing so helps us understand how the early Christians understood the roles of their leaders, the bishops and deacons, as rooted in the ministry of the Apostles” (182) to say “bishops, priests and deacons.”

Bergsma is entirely correct to say that the laying on of hands upon priests and deacons (Acts 6:6 and 14:23; and 1 Timothy 4:14) shows continuity with Old Testament traditions, and these men were filling a specific office, “being consecrated to God for a sacred purpose” (183). The link between these presbyters (including here the presbyteral office) and the Apostles is perfectly plain (184-185). In this respect, referring to James 5:14-15, Bergsma observes that a ritual of prayer with anointing for healing and forgiveness stands in line with the Judaic practice (Leviticus 14:1-20), with this significant difference, the priests are called in in order to heal, not only to confirm the fact that the person had been cured (185).

The development of the clerical hierarchy, and especially the bishopric, is noted by St Ignatius of Antioch (d. by 117) and St Irenaeus (d. c.202). Bergsma could have added St Pope Clement I (d. c. 99).

This development within Christianity can be related to a similar development at Qumran, if the theory that the Teacher of Righteousness was the legitimate but ousted High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple. His role was assumed by the Overseers who succeeded him. They also had priestly and Levitical classes at Qumran (186). We therefore end up with this table of similarities:

Old Testament Qumran Early Church
High Priest Overseer Bishop
Priests Priests Priests
Levites Levites Deacons


I would suggest that anyone who imagines that the Early Church hierarchy was an arbitrary invention of power-hungry papists is not considering the evidence as a whole.

Joseph Azize, 30 December 2019

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