TRA Wordtalks

TRA 27th May, 2001
The Dead Sea Scrolls

Nehemiah 8:1-8

For forty years I have been fascinated by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Books about them weigh down my shelves. A replica scroll jar and lid made from Qumran clay with a facsimile of the Manual of Discipline have been in my office for thirty-five years. I used them to teach about the Scrolls. The presence in Sydney of some of the scroll fragments in an exhibition in our Art Gallery and the excitement they have generated, lead me to share with you my thoughts on the significance of these two thousand year old manuscripts.


The Dead Sea Scrolls are among the oldest known manuscripts of any Biblical books. Most of them were discovered in dry riverbed caves along the western side of the Dead Sea in what are now Israel and the West Bank. More than 800 scrolls have been found dating from 200 B.C. to the commencement of the Christian era. They were written before the life-time of Jesus, and therefore cannot tell us about Jesus. But they can tell us about the Biblical books from which Jesus read, and the religious world that existed at the time of Jesus.

Reports describing the discoveries of texts in the caves have been documented from AD100 through to the Middle Ages. But searchers were never able to find exactly their location. Until 1947 when a young Bedouin goatherd, Muhammad the Wolf, and two friends discovered Cave 1.

The scrolls were found over eight years in 200 caves. Most were in very poor condition, fragmented by heat, rain, mould, dryness, rodents and poor handling. The 800 texts were in 40,000 pieces most only the size of a postage stamp. The seven most intact scrolls which were in clay pots, were purchased partly by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and partly by the Syrian monastery of Saint Mark in Jerusalem, later purchased by the Government of Israel. Tens of thousands of additional fragments, as well as a record of buried treasure on strips of copper were later purchased.

The manuscripts appear to have been part of a Jewish brotherhood's library in Khirbet Qumran. Most scholars believe they occupied the site from about 150 BC to about AD 68. They were probably members of a Jewish sect called the Essenes. The Essenes may have collected the scrolls from Jerusalem and other places, and from the presence of a scriptorium, copied them on thin leather. They placed the scrolls in caves to protect them from the Roman invaders in 68AD. Many are literary works, but there are also letters and legal documents that shed light on personal and national events just before the time of Jesus. They include fragments of every book of the Old Testament, except the Book of Esther. Most texts are identical to Bible texts used today, including two of the oldest known copies of the Book of Isaiah. Some include fragments of the Septuagint, the earliest Greek text of the Hebrew Bible. In addition, the scrolls include books of the Apocrypha.

The Essenes were members of a Jewish sect living in Palestine from about 150 BC to AD 68 comparable in some ways to the Pharisees and Sadducees. They numbered about 4,000 and lived in a community. The Essenes were ascetics. They tried to avoid contamination by worldly impurity. Mostly they were children of married priests in Jerusalem who thought the priesthood in Jerusalem needed reforming. So they left the city to escape corruption and live in holiness. Most were celibate. Others were married. Some wives were buried in the cemetery beside them. The historian Josephus said they believed in the immortality of the soul, but rejected the idea of the resurrection of the body. They objected to the Temple's animal sacrifices.


The Dead Sea Scrolls are of great significance because they indicate in written records one thousand years older than all other existing copies of the Old Testament, that the text we have been using in our Bibles is accurate. Further, they bridge the three hundred year gap between the writing of last book of the Old Testament and the writing of the first books of the New Testament. They affirm for us details about John the Baptist. All we know about his adult life before he is introduced in the Gospels, is that "he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel." Luke 1:80 His diet, clothing, appearance, location and practise of baptism was similar to that of the Essenes. John the Baptist may have lived at Qumran. At Qumran there are five baptisteries used daily for purification ceremonies. The baptisms were always of believing adults and by immersion. John followed this form of baptism.

John preached baptism for the remission of sins nearby where the Jordan enters the Dead Sea. His baptism was once only. His message was different to that of the Dead Sea community, but there are similarities, especially as John also preached the coming Kingdom of God using the same verses of the Old Testament, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord" and so on. Jesus, in His early ministry, also baptised adults by immersion for the remission of their sins as He Himself had been baptised by John. John 3:22

Allusions have been found in the scrolls to persons and events in Jewish history in the two centuries before Christ. These may refer to the Maccabean kings. A persecuted "Teacher of Righteousness" may refer to the last legitimate Jewish high priest, Onias III, who was deposed in 175 BC. Sydney scholar Dr Barbara Theiring says these particular scrolls refer to John the Baptist as "The Teacher of Righteousness" who is threatened by Jesus Christ who is called "the Wicked Priest" and "the man of lies". This has no literary basis in the scrolls or in the Gospels. She claims Jesus survived the Cross, married Mary Magdalene and lived for years in Rome. She says Jesus had a daughter and two sons. He later divorced Mary and married Lydia of Philippi. She thinks Jesus met Paul and travelled with him to Rome where Jesus died. Her fancies have not a shred of evidence in the scrolls, ancient literature or elsewhere. Her ideas sold many of her books and the ABC TV made a documentary on her theories. However no reputable scholar in the world supports them. Using the scrolls, her imagination has run riot.


The many links between the thought and idiom of the scrolls and of the New Testament are of special interest. Both emphasize the imminence of the kingdom of God, the need for immediate repentance, and the expected defeat of the Evil One. Both refer to baptism and the Holy Spirit. Both refer to the faithful as "the elect" and as "children of light". But there are major differences. The "Teacher of Righteousness" in the scrolls says we should hate our enemies. Jesus taught us to love our enemies. The Scrolls have no parallel to such distinctive Christian doctrines as the incarnate God coming to redeem us, a vicarious atonement and redemption through the Cross, and no resurrection from the dead, not only of Jesus, but of all who believe in Him. Nor is there the thought of the second coming of the Christ to judge the living and the dead and to establish God's Kingdom.

The scrolls tell us a Messiah is coming to redeem the world. The Gospels tell us that the Messiah and redeemer has come in Jesus. The scrolls tell us of the Judgement to come. The Gospels tell us that the Kingdom of God has already come. The scrolls tell us that deeds of merit are required of us by God. The Gospels tell us that our merit means nothing to God, but what Jesus has done upon the Cross makes us acceptable to God for all who believe in Him. The scrolls tell us that repeated baptisms will wash away our sins. The Gospels tell us God requires only faith in Jesus.

The scrolls are a Jewish library from the time of Jesus. They help us understand the Jewish background of John the Baptist and of Jesus better. They fill some gaps in the Jewish expectation of the coming Messiah and of the judgement of God. Christianity owes much to Judaism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls helps us understand the first people to follow Jesus. Do they undermine anything in the Bible? On the contrary, they affirm the accuracy of the Old Testament text. They include copies of the Old Testament, one thousand years older than those we have which show us how accurate our text is. There are only a dozen very minor differences.

The Scrolls also present current Jewish thoughts about such matters as light and darkness which was used by John. Previously liberal Protestant scholars said such ideas did not come into being until one hundred years later, making John's Gospel the last to be written. They were wrong. Professor James Charles-worth of Princeton Theological Seminary says: "None of the fragments know to me and the others who work on them can be judged in any way to disprove the essential claims of the Christian faith." In fact the Scrolls help us to understand and appreciate Jesus better. They help us understand better his Jewishness and the incredible truths of His teaching. They show the uniqueness of Jesus, and distinguish his teaching from that of all other people. The Essenes rejected the lame, the blind, the disabled and the foreigner. But Jesus welcomed them, touched the lepers and made a foreign Samaritan a hero!

The Jews in the day of Jesus upheld the Law and all its requirements. The Scrolls make obedience to rites of purification and other regulations central to all they do. But Jesus teaches grace not legalism, and inner purity not outward washings. The Essenes died out after the Romans conquered their area in 68AD, but Christianity thrived because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

The Dead Sea Scrolls cannot tell you how to get right with God any more than the Old Testament. The New Testament tells clearly how you can be right with God. There is something you must ADMIT. Namely that you are sinful. Rom 3:22-3 "This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." We must admit our sin. Then there is something for you to BELIEVE. Namely that God loves you and sent Jesus into the world, John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." His promise is for you to receive eternal life. There is something for you to CONFESS. Romans 10:9 "If you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved." That is what I ask you to do now. Come before all these witness with belief in your heart and simply confess, "Jesus is Lord" and you have it upon the authority of Scripture that you will be made right with God.

Gordon Moyes

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