The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Uniqueness of Christianity

SOME time ago a rather astonished church member handed me a little book the avowed message of which was to prove by reference to the Dead Sea scrolls that Jesus Christ was not the divine Son of God! This book was sup­posed to demonstrate scholarship, and its author undoubtedly produced what to many would seem a rather plausible case. But in reality how sound is the claim, even from the purely critical standpoint?

Professor of Church History and Old Testament History, Andrews University

SOME time ago a rather astonished church member handed me a little book the avowed message of which was to prove by reference to the Dead Sea scrolls that Jesus Christ was not the divine Son of God!  This book was sup­posed to demonstrate scholarship, and its author undoubtedly produced what to many would seem a rather plausible case. But in reality how sound is the claim, even from the purely critical standpoint?

Similarities Emphasized

The Dead Sea scrolls have brought to at­tention many similarities between the Qumran community and the early Chris­tian church. These similarities constitute a main point in the argument of those peo­ple who would see the uniqueness of Christ and Christianity destroyed by the scrolls. It is noticed by such individuals, for example, that both groups had a rite of baptism, that both groups had a common meal, and that both groups spoke of a "new cove­nant." The deduction is then made that there must have been direct borrowing— that, in fact, one group somehow grew out of the other. And since the Qumran com­munity was in existence before the Chris­tian community, the latter must have bor­rowed or developed from the former. As one enthusiastic writer has put it, the Essene sect 1 is the proved mother of Chris­tianity; and indeed, Jesus Himself was quot­ing from Essene scrolls as He gave the beau­tiful sayings of the Sermon on the Mount.2

Do Similarities Prove Borrowing?

But do similarities necessarily prove di­rect borrowing? In our religious world of today they do not. Take for example the ordinance of foot washing. Although many Christian churches of today do not observe this practice, there are some that do. We do. So also do certain Mennonites, certain Freewill Baptist groups, some Pentecostals, at least one Methodist group, and possibly a few other churches. Does this mean that there has been a consistent and unbroken pattern of direct borrowing involving every one of these diverse groups, our own church included? It would be folly to de­clare so. While there may have been some direct interchange, undoubtedly a good portion of the similarity has derived from the fact that all of these groups are part of the same religious heritage. There prob­ably have been historical antecedents of both recent and ancient date. And after all, as Christians we use the same Bible; and the Bible does say something about foot washing!

Now let us look at the religious situation of Palestine some 2,000 years ago. Would not similarities in beliefs and practices just as likely then as now have arisen because of common religious heritage? Take for ex­ample the Qumranite and Christian refer­ences to a "new covenant." Did this simi­larity in terminology exist because the early Christians acquired the idea and expres­sion from the Qumranites? Or did both groups possibly speak in terms of a com­mon concept in their common Israelite-Jewish religious heritage? Perhaps it is suf­ficient to notice that the promise of a "new covenant" was made through Jeremiah (chap. 31:31) and that it is very possible that both groups claimed, each for itself, the fulfillment of that promise.

Of What Significance Are Outward Similarities?

Another failure on the part of those who emphasize so-called Essene-Christian simi­larities as destroying the uniqueness of Christianity revolves around the question of the meaning behind those similarities. It is a failure to distinguish between form and content. Well may we ask, Of just what significance are outward similarities any­way? Even if they should involve direct borrowing (as obviously they need not do), does it necessarily follow that there has been transference of inner content and ex­perience? Specifically, Is similarity in out­ward form a sure indication that there is corresponding similarity of basic content?

To illustrate the difference between form and content, let us suppose that two men are seated at a desk, each with a magazine open before him. Here we certainly have similarity in form. But suppose, further, that one of these men is a scientist, dili­gently studying a technical journal, and the other is a mental sluggard reading some cheap fiction. Is there similarity in content as well? Quite definitely not.

Similarity in form may, of course, indi­cate similarity in content, but it certainly does not necessarily do so, as our simple il­lustration has indicated. In fact, it may represent wide diversity in content. Also, diversity in form can conceivably be used to express similarity in content.

Where does this principle take us in our consideration of the Dead Sea scrolls and the early Christian church? Let us look once more at the question of the "new cove­nant." Both the Dead Sea sectarians and the early Christian community did make reference to a new covenant, as we have noted. Very likely the concept derived from a common Old Testament background, as we have also noted. But even if the Chris­tians should have borrowed the concept from the Essenes, we would have to deter­mine whether the similarity were one merely of form or whether it were also one of content. In other words, did the "new covenant" mean the same to both com­munities?

The new covenant apparently did not mean the same to both communities. The new covenant of the Dead Sea sect seems to have been little more than a renewal of promise to keep the Mosaic law, whereas for the early Christian church the new covenant was centered around a divine his­torical Person and His great redemptive act—around Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of man, the promised Re­deemer, who gave Himself for the remis­sion of our sins.3

And then, as another example, there is the case of baptism. Here we find once more a vast difference. The Qumran cov­enanters seem to have practiced continu­ous ceremonial ablutions, but the Chris­tians had a rite that served as a symbol of faith in the efficacious death and resurrec­tion of Christ.

There Are Dissimilarities Too

And thus, those who would see the uniqueness of Christ and Christianity de­stroyed by the Dead Sea scrolls emphasize similarities between the Qumran and Christian communities without giving due recognition to the basic principles we have just analyzed, namely, (1) that similarities do not necessarily indicate direct borrow­ing, and (2) that a distinction must be made between form and content. A third significant failure on the part of these en­thusiasts is their tendency to give inade­quate consideration or emphasis to differ­ences between the two communities. There are indeed striking dissimilarities as well as similarities, and these dissimilarities are fully as significant and revealing as are the similarities.4

It has been claimed, as we have already seen, that Jesus in giving His Sermon on the Mount read some of His beautiful say­ings from Essene scrolls. There is, of course, no solid proof for this bold claim. But we do find a striking contrast between Christ's teaching in that beautiful sermon and Essene doctrine portrayed in The Manual of Discipline. Among Jesus' beau­tiful words are these: "Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you" (Matt. 5:43, 44). In The Manual of Discipline, on the other hand, we read that the members of the community are "to have undying hatred to wicked men" (ix. 21, 22) and that every person wishing to join the community must pledge himself, among other things, "to hate all the sons of darkness" (i. 10). Also, in a ceremony of blessings and cursings a curse is invoked on all who have sided with Belial. They are cursed "eternally" and it is desired for them that they be condemned to the "gloom of everlasting fire" (ii. 7, 8). How different from the teaching of Jesus! And how different too was the practical application of this Essene philosophy from that manifested in the kind and loving ministry of Jesus. He came to seek and save that which was lost. He ate with publicans and sinners. Contrast the separation from outsiders enjoined by The Manual of Dis­cipline. No one entering the community, it declares, is to associate with those who transgress God's Word; in fact, there is to be no association with them in work or property or in receiving food or drink. Only by purchase can anything be obtained from such people (v. 14-17).

Further contrasts between Essene and Christian practices may be noted in the area of Sabbathkeeping (Christ taught that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath, but in the so-called Damascus Document xi. 13, 14 we read that even a newborn ani­mal dropped into a pit should not be lifted out on the Sabbath) and in the matter of regimentation (contrast for example Mark 10:43-45 with 1QS ii. 22, 23, which speaks of a set order or rank for every Israelite).

It would not be difficult to continue a list of differences between the Dead Sea community and the early Christian church. To sum up, however, we might say that the most basic difference—a general and underlying difference which is encoun­tered repeatedly in the specific divergences —is that which lies at the very center, the very heart, of the religion of the two groups. The Essene religion was a religion of works in contrast to the faith religion of Christianity. Essene religion emphasized the letter and stressed conformity to the rules of Levitical purity, in contrast to Christ's emphasis on having the law in the heart and His disregard for Pharisai­cal overconcern with ceremonial defile­ment. The spirit of Essene salvation was that by the keeping of the law men are saved, but the spirit of Christian salvation is found in the fact that through the gift of God's Son men are saved. For Essenes as well as Pharisees the God of love is a God who loves us because we first show our love to Him by obedience. But the God of Jesus and His true disciples is a God of love who first loves us, our obedience being in turn a response to His prior good­ness. There is a vast difference between these two approaches to religion.

In view of all this, can we conclude that Christianity was borrowed from Essenism or developed out of Essenism? Hardly. The two are poles apart. And do the Dead Sea scrolls, then, destroy the uniqueness of Christ and Christianity? Never!

A Further Concern and Counterblast

But before closing this analysis perhaps there is one more word to say. This further concern may well take the form of a coun­terblast. For perhaps at times our own thinking may need clarification.

We would hardly be so audacious as to claim that Christianity—and for that mat­ter, Jesus Himself—borrowed nothing from environment. There may well have been borrowing from both Pharisees and Essenes and from other sources as well. Christianity, as well as Old Testament re­ligion before it, constantly borrowed thought forms and other symbolisms from the world about it.

God communicates divine truth to us in language we can understand. In His deal­ings with Abraham He used thought patterns familiar to that patriarch, and expressed His covenant in terms of the cove­nant form in use in Abraham's day. In the days of Moses He used what was apparently an international covenant form for express­ing divine truth regarding His own rela­tionship to His people Israel.5 To Nebu­chadnezzar He gave dreams in thought patterns familiar to that heathen king. And through Christ He spoke parables that reached the hearts of men because they illustrated eternal truth in terms of familiar associations.

Would it not, in fact, have been strange if the case had been otherwise—if God had by-passed the concepts with which men were familiar and had clothed divine truth in language unintelligible to men? Let us always bear in mind that "borrowing" of thought forms from the human environ­ment is only what should normally be ex­pected in the presentation of a divine mes­sage. Let us also bear in mind, however, that the form chosen and the source of that form are in no way destructive of the special significance of the message itself.


1 It is quite generally believed that the Dead Sea sect was Essene. This point of view is accepted in the present article.

2 Charles Francis Potter, The Lost Years of Jesus Revealed (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1958), pp. 9, 10.

3 Contrast 1QS (The Manual of Discipline), v. 8 with such references as Matt. 26:26-29; John 6:35, 47-51, 53-57; and 1 Cor. 11:23-26.

4 This is a point generally recognized by the most depend­able scholars in the field. For a comprehensive review of discovery and interpretation concerning the Dead Sea scrolls, see Millar Burrows' two works, The Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Viking Press, 1955) and More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Viking Press, 1958). Sherman E. John­son in Jesus in His Homeland (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1957), pages 23-67, provides some interesting compari­sons and contrasts between the scrolls and the Biblical litera­ture.

5 G. E. Mendenhall has provided an illuminating study on covenant forms in the ancient Near East. See his "Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition' in The Biblical Archaeologist, vol. XVII, no. 3 (Sept., 1954). This was reprinted in his Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh: The Biblical Colloquium, 1955).


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Professor of Church History and Old Testament History, Andrews University

December 1960

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