8 - The Dilemma for Christian Orthodoxy

There is virtually unanimous agreement among all the concerned parties - apart, of course, from the international team themselves and the Ecole Biblique - that the history of Dead Sea Scroll scholarship does constitute a 'scandal'. And there would seem to be little doubt that something irregular - licit, perhaps, but without moral or academic sanction - lurks behind the delays, the procrastinations, the equivocation, the restrictions on material.


To some extent, of course, this irregularity may indeed stem simply from venal motives - from academic jealousy and rivalry, and from the protection of vested interests. Reputations do, after all, stand to be made or broken, and there is no higher currency in the academic world than reputation. The stakes, therefore, at least for those 'on the inside', are high.

They would be high, however, in any sphere where a lack of reliable first-hand testimony had to be redressed by historical and archaeological research. They would be high if, for example, a corpus of documents pertaining to Arthurian Britain were suddenly to come to light.

  • But would there be the same suppression of material as there is in connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls?

  • And would one find, looming as a supreme arbiter in the background, the shadowy presence of an ecclesiastical institution such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?

The Nag Hammadi Scrolls are a case in point. Certainly, they afforded ample opportunity for venal motives to come into play. Such motives, to one or another degree, may indeed have done so. But the Church had no opportunity to establish control over the texts found at Nag Hammadi. And, venal motives notwithstanding, the entire corpus of Nag Hammadi material found its way quickly into print and the public domain.

The Church's high-level involvement in Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship must inevitably foster a grave element of suspicion. Can one ignore the possibility of a causal connection between that involvement and the shambles that Qumran research has become?


One is compelled to ask (as, indeed, many informed 'outsiders' have) whether some other vested interest may be at stake, a vested interest larger than the reputations of individual scholars - the vested interest of Christianity as a whole, for example, and of Christian doctrine, at least as propounded by the Church and its traditions.


Ever since the Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered, one single, all-pervasive question has haunted the imagination, generating excitement, anxiety and, perhaps, dread.

  • Might these texts, issuing from so close to 'the source', and (unlike the New Testament) never having been edited or tampered with, shed some significant new light on the origins of Christianity, on the so-called 'early Church' in Jerusalem and perhaps on Jesus himself?

  • Might they contain something compromising, something that challenges, possibly even refutes, established traditions?

Certainly official interpretation ensured that they did not. There is, of course, nothing to suggest any deliberate or systematic falsification of evidence on the part of the international team. But for Father de Vaux, his most intensely personal convictions were deeply engaged and were bound to have exerted some influence.


The key factor in determining the significance of the scrolls, and their relation, or lack of it, to Christianity, consisted, of course, in their dating. Were they pre- or post-Christian? How closely did they coincide with Jesus' activities, around AD 30? With the travels and letters of Paul, roughly between AD 40 and 65? With the composition of the Gospels, between AD 70 and 95?


Whatever the date ascribed to them, they might be a source of possible embarrassment to Christendom, but the degree of embarrassment would be variable. If, for example, the scrolls could be dated from well before the Christian era, they might threaten to compromise Jesus' originality and uniqueness - might show some of his words and concepts to have been not wholly his own, but to have derived from a current of thought, teaching and tradition already established and 'in the air'.


If the scrolls dated from Jesus' lifetime, however, or from shortly thereafter, they might prove more embarrassing still. They might be used to argue that the 'Teacher of Righteousness' who figures in them was Jesus himself, and that Jesus was not therefore perceived as divine by his contemporaries. Moreover, the scrolls contained or implied certain premises inimical to subsequent images of 'early Christianity'.


There were, for example, statements of a militant messianic nationalism associated previously only with the Zealots - when Jesus was supposed to be non-political, rendering unto Caesar what was Caesar's. It might even emerge that Jesus had never dreamed of founding a new religion or of contravening Judaic law.

The evidence can be interpreted in a number of plausible ways, some of which are less compromising to Christendom than others. It is hardly surprising, in the circumstances, that de Vaux should have inclined towards and promulgated the less compromising interpretations. Thus, while it was never stated explicitly, a necessity prevailed to read or interpret the evidence in accordance with certain governing principles.


So far as possible, for example, the scrolls and their authors had to be kept as dissociated as possible from 'early Christianity' - as depicted in the New Testament - and from the mainstream of 1st-century Judaism, whence 'early Christianity' sprang. It was in adherence to such tenets that the orthodoxy of interpretation established itself and a scholarly consensus originated.

Thus, the conclusions to which Father de Vaux's team came in their interpretation of the scrolls conformed to certain general tenets, the more important of which can be summarized as follows:

  1. The Qumran texts were seen as dating from long prior to the Christian era.

  2. The scrolls were regarded as the work of a single reclusive community, an unorthodox 'sect' on the periphery of Judaism, divorced from the epoch's main currents of social, political and religious thought. In particular, they were divorced from militant revolutionary and messianic nationalism, as exemplified by the defenders of Masada.

  3. The Qumran community must have been destroyed during the general uprising in Judaea in AD 66-73, leaving all their documents behind, hidden for safety in nearby caves.

  4. The beliefs of the Qumran community were presented as entirely different from Christianity; and the 'Teacher of Righteousness', because he was not portrayed as divine, could not be equated with Jesus.

  5. Because John the Baptist was altogether too close to the teachings of the Qumran community, it was argued that he wasn't really 'Christian' in any true sense of the word, 'merely' a precursor.

There are, however, numerous points at which the Qumran texts, and the community from which they issued, paralleled early Christian texts and the so-called 'early Church'. A number of such parallels are immediately apparent.

First, a similar ritual to that of baptism, one of the central sacraments of Christianity, obtained for the Qumran community. According to the Dead Sea text known as the 'Community Rule', the new adherent

'shall be cleansed from all his sins by the spirit of holiness uniting him to its truth... And when his flesh is sprinkled with purifying water and sanctified by cleansing water, it shall be made clean by the humble submission of his soul to all the precepts of God.' 1

Secondly, in the Acts of the Apostles, the members of the 'early Church' are said to hold all things in common:

'The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed. They went as a body to the Temple every day... '2

The very first statute of the 'Community Rule' for Qumran states that,

'All... shall bring all their knowledge, powers and possessions into the Community...'3

According to another statute,

'They shall eat in common and pray in common... '4

And another declares of the new adherent that,

'his property shall be merged and he shall offer his counsel and judgment to the Community'.5

Acts 5:1-11 recounts the story of one Ananias and his wife, who hold back some of the assets they are supposed to have donated to the 'early Church' in Jerusalem. Both are struck dead by a vindictive divine power. In Qumran, the penalty for such a transgression was rather less severe, consisting, according to the 'Community Rule', of six months' penance.

Thirdly, according to Acts, the leadership of the 'early Church' in Jerusalem consists of the twelve Apostles. Among these, according to Galatians, three - James ('the Lord's Brother'), John and Peter - exercise a particular authority. According to the 'Community Rule', Qumran was governed by a 'Council' composed of twelve individuals. Three 'priests' are also stressed, though the text does not clarify whether these three are included in the twelve of the 'Council' or separate from them.6

Fourthly, and most important of all, both the Qumran community and the 'early Church' were specifically messianic in orientation, dominated by the imminent advent of at least one new 'Messiah'. Both postulated a vivid and charismatic central figure, whose personality galvanized them and whose teachings formed the foundation of their beliefs. In the 'early Church', this figure was, of course, Jesus.


In the Qumran texts, the figure is known as the 'Teacher of Righteousness'. At times, in their portrayal of the 'Teacher of Righteousness', the Qumran texts might almost seem to be referring to Jesus; indeed, several scholars suggested as much. Granted, the 'Teacher of Righteousness' is not depicted as divine; but neither, until some time after his death, was Jesus.

If the Qumran texts and those of the 'early Church' have certain ideas, concepts or principles in common, they are also strikingly similar in imagery and phraseology.

'Blessed are the meek', Jesus says, for example, in perhaps the most famous line of the Sermon on the Mount, 'for they shall inherit the earth'

(Matt. 5:5).

This assertion derives from Psalm 37:11:

'But the meek shall possess the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.'

The same psalm was of particular interest to the Qumran community. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, there is a commentary on its meaning:

'Interpreted, this concerns the congregation of the Poor...'7

The 'Congregation of the Poor' (or the 'meek') was one of the names by which the Qumran community referred to themselves. Nor is this the only such parallel:

'Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven', preaches Jesus (Matt. 5:3); the 'War Scroll' from Cave 1 states: 'Among the poor in spirit there is a power... '8

Indeed, the whole of the Gospel of Matthew, and especially Chapters 10 and 18, contains metaphors and terminology at times almost interchangeable with those of the 'Community Rule'. In Matthew 5:48, for instance, Jesus stresses the concept of perfection:

'You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.'

The 'Community Rule' speaks of those 'who walk in the way of perfection as commanded by God'.9 There will be, the text affirms,

'no pity on all who depart from the way ... no comfort... until their way becomes perfect'.10

In Matthew 21:42, Jesus invokes Isaiah 28:16 and echoes Psalm 118:22:

'Have you never read in the scriptures: It was the stone rejected by the builders that became the keystone.'

The 'Community Rule' invokes the same reference, stating that 'the Council of the Community... shall be that tried wall, that precious corner-stone'.11

If the Qumran scrolls and the Gospels echo each other, such echoes are even more apparent between the scrolls and the Pauline texts - the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's letters. The concept of 'sainthood', for example, and, indeed, the very word 'saint', are common enough in later Christianity, but striking in the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls.


According to the opening line of the 'Community Rule', however,

'The Master shall teach the saints to live according to the Book of the Community Rule...'12

Paul, in his letter to the Romans (15:25-7), uses the same terminology of the 'early Church': 'I must take a present of money to the saints in Jerusalem.'

Indeed, Paul is particularly lavish in his use of Qumran terms and images. One of the Qumran texts, for example, speaks of 'all those who observe the Law in the House of Judah, whom God will deliver... because of their suffering and because of their faith in the Teacher of Righteousness'.13 Paul, of course, ascribes a similar redemptive power to faith in Jesus.


Deliverance, he says in his epistle to the Romans (3:21-3), 'comes through faith to everyone... who believes in Jesus Christ'. To the Galatians (2:16-17), he declares that 'what makes a man righteous is not obedience to the Law, but faith in Jesus Christ'. It is clear that Paul is familiar with the metaphors, the figures of speech, the turns of phrase, the rhetoric used by the Qumran community in their interpretation of Old Testament texts. As we shall see, however, he presses this familiarity to the service of a very different purpose.

In the above quote from his letter to the Galatians, Paul ascribes no inordinate significance to the Law. In the Qumran texts, however, the Law is of paramount importance.


The 'Community Rule' begins:

'The Master shall teach the saints to live according to the Book of the Community Rule, that they may seek God... and do what is good and right before Him, as He commanded by the hand of Moses and all His servants the Prophets...'14

Later, the 'Community Rule' states that anyone who 'transgresses one word of the Law of Moses, on any point whatever, shall be expelled'15 and that the Law will endure 'for as long as the domain of Satan endures'.16 In his rigorous adherence to the Law, Jesus, strikingly enough, is much closer to the Qumran texts than he is to Paul.


In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-19), Jesus makes his position unequivocally clear - a position that Paul was subsequently to betray:

Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish
but to complete them. I tell you solemnly... not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from
the Law until its purpose is achieved. Therefore, the man who infringes even one of the least of
these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the
kingdom of heaven...

If Jesus' adherence to the Law concurs with that of the Qumran community, so, too, does his timing of the Last Supper. For centuries, biblical commentators have been confused by apparently conflicting accounts in the Gospels. In Matthew (26:17-19), the Last Supper is depicted as a Passover meal, and Jesus is crucified the next day.


In the Fourth Gospel (13:1 and 18:28), however, it is said to occur before the Passover. Some scholars have sought to reconcile the contradiction by acknowledging the Last Supper as indeed a Passover feast, but a Passover feast conducted in accordance with a different calendar. The Qumran community used precisely such a calendar - a solar calendar, in contrast to the lunar calendar used by the priesthood of the Temple.17 In each calendar, the Passover fell on a different date; and Jesus, it is clear, was using the same calendar as that of the Qumran community.

Certainly the Qumran community observed a feast which sounds very similar in its ritual characteristics to the Last Supper as it is described in the Gospels.


The 'Community Rule' states that,

'when the table has been prepared... the Priest shall be the first to stretch out his hand to bless the first-fruits of the bread and new wine'.18

And another Qumran text, the 'Messianic Rule', adds:

'they shall gather for the common table, to eat and to drink new wine... let no man extend his hand over the first fruits of bread and wine before the Priest... thereafter, the Messiah of Israel shall extend his hand over the bread'.19

This text was sufficient to convince even Rome. According to Cardinal Jean Danielou, writing with a 'Nihil Obstat' from the Vatican:

'Christ must have celebrated the last supper on the eve of Easter according to the Essenian calendar. '20

One can only imagine the reaction of Father de Vaux and his team on first discovering the seemingly extraordinary parallels between the Qumran texts and what was known of 'early Christianity'. It had hitherto been believed that Jesus' teachings were unique - that he admittedly drew on Old Testament sources, but wove his references into a message, a gospel, a statement of 'good news' which had never been enunciated in the world before.


Now, however, echoes of that message, and perhaps even of Jesus' drama itself, had come to light among a collection of ancient parchments preserved in the Judaean desert.

To an agnostic historian, or even to an undogmatic Christian, such a discovery would have been exciting indeed. It probably would have been with a certain sacred awe that one handled documents actually dating from the days when Jesus and his followers walked the sands of ancient Palestine, trudging between Galilee and Judea.


One would undoubtedly, and with something of a frisson, have felt closer to Jesus himself. The sketchy details of Jesus' drama and milieu would have broken free from the print to which they had been confined for twenty centuries - would have assumed density, texture, solidity. The Dead Sea Scrolls were not like a modern book expounding a controversial thesis; they would comprise first-hand evidence, buttressed by the sturdy struts of 20th-century science and scholarship. Even for a non-believer, however, some question of moral responsibility would have arisen.


Whatever his own skepticism, could he, casually and at a single stroke, undermine the faith to which millions clung for solace and consolation?


For de Vaux and his colleagues, working as representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, it must have seemed as though they were handling the spiritual and religious equivalent of dynamite - something that might just conceivably demolish the entire edifice of Christian teaching and belief.


Back to Contents